Here is the full transcript of Meryl Streep speaking at Barnard College Columbia University Commencement 2010..
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
Meryl Streep – Actress
Thank you, all. Thank you, President Spar, Ms. Golden, President Tilghman, Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, proud swelling parents and family, and gorgeous Class of 2010.
If you are all really, really lucky, and if you continue to work super hard, and you remember your thank you notes and everybody’s name; and you follow through on every task that’s asked of you and also somehow anticipate problems before they even arise and you somehow sidestep disaster and score big.
If you get great scores on your LSATS, or MSATS, or ERSATS or whatever. And you get into your dream grad school or internship which then leads to a super job with a paycheck commensurate with the responsibilities of leadership, or if you somehow get that documentary edited on a shoe-string budget and then it’s accepted at Sundance and then maybe it wins Sundance and then you go on to be nominated for an Oscar and then you win the Oscar.
Or if that money-making website that you’ve designed with your friends somehow suddenly attracts investors and advertisers and becomes the go-to site for whatever it is you’re selling, blogging, sharing, or net-casting and success shinning, hoped-for but never really anticipated success comes your way I guarantee you someone you know or love will come to you and say, “Will you address the graduates at my college?”
And you’ll say “Yeah sure, when is it? May 2010? 2010? Yeah sure.” That’s months away and then the nightmare begins. The nightmare we’ve all had and I want to assure you, you’ll continue to have even after graduation, 40 years after graduation. About a week before the due date, you wake up in the middle of the night, “Huh, I have a paper due and I haven’t done the reading, Oh my god!”
If you have been touched by the success fairy, people think you know why. People think success breeds enlightenment and you are duty bound to spread it around like manure, fertilize those young minds, let them in on the secret, what is it that you know that no one else knows, the self examination begins, one looks inward, one opens an interior door. Cobwebs, black, the lights bulbs burned out, the airless dank refrigerator of an insanely over-scheduled, unexamined life that usually just gets take-out. Where is my writer friend, Anna Quindlen when I need her? On another book tour.
Hello I’m Meryl Streep, and today, Class of 2010 and I am really, I am very honored, and I am humbled to be asked to pass on tips and inspiration to you for achieving success in this next part of your lives.
President Spar, when I consider the other distinguished medal recipients and venerable Board of Trustees, the many accomplished faculty and family members, people who’ve actually done things, produced things, while I have pretended to do things, I can think about 3,800 people who should have been on this list before me and you know since my success has depended wholly on my putting things over on people. So I’m not sure parents really think I’m that great a role model anyway.
I am, however, an expert in pretending to be an expert in various areas, so just randomly like everything else in this speech, I am or I was an expert in kissing on stage and on screen. How did I prepare for this? Well, most of my preparation took place in my suburban high school or rather behind my suburban high school in New Jersey. One is obliged to do a great deal of kissing in my line of work. Air kissing, ass-kissing, kissing up and of course actual kissing, much like hookers, actors have to do it with people we may not like or even know. We may have to do it with friends, which is, believe it or not particularly awkward, for people of my generation, it’s awkward.
My other areas of faux expertise, river rafting, miming the effects of radiation poisoning, knowing which shoes go with which bag, coffee plantation, Turkish, Polish, German, French, Italian, that’s Iowa-Italian from the bridges of Madison county, bit of the Bronx, Aramaic, Yiddish, Irish clog dancing, cooking, singing, riding horses, knitting, playing the violin, and simulating steamy sexual encounters, these are some of the areas in which, I have pretended quite proficiently to be successful, or the other way around. As have many women here, I’m sure.
Women, I feel I can say this authoritatively, especially at Barnard where they can’t hear us, what am I talking about? They professionally can’t hear us. Women are better at acting than men. Why? Because we have to be, if successfully convincing someone bigger than you are of something he doesn’t want to know is a survival skill, this is how women have survived through the millennia. Pretending is not just play. Pretending is imagined possibility. Pretending or acting is a very valuable life skill and we all do it all the time. We don’t want to be caught doing it but nevertheless it’s part of the adaptations of our species, we change who we are to fit the exigencies of our time, and not just strategically, or to our own advantage, sometimes sympathetically, without our even knowing it for the betterment of the whole group.
I remember very clearly my own first conscious attempt at acting. I was six, placing my mother’s half slip over my head in preparation to play the Virgin Mary in our living room. As I swaddled my Betsy Wetsy doll I felt quieted, holy, actually, and my transfigured face and very changed demeanor captured on super-8 by my dad pulled my little brother Harry playing Joseph and Dana too, a barnyard animal, into the trance. They were actually pulled into this nativity scene by the intensity of my focus. In my usual technique for getting them to do what I want, yelling at them never ever would have achieved and I learned something on that day.
Later when I was nine, I remember taking my mother’s eyebrow pencil and carefully drawing lines all over my face, replicating the wrinkles that I had memorized on the face of my grandmother whom I adored and made my mother take my picture and I look at it now and of course, I look like myself now and my grandmother then. But I do really remember in my bones, how it was possible on that day to feel her age. I stooped, I felt weighted down but cheerful, you know I felt like her.
Empathy is at the heart of the actor’s art. And in high school, another form of acting took hold of me. I wanted to learn how to be appealing. So I studied the character I imagined I wanted to be that of the generically pretty high school girl. I researched her deeply, that is to say shallowly, in Vogue, in Seventeen, and in Mademoiselle Magazines. I tried to imitate her hair, her lipstick, her lashes, the clothes of the lithesome, beautiful and generically appealing high school girls that I saw in those pages. I ate an apple a day, period.
I peroxided my hair, ironed it straight. I demanded brand name clothes, my mother shut me down on that one. But I did, I worked harder on this characterization really than anyone that I think I’ve ever done since. I worked on my giggle, I lightened it. Because I liked it when it went, kind of “ehuh” and the end, “eheeh” “ehaeaahaha” because I thought it sounded child like, and cute. This was all about appealing to boys and at the same time being accepted by the girls, a very tricky negotiation.
Often success in one area precludes succeeding in the other. And along with all my other exterior choices, I worked on my, what actors call, my interior adjustment. I adjusted my natural temperament which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, loud, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy, natural sort of sweetness, even shyness if you will, which was very, very, very effective on the boys. But the girls didn’t buy it. They didn’t like me; they sniffed it out, the acting. And they were probably right, but I was committed, this was absolutely not a cynical exercise, this was a vestigial survival courtship skill I was developing.