Ep 27 We chat to actor/director Lex Marinos on his new book ‘Blood and Circuses: An Irresponsible Memoir’

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In Episode 27 of So you want to be a writer, how long should your blog post be? The rules of writing, why you should write love letters, finding your ‘discomfort threshold', the secrets for blogging your way to a six-figure income, Writer in Residence Lex Marinos, the best (free) app for scriptwriting, making a living as a freelance writer and more!

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Show Notes

Meet Bau!


How Long Should Your Blog Post Be? A Writer’s Guide

The rules of writing according to famous writers

Why You Should Write Love Letters

What’s Your “Discomfort Threshold” for Growing Your Writing Business?

ProBlogger: Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income

Writer in Residence

LexLex Marinos is best known for his outstanding performances as Bruno Bertolucci in Kingswood Country and, more recently, as Manolis in the ABC's production of The Slap, as well as dozens of films and countless stage productions.

His work has taken him all over Australia, from remote Indigenous communities to the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. Lex has also worked extensively on ABC radio since the riotous inception of 2JJ. A regular panellist on Richard Glover's popular Thank God It's Friday, Lex is a frequent speaker and writer on arts and cultural diversity in Australia. Blood and Circuses is his first book.

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Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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podcast at writerscentre.com.au


I’m here with one of Australia’s most recognised and respected actors, Lex Marinos. His career has spanned decades, ever since he left his hometown of Wagga to head to the bright lights of Sydney, where he became a household name playing Bruno in Kingswood Country. Lex also starred in TV series such as Embassy, and more recently The Slap. A regular on the radio, Lex has also directed countless shows, has written many episodes of the acclaimed mini-series Bodyline, and has now penned a memoir called Blood and Circuses: An Irresponsible Memoir. It’s a fascinating read, which is not only an account of Lex’s colourful life, but also that of the Australian show business industry for the past few decades.

Lex Marinos, thank you so much for joining us today.

Valerie, it’s a great pleasure. Thank you.

Tell us why it’s called Blood and Circuses: An Irresponsible Memoir.

It’s called Blood because it’s about my family in the first instance. Just to take a step back I wanted to make sure that the book was about more things — I mean I thought just talking about me would be boring and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to make sure it was about more things.

I wanted to document my family’s history in Australia, not that it’s any more a remarkable migration story than anyone else’s, but the reality is — and I think particularly at the moment we tend to forget that unless you’re indigenous you come from somewhere else, however many generations you may want to go back. We’re all migrants and that’s very much what makes up the tapestry that is Australia.

I think all of those migration stories we should remind ourselves of them from time to time. As I said, my family is not remarkable in anyway, but it’s an interesting story and I wanted to make sure my kids knew where they come from so they can determine where they’re headed. That’s partly what it has to do with the Blood.

Also I suppose at the time I was writing it I was also very conscious of my own blood, because I have leukemia, which is a blood disease. I’m very conscious of what goes on in my blood.

Also it was about being in the blood, the tradition of being part of a very long tradition of stories of actors, performers, artists, whatever — that’s very much in the Blood as well.

The Circuses, I guess Circuses really sums up the work, I suppose. Whether it’s been playing Shakespeare at the Opera House or doing a show with the community in remote Western Australia, it’s all part of a big circus.

That’s where the title came from. It’s subtitled An Irresponsible Memoir, because some of it is irresponsible. Mainly I wanted to deflate any sense of gravitas, it wasn’t feeling as though it was some weighty tone.

I think that’s primarily why the title came about. It’s sort of a play on words, it’s sort of from the old Roman thing of if you want to keep people distracted away from political process you feed them bread and circuses. It was a corruption of that as well.

You say that you wanted to tell the story of your family migrating to Australia. Did you actually know a lot of that story? Or did you actually discover things as you had to confirm them in order to write the book?

Well, I pretty much knew my Greek heritage from both my father and my mother’s father. My father was from the Peloponnese, my mother’s father from an island called Kasos. I knew that their families had pretty well been in those places, in those regions, for a long time, going back generations. There wasn’t a lot more to discover because the record-keeping has always been difficult in Greece, either through natural disaster, earthquakes, floods, fires, or through war and occupation, a lot of records have been destroyed. I knew the family had been in that respective island and the region of the Peloponnese for generations. In fact my father’s mother’s maiden name was Clovis, which is basically the same spelling Clovis the Great. I figure we were also part of the eventual downfall of the Roman empire.

But what became more fascinating in a way was my maternal grandmother, who had born here. I really only knew she was sort of vaguely from a Scottish background. It wasn’t until I did an episode of Who Do You Think You Are where they traced it back to find out that part of her family was Scottish, but the other part had come out here in — her great-great grandfather was a convict who was sent out here to Tasmania in 1824. And subsequently his lineage goes back a few more generations in England.

Once again it’s the blood of the Anglos and the Scots that also mixes with the blood of the Greeks, that in itself is a metaphor for what I would consider to be most of Australians. Most have an Anglo-Celtic heritage of some kind, but it’s also generally mixed with something else. I, personally, am fascinated by that and I think that’s one of the things that makes us unique as a country.

Why did you decide to write a memoir?

That’s a very good question. I suppose because Richard Walsh rang me up and said, “It’s about time you wrote one.” Richard is someone that I admire and respect, and have done for many years. I didn’t feel that I could refuse.

It was also something that my agent, James Loddy had also suggested at a certain time, it got me a time where I was a bit vulnerable. I was having to come to terms with ideas about mortality. I thought, “Well, I do want to leave something for my kids, so at least I will have some explanation of where I was when I wasn’t around being a dad.”

For people who are listening that are interested in perhaps writing their own memoir or writing a book, can you give us kind of an idea of a timeline of when you kind of decided, “Yes, I’m going to write it,” did you then sit down, head down, bum up and write it or did it take a long time?

Well, it took a long time so far as it was spread over about fourteen months, I suppose. That’s because I was working through that period. I didn’t have the time nor did I have the inclination or necessarily the discipline to get up every morning and get in front of a keyboard at 9:00 AM or whatever and keep going until I had a 1,000 words. I didn’t do it that way. I wouldn’t have done it that way.

Once I had roughed up the structure of where the book was going to go and how it was going to get there I just broke it down into very small pieces, I suppose that’s part of my actor training as well, you don’t look at a big part overall, you need to think of it as a number of small moments that will build up, I thought of the book in much the same way. I would just take the next section that I was going to be working and I would just roll it around in my head for awhile. Often walking around in the backyard just composing it, so that really when I did get a free day where I wanted to write I could just sit down and regurgitate what was going on in my mind and then edit from there and look at the next section that I was going to go onto.

I did it that way, really.

If you did break it down in to sections, which of course makes sense, in kind of chunks of your life, how did you then weave it all together? Did you plot it out in big Post-It notes and move things around? How did you actually bring it altogether in the end?

Well, I knew all of the sort of major areas I wanted to go into. I was trying to find, I suppose, the metaphors that would help me move from one area to another. For me, the book is also about luck, in so far as my father was a gambler. That gambling had disastrous effects on our family, of course.

But, I sort of also realised that gambling is very much of a metaphor for the sort of career I wanted to have. It was very much about having some luck and hopefully being able to capitalise on that luck when it came. It was pretty much the idea of you’re dealt a certain set of cards and it’s how you play them that becomes important. That was as metaphor that helped me work my way through it.

I think also the whole thing about the blood, αίμα in Greek, which is in the book quite a bit, was one that I also wanted to weave through it. Also, in a wider context, I was fortunate enough to start working professionally around 1970s, so I had just come through the late ‘60s at university with the whole cultural revolution that was going on at that time. Also then into the early days of the new wave in theatre in Australia and then Double J which was opening up, so that whole culture and social change that was happening in Australia. I wanted very much to make sure that anything that I wrote about had some wider implication in terms of what was happening in a cultural and social context. I didn’t want to write about shows that were just frivolous, that just was, “It was this… and this is who was in it…” and whatever. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write about shows that had some kind of point about them, relevance about them, to make a kind of wider theme, wider comment about.

With those kinds of themes in my mind it was a way of trying to connect a way through it, and it was very much, if I had written it in the third person it would have been very much about a young man’s journey from adolescence or childhood adolescence into trying to find out what sort of career he should have or was capable of having.

You do mention a lot of shows, because you have been in so many in the past few decades, because acting and performing is so project-based, involves so many different people and so many collaborations, was it hard to remember everything and put them all in the right spots? How did you do that? There’s just so much to put in.

I guess I was fortunate enough that in so far it’s a public career, I knew from my CV. It was just then picking out the shows that I remembered well enough, because if I didn’t remember the show well enough then I thought, “Why would I…” not disrespecting it at all, because it was obviously valuable at the time, I worked hard on it, but if it didn’t really have much point about it I didn’t really feel the need to mention it. It was really the shows where I thought — an example would be doing a play by Kathy Lette, at a time, this was in the mid ‘80s, when all of the theatre companies were wanting a female David Williamson.

It struck me as really odd that none of them going to pick up or nurture or develop Kathy, who seemed to me to be a perfect fit for what they were looking for. I guess that was, in terms of mentioning the play of hers that I directed, which it was called, Wet Dreams, a typical Kathy title, I mean it was to make that point that he was a writer that in a wider sense I don’t think our theatre companies have encouraged in our writers and commissioned them nearly as much as they should. I thought Kathy was one that slipped through, so that was the point of mentioning that.

Around about the same time I acted in a show in Canberra. I wanted talk about that because one of the other actors in that was a wonderful actor called Trevor Kent, who was right at the forefront of that generation that started to get wiped out with HIV, with AIDS. Trevor was such a campaigner early on for getting artists to make statements about what was going on. I really wanted to write about it for that reason.

The rule of thumb was unless the show had something to say then it didn’t make the cut.

Was the writing a chore?

On some days it was as chore. Yeah, some days I felt, “I’m just churning it out,” “I’m never going to get to where I want to get and this is crappy…” and all of that. But, some days it just breezed through, I’m sort of used to that from work anyway. Some days you can be on set or in the theatre and one night the show is fantastic and the next night it’s like you’re wading through a creek, you know? It’s the same show, different audience or a different day. I was used that kind of thing, but I think I also had learned by then that in many ways the most valuable days are the ones where you have to really slog. The days that come easily are terrific and they’re a great gift, but the days that don’t I thought I learned more from those days.

Did you have to chuck a lot out or did you end up chucking a lot out?

As I went I chucked a fair bit out, then I showed it to my wife and she was good, she got rid of a lot of the pomposity. Then I passed it onto Richard and he was very constructive as well.

We edited as we went sort of thing, before coming back and doing a fine edit on it. Often I had a feeling, I would start a section off and I just didn’t feel like it was fitting and I thought, “The reason it doesn’t feel like it is fitting well is because it doesn’t fit.”

I didn’t actually know until I read the book that you wrote many of the episodes of Bodyline, which was huge in my childhood viewing, was that your first flirtation with writing, or had you written before?

I had written bits and pieces and sketches and stuff for theatre, quite a bit, a lot of the shows that I was interested in and that I was involved in through the ‘70s with new plays. It was as time when there was a lot of Australian playwriting and playwright conferences in Canberra was really — I discovered that’s what I really loved. I had been well-trained from the School of Drama, which was at the University of New South Wales, so I knew a lot of dramatic theatre and I had read a lot of plays and started to be in plays and started to get a feel for what worked and what didn’t work and was never backward in coming forward with a suggestion saying, “Why don’t we do this?” Or, “Why don’t we do this?” Or, “Wouldn’t this speech be better like this?” So, I had done a bit of that, or added in stuff, always with the approval of the writer or the director, because it’s always been a collaborative process. I had already dabbled a fair bit in writing, and I had tried a few film scripts that had a bit of interest but didn’t get up. Then when Bodyline came up it just seemed like a natural extension of what I –

Because you’re a cricket tragic?

Yeah, yeah. I was actually one of the few people on the thing who actually knew what bodyline was. It was wonderful trying to explain it to directors like Carl Swartz. Carl was fantastic. He’s Hungarian, escaped when the tanks rolled in, in 1956 he went to England, his experience of cricket was that he went to this school and suddenly he’s playing cricket, because he’s this Hungarian boy, hasn’t got a clue what’s going on. They put the ball in the air and he happened to catch it, all of a sudden he had all of these wonderful new friends, who all thought he was fantastic. Then I hear the next ball that got hit in the air he dropped it and they hated him. That was as much as Carl knew about cricket. So, to explain to him the intricacies of bodyline was quite the challenge. But, then it was never about cricket.

Yes, yes.

The series was always about empire and how empires never last.

You were in Jesus Christ Superstar —

No, not at all — no.

You weren’t in Jesus Christ Superstar?

No, I worked on the set up for it.


On the backstage, in the reading for it.

OK, so you were involved in Jesus Christ Superstar in that capacity, but you’ve also written for Bodyline, you’ve been a director of many different things, you’ve been an actor — they’re all such different skills. Is it hard? Writing a memoir is completely different to teaching, is it hard to change hats when you are working in this kind of project-based thing?

Not really, because I mean I guess for me the overall or the general task remains the same, the general task is to tell a story that is engaging, hopefully enlightening, hopefully inspiring, but above all else it’s about being able to tell a story in whatever medium and with whatever tools you have at hand. I find working in radio, for instance, taught me a lot of skills that later on when I was working in film and directing film I thought, “Hang on, in radio this would be such a simple solution, to get over this part of the story, why don’t we just find a film equivalent for that?” I found that really helped me.

Also I think it was a combination of the fact that I was naturally curious anyway, I always wanted to know how things work, how other bits worked. I was also conscious of the fact that I needed to have a diverse set of skills in order to keep being employed. I was fairly confident that I wasn’t good enough in any one area to turn that into a constant career. I don’t think temperamentally I would have wanted that anyway, I’ve always wanted to be working in wide and diverse areas as I can. So I’m really guided less by what my function is rather than what is the project, who else is involved with it and what do we want to say with it, and that determines my involvement.

When you do write a memoir, because you write about stuff that has happened many, many years ago, you can risk offending people with your version of your recollection of history as opposed to theirs, how did you navigate that? Did you kind of decide, “I’m going to write my version anyway.”? Or did you think, “I’m going to censor myself and leave things out.”? How did you navigate that sensitive area?

That’s an excellent question, if you don’t mind my saying so, only because that was the biggest issue I guess I faced early on. I mean the whole nature of a memoir is self-serving, so it’s about how do you minimise that. Where I felt very challenged on it was early on as I started to write it and certainly as soon as I get into talking about people, I became aware that a lot of my contemporaries had passed on. They were involved and I thought, “This is really difficult, because now I am telling my side of the story and they have no right of reply.” So, I felt really honor-bound to make sure that I thought I represented them fairly.

Some days it was just like impossible, I remember going through some chapters and I thought, “Jesus, everybody is dead,” you know, they’ve all passed on. I’ve been aware of them individually dying off over the years, but I hadn’t really in my own mind put them all together in one gigantic graveyard. Stepping around through the tombstones was difficult, because I didn’t want, if they were alive I didn’t want them to a recourse to say, “No, you misrepresented me.”

I just had to discipline myself about that and make sure — and there was stuff I left out where I thought, “That just really shouldn’t…” It was vain and it showed me to be mean or something like that, so I tried to reduce the amount of bad stuff, and it make me appear like a nicer person than I am.

I think that it must have been a struggle because I think you’ve done it so well in this memoir because as I read bits I go, “Wow, he didn’t need to include that, but that’s fantastic that he did.” There’s certain sections like with your relationship with Wendy Hughes.


Also there are some sections that I read that I think, “Wow, I really tip my hat off to Lex in terms of how sensitively he handled that.” Was it a real struggle that you had to come back and rewrite things? Or did you just kind of —

I didn’t rewrite much at all, because of the process I went through really forming it in my mind before and doing the editing in my mind before getting it on the page, it minimised that to an extent. Then there was other stuff where I thought it would be dishonest not to fess up to certain things and certain feelings. I thought otherwise the context will become just unrealistic. So, I just thought it was, without being necessarily warts and all, it was certainly some warts. I just felt that I had to be honest about telling the story and without those elements to it the story would have been one sided.

Moment of truth, you hand in your manuscript to Richard Walsh, who probably sends it to an editor as well, and they come back to you with feedback, what was the feedback like? Did you have to change much, or anything?

No, well generally it was pretty good. Richard did a lot of the larger bits, editing chapter by chapter, we’d go through it and discuss it. There wasn’t a lot of things, his big thing was reducing the number of lists, because he hates lists. Whenever it started to get into a list of things he said, “No, get rid of that.” Sometimes I’d try to go off on a different style, which I thought at the time might have been a little bit clever and a little bit useful, but I think Richard was very tactful about saying, “Mate, that’s just a bit wanky.” “I think you need to do real sentences, not shorthand. Dot points is not really gonna wash at this stage” and I'm thinking “Yeah, I guess I did just gloss over that, because I just tried to dress up dot points as though it was some sort of, you know, great string of consciousness. No, that didn’t work.”

Generally that was the process. I have to say it was relatively painless.

What has been the reaction from your peers?

Well, so far it has been very good. I haven’t had anyone yet ring up and say, “You’re a bastard. I hate you. Why did you say that about me?” Ironically, more the phone calls I’ve had have been very supportive and very favorable. I’ve had a few say, “How come I’m only mentioned once?” I say, “Well, write your own book,” you know? If I had written down everyone I’ve worked with it would have been an encyclopedia.


I wouldn’t have had any words for anything else.

I have to say, touch wood, the reaction so far has been pretty good. But, then I guess that’s what you expect of family and friends.

What are you working on now? Are you writing something else, what are you doing now? Apart from, of course, promoting a book.

I do quite a bit of teaching these days. I work at a couple of the acting colleges.

I’m mainly working on a show called Hipbone Sticking Out, a theatre show, which comes from the Pilbara in Western Australia, around the community of Roebourne, in the Pilbara. It’s a show with a company called Big hART, Scott Rankin, that I’ve done a lot of work with over the years, usually very long developmental periods, working in the community developing all kinds of skills within the community. Then from that Scott devises a show around that community and its story which has wider implications, he makes sure it always has high artistic values. They’re generally placed in festivals.

So, that’s what we’re doing. We’ve done this one, Hipbone Sticking Out. Hipbone Sticking Out refers to the little Burrup Peninsula, which if you look now on a map all I can see is a hipbone, that bit of Australia. And a significant history, in terms of colonization, in terms of mining, what’s going on there now, deaths in custodies, that whole — that was the catalyst, it was in Roebourne when John Pat was unfortunately killed back in 1993, it was the catalyst for the death scene, the custody and the royal commission. It brings all of those things together in a higher kind of show.

So, that’s what we’re working on, so we’ll go back and rehearse in Pilbara, we’ll play it there for the community and take it to Perth for a couple of weeks and then to the Melbourne Festival for a couple of weeks. After that who knows?

You are a creative professional. There are a lot of people who are listening to these who want to explore their creativity.  You kind of imply in the book, or you say it really, you just said it earlier, that you purposefully developed a diverse range of skills so that you could last the distance in the industry, although I’m sure there are some people who will say that your consummate in many particular areas, but what’s your advice to people who are creative professionals? Do you think it’s vital for them to have that diversity of skills and try lots of different things?

I think it depends entirely on the individual. The only advice that I’ve ever given my kids was find something that you enjoy doing and then see if you can make a living out of it, because we live in a privileged country were you can do that. Most of the world either doesn’t have the opportunity to work at all, or if they do have that opportunity, they rarely have the opportunity to do work in what they enjoy doing. Be aware of how privileged we are.

Then be prepared to work hard. Certainly in terms of when I’m working with students all I can say to them is the morning, to acting students, the morning you get up and you don’t do your vocal warm-up remember all of your opposition are doing it. It’s a highly competitive industry, it’s an over-supplied industry. There will be twenty of you going for an audition and only one of you will get. If are not doing the work, and the other are, it stands to reason that the luck may not come your way, but you need to prepare for them like it’s a huge, huge factor on your career.

Luck is terrific, but it’s like getting a hand of cards, the cards you get dealt, it’s how you play them from there that’s going to determine whether you have a career or not, so you’ve got to be prepared to work hard and convert the luck when it happens.

Do you think you will write another book?

There’s certainly other things that I want to write about, probably more in the non-fiction area. There’s a collection of letters from 19th century theatre practitioners all written to a critic, it’s a collection of a couple of hundred letters in the Mitchell Library in Sydney written to a critic on the Argus in Melbourne, James Smith, because of his longevity had a 50 year career as a critic. It spans the second half century, 19th century, from about 1850 to about 1900, which is a golden era of Australian theatre. It predates the electronic media, but it’s a time when Australian individualism/identity is starting to come through.

There are letters from all sorts of people, from actors, from directors, from writers, from producers — there’s one from the great J.C. Williamson, it’s around the 1890s when the first production of Doll’s House is going to be done in Australia, this controversial play by this controversial Norwegian writer, Ibsen, where he has this, if you can believe it, the woman at the end of play, she’s sick of being treated like a doll and she walks out of this loveless marriage leaving her children — how scandalous. Well, it was scandalous for the time — it was. So scandalous that Williamson writes to Smith and says, “That may all be very well for England and Europe, but do you think Australian audiences are ready for that? Wouldn’t it be better if we rewrote the ending and had her come back at the end and say to the children, ‘Oh, but I can’t leave you’…”

It’s that kind of collection of letters. So, I would like to write something about that, because it’s such good primary material that I would like to make it — even if it’s just online I would like to make it available to people who are studying Australian theatre and want to know more about it. That’s one I would like to do.

Then it occurs to me also that 2016 will be the 50th anniversary of the School of Drama, which is where I went, which started in 1966 as an autonomous school in the University of New South Wales. I guess now the Media and Film or whatever it’s been retitled. I’m conscious of the fact that the School of Drama, as it turns out, has been very modest in terms of promoting itself. It’s made a contribution to the development of Australian theatre by producing students either teach theatre, who have a higher appreciation of theatre, and many of them have gone onto professional careers.

Certainly when I went through there’s Gabriella Lev, who now runs a theatre company in Jerusalem; Arnie Nimi, who’s been a freelance director for the same period I’ve been acting; Alex Buzo was there, the writer; Rex Cramphorn, the director, went through shortly after me; James Waites, the critic went through; Robert Love, runs Riverside Theatres and previously the Sydney Theatre Company. So, it’s produced a lot of people that have also worked in the industry as well. I wouldn’t mind doing something along the lines that acknowledge that kind of contribution.

Out of all the things that you do, whether it’s directing, or writing, or performing, what do you find the most personally rewarding? What do you like doing the most?

I always enjoy the job I’m on at the time. I always think that’s going to be the one that I’m going to really get it together on and do well. There’s always the one, I suppose, that is coming up, the one that I look towards as being something fantastic.

I mean one of the hard things about the book, I suppose, was that I tend not to be a natural nostalgic. I don’t look back a lot, I don’t look forward that much either. I really try to just stay in the moment.

It’s nice to have work on the horizon, but even now we’re talking about a play for next year and that seems so unrealistic to me. I mean I know we have to plan, start to develop and talk about it and things, but for next year that just seems so far away to me.

I think every job that I’ve been fortunate enough to do I’ve had some satisfaction from, I’ve tried to make sure I’ve always had a good time, a pleasurable time while I’m working. I love to take the work very seriously, but I don’t want to take myself too seriously. I think that’s a good combination for me. I look back and it’s hard to single out jobs, I look back and the things I’m most pleased about are just working for that period of time.

There’s a great speech from Nina at the end of Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, where she comes back up after having been away, after having had a child out of wedlock. She was an aspiring actress and now she is an actress. She’s come back to her teenage sweetheart and explains to him, “Early on I though it was all about money and it was all about glamour and I acted terribly. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, I didn’t know what to do… I realise none of that’s important, what’s important is that it’s my calling and it’s important that I endure. Endurance is the thing that’s important.” When I think about that speech I think I now understand that speech because the endurance is what’s been valuable to me, it’s been the journey that’s been valuable.

None of the destinations have really been where I’ve wanted to stop. I’ve been happy to visit them and get back on for next part of the journey. It is about that for me, and I like that being… so I didn’t ever want to be employed by a company or work in an office. I really only ever wanted to have the freedom to freelance, the freedom to say ‘no’ if I didn’t want to do a certain job. And just moving around across different media and different roles and stuff like that has been — that’s what I’ve learned, it’s about being able to endure.

On that note thank you very much for your time today, Lex.

My pleasure.

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