Natalie Portman is a film actress, producer, writer, and director with dual Israeli and American citizenship.
Here is the full transcript (Edited version) of Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman’s commencement speech at Harvard on May 27, 2015.
Listen to the MP3 audio here: Natalie Portman Harvard Commencement Speech2015
Natalie Portman – Speech TRANSCRIPT
Hello, Class of 2015.
I am so honored to be here today. Dean Khurana, faculty, parents, and most especially graduating students, thank you so much for inviting me.
The Senior Class Committee, it’s genuinely one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been asked to do. I have to admit primarily because I can’t deny it as it was leaked in the WikiLeaks release of the Sony hack, that when I was invited, I replied, and I directly quote my own email, “Wow! This is so nice! I’m going to need some funny ghost writers. Any ideas?”
This initial response, now blessedly public was from the knowledge that at my class day we were lucky enough to have Will Ferrell as class day speaker, and that many of us hungover, or even freshly high, mainly wanted to laugh.
So I have to admit that today even 12 years after graduation, I’m still insecure about my own worthiness. I have to remind myself today you’re here for a reason. Today I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999 when you guys were, to my continued shock and horror, still in kindergarten.
I felt like there had been some mistake that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth, I would have to prove I wasn’t just a dumb actress.
So I start with an apology. This won’t be very funny. I’m not a comedian. And I didn’t get a ghost writer. But I am here to tell you today Harvard is giving you all diplomas tomorrow. You are here for a reason.
Sometimes your insecurities and your inexperience may lead you, too, to embrace other people’s expectations, standards, or values. But you can harness that inexperience to carve out your own path, one that is free of the burden of knowing how things are supposed to be, a path that is defined by its own particular set of reasons.
The other day I went to an amusement park with my soon-to-be 4-year-old son. And I watched him play arcade games. He was incredibly focused, throwing his ball at the target. Jewish mother that I am, I skipped 20 steps and was already imagining him as a major league player with what is his aim and his arm and his concentration.
But then I realized that when he won, he was playing to trade in his tickets for the crappy plastic toys. The prize was much more exciting than the game to get it.
I, of course, wanted to urge him to take joy and the challenge of the game, the improvement upon practice, the satisfaction of doing something well, and even feeling the accomplishment when achieving the game’s goals. But all of these aspects were shaded by the little 10-cent plastic men with sticky stretchy blue arms that adhere to the walls. That — that was the prize.
In a child’s nature, we see many of our own innate tendencies. I saw myself in him and perhaps you do, too. Prizes serve as false idols everywhere, prestige, wealth, fame, power. You’ll be exposed to many of these, if not all.
Of course, part of why I was invited to come to speak today beyond my being a proud alumna is that I’ve recruited some very coveted toys in my life, including a not so plastic, not so crappy one: an Oscar.
So we bump up against a common trope I think of the commencement address people who have achieved a lot telling you that the fruits of the achievement are not always to be trusted. But I think that contradiction can be reconciled and is in fact instructive. Achievement is wonderful when you know why you’re doing it. And when you don’t know, it can be a terrible trap.
I went to a public high school on Long Island, Syosset High School. Ooh, hello, Syosset! The girls I went to school with had Prada bags and flat-ironed hair. And they spoke with an accent I who had moved there at age 9 from Connecticut mimicked to fit in — Florida Oranges, Chocolate cherries.
Since I ’m ancient and the Internet was just starting when I was in high school, people didn’t really pay that much attention to the fact that I was an actress. I was known mainly at school for having a backpack bigger than I was and always having white-out on my hands because I hated seeing anything crossed out in my notebooks.
I was voted for my senior yearbook “most likely to be a contestant on Jeopardy” or code for nerdiest. When I got to Harvard just after the release of Star Wars: Episode 1, I knew I would be staring over in terms of how people viewed me. I feared people would have assumed I’d gotten in just for being famous, and that they would think that I was not worthy of the intellectual rigor here.
And it would not have been far from the truth. When I came here I had never written a 10-page paper before. I’m not even sure I’ve written a 5-page paper. I was alarmed and intimidated by the calm eyes of fellow students who came here from Dalton or Exeter, who thought that compared to high school the workload here was easy.
I was completely overwhelmed and thought that reading 1000 pages a week was unimaginable, that writing a 50-page thesis was just something I could never do. I had no idea how to declare my intentions. I couldn’t even articulate them to myself.
I’ve been acting since I was 11. But I thought acting was too frivolous and certainly not meaningful. I came from a family of academics and was very concerned of being taken seriously. In contrast to my inability to declare myself, on my first day of orientation freshman year, five separate students introduced themselves to me by saying “I’m going to be president; remember I told you that.” Their names, for the record, were Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton.
In all seriousness, I believed every one of them. Their bearing and self-confidence alone seemed the proof of their prophecy where I couldn’t shake my self-doubt. I got in only because I was famous. This was how others saw me and it was how I saw myself.
Driven by these insecurities, I decided that I was going to find something to do at Harvard that was serious and meaningful, that would change the world and make it a better place.
At the age of 18, I’d already been acting for 7 years, and assumed I find a more serious and profound path in college. So freshman fall I decided to take Neurobiology and Advanced Modern Hebrew Literature because I was serious and intellectual.
Needless to say, I should have failed both. I got Bs, for your information, and to this day, every Sunday I burn a small effigy to the pagan Gods of grade inflation.
But as I was fighting my way through Aleph Bet Yod Y’shua in Hebrew and the different mechanisms of neuro-response, I saw friends around me writing papers on sailing and pop culture magazines, and professors teaching classes on fairy tales and The Matrix. I realized that seriousness for seriousness’s sake was its own kind of trophy, and a dubious one, a pose I sought to counter some half-imagined argument about who I was.
There was a reason that I was an actor. I love what I do. And I saw from my peers and my mentors that it was not only an acceptable reason, it was the best reason.