Natalie Portman ’03: “Your Inexperience Is an Asset”

At Harvard College Class Day, the actress urges class members to forge their own paths.

Natalie Portman ’03
Samuel B. Clark ’15
Taylor Kay Phillips ’15
Ethan G. Loewi ’15

Watching her four-year-old son, Aleph, play a baseball arcade game a few weeks ago, actress Natalie Portman was already picturing him as a major-league player, admiring his sharp aim and focus. But as he gleefully turned in his tickets for a tiny blue plastic prize, Portman realized that instead of taking joy in the challenge of the game, his main goal was winning.

“In a child’s nature, we see many of our own innate tendencies, and in that moment, I saw myself in him, and perhaps you do, too,…prizes serve as false idols everywhere,” Portman told the audience of seniors, families, and friends gathered in Tercentenary Theatre today for the 2015 Class Day ceremony. “Achievement is wonderful when you know why you are doing it—and if you don’t know, it can be a terrible trap.”

Portman talked about growing up on Long Island, where she said she was better known for having Wite-out on her hands “because I hated to have anything crossed out in my notebooks,” than she was for being an actress. During her senior year in high school, she was voted most likely to be a contestant on Jeopardy! or, as Portman put it, “code for nerdiest.”

When she entered Harvard, just after the release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace in 1999, she said she knew she would be starting over in terms of how people viewed her, and assumed that most of her classmates would think her admission was based on fame, not intellect. Having never written a 10-page paper before, Portman said she was “alarmed and intimidated” by the “calm eyes” of her fellow classmates, but was determined to be taken seriously and enrolled in difficult neurobiology and advanced literature courses.

On her first day of Freshman Orientation, Portman recalled five separate students who introduced themselves by saying, “Hi, I’m going to be president. Remember I told you that.” “In all seriousness, I believed every one of them,” she said. “Their self-confidence seemed proof of their prophecy, whereas I couldn’t shake my self-doubt.”

“I was completely overwhelmed and thought that reading a 1,000 pages a week was unimaginable and writing a 50-page thesis was something I could never do,” she said. “I had been acting [for seven years,] since I was 11, but I thought acting was too frivolous and not meaningful.” She said she thought that she would find a more serious and profound path in college. Yet as she struggled through classes, she began to notice friends around her writing essays on lighter topics like sailing, fairy tales, and pop culture, and soon realized that being what she considered “serious” might not be the right path.

“There was a reason I was an actress—I love what I do,” Portman said. “I saw from my peers and my mentors that not only was that an acceptable reason, it was the best reason. When I got to my graduation, after four years of trying to be something else, I admitted to myself that I couldn’t wait to go back and make more films—I had reclaimed my reason.”

Her Harvard degree and other awards, she said, are emblems of the experiences that led her to them. Although she cherished her time at the College, she also admitted to struggling with depression during her sophomore year, blaming it on a combination of heartache, birth-control pills, and “spending too much time missing sunlight.” There were moments, she admitted, when her motto for her schoolwork was “Done, not good.” “I’m still learning now that it’s about good and maybe never done,” she added.

After graduating, Portman decided to take on only projects with which she felt some sort of meaningful connection, and said that choice thoroughly confused everyone around her—agents, producers, and audiences alike. Yet making those movies, she declared—Goya’s Ghosts, V for Vendetta, and Your Highnessamong them—enabled to find her own meaning, one “not determined by box office receipts or prestige.”

Portman said she learned that sometimes your insecurities and inexperience will lead to carving out your own path, “one that is free of the burden of how things are supposed to be,” and is “defined by its own particular set of reasons.”

Turning to her film Black Swan, Portman said that had she known her limitations as a dancer, she never would have taken the risk of starring in what turned out to be an Oscar-winning role that she deemed “the artistic highlight of my career.” She urged seniors to take chances, even when they are not entirely sure of themselves, because that breeds a kind of confidence that cannot be taught in a classroom.

“Your inexperience is an asset, and will allow you to think in unconventional ways,” she said. “Each time you set out to do something new, your inexperience can either lead you down a path where you will conform to someone else’s values, or you can forge your own path, even if you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing. You will control the rewards of what you do by making your internal life fulfilling.” 

Watch a video of her speech:

Read more articles by: Laura Levis

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