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Samuel L. Jackson on Nick Fury, Mace Windu, and the power of a great wig

Screenshot: Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson (John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Images), and Screenshot: Avengers. Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.
Screenshot: Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson (John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Images), and Screenshot: Avengers. Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: If you’ve seen a Hollywood movie at any point in the last 25 years, you’ve probably seen a Samuel L. Jackson performance. In his long and extremely prolific career (176 IMDB credits and counting), Jackson has appeared in some of the biggest blockbuster franchises—Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and most influential indie hits (Pulp Fiction, Do The Right Thing) of the past quarter-century. Along the way, he’s become an iconic figure himself, so well-known for his many foul-mouthed characters that he recorded the audio version of a children’s book called Go The Fuck To Sleep a few years back. Jackson’s well aware of the YouTube videos that have compiled every time he’s called someone a “motherfucker” on screen, as he told us in our phone interview, but he didn’t know that Samuel L. Jackson death montages are also popular. The price of fame.

Although Jackson never received a formal education in acting, he’s got more than enough experience to pass on, something he’s now doing with his online MasterClass course. We spoke with Jackson around the launch of his 21-lesson course for aspiring actors, and while there wasn’t enough time to ask about every single one of his famous film roles—could there ever be?—here are a few of his most iconic (and his most viral).

Coming To America (1988)“Hold-Up Man”

AVC: How long were you on the set for this one, since you have a pretty small part?

Samuel L. Jackson: I think it was really one day to do that scene. It was a very interesting dynamic doing that. I mean, the biggest star on the planet at the time was Eddie Murphy, and you’re just supposed to show up and do your job. [Director] John Landis said he was kind of surprised that New York actors come to auditions and they sit around and talk to each other. You’re sitting there, staring at a script and saying lines in the air and kind of hanging out with each other. Everybody knew what they had to do, and they did it.

So when I got on set, I was ready to go. It didn’t matter if Eddie Murphy [was there], didn’t matter if Arsenio [Hall, was there], I was like, “Okay, we’re actors, let’s go.” And I had a great time doing it, and I got paid. It’s kind of easy to get a job on a previous role, and just come in like, “Okay, rob the place.” But you have to inform the place with some kind of energy, and some kind of motivation, so you figure out why you’re doing it. Why are you robbing this place? What desperate situation caused you to go into a place in broad daylight with a shotgun and rob somebody? Find a great motivation, and get in there, and do it. And use that energy to, hopefully, fire up the other people in the scene, and it’ll be infectious. And the scene will have that kind of energy and that kind of dynamism, and people will remember it.

AVC: What was the motivation you came up with for your character?

SLJ: I was desperate—not to buy drugs or anything, but [I had] a person at home, a girlfriend who’s telling you, “You’re out the bills and food. You need this, you need that. And you either get it, or don’t come back.” That was me.

AVC: Have you ever seen the videos on YouTube that are, like, “Samuel L. Jackson’s greatest swearing moments?” This one’s always in there.

SLJ: I know that there is a YouTube thing of every “motherfucker” Samuel L. Jackson has ever said in a movie.

AVC: Yeah, that’s it.

SLJ: It needs to be updated now. There’s, like, two years of “motherfuckers” they’re missing. I mean, The Hitman’s Bodyguard alone, probably as long as that [whole] clip.

AVC: Have you ever seen the TV edit of any of your roles that have a lot of profanity in them? Like the TV edit of Jackie Brown or this scene in Coming To America?

SLJ: I’ve only seen parts of them. I remember going into the studio and doing the TV versions. I remember doing the TV version of Pulp Fiction. You’re in that studio saying things, and they’re correcting you, and they’re all, “If you could say it on the correct note…” You end up making up a lot of stupid shit like “monkey-fighters” and “motor scooter.”

AVC: It was “melon-farming motor-scooter” in Jackie Brown, as I recall.

SLJ: Right. Melon-farmer. Melon-farmer, Maryland farmer, my frien-duh. That always works.

Do The Right Thing (1989)“Mister Señor Love Daddy”

AVC: Do the Right Thing was actually shot in Brooklyn—was it in the summertime? Was it really that hot?

SLJ: Blazing hot. Spike’s movies, at that time, were always done in the summer. We always referred to it as “Spike Lee’s Summer Film Camp.” The people would get together, and we’d say, “Time to go to Spike’s Film Camp! Let’s go!”

That particular block was kind of blown out. There were a lot of crack dealers in that block. So, Spike’s bodyguard force went in there and cleaned out the neighborhood. So, as far as we could tell, they were still hanging around and threatening them. “Y’all was gonna be interfering with business.” I was kind of like, “You do know that I just act for a living. I’m still a regular motherfucker, I’ll whip your ass.”

They finally got over that, but, yeah it was hot. I was in that damn radio station. I was essentially covered at the radio station, because I was inside. When it rained, they would come in the radio station, and then it’d stop raining and they’d go back outdoors. But I was always in that radio station, either asleep or eating or staring at everybody out that window wondering if they were doing something. Because I had to be in the window, because they shot the window all the time, at the radio station. I always had to be sitting in that window looking out.

AVC: What do you do when you have down time on set?

SLJ: I read. I like books. I’ve always got a literature book going. I’d be in there reading, in my off time.

Jungle Fever (1991)“Gator Purify”

AVC: After that, you had a bigger role in Jungle Fever, and you took that part right after dealing with your own issues with drugs. Was it an emotional experience for you? Playing that role after going through it and coming out the other side?

SLJ: It was a pretty good part. I was two weeks out of rehab, still detoxing. Spike wrote it, you know, a certain way, but I started talking to him about what it meant to be a part of a family. That it was more about the abuse of my relationships with all of the people around me that drove that addiction. So, generally when you saw Gator, he wasn’t high. He was trying to get out, in need.

So it was all about the manipulation of family members, or people he was close to, and pretending you’re sorry about something you’d already done, so you could get what you needed. Consequently, Gator became this iconic character that most people got, that because during that time—this was in the midst of another opioid epidemic—everybody had a family member. You had a brother, an aunt, a husband, an uncle, cousin, somebody who came by your house and stole your shit, or broke your heart in some kind of way. I thought that was more important than just being a junkie.

I was Gator, and Chris Rock played Pookie (in New Jack City), and those showed two very different dynamics of what crackheads were. Mine was more about the family relationships. So when people sat there and got that, they can sit there and say, “Oh, man, that’s my friend.” Or “That’s my brother.” Or cousin or somebody. They empathize, or they had something that they could latch onto, in that particular movie, of my story, and go with it.

Goodfellas (1990)“Stacks Edwards”

AVC: What was that drink you’re pouring in the bar scene in Goodfellas? The one you say is “better than sex?” Because it looks like crème de menthe.

SLJ: I’m going to say it was ice tea—and something else, I’m sure, in the tea. I suggested that particular description. I’m pretty sure it was iced tea. Although we were at a bar, and one guy did drink it. You know, you walk in, and Marty and everybody are there, and we had a good time, we really did. I don’t even remember having a trailer on that particular film. They used to put me in peoples’ houses, in the neighborhood over there by John Gotti’s front. [Jackson is referring to the Ravenite Social Club, a well-known Mafia hangout in New York’s Little Italy Gotti operated in the late ’80s. —Ed.] I remember having dinner with gangsters at peoples’ houses in the neighborhood.

Jurassic Park (1993)—“Arnold”

AVC: That’s another one where you spend a lot of the movie up in the control room, sort of like the radio station in Do The Right Thing.

SLJ: I was actually supposed to go to Hawaii, to shoot my death scene. But there was a hurricane that destroyed all the sets. So I didn’t get to go to Hawaii.

AVC: Oh no!

SLJ: All you see is the residue of my body, my arm. But yeah, I was supposed to be on set [and do a death scene].

But, you know, I enjoyed being on that set, with Jeff [Goldblum] and Sir Richard Attenborough. It’s funny, because Steven [Spielberg] would actually operate the camera sometimes. He’d consider the camera, and he’d be kind of looking at me, and he’d go, “Okay, I’m going to get you,” and everybody just has to start scrambling, and we’d shoot. He actually shot a few of the things that I’m in, in that lab, with that long ash dangling off that cigarette. Hogging that fake cigarette. Because I had quit smoking, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t go back, so he got me the worst-tasting fake cigarettes ever.

AVC: This is something I’ve always wondered—when you’re typing on a fake computer in a movie, are you just hitting random keys, or is there much purpose to it?

SLJ: Oh, we hit random keys. I mean, that’s just how we do it. Nobody’s ever asked me to bring up the right program.

Pulp Fiction (1994)“Jules Winnfield”

AVC: And then we have a role that I’m sure you get asked about and stopped on the street for constantly, which is Jules in Pulp Fiction. Is it true Tarantino wrote the part for you, after you were in True Romance?

SLJ: I don’t think that’s what happened. [Laughs.] I auditioned for Reservoir Dogs, and I auditioned for Quentin and Lawrence Bender, and they were pretty new at the time, so I didn’t know who they were. I pretty much fucked up my audition.

And then I went to Sundance, and I was there when they had the first screening of Reservoir Dogs, and after the movie I went up to Quentin to tell him how much I liked the movie, and he was like, “Oh, man, I remember you. I didn’t like the guy who got your part!” [Laughs.] And I was like, “What?” He would’ve had a better movie with me in it. The guy he hired was a soap opera actor. He was fine, but I would have been better. And he said, “You know, I’m writing this thing right now, and I’m writing a part for you.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” And then a couple weeks later, I was in Virginia doing a movie, and Pulp Fiction showed up.

Jackie Brown (1997)—“Ordell Robbie”; The Great White Hype (1996)—“Rev. Fred Sultan” 

AVC: So, in Quentin Tarantino’s movies, you always have interesting hair styles. In Pulp Fiction, you have the Jheri curl, and in Jackie Brown you have that long braided goatee, and then the white hair in Django Unchained. What’s up with that?

SLJ: I mean, hair is very, very distinctive. I remember when Sir Laurence Olivier died. I was sitting at home watching TV, and there was a retrospective. They put his face up onscreen, and people were talking about him and how he just walked into all these different characters that he played. And I’m sitting there watching, going, “Wow, I remember that movie,” you know. And a lot of things you remember about—well, the first thing you remember about most characters is what they look like. I’m coming from the theater, where you change all the time, so when I got into movies, I figured, “Well, shit, they’ve got better makeup artists.” I did my own makeup when I was in the theater, and they’ve got makeup artists and people who do shit [on film sets], so one of the things that always struck me was to find a distinctive hairstyle for each character.

I started that with that boxing movie I did, I can’t think of the name of it… Oh, The Great White Hype. The director wanted me to look like Don King, and everybody knew who Don King was. But I didn’t want to be Don King. I wanted the man to be Rev. Fred Sultan, so I decided to make him look like Julius Caesar. So I had a white, silvery Julius Caesar haircut underneath the turbans and all that. And from that point on, I just decided, I had this great wig-maker, so I just found hairstyles that I felt would be distinctive for every character. Like an adventure.

And I think, “I’ll do the same thing with Jackie Brown.” Quentin was talking about Ordell a little bit, and I was like, “I’m sure Ordell is one of those people who thought Superfly was the greatest movie ever made.” So he cuts his hair and straightens it, but he never has enough money to maintain it perfectly. So it’s kind of nappy around the edges, straight and kind of puffed up. That’s why he’d always keep it in a ponytail or a braid. The chin braid was an homage to me and Quentin’s love of Hong Kong movies. Chinese gangsters always have interesting facial hair, and I had seen this guy in China who had, like, a mole on his neck, and a two-foot braid coming out of that mole. The hair growing out of this mole was in a two-foot braid that hung over his shirt collar. And I was like, “That’s dope!” So, I decided to put it on my chin, and I was pretty happy with that. We were just having fun and creating a distinctive character.

AVC: The Hong Kong villains have interesting eyebrows, too. They always have big, puffy eyebrows.

SLJ: Yeah. I did a little bit of that in Jackie Brown, but not a lot.

Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995)“Zeus Carver”

AVC: You worked with Bruce Willis a lot after Pulp Fiction, like in Die Hard With A Vengeance. What was that set like? They were getting deep into the franchise at that point.

SLJ: I remember watching the first one, and my friend Reggie VelJohnson played that fat black cop that’s outside talking to him anytime he’s in the building [Sgt. Al Powell —Ed.], and I’m sitting there going, “How the fuck did you get this job?” I’m going, “I love that movie. Damn, I wish I could be in a Die Hard movie.”

And I was in New York shooting Kiss Of Death, and I had an audition for Waterworld, and I was waiting on the call to see if I got that job. And then one day I walked up, and these people came to me and said, “Laurence Fishburne is doing Waterworld, and I know you auditioned for it, but he was supposed to be in Die Hard With A Vengeance. Do you want to be in Die Hard?” I’m like, “Fuck yeah! Yes! I’ll take that job!” And my agents cursed me out and said, “You never take a job without talking to us.” I was like, “Fuck.” But that’s pretty much how that happened. Fish got Waterworld, I got Die Hard, because he wouldn’t do it, which is fine. I was in a place where, every script that I touched, if they came from Hollywood, were Denzel scripts, or it was a Forest Whitaker independent job. Those were the two black guys that they looked at first, and I was joining them. Finally I said, “They don’t want to do it. Let’s see if I will.” And that’s how I ended up in Die Hard. It turned out to be great! [Dennis Hopper ended up taking over Fishburne’s part in Waterworld, further sweetening the deal for Jackson. —Ed.]

It was a great time, because we had an interesting script. The first script was called Simon Says, and something was going on, because some days we’d get to work, but we wouldn’t actually have dialogue. We would go to Bruce’s trailer, and they’d say, “Okay, you have to go from 168th Street to 97th Street today. We’re going to do it in the cab, and Sam, you say this. Bruce, what do you want to say?” And that’s how Bruce’s “hey, Zeus!” thing came up. That was stuff that we made up in the trailer. So, we got all the way down to 72nd Street when we finally got a script, with the whole thing on the phone: “I met a man going to St. Ives, he had seven wives, each wife had seven cats,” yada yada, that whole thing. So it was kind of fun, making it up as we went along.

AVC: So was it just you and Bruce in the cab? How did the whole crew get around, moving through the city like that?

SLJ: Cameras on flatbed trucks. There are times where Bruce is actually driving, like we actually did that drive through Central Park with me in the car. The meadow and all of it. I thought it was great, because I’d always wanted to do that when I was sitting in traffic, get on the grass and all that. I had a chance to drive the wrong way on Eighth Avenue, which was awesome. All kinds of good stuff was happening on that movie. It was good. Interestingly enough, with the subway getting blown up—people are worried about terrorists doing that shit, but we did it. We did that in Charleston [South Carolina]. We built the whole set in Charleston, and we did the bridge jump there, too.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)“Russell Franklin”

AVC: I have a question about your death scene, where the shark comes out of the water and grabs you. Did you ADR the scream that you hear when your digital body is getting thrown around, or is that a Wilhelm scream?

SLJ: Yeah, it’s me.

AVC: How did you shoot that scene?

SLJ: I was just kind of standing there in front of the thing, and then I’m doing my speech. They had a big, I guess, rubber shark, that they hung up on an arm, and they CGI-ed the rest of it, grabbing me and pulling me in. But we had a couple of big mechanical sharks that actually worked on that set. Sometimes they did go crazy, goddamn banging their heads on the wall, but they had real mechanical sharks out there. That was great. When Renny [Harlin] called me, he said that he wanted me to do this movie, “but you’re going to be the first person to die.” I was like, “Oh?” He said, “If we kill you, then that means anybody in the movie can die,” so I said, “Oh, okay. Great.”

AVC: I don’t know if you’re aware, but there are also quite a few Samuel L. Jackson death montages on YouTube. That’s also a thing.

SLJ: I did not know that. I’ll have to find those. I often think, “How many ways have I died in the movies?” I guess I can find out now. I’m always thinking of ways that I haven’t died. “Well, I’ve been killed this way in this movie, but I haven’t died this way yet.” I don’t think I’ve ever been guillotined, or anything like that.

AVC: If you search it on YouTube, there’s three or four of them that come up. One is ranked.

SLJ: Awesome.

Shaft (2000)“John Shaft”

AVC: You were in the Shaft sequel that came out in 2000, and there’s another one that’s coming up again soon. Were you a fan of the original Shaft?

SLJ: Well, of course I was! But when I was approached to do it, I pretty much insisted that they put Richard [Roundtree] in the movie, so that they would know that I’m not trying to imitate that guy. That guy still exists. And this guy, he’s an iteration of that guy, but he’s not that guy. So that helps a lot. I didn’t have to use the traits that Richard used, the “bump-a-chick-a-bee, the guy on the street, sex machine for all the chicks,” all that shit. I was free to create my own thing.

The even more interesting dynamic about that is, when we started shooting the film, Christian Bale’s character was the bad guy, for real. I was chasing him the whole movie. And Jeffrey Wright’s character, Peoples, was awful, as Jeffrey played it. So we had to kind of fix this, the good guy’s the dangerous guy. The rich kid’s not dangerous. We fixed that, and then it worked a lot better.

AVC: I read—I think in Variety—that you’re involved in a new one that they’re making. And it’s becoming a generational saga, is that right?

SLJ: Yeah. The son I have is one that my wife took away from me because my life was too dangerous, and she didn’t want him in that environment. And now he’s a young FBI agent, his friend gets killed, and he comes to me for help. So, there’s a whole dynamic of this young millennial who has no street skills, but his name is Shaft. He’s trying to be this kind of person that he’s not. In the midst of helping him solve his crime, I’m also trying to help him become a bonafide Shaft.

AVC: Cool.

SLJ: Raises the cool factor, yes.

AVC: I saw the 2000 Shaft in the theater, and I remember thinking all the coats you wore in that movie were so cool.

SLJ: Oh, yeah. He had a good wardrobe.

Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Episode II—Attack Of The Clones (2000), Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge Of The Sith (2005), “Mace Windu”

AVC: Another big franchise you’ve been part of is, of course, Star Wars. What’s it like acting in front of a green screen, especially in scenes where your scene partner isn’t really in front of you, like when you’re talking to Yoda?

SLJ: I had the luxury, actually, in Episode I—when I got there, the first thing I did was with Yoda. And fortunately, at that time, Frank Oz was still doing Yoda as a real puppet. So there was a person operating his right hand, a person doing his left hand, somebody else operated his eyes, and Frank did the voice. I had the real puppet at first, so I knew what his size was and all of that. So when it got into CGI on the next film, I had a good gauge on where he was and how he moved, and I followed that. So that was the easy part.

AVC: Also, why a purple lightsaber?

SLJ: George told me, he said, “Look, it’s a green screen. The more you do, the more we have to go on. So can you make yourself look like a badass, or you can screw it up.” So, having fought a lot of imaginary things as a child, in my room, I went back to that space. Now, I didn’t get to get my lightsaber out that [first] day at all. There was a big arena fight scene in that film, too, and a whole bunch of Jedi, and a whole bunch of bots. And I’m looking at this rendition of the scene and going, “Shit, how am I going to find myself in this?” So, in my mind, I said, “If I have a different color lightsaber, then I’ll always know where I am.”

So I said [to George Lucas], “I’d like a purple lightsaber.” And he said, “Why?” and I said, “I just want to be able to find myself. I’m the most powerful Jedi in the universe, and I think it would be an interesting thing for me to have a different color lightsaber than anybody else.” And he said, “No, that’s ludicrous.” So we shot, and when he called me back for re-shoots, he said, “You know what? I tried something, and it’s already causing a shitstorm online, so I don’t know if we’re going to keep it. But I’ll show it to you.” He showed me a clip, turning on my lightsaber, and it’s purple! He’s going, “Don’t, don’t, don’t—give it back, I’m not sure I’m going to keep that.” But when the movie came out, he kept it.

AVC: So when you’re on the set, filming a lightsaber battle, are you just holding the handle and pretending, or is there something there?

SLJ: No, you actually have a full saber. It’s green, for the green screen, and the saber itself is a little plastic rod that they color in and make the blade. I had to do, I think it was, 97 moves in three days, and I was fighting backwards. So. You’ve got a month to learn that fight. You start off with your saber, and you show up with your sneakers on, and real slowly, you learn the moves so you can see that you can do it. And you’ve got it, you’ve got the fight down pat.

And then, they show up with your boots, and you’re like, “Right, this is very different from my sneakers.” So you have to re-learn the fight with your boots on. And after you learn that, they show up again with the long-ass robes with your long-ass sleeves on it, and your boots. I went, “Oh, shit. I’ve got to learn the fight again.” Then you learn how to figure out how to keep your sleeves out of the way of your lightsaber. It’s a process.

Unbreakable (2000)Elijah Price

AVC: So we’ve discussed Bruce Willis, and we’ve discussed the color purple, which brings us to Unbreakable. You just shot the sequel to that recently, right?

SLJ: Glass, yes.

AVC: Did you expect there to ever be a sequel to this movie?

SLJ: Originally, when we shot the first one, it was supposed to be a trilogy anyway. I’m not sure why that didn’t happen, coming off of the success of The Sixth Sense and “I see dead people.” [Laughs.] I guess, in some ways, [Unbreakable] is seen as a failure because it didn’t make as much money as The Sixth Sense. And [M.] Night [Shyamalan] kind of got away from it, I guess. And then he figured out a way to do it. He says he had the idea to do it all along.

So when he did Split, that was the perfect way in. He kind of did, once again, the opposite of Elijah, and the same as Bruce’s character. The Beast is as unbreakable as David Dunn. And it’s kind of tempting to put those characters together with me in the middle as the manipulator, the same that I was in Unbreakable, and see them as different kinds of superheroes, one the good guy and one the bad guy. In the comic book mold, the Elijah mold.

AVC: If I may say so, your performance in Unbreakable is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

SLJ: I like that one, too. Even better now.

AVC: It’s one that’s kind of come back in the popular consciousness, I think. Maybe as people who saw it as teenagers have grown up.

Snakes On A Plane (2006)“Neville Flynn”

AVC: All right, Snakes On A Plane. I only have one question. Did the catchphrase, “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” come before the movie? That seems like it was designed for you. 

SLJ: Interestingly enough, we didn’t shoot that the whole time we shot the movie. Because [the producers] wanted a PG rating for the movie, so they would never let me say it. And then all of a sudden I just tested it, and the next thing I know we were doing re-shoots, and that was the only thing we re-shot, me saying, you know, “I’ve had enough of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” I’d told them before, “You might want to shoot it so you’ll have it,” but they wouldn’t do it.

AVC: I didn’t realize that, since you have so many famous catchphrases. It seems like that would be the selling point of the film.

SLJ: No, it’s often hope, hopeful movie making. You’re always looking for that. That’s always funny, when you’re looking for that future line. “Uh oh, future line. Okay.”

Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015), Captain Marvel (2019)“Nick Fury”

AVC: I wanted to ask you about playing Nick Fury in all the Marvel movies. You gave your license to use your image as Nick Fury in the comic books. How does that feel?

SLJ: Yeah. The first time I saw Nick Fury was in the comic books, at Golden Apple [Comics]. Mark Millar. Mark Millar, genius. Yeah. [Millar re-imagined Nick Fury in Jackson’s likeness in 2002 for The Ultimates, predating Jackson’s casting in the MCU. —Ed.]

AVC: I suppose you were already an action figure before that, for Star Wars.

SLJ: Yeah. But we’re going back now, and I meet Captain Marvel in more of an origin story. You’ll see Nick Fury with another guy’s face, somebody that’s got two eyes, so that’s a whole big deal. You’ll see. It’s prior to the eye injury, no eye patch.

AVC: When you shoot Marvel movies, do you just come in and do a few days? How does that usually work?

SLJ: I’m sort of the glue that holds all these guys together. I got them into the organization, into S.H.I.E.L.D., and every now and then I show up to remind them that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a purpose. It’s been a good job. It was a nine-picture deal. I did it. It was good.