• Motto

Hank Azaria to Grads: Ignore Your Instincts ‘at Your Own Peril’

18 minute read

Thank you Mr. President. It’s great to be here. I wasn’t told I had to prepare anything, so I figured I’d just take questions for the next 15 minutes. Yes, you at the back, way down there.

No, no. I actually, uh … Although those of you who might remember me from my academic career here would know that that concept is not completely far-fetched. But I actually, look, I did prepare a speech today. Which, you know, I’m very excited, because this is the first time ever that I’ve been standing on the Tufts campus holding a writing assignment that I can actually say I completed on time. Yes, thank you.

So good morning and welcome, friends, family, faculty, most important, the graduating Class of 2016. Uh, yes. [Chuckles] Even though it’s interesting for me to call you the graduating Class of 2016. That is what you are, but you’re also individuals of course. Each one of you has a unique character, a unique back-story. If I were to play any one of you in a movie, which I admit is highly unlikely, but stranger things have happened. It’d be odd casting for me to be cast as a 21-year-old female graduating student, but I’m a character actor. I try not to limit myself creatively. But if I were to play any of you, it would take me hours, days, weeks to study each of you and learn your traits, your quirks, your likes, your dislikes, your hopes and dreams and fears.

So I was given the delightful and impossible task of standing up in front of all of you today and offering some words of wisdom that would somehow impact and affect each one of you as you move forward in your individual journey. Some truth to apply to about 1,300 bright, young, singular minds. So I wasn’t sure if that was possible. So like most Hollywood actors, I’ve decided just to talk about myself for the next 15 minutes. [Chuckles]

I was a pretty good student. [Laughs] I’m not kidding. They’ll be, they’ll be some points I’ll sneak in along the way. I was a pretty good student until 11th grade when a wonderful and horrible thing happened to me: I did a play. I was cast as King Arthur in Camelot, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I thus lost all concentration for my studies. I desperately and passionately wanted to be an actor. And I actually booked a gig on my very first professional audition. It was a product called Brooklyn Gum. It was on Italian Television. And I thought, “Hey, this acting thing is easy. Why am I wasting my time on things like getting an education, when apparently I’m ready to go out there and become a professional right now?” Uh, P.S., I did not work again professionally for about seven years.

Of course my grades suffered. In fact, my transcript was so poor my senior year of high school that I did not get into any of the schools I applied to. I was wait-listed here at Tufts and at Brown and at Georgetown. Now, I think it would be safe to categorize my mother’s reaction to this as a “total freak-out.” She told me through gritted teeth that I was going to “get on a plane” … This is the way my mother talks, by the way, when she’s angry. “Appear at each one of these schools in person and make some kind of impassioned plea to get accepted into college.”

So still consumed with my love of acting, I looked at these interviews this way, I figured, well I want to make it as an actor, so I need to be convincing. So I thought of this as my first acting job. I really did. I told each school the same thing, that it’s always been my dream to attend “insert name of university here.” [Chuckles] And that I had a, I had a really rough personal time senior year, I broke both my elbows in a basketball accident, which was true, to be fair. [Chuckles] And that I had a lot of difficulty accomplishing my academic tasks. This did not work at all at Georgetown. The Brown guy was considering it, but the Tufts lady bought it hook, line, and sinker. [Chuckles] Which is why I’m standing before you today and not at Brown or at Georgetown.

Truth, the truth was though that I, I still did not see why I needed to attend school to follow my dream. Now, when I got here, I discovered that I loved acting and the theater more than I even knew. I spent almost all my time at the Arena Theater, either involved in productions or drama classes. Yes. [Laughs] Drama students. Just take it easy, guys. But just hanging out with the kindred spirits I met here at Tufts over in the theater. Now, I would love to report that once I found my niche, all of the sudden that was reflected in my grades and my transcript took an acadermic, academic … Or acadermic [Chuckles]… turn for the better.

But I’m here to tell you a different story. Neither one of those things happened. In actuality, I found myself here not really caring about whether I was given an A or an F or a pass or a fail. I studied what interested me, and I enjoyed it without really worrying too much if I was going to be rewarded for my efforts or not. I really was only concerned with what I was personally getting out of it.

Okay, so at this point, you might be asking yourself, “Where is he going with all this?” You might even be upset that I didn’t give you this speech on your first day here so that you could’ve saved yourself from a lifetime of being buried in student debt. Just bear with me. So there I was. I’m very grateful to find myself spiritually, mentally, and physically in an incredible institution of learning that offered me opportunities every day to follow my passions and interests. You know, when I actually went to class, that is.

It would also be nice to report that at this juncture, I was at the very least, able to complete my 4-year college curriculum and call myself a Tufts graduate. Again, not the case for me. When I marched with my graduating class in the spring of ’85, I received an empty box instead of a diploma. I was a few credits shy. Thank you, yes. Ever kind and compassionate, the administration here was good enough to let me participate in commencement, thus saving my mother yet another in what had become a series of freak-outs during my college career.

So I went to New York not long after that. I almost immediately, immediately got fired from a bartending job. Apparently out in the real world, they do not appreciate it if you don’t really care about how well you’re accomplishing your given tasks. And I, I moved to LA. Now the good news out there was I was lucky enough to audition for a bunch of movies and TV shows my first year. The bad news is that I booked exactly none of them.

So I sat down with my mother. This time I was the one freaking out, whining about the things that young, unemployed actors whine about and looking for some maternal encouragement. My mom listened to me attentively and then rather matter-of-factly stated, “Well, I just … ” This is my mom talking again. “I just don’t think anything is going to happen for you in your life until you get that degree.” And I said, “Mom, I think you’ve just placed a mother’s curse on my head, and I would like you to remove it.” To which she replied, “No.” And she walked out of the kitchen.

So with the help of Doc Collins, Sherwood Collins, who was then head of the drama department here, I coordinated the last two or three classes I would need to complete my drama major and I had the credits transferred. And that’s why I’m officially the Class of Tufts ’87. One of the upsides of which being that I can believably claim to be two years younger than I actually am, which is very handy for an actor in Hollywood.

Okay, so what is the point of all this? Um, first of all, and as much as it pains me to say this and please don’t tell her I said this, but my mom was right. Maybe not for the reasons that she thought. But completing my drama major two years late made me realize that even though I had taken my own weird and atypical and borderline bizarre path, I could follow that road and get to the same place that the world wanted me to get to, even if it … Even if I didn’t do it in a quote-on-quote “conventional” fashion. I could now put a diploma in that empty box. I don’t think it registered on me at the time, but the notion that I could do things my way, even if that was, uh, a way that no one had ever done before or would ever care to do again, it was valid and unique and ultimately viable.

I’ve always been a singular, strong-minded person, which is a nice way of saying that I’m very stubborn. And I don’t know about Brown or Georgetown, but I know that Tufts accepted me as the willful person that I was and allowed me to be that headstrong fellow for four years without ever robbing me of my individuality.

Now, and as an actor, and I believe in any profession, all you can really count on at the end of the day are your own instincts. What is right for somebody else, even if that somebody else is most of society, may not be right for you. Case in point, and this is one of my favorite Hollywood stories. I was talking to Dianne Wiest, who’s a wonderful actress. We were on the set of The Birdcage, where I played the Guatemalan house-boy, Agador Spartacus. [Character voice] Thank you. Okay, take it easy. You’re going to hear some advice from Agador later, so just relax.

Dianne had just won an Oscar for her work in Woody Allen’s film Bullets Over Broadway. And I asked her about her experience on that movie, and she said it was very nerve-wracking for her because about a week into shooting the movie, she asked, uh, Woody, “How’s it all looking?” And Woody Allen said [clears throat], “It’s, you know, it’s not good. Not good.” So she said, “You mean the whole film or just my performance?” He said, “No, just you, darling. Your character’s not … It’s just not working.” She said, “Well what’s the matter?” He said, “It’s your voice. It’s too high and it’s not convincing and, you know, it’s distracting.” So she said, “Well, should we re-shoot these scenes? Uh, should I deepen my voice or something?” He said, “Yeah. That’s probably a good idea. Let’s do that.” So and in that film, Dianne Wiest is speaking in a very baritone, hyper-intense way, covering people’s mouths and saying things like, “Don’t speak.” She won the Oscar.

Years later, I was talking to Mira Sorvino, another wonderful actress who won the Academy Award … Uh, Academy Award in Woody Allen’s film Mighty Aphrodite. In that movie, she plays a, a prostitute with a heart of gold, with an absurdly high voice. She literally sounds like Miss Piggy from The Muppets. And once again, about a week into shooting, she said there was a knock on her trailer door and there was Woody Allen. And he said to her, “I … So, listen. It’s not working.” She said, “The whole movie or just me?” “No, just you, darling. Just you.” She said, “What’s the matter?” And I, I swear this is true. He said, “Yeah, it’s your voice. It’s too high. It’s, you know, it’s silly and the scenes are not believable and, you know, let’s re-shoot. Let’s re-shoot.” So Mira Sorvino said she took this in and she had a good cry over it. And by the time lunch was over, she realized that she felt both comedically and dramatically that she, she believed in how she was playing the character and that the high voice she was using was really going to work. And she told Willy, Woody Allen as much, and that’s what ended up on, on film.

Now, and this is exciting for me, because I’m finally getting to my point. Um, it, it’s this. One day, a very powerful director can walk up to you and tell you to lower your voice, and if you do it, you will win an Oscar. And on another day, that very same director can walk up to you and tell you to lower your voice and if you don’t do it, you will win an Oscar. Now, how will you know which is the right decision? You know, in a moment like that, what you think anybody else might do will not help you. But if you calm, if you calm down, you will know what your instincts are telling you and you’ll know which way, right or wrong, that you must proceed.

So, as you may have gathered from my stories about my checkered past, my academic career is not why I’m standing before you today. Let’s face it, it’s because I’ve been on The Simpsons for at least 5 years longer than 95 percent of the graduating class has been alive. So in closing, I thought it’d be nice to let some of my Simpsons characters address you and give you their advice. Yes. When in doubt, always pull out the Simpsons voices. That’s my first bit of advice.

So let’s hear from Chief Wiggum first:

“Uh, thank you very much. Let’s see, advice, advice. Um, oh yeah, mmm. Kids, you didn’t hear this from me, but if a cop even thinks that you’re going to throw up in your backseat, they will immediately let you go. No crime is worth having to clean yak out of a seat-belt hole. Also, if you’re ever wearing a body camera, take it off when you go to the bathroom. That’ll end up on YouTube.”

Moe the bartender would like to say hi:

“Yeah, how you’s all doing out there? Uh, yeah, all right, I didn’t have the benefit of a fancy, highfalutin education. I, uh, I went to BU. Yeah, at least Tufts has a campus. I majored in not getting hit by cars on Commonwealth Avenue.”

Apu, the owner and proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart would also like to say hello:

“Uh, greetings to everybody here. Tufts students and myself, we have very much in common. We both worship an elephant. And there he is. It’s a tremendous honor for me to be staring at an elephant. Remember, please children, that in life, there is nothing that is not so disgusting that it cannot be sold on a heated roller at a nearly criminal mark-up.”

Uh, the old Sea Captain has something he’d like to say:

“Yar, kids remember, the sea is a cruel mistress, but Medford is worse, so you’ll be fine.”

Finally, Comic Book Guy would like to say:

“Hello. Life is like the Star Wars movies. Some of it is great, some of it sucks, but you have no choice but to sit through all of it. Very similar to the commencement speech you are listening to right now.”

You know, most of my Simpsons voices are either just good or bad impressions of people. I’m a mimic at heart. I became an actor as a result because I really wanted to be other people. I wanted to be anybody but myself, really. So imagine my shock and chagrin when I discovered that while doing impressions of people can be amusing and even hilarious, great actors, even great character actors, are willing to utterly be themselves, in front of an audience or a camera.

I didn’t realize it, but when I was your guys’ age, I had a belief that who I was and how I thought and how I felt was inherently uninteresting and flawed and not practical. Well maybe they were and maybe they still are. But it wasn’t until I embraced the person that I really was that my work as an actor got really interesting. I’m not suggesting that you ignore the laws of … The rules of society or the laws of common sense or the actual law or textbooks or manuals or your teachers or your advisors or the Internet or all the other sources that are happy to tell you the right and wrong way to go about doing almost everything. Just please be honest with yourself about what you think and how you feel about all of that, what you like and dislike, what angers you or scares you or saddens you or inspires you or delights you. Those feelings are called your instincts, and you ignore them at your own peril.

Or as Agador Spartacus would say it:

“Kids, just please be yourselves. And if you can’t be yourself, please be Judy Garland from that movie Meet Me in St. Louis. My God, she got to wear such cute outfits in that movie. Speaking of which, why do we have to be in these robes today? Uh, who is this flattering on? You can’t look good in this. I mean, maybe with shoulder pads and like a cinched belt it would all work. But I’m going to stop talking now, because the sooner we change out of these things the better, yes?”

Congratulations, Class of 2016. You did it.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Arianna Huffington to Grads: ‘Your Attention Is Truly the Most Valuable Currency’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Mahershala Ali to Grads: ‘We Are All Co-Creators of Our Respective Destinies’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Rita Dove to Grads: ‘Instead of Advice, I Will Give You Wishes’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Samantha Power to Grads: ‘Invest Yourself Fully. Get Close’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’

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