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Jessica Biel’s latest series, “Candy,” is based on the true story of Candace Montgomery — a do-it-all mom who snaps after years of repressing her anger and kills her lover’s wife with an ax. “I understand her rage,” says Biel, relating to the stresses of projecting a perfect image in public. In this episode, she discusses why she’s drawn to playing antiheroes, how scrutiny of celebrities has changed since she was starring in “7th Heaven” and the heated debates that she and husband Justin Timberlake — who makes a cameo in “Candy” — had about the murder mystery.
Yvonne Villarreal: Hi, Mark.
Mark Olsen Hi, Yvonne.
Villarreal: OK. I hope June is treating you well so far because things are about to get a little dark here.
Olsen: UH OH
Villarreal: (Laughs) I think I know you fairly well, and you don’t strike me as a true-crime junkie. But I’m going to ask you this anyway. Have you heard of Candy Montgomery?
Olsen I’m sorry. Who? No, I do not think I know who that is.
Villarreal: Yeah, I didn’t either until just a month ago. But let me tell you the story. So in 1980, Texas homemaker Candy Montgomery was accused of murdering Betty Gore, the wife of the man she was involved with, striking her 41 times with an ax. It’s this tragic and unsettling case that was recently dramatized as a five-night event series on Hulu, starring Melanie Lynskey as Betty and Jessica Biel as a do-it-all mom, Candy.
[Clip from “Candy”: CANDY: Besides, if I leave now, I might have time to stop at Target and pick up Father’s Day cards for the kids on the way back, then pick up the kids then home to change then go to the pool, then back home to change again before leaving for dinner and the movie. LINDA: Good Lord. You make me tired just listening to you. But look at ya, you can do it all Miss Candy…]
Villarreal: Jessica undergoes quite the transformation for the series, and I’m not just talking about the cropped curly wig and retro eyeglasses. Her performance is disturbing and it’s chilling. And she also pulled double duty as the executive producer. Of course, now you can watch all five episodes as you please. And Mark, I hope I’ve made a big enough case for you to add it to your queue.
Olsen: Well, I’ve been seeing billboards for the show around Los Angeles, and I did not have the impression that it built to someone killing someone 41 times, you know, striking someone 41 times with an ax. But, you know, I’m something of a Melanie Lynskey completist, so I think I’m probably going to be watching the show.
Villarreal: I’m right there with you for sure. You know, I was visiting family in El Paso when it launched. And let me tell you, it was appointment television for us every night. It was this, like, slow burn and an uneasy watch. But like, we were hooked. And, you know, in between all of this sort of true crime, gory ness, it tackles themes like the repression of women. Jessica joined me to talk about what it was like to adapt the gruesome case for television. And as we started the conversation, I was really struck to find that she actually connected with Candy in many ways.
Jessica Biel: The themes in her life that were happening in the 1980s for women to me still felt like, well, they’re still happening now as well. Still struggling for you know equality across the board, still struggling for feeling OK to not be able to say, I can’t do it all. I need help. I need support, you know? Themes of guilt and shame and repressed feelings and the inability to communicate what you really need and want. It’s the same. I mean, yes, it’s gotten better. Yes, we are moving in amazing directions. We are really making headway. You know, it just felt like, wow, I connect with this woman and this woman did this thing in 1980. I understand her rage. I understand how someone could be pushed to that point if they if they had had their life sort of mapped out. This is what I do. Then I get married. Then I have kids, and then I’m happy no matter what. You know, and I think everybody can sort of connect to that idea that when you check all the boxes, sometimes you still feel empty and you don’t know why. And that, you know, pushes you to do interesting things.
Villarreal: I want to dive a little deeper on that notion because, as you said, like, Candy cares a lot about projecting an outward image of being fulfilled and having the perfect life. And no one, like, knows the pressures of projecting certain images quite like a celebrity in the public eye. So talk a little bit more about the ways you were able to connect on that sort of personal level with her.
Biel: Sure. It’s interesting when you think about celebrity and you think about an outward persona as opposed to maybe, you know, your private life. It’s very different now. We didn’t have camera phones. We didn’t have social media. When I was a young actor working on “7th Heaven” and having my, you know, younger career. And there was a part of my job. I had gone to media training where they teach you to be able to talk about things that have been hard in your career. You know, the sensitive things, the personal things that you have to talk about that people will ask you questions about. How do you speak about that in a way that makes it feel like, hey, I learned from this experience and I’m better for it. And by the way, that’s true. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not still dying inside every time, just a little bit or a little tiny jab. Your little heart gets a little, you know, nick every time somebody brings something up that you really don’t want to have to talk about, but yet you still have to talk about it in a way that is appropriate. And that was part of your job. It was literally part of my job to have kind of a persona which was sort of unflappable and, you know, kind of cool as a cucumber. No matter what anyone asked you, you know, it was all good. It’s very different now. Now, people, our culture is such that we really can just tell the truth. “Hey, I don’t feel good today. And this is what’s going on with me. And that really hurt my feelings. And you can’t talk to me that way.” And it’s amazing, actually. Right? On many levels, that’s a very new thing um for someone, you know, I think my age from this business to have to sort of grapple with because I still find myself doing what Candy did. So, I’m still trying to find my footing there. But I still really connect to those feelings of putting on a good face and making everybody feel comfortable. You know, even if I am uncomfortable, which is so much of what women are asked to do in society all the time, it makes people more comfortable when we’re not angry or displeased or frustrated or mad or rageful. People become uncomfortable when we’re not smiling and happy and feminine, you know?
Villarreal: Well, it’s interesting you bring that up because, you know, Betty, Melanie Lynskey’s character seems like the complete opposite to your character at first. Like we can tell, she’s more, like, you know, depressed or sad about her life. But what’s interesting is that Candy actually has a lot of those same feelings of emptiness that Betty has. She just suppresses those feelings by staying busy. Like, how did that inform the way you thought about depicting Candy?
Biel: Well, it informed it quite a lot because they do initially seem very different, but they’re actually sort of two sides of the same coin. They had all the same issues of loneliness, of inability to communicate, of lack of intimacy, of boredom on some level, of regret and shame — and, you know, about choices that they’ve made in their lives. And this feeling of, I’m supposed to be happy, but I’m not. And I don’t know what to do with that. They just approach their lives in very different ways. Betty was just more honest about it. You know, actually, she sort of told the truth to her husband all the time. I don’t like it when you leave. I don’t want to be here left alone. If there’s one other person here in this house that doesn’t want me to be here, I can’t take it.
[Clip from “Candy”: BETTY: I’m just so scared. If I’m pregnant again, there goes teaching next semester. ALLAN: Did you take the second pill? BETTY: And the vacation’s gonna be ruined. ALLAN: Betty, stop.]
Biel: She’s sharing a lot of her feelings in a way that Candy was totally incapable of doing. Candace has that ability to compartmentalize and sort of dissociate from the things that are bothering her. And that’s a very dangerous ability, I think. I mean, it’s a — it’s a gift on some level. And it’s also, you know, this is a perfect story of how it can be so dangerous and how you get pushed to one point and somebody says something to you. You become reactive and boom, you snap. But to answer your question in terms of how does it help develop the character? I just really wanted to create that sense of this like shiny veneer, this happy, sunshiny person, this person who easily moves through the world. And someone who you like, who you think is fun. Who, I wish she was my mom or I wish she was my wife or she’s cool — she changes the batteries in the toys — that woah, you know, the little things that were important to her and impressed people, like she needs to be that way and you need to really like her. So when she commits this horrifying act, you are conflicted about how you feel about it because you like her so much.
Villarreal: Well, there are many scenes where it’s sort of hard to tell if your character is telling the truth, particularly in the last episode. How did you sort of, you all come to an agreement about what you would present as true?
Biel: That’s a good question. Robin, Robin Veith — our writer, creator and showrunner — it was so important to her and to all of us, but this really was coming from her influence, that we were telling Candy’s story. Like that’s the foundation that we are coming off of, that that’s the information we have. That’s the evidence we have from the court cases. We don’t have another side of the story from the person who was in that room. There was only one woman that walked out of that room. So, all we have is that perspective. And we wanted to show the other side of it, obviously, with the sheriffs, the deputies, the police department having a different feeling and a different idea of what they thought could have happened. So showing both sides. And it’s really up to you, the audience, a.k.a the jury, which is why at the end there, I’m able to talk as Candy straight to the audience through the lens. Betty’sthere, it’s like this surreal experience where everyone’s gone from the courtroom. We sort of wanted to create that moment of like, OK, I’m looking at you guys now, like, right down the barrel. You make the decision what you think.
[Clip from “Candy”: CROWDER: Did it ever enter your mind that if you were to kill Betty Gore you’d get Allan Gore back CANDY: No. CROWDER: Did you even want him back? CANDY: No. CROWDER: Did you consider telling anybody what had really happened? CANDY: I was so afraid to and I was so ashamed and I never wanted anyoneto ever know CROWDER: Well did you think you’d be believed
Biel: Melanie really believed in Betty and her story that there was no way she, you know, picked up this ax first. And I really believed for most, you know, most of the time, that this was a nonviolent person. There’s no way that if she wasn’t provoked and got herself into the sticky situation, there’s no way that she would have done this. So I really believed in her. Like, I didn’t think I was lying when I’m speaking all of those lines and Candy’s telling her side of the story, I could not play it as if, well, there may be a lie in there. I was just really genuinely playing it as if she told the truth, because I think if she was lying, it’s buried so deep down to move through a scenario like this, that maybe she doesn’t even know that she is lying anymore.
Villarreal: There’s a sort of surprising and meta moment in the show when your husband, Justin Timberlake, and Melanie’s husband, Jason Ritter, make appearances on this show. You know, they’re investigating the case. What were your conversations like about the show at home? Did you guys talk about it much while eating dinner? Like, what did those sound like?
Biel: I mean, we talked about it all the time. I mean, he really believed she did it. That I mean, I know we know she did it, but he really believed that she just went after it without any provocation at all. Yeah. And we would vehemently disagree about this thing at the dinner table and talk about, “well, you know, the sunglass lands and it was in the garage.” But I mean,why could you not go through the door just a table of sewing, just walk around it? And he’s like, “You can’t just walk around. It’s in the way.” You know, we would just go through all these details that were in the story, that were in the evidence photographs. And he would fight for his side and I would fight for mine. And we were talking about the accent a lot. And I would, you know, use the accent at home. And he would kind of, you know, give me feedback. It’s obviously not a Tennessean accent, but it’s close. And it really was such a wonderful surprise to us when that whole thing came together. It was definitely not in the plan. And it was it was just so funny and very meta, like you said already. [laughs]
Villarreal: Super meta, especially, obviously, the hairdo. I mean, you’ve talked about this before, but I have to say, at my local coffee shop, you know, they put the tip jars and a lot of times they put like, it’s like a competition between photos of a tip jar. And it was your photo as Candy and Justin Timberlake’s photo, like having that hair from back in like the late ‘90s.
Biel: At your local coffee shop? [laughs]
Villarreal: It was like who wore it better. It was a very strange, like, weird thing.
Biel: That’s funny. That’s so funny. Yes.
[Clip from “Candy”: DON CROWDER: When we feel that our life is in danger, we respond. Like if a Lion came, pounced out of the bushes. CANDY: Right? It’s even worse for me because he also said I have been over-controlled and over-civilized. SANDRA LOCKETT: Well, who controls you? CANDY: My mother.]
Villarreal: There’s the moment where Candy’s lawyer, Don Crowder, talks about the sort of innate ability for anyone to sort of have that snack kind of moment. Do you believe that? Like what did that sort of case illuminate for you about the human condition?
Biel: Well, that’s really why I love messing around with these true-crime stories, because the human condition is what I’m so endlessly fascinated and curious about. I believe, I mean, I just genuinely believe that everybody is capable of anything and we don’t really know how we’re going to respond, you know, until we’re sort of pressed up against the wall or you’re protecting your family or, you know, your kid is in trouble or even, you know, I just think you hear about these moms lifting cars and doing crazy things, right? So you just don’t know how how you’re going to react. So, I do feel that anyone’s capable of anything and I just am constantly curious about people who make a decision that in my mind is the strange one or in all of our minds is like, “Wow, how did you get to that point? How did you how did you get pushed? And could I be pushed to that same point?”
[Clip from “Candy”: CANDY: But I was screaming all get out because I had cut my head and I was bleeding real bad. And then my mother, she shushed me. Shhhhh. Just like that. Because she said I was upsetting everyone. You know, “What will they think about you?”]
Villarreal: How did you wrap your head around the 42 times part of it?
Biel: Yeah. That, the 41. The 41 times part of it is, it is a hard thing. It’s a hard thing to wrap around, certainly. To me. To me, this has to be a situation where whether she was provoked or not, this is an out-of-body kind of ability. You know, number one, the strength it takes to actually pick up a tool like that and use that that many times is strikingly challenging. It’s so heavy, um, and hard to use it. So, it’s really a weapon of opportunity. Like we say in the show, it’s not something you plan to use. So I feel as if the memory, her story about her triggering moment with her mother and that memory, sometimes I go back and forth about, you know, how I feel about it, but I desperately want that to be true. So I can sort of, I mean, it’s not justifiable, but I guess I can justify that moment of total out of body, don’t even know what you’re doing and then like you snap back into it — like a full dissociative reaction where you come to and you just go, “What have I done?” kind of thing. I mean, I still grapple with it, but that’s sort of my, like, mushy artist brain, you know, trying to make sense of how anyone could do that.
Villarreal: I’m a big fan of the true-crime genre, and I have conflicting feelings about that.
Biel: Me too.
Villarreal: Because, you know, one of the ongoing criticisms of the genre is that, you know, it forces families of victims to sort of revisit a painful past. Like, were you concerned about handling this material with the right sensitivity and how did you sort of work through that?
Biel: Yes, that was pretty much the first conversation I had with Robin and Nick, the writer co-showrunner, and Hulu. You know, “How do you guys want to do this? This is really sensitive stuff.” You know, this is a situation that affected and changed two families’ lives and upended an entire community. And it’s still having ripple effects now. The show’s happening. There’s another show that’s happening, as we all know, that’s based on this story too. So, this is really sensitive for sure. I feel that we’ve done a very good job of not making fun or just creating caricatures of these people or making it seem like some, you know, I don’t know, glorified experience. The point was to really feel the mundanity of these lives and how, wow, we can really understand how hard it must have been, you know, for these women at this time and how stifling their lives might have been without the tools to find and seek help or really be diagnosed in the right way. You know, on some level, you just have to sort of close your eyes and dive in after you get the reassurance from your collaborators and your creative partners that everyone is thinking about this and really does want to be delicate about it. And then you just have to go and, you know, do your creative work and just cross your fingers that it does turn out well and that um everyone feels that their side of the story was justly told. I guess.
Villarreal: So Candy is 72 now and she reportedly works as a mental health counselor. Do you know if she’s seen the show yet?
Biel: No. We never had any contact with her while we were shooting, when we were prepping, posting. And now that it’s out, nothing. That’s not surprising. We were told early on by her longtime lawyer, or Robert Udashen, who used to be her lawyer, who I think has stayed friendly with her, that she just doesn’t have a public life anymore. And, you know, this is, she moved on from this time in her life and she’s uninterested in going back, which I totally understand and respect, but I have no idea if she’s actually seen it or not.
Villarreal: More with Jessica Biel after the break. If you’re enjoying this interview and want to keep up with future episodes, make sure to follow us wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, leave us a rating and review. We’ll be right back. Welcome back to the Envelope and my conversation with Jessica Biel. While Candy may seem like an extreme departure from her early roles like Mary Camden in “7th Heaven,” it’s actually not the first time that Jessica’s played a troubled character. In the drama “The Sinner,” Jessica’s character commits a gruesome murder early on in the season in a fit of passion.
[Clip from “The Sinner”: CORA: No, I don’t know him. I’m telling you I’ve never met him before. DETECTIVE: Then why kill him? CORA: Because they were playing that music, and they kept turning it up.]
Villarreal: You know, Jessica, I have to say, I can’t really wrap my head around getting into that kind of emotional space of someone like Candy. But you’ve done it a couple of times. Like, talk to me about occupying that kind of state of mind. And do you feel drawn to these roles or do they sort of find you?
Biel: Honestly, I ask myself this question. I’m like, “What is wrong with you? Seriously, what’s wrong with you? Why are you doing this again? Why do you feel the need to do this again?” I am drawn to these women, these antiheroes, you know, these these unreliable narrators. Honestly, I think it’s so interesting. The gray areas and the complexities of trying to portray and bring you, the audience, a character who you weirdly like and you’re behind. And then we’ve, you know, pulling the rug from beneath your feet and showing you, like, the underbelly, the real flawed human being behind the facade, or whatever it is. I find that to be a great creative challenge and a great risk and to transform, you know, physically and emotionally, to try to occupy that headspace, like you said. I just find it really hard and really fun. And I mean, I using the word fun in a very...
Biel: ...just in a creative way too. You know, it’s like you’re flexing your muscles. You know, you’re like, you know, opening up your wings and going like, “Let’s see what I can do. Let me see. Can I do this?” And often when I’m looking at these different, interesting roles, like these women that have these savage moments of violence, I’m terrified about it. You know, I look at “Well, I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know if I can do this. I guess I should try to do this.” You know, it’s like that’s kind of the the mantra that’s going through my head. I just want to be challenged. And these are challenging roles to step into.
Villarreal: Well, and I imagine that, like, playing the killer maybe seems like a sort of challenge out of reach when you first started your career, because it’s quite the departure from your breakout role on “7th Heaven.” You know, this WB show about a Christian family. I mean, you were 14 when that show debuted in 1996. Like, can we sort of go back in time? Like, what was it like growing up, you know, in front of the camera in the late ‘90s, early aughts, especially a WB camera?
Biel: [Laughs] It was something for sure. I had such a good time working on that show. Our cast was wonderful. Our crew was lovely. It wasn’t too dark, right? We were we were dealing with subject matter that was realistic and touching on some things that were, you know, tough for, I guess, at the time, you know, when we weren’t really going deep, and that was a show that you couldn’t really dove headfirst into something really intense. So the vibe was good on set. People were kind. There was a bunch of kids, you know, I was like one of those kids on set that everyone really protected and loved on that show. You know, I learned so much about how to work on a set from that show. I learned how to have a relationship with the camera. I learned how to find my light. I learned how to find my mark. I learned how to, you know, keep everything steady and still. And it was a great it was like acting class one on one. You know, those handful of years that I was on that show.
[Clip from “7th Heaven”: MATT CAMDEN: You really like him? MARY CAMDEN: What do you care? MATT CAMDEN: He’s my best friend. MARY CAMDEN: So what? MATT CAMDEN: Guys don’t date other guys sisters. MARY CAMDEN: And why not? MATT CAMDEN: Because, like, I just don’t want you to get hurt. MARY CAMDEN: Yeah, I know.]
Biel: And like we were talking about earlier, it was, it was definitely, you know, a microscope on you as a person in your life when the show kind of got some legs and people were more interested in who we were behind the scenes, I guess. But it was not one of those crazy microscopes that you can see a million times over. It was, i‘m thankful. I’m thankful that during that time when, you know, women in Hollywood and young women in Hollywood were struggling with what we were struggling back then and being taken seriously and, you know, being respected properly and all of that stuff, that we didn’t have that extra lens on us. Like, I feel bad for the young men and women now and coming into this business. That’s how exposed they are all the time. It’s, it looks hard to me.
Villarreal: I want to talk about, you know, your career after “7th Heaven,” like, did you feel like the sort of “girl next door” persona that was placed on you? Did that make it difficult for you to break out into other roles that you sort of wanted to stretch yourself as a performer?
Biel: Yes, I think on some level, when you’re you’re sort of known for one thing, it just takes a minute, I think, for people to go, “Well, hold on, can you do that too?” You know, it took a moment to sort of shake that image a little bit, which is a great image. You know, that’s not a bad image to have. And I’m grateful for that. But I think that’s probably why I was, creatively was like, “I want to do something totally opposite. I want to do something different.” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Great. That’s totally different. “Rules of Attraction.” Very, very, very different. You know, those, those decisions were coming just from a creative place of of really, really yearning for something challenging that I hadn’t done before. And, I think it’s different now, you know, back then in the late ‘90s you were kind of on TV or you were, you were working in film. You didn’t really crossover unless your show was so big like “Friends.” I remember I was thinking about the cast of “Friends” and they were able to do films and do their show, but that was like the biggest show in the whole world that, that was that was like a crazy crossover success. But it felt to me, my, my perspective of it was “Because I’m on television, I will therefore have to work so hard to be on film, or it will just never happen because no one will give me that opportunity. That’s just the way it is.” That’s the way it felt to me.
Villarreal: Well, at what point in your career did you start thinking about producing? Like, was there a specific unsavory experience or script offer that got you thinking about like, “OK, I just need to take this into my own hands if I want to start getting the kinds of things that interest me”?
Biel: I don’t think it was one moment. I think it was a collection of moments. And honestly, I think it was I think it was probably a collection of disappointments, you know, didn’t get this one, didn’t get that one, didn’t have an opportunity. Won’t see you for that one. Nope. You’re not right for that one. You know, kind of all these no’s, no’s, no’s, no’s. I remember just feeling like what I was doing at the time just wasn’t fulfilling me. I started thinking about producing when I was — I turned 22. And I, I had met Michelle, my partner now, and we were working on something together and we were both just feeling like we wanted more for our careers, you know, not that that was that particular project, which was, you know, some horrible project. It wasn’t it. It was just this moment in time that we were both feeling unsatisfied. And so I was 22 when I said, “Let’s let’s create a company, let’s make stories that that tell women’s experiences, let’s find let’s find our way through this business together and make things that are challenging and risky and that I won’t ever get offered or given an opportunity to be a part of. I want to make my own way. I’m going to have to.” So, it was back then, it was that long ago.
Villarreal: I know we all try to live with no regrets, but there are times when I look at, like, when talking to younger people, it sort of puts it in perspective for you of like, “Oh, if I were to do it all over, I might have made this move then. Or did this move at this point.” Like if a young actor were to sort of ask for advice about how to build a career or navigate Hollywood now, like, what do you think you would tell them?
Biel: Oh, man. I don’t know. Navigate Hollywood now? I mean I think —
Villarreal: Are are there choices ready made differently or at a different point in your career?
Biel: Honestly, I don’t, I didn’t really feel like I had any power in my younger career to make different choices. You know, it, it was a different world back then. And it and it really it sort of felt like you were really leaning on your managers and your agents and you were just kind of waiting by the phone in hopes of an audition would pop up and you could have an opportunity for something. I know that’s different now. So. The one regret I have. It’s not even career related. It’s actually life related. I wish I had finished my college degree. I wish I had finished my school with my friends in my class at the time. I wish I had that in my hand. That’s like, that was my personal, you know, I worked hard for that, and it’s mine, no one can take it from me. You know, that’s something that I think at that time I really needed and was craving a social experience, a, you know, a pure social experience. I’d spent so much time working on sets with adults and working full time. I just really needed something different and I wish I had just finished. But then you say that, and then I would have missed out on so many different steps that brought me to where I am now. So I, sometimes I say it out loud and then I go, “Yeah, but I just sort of feel like my life and my career has just done things that it was meant to do and I had to go through these challenges.”
Villarreal: So what are you eyeing next? Like what scripts have come your way? Do you do you think you’ll go back to maybe something lighter, a comedy or is like, you know, are you going dark again? Like what is on the horizon for Jessica Biel?
Biel: I mean, we’re developing a lot of different ideas with my company, inside the company. Some for me, some not for me.
Villarreal: Mm hmm.
Biel: Um, most of them are pretty dark, I have to say. But they’re they’re not, they’re not trigger moments for women who have violent outbursts. We’re not doing that. But they’re all, most of them are a little bit on the more dramatic side. We do have a couple of things we’re working on that are lighter, more comedic, sci-fi, bigger, sort of, bigger worlds, which I’m really excited. I love that kind of stuff personally. I don’t know for me yet what is actually next, where I’m going to be on camera. I definitely would love to do some kind of great comedy, some sort of romantic, romantic action thing. Like how fun would that be, you know, some sort of big, sweeping travel, sexy romance, funny, you know, something just different. I mean, that’s what it always is for me normally is what’s different? What have I not done recently that could be really fun and engaging and you know. Something will come around, right? And it’ll be some dark, weird drama, like, “Oh, no, here I go again.”
Villarreal: The heart wants what it wants.
Biel: Yeah don’t fight it! [laughs]
Villarreal: Well. Whatever it is, we look forward to seeing it. And I just want to thank you for taking the time today. I’m glad we were able to chat. It was great.
Biel: Me too. It was really a nice conversation. And you asked a lot of interesting questions. So, I appreciate, I appreciate the talk. Thank you.