Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman has given an uplifting and highly personal speech to graduating students at Harvard – twelve years after her own graduation from the prestigious Ivy League school.
The Israeli-born star described the experience as “one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been asked to do”, and told students not to fear their own limitations – as well as sharing her own memories from her university days, describing the creative challenges of shooting a period film entirely in Hebrew and labelling herself a typical Jewish mother.
The 33-year-old said that being unaware of how “woefully unprepared” she was to portray a ballerina in the 2010 film Black Swan – for which she won her Academy Award for Best Actress, having met her husband-to-be on set – was “the risk that led to one of my greatest personal and professional achievements”.
She opened her speech by admitting that she had no hope of making a speech of the calibre of her cohort’s commencement speaker – the comedian Will Ferrell, and admitted: “12 years after graduation, I am insecure about my own worthiness”.
Despite graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology – having arrived in 1999 with several Hollywood films already under her belt – and serving as a research assistant to prominent legal theorist Alan Dershowitz, Ms. Portman said that she “felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough” and worried that people would assume she was given her place because of her existing fame.
She joked that every Sunday she burns a small effigy to the “Pagan gods of grade inflation” after managing to pass heavy courses in Neurobiology and Advanced Modern Hebrew Literature that she “should have failed”.
The mother-of-one implored students not to focus on the “prize” of their degrees from the world’s top university but their “reason behind it”.
She said: “my Harvard degree represents, for me, the curiosity and invention that were encouraged here, and the friendships I’ve sustained”.
Portman said her time at Harvard stoked her passion to tell stories – and shared her experiences as a novice director and screenwriter working on her first feature film.
She said: “I just directed my first film, a Tale of Love and Darkness, and was quite blind to the challenges ahead of me.
“The film is a period film completely in Hebrew, in which I also act with an eight-year-old child actor.
“All these are challenges I should have been completely terrified at, and I was completely unprepared for them but my complete ignorance to limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director’s chair.
“The experience was the deepest and most meaningful one of my career.
“Now clearly I’m not urging you to go and perform heart surgery without the knowledge to do so!”
Despite her uncertainty, Portman’s adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir received a nomination for the prestigious Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera) award at this month’s Cannes Film Festival.
The actress also joked that the sight of her three year old son playing an arcade game had brought out the “Jewish mother in her” – and had her instantly imagining him as a professional baseball player.
She said: “The other day I went to an amusement park with my soon-to-be four-year-old soon and watched him play arcade games.
“He was incredibly focused throwing his ball at the target – Jewish mother that I am, I get twenty steps ahead and was already imagining him as a major league player!”
Closing the speech, she quoted acclaimed Jewish theologian and thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“To be or not to be is not the question – the vital question is how to be and how not to be.
“I can’t wait to see how you do all the beautiful things that you do.”