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James Franco Tells Cornell Grads He ‘Felt Trapped’ as an Actor

12 minute read

Thank you. I’m honored. I’m honored to be here. I’ll just say a few things about myself. That’s all I really know about. And it’ll be brief.

Thank you. Twenty years ago, I was almost a student here. Cornell University actually accepted me. I still tell people that I was accepted at an Ivy League school because, well, that’s very impressive. It was the cold one in the middle of nowhere, but it was still an Ivy.

But way back when I graduated high school, I didn’t leave California to join all the bright students here wearing face masks in the winter to keep out the wind chill. I went to sunny UCLA. Since then, I’ve been to a ton of schools and a bunch of these graduations. Some good, some boring.

And being someone who’s probably been to more of these than most, at least as a student, I can tell you that I remember very little from any of them, except for my high school graduation, when Steve Jobs spoke because his daughter was in my class. And he told us that, before dropping out of Reed, he took a calligraphy class, which led to all the different fonts that are now available to Mac users. So take that as a lesson. Learn calligraphy, and maybe you, too, will one day have a movie made about you starring Michael Fassbender.

But anyway, this being only your first college graduation, take it from me—you won’t remember much of what I say today, but don’t worry. Despite that, I’ll still try to give you some of my best wisdom.

Now, if you know anything about me, you probably know that I’ve played a lot of characters who actively partake in the use of marijuana. Actually, that’s often the only thing that people know about me. And I don’t know whether I should take that as a compliment of my acting abilities—because I actually don’t smoke weed—or if I just have a naturally stoner-ish demeanor that lends itself to movies like Pineapple Express and This is the End. Resting stoned face, you could call it.

But in fact, for most of my adult life, I’ve done the opposite of checking out. I’ve been struggling to find a way to check in. After not enrolling in an Ivy League school, I dropped out of UCLA because I knew that I wanted to be an actor and I wasn’t in their theater program. So I went to an acting school in the San Fernando Valley. My parents said that they would no longer support me if I wasn’t in college, so I got a job at the only place that would hire me: McDonald’s. And as you can imagine, my parents were very proud of their son, who left a first-class education to work at the drive-thru window.

But at the time, I knew that I wanted to be an actor at any cost. But what I didn’t know was that I could actually act and go to school at the same time. If the me today could pull a Matthew McConaughey and talk to the James Franco of the past, I would say, “Dude, you only went to one school? You couldn’t act and go to school?”

Now, if you know anything more about me beyond an odd talent for playing stoners and idiots, it’s that I do a lot of things. After dropping out of school for McDonald’s, I worked my ass off in acting school. I’d chosen not to play it safe and to follow my dreams, so I reasoned that I’d better work hard at it. No one was going to beg me to be an actor, just as no one will really beg you to do anything you actually want to do.

Olympic runner? Well, if you don’t train, it ain’t gonna happen. Biochemist? If you don’t study that periodic table, you’re not gonna get those great pharmaceutical jobs. And if you want to go after something you love, it’s simple—you have to work at it.

The film business is such a hard business to break into, I knew that if I was going to get anywhere, I needed to devote myself completely. If I wasn’t taking orders at the drive-thru, I was rehearsing scenes with my classmates. And often, if I was at the drive-thru window, I was practicing different accents. “Welcome to McDonald’s, may I help you?”

Now fortunately, I booked a Pizza Hut commercial after three months, and I didn’t have to work at McDonald’s anymore. But I ended up going to acting school for eight years. Now, that’s about as long as it takes to become a doctor. And even after I started working regularly as an actor, I went back to class. During Freaks and Geeks, I went. I went after I won the Golden Globe for playing James Dean. I went while I was filming all the Spider-Man films.

And I say this because there was a time when I wasn’t an actor, when I was just a guy who loved movies and wanted to be a part of them, but didn’t know how. And I can look back on that time in my life and see that I was a person who had a certain level of talent and that, after years of hard work, that talent was developed into a skill that I could wield. I worked hard at something, and I saw results.

Read more: Watch The Best Clips From This Year’s Graduation Speeches

Now the problem was that, after eight years of acting professionally, I realized that I wasn’t content. On the outside, it seemed that I had everything one could want. I was supporting myself as an actor, I was working on Spider-Man, I was working with people like Robert De Niro, Willem Dafoe and Kirsten Dunst. But I still wasn’t satisfied. Something was off. I wanted something more.

And what was worse was that I couldn’t complain about it because, well, I’d look like a douche. “Oh, poor you, you have to act in Spider-Man? Boo-hoo.” But in fact, I felt trapped. As an actor, I wasn’t allowed to do all the things I was interested in.

So I went back to school, and that’s where my life changed. When I’d been at school the first time, I was there as a compromise with my parents. But when I went back, I was there for myself. And that made all the difference. I wanted to learn.

And if you know anything else about me, you’ll know that I went to a lot of schools after that. I was addicted. I think some people actually wanted to put me away. But what I found was that life is not a fixed journey, it is open. I didn’t have to stay one thing, I could always be learning.

After going back to school, I studied all the things I was interested in with incredible people in each of those fields. And now I not only act, I do—well, I do everything. Well, not really, but I do everything that I’m interested in. Well, almost everything. I probably could have said no to that hosting the Oscars thing. But the point I’m making is that, because I pursue what interests me and excites me, my life is mine to control.

And that’s my little bit of wisdom to you. Don’t be afraid to be beginners. Don’t think that this marks the end of your learning. This should be the start. Now, you don’t have to lose your mind and go to every school like I did, but be a little bit like Steve Jobs. Every once in awhile, try a calligraphy class because you don’t know where it will lead. Just think—if Steve hadn’t taken that class, we wouldn’t have Cambria and Baskerville Old Face, Helvetica or Lucida Sans Unicode.

Now, here’s just a few more suggestions that I think will make life better: Find your gang. Life is better when it is in the company of others. If you’re a loner, that’s fine. I was a loner once, too. But you will only get better at whatever it is you do if you have a group of similarly engaged people. They will give you feedback, inspire you and hopefully do better work than you, and push you to rise to their level.

Do what you love, at least a little bit. And if you have to do something else in order to support what you love, do it. Hell, work at McDonald’s. And if you really love something, you’ll do whatever it takes to support that thing. I like to think that, if I hadn’t been cast in Freaks and Geeks when I was young and just didn’t quite get a leg up in a Hollywood, that I would still be making movies in some way or another, even if it meant I made my living by other means.

Do what you have to do to work on your passions. Just don’t get stuck in the side job. And if you find that you’ve worked yourself in a well-worn groove, then be a beginner at something. And don’t ever let fear or the little demon that says you ought to do this and you shouldn’t do that ever keep you from pursuing what you love.

And finally, I found that this is the most important to me—be generous. You are the elite of the nation. You’re Ivy League, baby. You’ve obviously worked very hard to even be admitted here. And now that you’ve gone through the gauntlet, you’re even smarter.

Not everyone gets to have such an education. So when you have the chance, when you’re that amazing biochemist or out in Wall Street snorting cocaine off hookers with Leonardo DiCaprio, take a little time to give back. I’ve been teaching for the past six years. Not because I have to—I have a job—but because it’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I’ve spent so much of my life focused on myself, developing myself as an actor and a poet and novelist and painter and whatever—you get the point—after doing all that, the opportunity to give back, to help others achieve their dreams is such a relief.

From someone who’s been in some of the biggest movies ever made, who got invited to Lady Gaga’s 30th birthday party, who’s gone to half the colleges in the United States, one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done is give myself to others. So congratulations to all of you. You are the best our country has to offer. So please, go out, be generous and be good. Thank you.

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’

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

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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