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Lee Daniels Covers Ad Week Talks His Corrupt Politician Grandmother And The Other Women Who Make Up Cookie Lyon
We all already know that Lee Daniels is a fascinating individual. But in a recent interview with Ad Week, it’s clear that Lee and his own family could very well have their own entertaining family sitcom. In fact, it might look a lot like “Empire,” because so many scenes have been taken from his childhood memory. And I’m not just talking about the notorious trashcan scene. The women in his life, from his grandmother, to his mother and even his sister, have some of the same outrageous qualities that Cookie possesses.
What his mother had to say about the show being such a huge hit
I don’t pay much attention to numbers. I’m so busy working that I don’t come out of my bubble to know the insanity and the “Cookie-mania.” I’m nervous about what my next episode is going to be, or what my next season is going to be like. I don’t read reviews unless my publicist tells me, “You really should take a look at this.” I don’t want it to affect the work.
But when I finally did come up for air, I turned to my mother and said, “Mom, what do you make of this?” And she said, “Well, you know, when you did your first movie [Monster’s Ball], you got that girl [Halle Berry] an Academy Award. And that made history. So where else are you going to go from there?”
The importance of Black writers
Really? I can’t tell you what excites me more, that I get my stories told [with Empire]—they’re 80 percent of the show—or to look out in my writers room and see a roomful of African Americans. I think with Empire, we’ve been able to touch Hollywood in a way it hasn’t been touched before. And that’s the kind of shit I can take to my grave.
What about the 80 percent?
It’s just part of the process. I can’t direct every episode. I’d be batshit if I did. I directed two episodes. Then I had to go write Richard Pryor. The 20 percent is a roomful of writers. Those are not all my words up there. They’re my ideas, but not all my words, and I’m not on the ground directing. Everybody has a different interpretation of my words.
The pilot is 100 percent me; the first episode is 99 percent me. But the actors understand the world that Danny and I created, and that’s key.
Listen… Men lie, women lie but the receipts absolutely do not. We’ve been going around and around, up and down talking about Mo’Nique and whether or not she was blackballed in the industry and what role Lee Daniels may or may not have played in all of that.
It started off quite innocently, then Mo’Nique let the cat out of the bag saying that Daniels actually offered her the role of Cookie Lyon. Afterward, Danny Strong, Daniels’ long-time writing partner, said that she was never offered the role.
Well, then we knew someone was lying. And today, on “Sway in the Morning,” Mo’Nique had the receipts to prove that it isn’t her.
Before she got to the juicy bits, she explained why she wants to clear everything up.
“You know when I heard Danny Strong had come on the show and was adamant about Mo’Nique was never offered that role and he’d gone on other places and said it. And I tweeted that brother and said, ‘Will you speak as loudly when you understand that you’re telling something that’s not correct?’ And it was important for me that I come on your show because as I said to you off air, I respect your opinion. And I’ve met a lot of people in this business. We know how this business works, there are not a lot of people that stand behind their word, behind closed doors it’s one thing, outside, it’s another thing.
And the last time I was here you said something to me about your daughter. You said Mo’Nique I said to my daughter if you want someone to look up to Mo’Nique. And that means a lot to me. And I never wanted your baby to walk away with questions about my character.
So I said to my husband, ‘When I go on Sway…’ and he finished my sentence. He said ‘Take that brother those e-mails.’ Because when people were making it seem like I was pulling something out the air and I was just trying to attack this brother, I’m like ‘Guys, I have the e-mails, the communication going back and forth with Lee Daniels. It was a conversation we had and then I get the e-mail from his office, ‘Mo’Nique and Lee had a conversation about the role of Cookie.’ And all I was saying was don’t attack my character, just say what the conversation was. It makes no one look good or bad, it just was what it was.
But when he began to say things that just weren’t true, that’s when I had to say ‘Brother I can’t allow you to do that.’ Because when you start putting my character on the line–and I take pride in my career, I take pride in my integrity, I take pride in my character–but when you put it on the line like that and people begin to question me about my character–and these aren’t strangers, these are folks that know me. We done been in conversations, we done broke bread together. So, I wanted to bring the e-mails to you. And you can read them publicly or privately…I just wanted to put it out there, hey guys clear my name. That’s it.
Danny, clear my name. Lee, clear my name. And I have no animosity towards those brothers at all and want nothing but the best. When it comes to “Empire,” that show is doing history, numbers, breaking records. And they deserve everything that they’re getting because Lee Daniels is one of the most brilliant visionaries that our generation has seen. Taraji P. Henson, one of the greatest actresses, baby, that our generation has seen. So for all of them, I say y’all keep going. However, this situation is about principle. And when you know you have to stand up for right, you have to stand up for right even when people are saying that’s not the popular thing to do.
Then Sway reads the e-mails.
Feb 18, 2014
Lee Daniels had a conversation with Mo’Nique about his new television pilot for Imagine Tv/Fox called “Empire.” We would like to screen test her for the role of ‘Cookie.’ Please contact us with her television quotes, so that we can start a test, option, deal. We are tentatively looking at Monday, Feb 24 for the screen test.
Mo’Nique literally sipped her beverage as Sway read. But that’s not all.
Hello I am following up on my previous e-mail regarding Lee Daniels’ pilot and Mo’Nique’s television quotes. This is a time sensitive matter. Lee really does not want Mo’Nique to miss this opportunity.
Then another e-mail came through on February 19, asking for more television quotes. In fact, Mo’Nique said that Lee actually offered her the role but he told her since he’d never done television before, he told her that she had to go through the technical part, auditioning etc.
…Unfortunately it’s not going any further for Mo’Nique. Lee fought for her because he thought she would be great for the pilot but studio and network executives insisted on offering the role to Taraji. Thank you so much for providing us with her information. Sorry it didn’t work out. We’re all big fans of hers.
Mo’Nique also explained that Lee was wrong, she never stopped receiving offers for the role. In fact, she never used the word “blackballed” in reference to herself. She said the offers were lowballing her with salary. She said they were treating her like she had just come into the game. And that’s why she and her husband kept saying no and was subsequently labelled as difficult. Mo’Nique said that all of this is bigger than her. She explained that it’s not fair and not only is she fighting for herself, she’s fighting for the next generation, making sure that they earn fair wages.
Mo’Nique also said that she didn’t want to blindside Lee. She sent him the e-mails before she exposed them to the public and gave him the opportunity to clear her name. He didn’t respond so Mo’Nique did what she had to do to protect her reputation.
Respect to Mo’Nique. I know people will still be chatting about her decision. But if you don’t fight for yourself, who will?
You can watch the full interview, in the video below. Watch, so you know what’s up!
Director and Empire producer Lee Daniels, Kanye West and Orange Is The New Black breakout star Laverne Cox are among the notable names on this year’s Time 100 list of influencers.
Of Lee Daniels, Oprah says, “He forces you, in every breath, to stay in character. To find the bone-marrow truth in every scene, no matter what it takes to get there. He’s a truth seeker.”
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla writes of Kanye, “Kanye’s belief in himself and his incredible tenacity—he performed his first single with his jaw wired shut—got him to where he is today. And he fought for his place in the cultural pantheon with a purpose.”
And writing about Cox, trans activist Jazz Jennings says, “She’s done so many amazing things—not just acting on Orange Is the New Black but also loving herself enough to share her story with the world. She’s a pioneer for our community.”
Other notable names on the list include Mellody Hobson, businesswoman and Dreamworks chairwoman; ballerina Misty Copeland; Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative; Tony winner Audra McDonald; and Kevin Hart.
Of course, there are questions about what exactly an influencer is. Also on the list is Kim Kardashian who, Martha Stewart says, “is a media phenomenon.” Still, many would question just how influential she is, or at least how influential they want her to be.
And even more people might question a list that would put her on the same list as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dr. Jerry Brown, who fought ebola in West Africa and artist Chris Ofili.
But influence here seems very much determined by the impact one makes on culture and society. The list — other names on there are Bradley Cooper, President Barack Obama and the Notorious RBG, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — is comprised of people from across industries and geographies who are doing and creating the things that have us tweeting, IGing and thinking of the present and future in different ways.
How do you define influence? And any thoughts on this list?
There has been a lot of talk as of late when it comes to what is troubling about Empire, but let’s talk for a second about what makes the series such a hit.
For one, there’s Lee Daniels.
It’s true that Daniels is a very polarizing figure. And it’s also true that his politics are a little (make that a lot) suspect. But Daniels is also a very brave director who isn’t scared to push boundaries within his work. And you have to give him credit for not being scared to go there, even in spite of criticism, particularly from those within the Black community who are highly protective of our image (and rightfully so). Although I wasn’t a huge fan of Precious and found it to even be a bit perverse and twisted, I would be lying if I said that the film wasn’t entertaining. That is the thing about Daniels: if you don’t read too much into him or his work (and if he doesn’t try to take himself too seriously), you can just have a good time with it.
This boundary-pushing style is a central part of what makes Empire work. The first season, which wrapped last week, didn’t give viewers time to catch their breath before dropping one bomb after another on them. Even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t figure out where Daniels was going with the plot (and trust, many of us tried in vain to figure it out).
But outside of Daniels knowing how to deliver envelope-pushing plots, Empire is all about pop culture. The series is full of secret nods to pop culture references of the past that may have inspired the series.
For instance, there’s the Kehinde Wiley paintings in Lucious’ mansion. They’re mostly depictions of young Black men in contemporary gear posed as European royalty, military leaders and other noblemen and women. I’m not trying to get all deep here, but clearly that’s a hat tip to the show’s Shakespearean inspiration. And then there is Jamal’s ex-wife, Olivia, played by Raven-Symoné. The character has the same exact name as the character Symoné portrayed on The Cosby Show. And then there is Cookie and Luscious, who truly aren’t anything more than a reworked version of DJay and Shug from Hustle & Flow. Oh, and how can we forget about Malik Yoba?
Aside from playing the conniving (and now dead) Vernon Turner on Empire, Yoba also starred in another popular Fox drama: New York Undercover. He played J.C. Williams, an undercover detective in New York City’s 4th Precinct who was assigned to investigate various crimes and gang-related cases.
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of that show. As far as I know, both shows have no direct connection, other than being on Fox and including Yoba; but clearly Daniels has taken a few pages out of the urban drama’s handbook. For those too young to remember, New York Undercover was the hip-hop equivalent of Law & Order. In fact, the individual behind the popular show was Law & Order creator and producer Dick Wolf.
In spite of having different themes (Empire is about a family-owned record company while New York Undercover was a police drama), there are some striking similarities in how both shows went about appealing to viewers; in particular, through the use of hip-hop music and famous guest stars.
Just as Empire has Timbaland, New York Undercover used to have its own popular music director: James Mtume. The music legend has written and produced hits for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Roberta Flack, and Donnie Hathaway, and was in the group Mtume. The producer not only made sure to fill each episode with hip-hop and R&B songs that were popular at the time, but artists like Boyz II Men, Chaka Khan, New Edition and The Notorious B.I.G. appeared on the series. These stars performed during the final scenes at Natalie’s, which was a fictional bar owned by Gladys Knight (who also appeared on early episodes of the hit series). The combination of music and guest appearances, along with a halfway decent plot, made the series a top hit among black households.
Season one of Empire has followed a similar framework by making music a pivotal part of the show. The series’ soundtrack, which features tracks sung by cast members, including “No Apologies” and “Drip Drop,” just beat Madonna’s new album, Rebel Heart, for the number one spot on the Billboard 200. Likewise, Daniels has included a number of well-known actors and entertainers as guest stars on the show, including Courtney Love, Naomi Campbell, Jennifer Hudson and Patti LaBelle. The guest appearances have become such an important draw for the series that Daniels is already hyping up a wish list for next season that includes Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington. Actors are apparently even pining to get a spot on the show.
Like New York Undercover, keeping abreast of popular culture, including the music, has made Empire a rating’s juggernaut. Hopefully the show won’t make the same tragic mistake that its musical urban drama predecessor did by cutting the musical guest appearances and performances from the show in favor of a more straight-laced feel (a choice that was inspired by contract disputes, which also inspired cast changes). When that happened, New York Undercover had a hard time retaining the interest of viewers and began to dip in ratings until it was ultimately canceled after a dismal fourth season.
I could see the same thing happening for Empire down the line if Fox isn’t careful. Even with all of the crazy drama, both the music and the guest appearances play a huge role in the show’s appeal. However, Empire may have a fighting chance as long as Daniels and co-creator Danny Strong stay the course and continue to keep throwing any and everything shocking they can against the writer’s wall.
“He Was Heated”: Mo’Nique And Lee Daniels Got In An Argument After She Didn’t Thank Him In Oscar Speech
I’m not sure where all the back-and-forth between Mo’Nique and Lee Daniels is going to go (as in, what’s the end game?), but at this point, it’s getting messy. One minute she was telling us that he told her Hollywood blackballed her, then he tells us that her demands caused her to get blackballed, then she’s claiming that her demands weren’t even over-the-top, and now she’s saying that at the end of the day, it seems like Daniels is the one who really has an issue with her. That would actually make sense, considering that all the opportunities she was dropped from recently were his projects. Well, in a chat with TMZ, Mo’Nique kept this whole thing going and said that things went a bit left in their working relationship after she failed to thank him during her Oscar speech after winning “Best Supporting Actress” for Precious.
She started the interview by speaking on that initial conversation they had about being blackballed, but this time, she shared that a jab was taken at her husband/manager, Sidney Hicks.
“There was more of a conversation in reference to why Fox didn’t want me to play this character because he said, ‘they said you’re difficult.’ I said, ‘Lee why would you tell them that? You and I have never had any situations.’ And then he said, ‘Mama, you’ve been blackballed.’ I said ‘Well why have I been blackballed?’ He said, ‘because you didn’t play the game. And I said ‘Well what game is that?’ He never answered. And then he said, ‘Well, your husband is outbidding you…'”
From there, Mo’Nique shared that she thinks Daniels has had an issue with her since she failed to show him love during her Oscar’s speech. According to her, that really upset him.
“We had a conversation after the Oscars and he was heated. He said, ‘How could you not say my name at the Oscars?’ As I said to Mr. Daniels in reference to the award, ‘The only reason why, brother, I did not say your name,’ and I said it all the other times from the Golden Globes on, you can pull it up, ‘is because so many people were involved in that amazing project, it would have been unfair to just say your name.'”
When asked why she’s been so vocal about this situation in the media and gone up against Daniels and the folks at Fox, the actress said she wouldn’t have felt right if she kept quiet.
“You know what would give me pause, Harvey? To be silent.”
“We Never Offered Her The Part”: “Empire” Co-Creator Says Mo’Nique Is Mistaken, And That She Was Never Asked To Play Cookie
Ever since Mo’Nique revealed that Lee Daniels told her she had been blackballed in Hollywood for being too difficult, the whole story has turned into a messy game of he said, she said. Daniels told Don Lemon that Mo’Nique was blackballed due to the demands she was making, demands he didn’t really elaborate on:
“…we were on the campaign, she was making unreasonable demands, and I remember thinking ‘this is when reverse racism happens’. You have to thank the producers of the film, you have to thank the studio, and I think she didn’t understand that. People aren’t going to respond well if you don’t. I love her, I’ve spoken to her. She’s brilliant, and I like working with brilliant people but sometimes artists get in their own way.”
But Mo’Nique responded by saying it was the studio that was making unreasonable demands, not her:
“Actually, there were no demands. There was a request from the movie studio, and they called and requested that I fly to France for the Cannes Film Festival. I simply said, ‘I respectfully decline.’ Because if you can remember at the time there was a talk show called, ‘The Mo’Nique Show,’ I was doing a comedy tour, I was actually in the awards season of the awards, and I’m also a wife and I’m a mommy. So when they called, I had a couple of days just down time, I wanted to spend that with my husband and my kids.”
On top of debunking Lee Daniels’ claims that she made some over-the-top demands, Mo’Nique also claimed that one of the roles she lost due to Hollywood politics was the opportunity to play Cookie on “Empire.” She told “Inside Edition” that this was the way things went down with Daniels:
“When he called me up, he offered me a role on ‘Empire’ as Cookie. He sent over the sides, he said ‘listen, they want to do a screen test with you.’ I said ‘no problem!’ Maybe four days had gone by, and I hadn’t heard anything. So I’m trying to reach out to him to say, what time do I need to be in? Where do I need to be? When he finally returned the call, he says ‘listen, the executives at Fox said that you’re difficult.'”
But “Empire” co-creator and actor, Danny Strong, says that Mo’Nique is mistaken. In a chat with the good folks at “Sway in the Morning,” he claimed that she was never offered the role because Taraji P. Henson was always the actress they wanted to go with.
“We discussed Mo’Nique once very briefly. We never offered her the part. She wasn’t going to be Cookie.”
Strong would later try and do damage control by tweeting that “Mo’Nique is so talented she’d be great in almost anything. But Cookie was always Taraji.”
Yesterday, Mo’Nique responded but refrained from pettiness. She let her followers know that no matter what is going on with her and Daniels, and even with Strong, everyone should support the show.
As the drama between Lee Daniels and Mo’Nique continues to drag on, more is being revealed about the circumstances that led to the Oscar-winning actress being “blackballed” or low balled, as she put it. She’s now claiming that Daniels is actually the one who tried to blacklist her.
“People were saying, ‘Someone needs to teach Mo’Nique a lesson because she’s not playing the game, and she’s gonna get in her own way of winning this award, because it seems like she’s choosing her family over Hollywood. I don’t think Hollywood has turned his nose up to me. I think that those are feelings that Mr. Daniels is having,” the mother of four told Good Morning America.
“And then he said, ‘You know, there were things that Mo’Nique — she didn’t thank the producers and she didn’t thank the studio, and that’s just not things that you do.’ Well, it had nothing to do with the producers, nor the studio. Mr. Daniels had a problem that I didn’t say his name the night of the Oscar awards.”
Mo’s Precious co-star Gabourey Sidibe also broke her silence on the controversy.
It’s currently unclear which party Gabby feels is being dishonest. While this seems to be getting quite ugly, Mo’Nique says she’d be open to working with Daniels again. Go figure.
Follow Jazmine on Twitter @JazmineDenise
Earlier this week, Precious director Lee Daniels spoke to CNN about why he believes that Mo’Nique has experienced difficulty securing work following her Oscar win. According to Daniels, the actress got in her own way.
“What I said to her was–we were on the campaign and she was making unreasonable demands,” Daniels told Don Lemon. “I think that there were demands that were made from her on the ‘Precious’ campaign that everyone knows about, that hurt her. And I told her that.”
Yesterday, Mo responded to Daniels during a separate chat with Lemon and she seems to disagree with her friend’s perception of her situation.
“It shocked me… I was yelling at the screen, ‘Don, please ask him what the demands were!’” she said of Daniels’ interview. “There were no demands, there was a request from the movie studio that I fly to France for the Cannes Film Festival. I simply said, ‘I respectfully decline.’”
According to the actress, she declined because she only had a few days of “downtime” and she wanted to be home with her family.
“When they called, I had a couple of days downtime and I wanted to spend that with my husband and my kids,” she explained.
She went on to say that Lionsgate continued to pressure her, and after they called for the third time asking what it was going to take to get her to the festival, her husband and manager asked: “Is there a number associated with it?”
They, of course, said no, as actors aren’t usually paid to promote films that they’re in.
“What people didn’t know was that I was paid $50,000 to do the movie ‘Precious.’ It really wasn’t about the money and I am not complaining because I signed up to do it with my friend.”
The actress also shot down previous claims that she was blackballed.
“The phone was ringing and the scripts were coming. When people say, ‘Mo’Nique, where have you been?’ it’s not that I haven’t been on TV or in the movies because I’ve been blackballed as Mr. Daniels has said, the offers just didn’t make sense, Don. So again, the phones didn’t stop ringing and the scripts didn’t stop coming, but the offers that were associated with them were offers that made me say, ‘Guys, I can’t accept that because if I accept that and I won the award, what are my sisters being offered who didn’t win the award or wasn’t nominated?’”
Check out her full interview below. Thoughts?
This story about Mo’Nique being blackballed in the industry keeps getting bigger and bigger. But one voice we’ve haven’t heard yet is that of the man who made the original comment. Well, Lee Daniels sat down with CNN’s Don Lemon to address that and also the very heart wrenching scene where Luscious throws a young Jamal into the trash can.
See what he had to say and then watch the full interview below.
Don Lemon: She says that she was blackballed after the movie.
No, she said that I said that she was blackballed. I didn’t say that exactly. What I said to her was–we were on the campaign and she was making unreasonable demands. And she wasn’t thinking…This is when reverse racism, I think, happens. I said, you know, you have to thank the producers of the film. You have to thank the studio and I think she didn’t understand that. I said listen, people aren’t going to respond well if you don’t.
I love her and I’ve spoken to her and she’s brilliant. And I like working with brilliant people. But sometimes artists get in their own way…I know I certainly do, often. I have my own demons.
I think that there were demands that were made from her on the Precious campaign that everyone knows about, that hurt her. And I told her that.
Can she change that?
I mean, if she plays ball! You’ve gotta play ball. This is not just show, it’s show business. And you’ve got to play ball. And you can’t scream–I don’t like calling the race card. I don’t believe in it. Because if I buy into it, then it becomes real.
Some people would say that you’re a sell-out for that mentality
I guess I’m a sell out then. Call it what it is. But I’m not going to not work and I’m not going to not tell my truth and I’m not going to not call people out on their bull. So whatever that means, sell out… I’ll see you in the theaters.
Lee Daniels has been very open and honest about how Jamal’s character and the struggles he goes through are very indicative of the traumatic experiences he’s had in his own life being a gay, Black man.
On the scene where Luscious throws Jamal in the trash
I had no intention [of putting the scene in the show]. I told my partner this–and that’s why we’re a great team–I told him this in passing. And then when it ended up in the script, I said ‘No, no. No, no.’ And some kind of way he just talked me into it. And then it came time to shoot it–and he ain’t shooting it, I’m shooting it. And it’s my life.– And so my sister who I bring along, as a good luck charm on all my films, was an extra in the scene, in that particular scene, and when it came to the kid walking towards Terrence, with his hands on his hips, I couldn’t direct the scene. I broke down in tears. Because I just… And my sister instinctively knew, got up and directed the kid. So I didn’t direct that moment. My sister did. Who ain’t a director. Painful!
As tormented as the character of Andre is on “Empire,” the opportunity to play the power-hungry son of Lucious Lyon on the hit Fox show is major for Trai Byers. The handsome actor has been very blessed within the last year or so. Not only did he land a big role on the show everyone’s talking about, but he also played James Forman in the critically-acclaimed film, Selma. But things weren’t always flourishing in Byer’s career. In an interview on “The Meredith Vieira Show,” he said that after struggling to find work as an actor in 2013, he was close to quitting to become a man of the cloth.
“In 2013 I did not work at all just contemplating what I needed to do if I was walking in my destiny or not. Is this what Trai wants to do? I am a big Christian so I always talk about that. Is this what God wants me to do? I really contemplated changing going into something else. I am very passionate about God and religion and I thought maybe I’m supposed to be a pastor. I don’t know. I was open to being used in any way that was aligned for me destiny wise and Empire came. Right after Empire, Selma came. Then to look later down the line to see Empire was premiering on Wednesday night, the same week on Friday Selma was going wide, like, you couldn’t time it like that.”
Vieira: “Did you believe it was a message?”
Byers: “Yes! Stay where you are [laughs]”
And the show has definitely blown up. Byers revealed how the cast found out they were given the greenlight for a second season.
“The core cast were on our way to the TCAs in Los Angeles, all on a plane together. It’s the Television Critics Association. So we’re landing in LA and this man sitting next to me, he has a baseball cap on, regular guy, unassuming guy. As soon as we land they tell us we can turn our phones on. He turns his on and says, “Hey, you know you were just picked up for a second season right?” I’m like, “Really?” I’m sitting in the middle, Yazz is in the front. Taraji and Jussie are across from me and Terrence is in the back. I’m like, “We just got picked up for a second season y’all” and the front of the plane just erupts. I’m sure we scared the mess out of the people in the back [laughs].”
Lee Daniels shared that he was trying to get Denzel Washington to appear on the show after the acting legend revealed that he loved it, so everyone is wondering, will we see Washington in season two? Byers hopes so.
“Wouldn’t that be great? I love Denzel. The show is huge. And with a huge show comes a lot of rumors. I couldn’t say whether he was or was not, but that would be great! Hopefully he does.”
Glad to see things working out so well for Byers. But if he ever does decide to give the whole pastor calling a try, I’m available to be a first lady! You were thinking it too…