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“These are big questions,” Jake Johnson noted, just before he got real about his Hollywood path, which at different points along the way had left him feeling underwhelmed and disillusioned. It was the Minx star’s first appearance on a Hollywood Reporter Roundtable, and he half-jokingly admitted that he’d come to it with something entirely different in mind: “I thought it was going to be some non-answers from me. I was going to do a few of those and then do some bits.” Instead, over the course of an hour in late April, Johnson was joined by his TV comedy brethren — Saturday Night Live‘s Bowen Yang and Michael Che (also of That Damn Michael Che), MacGruber‘s Will Forte, The Righteous Gemstones‘ Danny McBride and Rothaniel‘s Jerrod Carmichael — for a wide-ranging conversation that was as thought-provoking as it was side-splitting.
I’ve heard Jake say that he likes watching things and feeling jealous. “I love when somebody does something and it feels so great, you go, ‘Goddammit!’ ” he’s said. So, who or what was the last thing that made you all go, ‘Goddammit’?
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DANNY MCBRIDE The new season of 90 Day Fiancé makes me feel that way. I think I should have approached my marriage a little differently. (Laughter.)
JAKE JOHNSON Jerrod’s special.
JERROD CARMICHAEL I’m glad I inspired a “Goddammit.”
JOHNSON Yeah, and I don’t do stand-up but I’m really jealous.
MICHAEL CHE I hate feeling jealous. You guys really enjoy it?
JOHNSON I do because I get fired up, and if I don’t get fired up, I get bored. So when I see things I think are great, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I want to keep doing this.”
CHE I like to watch things that suck because I feel like I still have a place, personally.
BOWEN YANG I’ve told Will this, but I hadn’t seen MacGruber when he hosted SNL, but now I have and it’s just so primally funny. And he’s naked in a lot of it, so it’s vulnerable and just so fucking good.
There is a lot of nudity. In Jake’s show, too. And Danny, you’ve certainly used your body for comedy over the years. We often talk to women about their comfort levels, but I’m curious, do you guys get self-conscious? Are you ever like, “Why did I write this in?”
WILL FORTE Oh, sure. But if it makes sense for the story and seems like it’s fun …
Photographed By Sami Drasin
Did you have an intimacy coordinator on set? And if so, how did that change the experience for you?
FORTE For the first time, yeah, we had somebody, and they were great. I’m not concerned about my own stuff, but I definitely want to be respectful of everybody else on the set, and what you realize is, it doesn’t just matter if it’s like, “Oh, I don’t care about it.” It’s making sure that everybody around you is comfortable too, and that’s something I didn’t really think about until the last couple of years.
JOHNSON I like an intimacy coordinator because if something goes south, it’s their fault. (Laughter.) No, but it’s their job. On our show, I’ll be around a bunch of naked people, and if you’re spending a 12-hour day there, you start doing bits. And then if there’s somebody you’re getting along with well, you start doing jokes and you get a little slap-happy, and I’m about to go to a zone that could be [dangerous,] like, “I thought we were buds and I’m really not thinking about what I’m saying, I’m just goofing around, man.” And then [the intimacy coordinator] walks by and (pantomimes to stop talking) you’re like, “Oh, thanks, I’m just doing a bit, I don’t want to offend somebody. I’m glad you’re here.”
How about you, Danny?
MCBRIDE I like to have an intimacy coordinator there, for sure, because it’s weird to tell someone, “I just want to see the tip of your dick in the shot.” And that person can help translate — you don’t have to find the verbiage for it.
CHE “Can we get less shaft in the shot?” (Laughter.)
Photographed By Sami Drasin
Jerrod, Jake referenced the power of your special. What changed in your life that made you willing to reveal your secrets — be it your real name or your sexuality — now?
CARMICHAEL I had gone through a lot of personal things in the past couple of years, and my stand-up was never really about me; it was about everything else. And I just couldn’t think of anything else to talk about other than me and what I was going through. And stand-up has space for working out personal things. To me, the high-wire act is that all of these things are of personal consequence to me, and the urgency is there because of that.
Do you feel as you hoped you’d feel on the other side of it?
CARMICHAEL I’ll give the shortest answer I can. It’s a personal thing that I made and I’m still working through a lot of it in my actual life, right? So, it’s probably the best work of my life and also was probably the saddest I’ve ever been, and I appreciate the balance. What I want from it, I’m still trying to figure out. I mean, I’m here [at this Emmy Roundtable]. It’s an odd thing to even do press around it. I promised my friend I’d stop being sad on my press tour. Just like a sad boy, “My mom won’t fucking call me.” And it’s an odd thing to then be like, “And give me a goddamn Emmy for it.” Like, do I want one? Sure.
CHE That was your shortest answer possible?!
CARMICHAEL The shortest and least aggressive. (Laughter.)
Courtesy of HBO
How good are the rest of you at gauging how the things that you make are going to land?
FORTE I’m wrong all the time, but you just keep trying. And you’ve got to be willing to be wrong to do stuff — it makes the things that do connect even better because people don’t expect it because you’re wrong all the time.
MacGruber has had a unique journey to this place. How did you anticipate the film version landing?
FORTE We were excited by how it turned out, so it was tough to see it bomb financially because you don’t have a way to gauge it other than that. But it was a good lesson in, like, if you do something that you like yourself, you can’t control how it does, but you can control how you feel about it. And it’s way easier to accept something failing if you’re proud of it, and so getting to do a TV version was the most exciting thing.
CARMICHAEL You saying that now is a shock to me because, amongst my friends, it’s one of the funniest movies ever.
FORTE That’s awesome to hear.
John Golden Britt/Peacock
Well, it’s achieved a cult-like status in the years since.
FORTE But even that kind of thing, you can’t gauge.
YANG It’s like if you build houses, you build them to exact specifications, and it’s not up to you if the person living inside of it is happy or if the people walking past think it’s a good house. That shouldn’t disconnect you from your own sense of accomplishment. I don’t know, my therapist said that to me recently.
MCBRIDE That’s good advice.
JOHNSON I gauge it by how it feels because I don’t have any read on an audience — people like things or they don’t, and I don’t always agree. And even if you do something that people like, what they like a lot of times, I’m like, “Well, that was my least favorite moment.” But when you’re in it, sometimes you know it feels good and you’re like, “Oh, this is really great right now.” And if nobody agrees, I’m like, “Well, it’s still a great Tuesday. I liked doing it.” But I hope they like it because then I get to keep going.
MCBRIDE With a movie, you can sneak into the theater or go to a premiere and you can see what people’s reactions are in real time. With TV, unless it’s in front of a live studio audience, there’s zero understanding of what worked for people. I mean, the most you get is if someone comes up to you on a plane and tells you the part that they like.
JOHNSON And the numbers from these streamers are so confusing. They’re like, “Oh, we’re excited about the growth from day seven to the 19th.” All right, I guess.
MCBRIDE And they’re always pasted in an email. You’re like, “What was the other stuff that you cut out of that email? Why is this just this one line highlighted?”
JOHNSON How bad was it?!
Photographed By Sami Drasin
Danny, Righteous Gemstones is the third in a series of HBO shows where you’re portraying a very specific type of white American male. What continues to fascinate you about that type of character?
MCBRIDE I think I’m more attracted to it from a writing standpoint than a performance standpoint. I like taking a story where the bad guy is centered [rather than] somebody who is noble. You use the tricks of what people have grown accustomed to from watching movies and TV — they know what all the act breaks should be, like, “Oh, this is the part where the main character is down,” and when you take somebody who’s despicable and put them through those same paces, it’s confusing for audiences because they’re not really sure what they’re supposed to feel. And that, to me, is interesting.
YANG Danny’s characters are always people who have contempt for the people around them but want to be validated by them so badly.
MCBRIDE One hundred percent.
Courtesy of HBO
Do the rest of you see patterns in the characters you choose to play?
YANG I had someone describe [the characters] I play on SNL as people who are media-obsessed and want to control their own media narrative in some way. And that terrified me because I was like, “Am I like that in my life? Maybe?” But that’s everybody, right? Like, aren’t we all a little? I don’t know, I’m maybe the most narcissistic person at this table.
FORTE Don’t you say that.
YANG Oh, thanks, Will.
How about the rest of you?
FORTE I forget the question.
MCBRIDE Who’s the most narcissistic?
FORTE Oh, Bowen. (Laughter.)
CARMICHAEL I don’t think I’ve done enough to have a type. Things that I get sent in for are, it’s not even Black guy, it’s that it wasn’t a Black guy, it was someone else, and now they’re thinking, “Maybe it’s a Black guy?”
JOHNSON You get the rewrite.
CARMICHAEL Yeah. I’m the first wave of Black.
JOHNSON “His name is Coby. He’s really cool. He plays lacrosse, but it can be anything.” (Laughter.)
Do you consider how your choices are going to land with your families? Like, Will, you’ve said your mom actually lost friends over the MacGruber film.
FORTE She did.
CARMICHAEL How hard did this film bomb? Losing friends? Jesus.
FORTE When the show came back, I was excited for my mom because she was just, like, “Oh, here’s my son, who laid this shit for the world [with the movie],” and then it wasn’t even for anything. Nobody went and saw it. No financial gain. It was just, like, a smear on the family name. And she did actually lose friends because my mom is the most supportive, wonderful person, and she’s like, “Everyone’s got to go see him.” And I stick a piece of celery in my butt [in the film], there’s all this horrendous stuff that women in their 70s are not super excited to see.
JOHNSON And nobody’s in the theater except for your mom’s friends?
FORTE Yeah, no, that’s it. (Laughs.)
Has the TV version fared better among her friends?
FORTE No, no, I think she’s just better about not telling people about things that I do.
It does raise an interesting question about the impact that your work has on your loved ones and what kinds of heads-up, if any, you give to your family?
CHE Show business becomes your family because it’s hard to ask people outside of it for advice or relate to them in any way about it. So if I have a tough question, I might ask an older showbiz guy before I ask my dad.
Who’s on that shortlist for you?
CHE Lorne [Michaels] is on the shortlist. I talk to Dave [Chappelle]. I actually talk to Jerrod about stuff just as peers because we [have been] going through a similar thing since we started.
CARMICHAEL Yeah. They thought we were going to hate each other.
CHE Because you were in Los Angeles, and I was in New York, and it was like, “You know there’s another one.” (Laughter.) But, yeah, sometimes something won’t go right for me, maybe it’s bad, bad press, and my family will react to it like we’re in a gang war, and I’m like, “No, you can’t fight people on the internet because they said something crazy about me.”
Photographed By Sami Drasin
Do they try?
CHE Oh yeah. Sometimes they’ll screenshot it and be like, “This is what I said.” I’m like, “Please don’t do that.” “I told them I’m going to meet up.” “No, don’t meet up.” Like, my brother texted me when the Chris Rock thing [happened at the Oscars]: “Yo, if that ever happens to you, I’m going to jail.” I’m like, “You can’t go to jail for fighting Will Smith. You can’t do that, man.” He’s an ex-cop, too.
What kind of heads-up do the rest of you give your families?
JOHNSON I love my family, but I’m not looking for their opinions. The funny thing about doing a lot of indies, because I like indies, is my old man would go to all my movies in Chicago, and then I’d get the call, like, “You know, it’s a good movie, but nobody was there.” He’s like, “It was just me and my girlfriend in the whole theater. Like, no one came, and it was 8 p.m.” I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell you, man, don’t go. The $14 is not coming back to me. Just wait [for it to roll out on a streamer].”
CHE God bless streaming. Nobody knows how anything did.
Jerrod, you said recently that your skillset as a comedian is that you’re, “not afraid, and [you] have a pocket full of matches.”
CARMICHAEL I think I was drinking with Michael. (Laughter.)
But where does that come from and really never, ever afraid?
CARMICHAEL Well, no, it’s not not being afraid, it really is just having access to fearlessness in moments for a project or whatever you make. So, I’m scared all the time but usually I’m attracted to that and I try to run toward that and make something out of it. To me, it just has to be interesting and film, TV, stand-up, all these arts are built around our emotional turmoil, or they can be at least.
Does anyone in your life ever try to hold you back?
CARMICHAEL If I had someone in my life to hold me, I probably wouldn’t be throwing matches at everybody.
CHE Being a performer is such an unnatural thing: you’re facing the crowd, the crowd’s facing you; you have a microphone, they don’t. It’s already such an unnatural leap to try it, so what most people are afraid of, you’re already doing, and what you are afraid of, they may not even understand.
CARMICHAEL Yeah, and before, stand-up was me versus the audience, it was a contentious relationship. I was arguing with them and trying to prove something and talking around anything but myself. That’s what my work was, really. What I mean by matches is what I was saying earlier about consequence, I think people can feel that. When you look at art, you can see time and consequence. It’s like Beyonce’s dedication to precision or Evel Knievel risking death going over buses or whatever.
CHE Say Johnny Knoxville.
CARMICHAEL What’s that?
CHE Say Johnny Knoxville.
CARMICHAEL Pardon me, let me update my references. (Laughter.) But I think people can see that and sense that. Audiences can smell fear, so, yeah, why not give them that?
CHE That’s such good point because, to me, that was the thing to learn, especially in a live setting: the audience will go with you, they just want to know they’re in the hands of a professional. They don’t mind, even if you bomb or they don’t like it, they just want to know that you know what you’re doing. And once you understand those unwritten laws of performance, then it becomes a little bit less dangerous. Then the danger becomes the thing that you have, that you want to say, that you’re not going to say. And I feel like there are a lot of guys who pride themselves on being willing to say all of the words that nobody wants them to say. And you’re like, “You’re just an asshole. That’s easy. You’ve been saying that for your whole life. That’s not scary. What’s scary is to talk about the real thing that you don’t want anybody to know.”
Michael, you make a lot of jokes about stepping over the line and being canceled, which always suggested to me that it wasn’t actually a fear of yours. But then on That Damn Michael Che, you explored what being canceled might look and feel like. Why did you want to do that? And am I wrong? Is it a fear of yours?
CHE I think the lie that we tell each other, and ourselves, is that we don’t feel that, but we feel everything. You feel the fear, you feel the confidence, you feel the anger, you feel the humor — you run the gamut, it’s just that one outweighs the other. And one of the cool things that comedy can do is explore what it feels like in every single avenue and, when people see it, they understand, “Oh yeah. I get that.”
CARMICHAEL But cancellation, that’s not real. The boogeyman doesn’t exist. We got to get over that.
CHE But that’s kind of it.
Courtesy of HBO; NBC
CARMICHAEL Like, if you do something wrong in your personal life, you should go to jail. Like, actual jail. And then everything else is like, “What are we talking about?” If you make art and it causes some contention or it causes some whatever, I mean, that’s part of it, but the cancellation thing, I think that’s just to give boring people something interesting to talk about, like a ghost villain. I also want to say (turns to Johnson), I only unbuttoned this [shirt] because you look real sexy with the top [unbuttoned] and I didn’t know we were doing that.
CHE It’s funny to say that right after you say cancel culture doesn’t exist and now you’re just sexually assaulting this guy.
CARMICHAEL What?! (Laughs.)
JOHNSON Hey, if you look like me, you take what you can get.
Photographed By Sami Drasin
Jake, you’ve referenced a period earlier in your career where you felt like you’d been hoodwinked by Hollywood. What was that feeling and how did you overcome it?
JOHNSON I grew up watching TV and I loved it, and when things weren’t going the way that I wanted them to go, I’d watch Cheers and be like, “I want to be in that and live in that feeling. That’s what I want.” And then when I got out here, I was like, “Oh, it’s a job. It doesn’t always feel the way it does to watch.”
JOHNSON I started off doing commercials and improv and just grinding, and you’re doing tons of stuff that doesn’t feel good, and it’s not good and you don’t like it and then you get the check and you’re happy. And I’m like, “Well, I need money. I don’t want to do construction.” So I’m doing this for money, but it’s my dream — and you don’t do your dream for money, you do your dream because it’s your dream. Along the way, what I was able to do is save my money, so now I’m back to doing it for the dream. That’s what I was saying about audiences: I hope they like what I do, it’s so much more fun to be at a table like this with you guys, as opposed to being like, “Nobody likes it.” But I’m doing it for me.
What made you confident that Minx would bring you that joy?
JOHNSON It was the character. I grew up with guys like Doug. My dad wasn’t around, but I saw all of these larger-than-life characters. My mother had junk shops and I was always delivering stuff with random homeless guys, and they were great and they had great stories. And then all the parts that I was getting were, like, “not quite getting the girl.” And those are great too, I’m happy to do them, but when I saw Doug, it was different. I don’t like to audition — if you audition, you have no leverage, you’re fighting to be at the party. And if I’m fighting to get there, and I go, “I’ve got some changes,” they’re like, “Well, we didn’t invite you to this party.” But with Doug, I thought, “Finally, a character I know.” I just wanted to play him, and now I want to see how far I can take him.
Courtesy of HBO Max
Bowen, I’ve heard Lorne Michaels say, “Everyone wants Bowen as a voice of, and that’s a lot of pressure on him.” How has that weighed on you and your choices at SNL and outside of it?
YANG It weighed on me more in the beginning, especially because there was all this import placed on these things. And it just didn’t occur to me that it would be important that an Asian person was on the show because it’s this thing that people tell you you are.
CHE Yeah, that’s weird, right?
YANG It’s weird. But being at SNL is a uniquely crazy experience for everybody who’s there, if that makes sense. I’m looking at Will …
CHE It’s very hard to answer SNL questions when Will Forte is right there.
Photographed By Sami Drasin
Will, I think you’ve said it took you, what, seven years to actually feel confident at SNL?
FORTE It was five, but then I came in with Fred Armisen, and Fred was immediately able to just enjoy himself onstage and I didn’t get to that place until season five. But it looks like you guys have so much fun when you’re out there.
YANG I panic still, honestly.
CHE I’ve had the worst shows of my life and I’ve had really good shows and then the worst shows of my life. Once you’ve had the gamut of experiences, it’s like, “Well, whatever happens, we know we’re going to get another show,” and then you just panic in the summertime.
What are you panicking about?
YANG It’s shallow vanity stuff on top of, like, “Can I deliver the joke that someone stayed up until 5 a.m. on Tuesday writing for me?”
CARMICHAEL I never would’ve guessed that.
YANG Thanks, Jerrod. I never would’ve guessed Will had that for five years.
FORTE I was terrified.
CHE And I’m just drunk. Couple of whiskeys … (Laughter.)
Danny, a few years ago you moved your family to Charleston, South Carolina. How has that impacted your perspective as a storyteller?
MCBRIDE I have young kids, and this job takes so much out of you, and I felt like I needed some perspective on, how much time am I going to be around for these kids and how much time am I going to be dedicating to this [career]? And I was thinking about work too much, and it was stressing me out. I’d drive down the road and look at a billboard for something, and it was like, “Oh God, I need to be working harder. I need to do more.” And once I moved, it just reminded me how cool our job is. And I like hanging around with all these soccer dads who have nothing to do with the entertainment industry. They’re just like, “Oh, have you met anybody famous?” And I’m like, “A few people.” (Laughs.) But what it did is remind me that what we’re doing is seasoning, it’s enhancing people’s lives. It isn’t what it’s all about. It isn’t the end all, be all. The best feedback I can get from anything I’m working on is, “I had a really shitty week at work, and I came home and watched your show and I laughed my ass off with my wife.” I just feel like it puts it in perspective.
When people approach you all out in the world, what’s the thing they often say to you?
CHE “Is Colin [Jost] racist?”
YANG “How’s Pete [Davidson]?”
MCBRIDE “Do you want to do some blow?” That happens at the kids’ soccer games a lot.
That’s … awkward?
MCBRIDE Yeah. (Laughs.)
FORTE I don’t get a lot of street interaction. It’s not a real Beatles mania situation here.
FORTE I know, right?
JOHNSON I did a scene in New Girl with Prince, and I get a lot of, “What was he like?”
CHE What was he like?
JOHNSON He was really weird. He had a whole group of people, they were all wearing purple and walked in a single-file line, and when they got to the place we were going, he was announced, “Prince is coming to set,” and everybody got tight, and then they all walked out. He was talking to Zooey Deschanel, and I was waiting for the moment where I say hi, and then he goes, “I’m ready to meet Nick now.” That was my character’s name, so Zooey was like, “This is Nick.”
CHE I miss Nick.
JOHNSON Then we did the scene, and he was a genuinely good actor. And then he didn’t get up. They were relighting, which is about 45 minutes, and if Prince doesn’t get up, I’m not getting up. I was like, “So, you a big [Minnesota] Vikings guy?” And he was. We talked NFC North, and it was unreal.
Photographed By Sami Drasin
Looking ahead, what’s the dream gig? The “OK, I can retire happy now” gig for all of you? Is it a Marvel movie? A late night show?
CARMICHAEL Jesus, you said those two things, and “Is That All There Is?” started playing in my head.
YANG Oh my God.
CARMICHAEL But, like, that’s what we’re waiting for? Marvel?
CHE I don’t know, I’d like to be Batman. I’d be the laziest Batman in the fucking world.
FORTE The Batmans have been too much of a go-getter recently.
CARMICHAEL Michael’s Batmobile would be an Uber Plus.
CHE Yeah. (Laughs.) But it’s funny. The further you go along, what you’re looking for becomes, “Do I have the time to do shit I really want to do? Do I have the power to make choices that I really want to make? And then am I able to help people that I really believe in? Like, is there a place for my friends who I think are dope and should get these opportunities?” So, it’s more of what you can do [with a job], not necessarily a job.
JOHNSON Earlier in the pandemic, when everything shut down and I wasn’t sure if our business was coming back, I realized that I just want to keep working. Like, there’s no retirement, I don’t golf. I don’t know what I’d do at 65. I hope it’s really good projects. Might be one a year, but I just don’t want this thing to end.
CARMICHAEL I have a number.
FORTE What’s your number?
CARMICHAEL I’ll keep it to myself, but I have a number.
JOHNSON Really? And you’ll never perform again?
CHE He’s lying.
JOHNSON I got to hear this number. It’s not, like, $3 billion?
CARMICHAEL No, no, it’s not a Kevin Hart number.
CHE Kanye is worth $8 billion, he’s still making beats and sweaters. There’s no number, you’re a liar.
CARMICHAEL Because otherwise it wouldn’t be a job thing. I don’t think there is that anymore, so you just have to find what makes you happy, and what makes me happy is money. Cold, hard cash.
YANG Also, being gay is expensive.
CARMICHAEL The most expensive!
Along those lines, when it comes to opportunities and potential collaborators, whose incoming call would make you lose your shit?
CHE If Will Smith called me now …
CARMICHAEL Oh, that would be so exciting.
OK, what would you say?
CHE “How’s your wife? I hope she’s good.” (Laughter.) No, I don’t even know, I geek out just at SNL — it’s like a revolving door of people you’ve wanted to work with forever, it’s just crazy. When [Eddie] Murphy came was probably the most excited I’d ever been. But, and I’m not just saying this because Forte’s here, I love when that cast comes back, or guys like [Adam] Sandler. Shit like that is when it’s really cool, and then it just becomes a show. You just have to let your heroes down with a poorly written sketch. You know, whatever.
CARMICHAEL If I’m being honest, David Geffen. And I’d love to say it’s because he’s a role model, but it’s mostly because I want to get on his boat. And if I’ve learned anything from a Tiffany Haddish press tour, it’s that you’ve got to put your intentions out there.
How about you, Danny?
MCBRIDE I’ve been lucky. Like, working with Ridley Scott [on Alien: Covenant] was pretty insane. And one time I did get a call from Kanye West. He came to my house in South Carolina and I took him out on the boat. It was one of the most incredible days ever. He said he wanted to do a movie of his life and he wanted me to play him.
YANG In like a, I’m Not There-Bob Dylan way?
CHE That’s insane.
What are your follow-up questions?
CARMICHAEL There’s one follow-up question.
JOHNSON Where do I sign?
CARMICHAEL On a scale of one to Tropic Thunder … (Laughter.)
JOHNSON Could you say no to that if he came and said, “I’m ready to go, it’s a three-day shoot, we’re not sleeping …”
MCBRIDE Oh, I’m in. (Laughs.) And for a few days, I really was like, “Well, what would that be?”
CARMICHAEL You’re probably the only person that could embody that confidence.
CHE Yeah, it makes perfect sense. That’s fucking awesome.
And you, Bowen?
YANG I’m still thinking about the dream gig. And I feel like I had it recently where I shot [the film Fire Island] with my best friends at this gay vacation spot. That was the dream, and it felt very grounding to already check that off at this stage. So, now I’m leaving myself open to whatever comes next and not really putting too much weight or importance on it. Oh, whatever, I can’t beat Kanye. (Laughter.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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