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127th Spring Commencement

Commencement Address

Marcia Gay Harden
The University Of Texas At Austin
May 22, 2010

Hey y’all! OOOOHHHWEEE! Don’t y’all look pretty in your robes? Bless your little hearts. I used to ride my little bike around this campus, dressed in yellow leggings, purple shorts, a red halter top and, of course, my orange UT hat. But because I was a DRAMA student, I had little horns on mine. It was that, “I don’t care what I look like” look that takes two hours to put together. And now here I am, just like you, in a designer gown. I’m used to a little cleavage in mine.

You know, I didn’t even go to my commencement ceremony because I wasn’t really sure that the commencement speaker had anything worthwhile to say. How WROONG I was! I have a lot to say and it’s all worthwhile. And at least you won’t play me off the stage like they do at the Oscars. And, if I do say something that you already know, you won’t respond as my 11-year-old daughter does with “I know mom. Got it.”

You guys are awesome. I don’t know how you do it. I can’t keep up. You guys have laptops, cell phones, iPods, iPads, iTunes. All we had was Izods. I actually said to my daughter the other day, “Don’t go on ‘my face’ tonight, and no ’space booking!’” But some things never change. We had the same study halls of Antone’s, Barton Springs and Hippies Hollow. Mmmmhmmm. We also had the same amazing UT football team and a super, wonderful, brilliant faculty and staff!

So, to President Powers and his wife Kim Heilbrun, to the Board of Regents, members of the faculty, in fact to all those who participated today in this grand processional — which, by the way, rivals even the Roman Catholic Church — thank you for this honor of delivering the commencement address for the victorious class of 2010! Thank you for inviting an artist to speak to a group of young, individual voices, who will possibly find that their first battle is to maintain their individualism, rather than to conform to the status quo, as they pen the scripts to their lives.

To all the many proud relatives clad in vibrant hues of tangerine, mango and burnt orange, to the mothers whose perfume sweetly scents the air, to the fathers whose worn hands absently fidget with the change in their pockets, likely hoping for a return on their great investment — you, and to the sea of caps which gently sway in this dusky evening. I thank you for allowing a mere Yankee to occupy this stage for a brief moment. Did I say Yankee? Sorry, I meant a Longhorn! We all know that the “hook” in Hook ‘em Horns means that we will “hook horns and connect, head to head.” And so, I salute you with that venerable blessing that has been passed on through the ages — Hook ‘em Horns!

What a gorgeous evening! How true: The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas!

I hail from a long line of peach cobbler loving Texans and I love this school. My dad graduated NROTC here. He called this the “Universe of Texas” and both he and my beautiful mom, Beverly, my sisters Leslie and Sheryl and their husbands, are all UT alums. And next year my niece, Bridget, will graduate from UT San Antonio.

But tonight has an unexpected resonance for me. The joy that your parents are feeling, so, too, am I. Because, like they once held you as an infant, hoping for the best the world could give you, so is there a young woman in this audience that I also held. Like they steadied you as you took your first steps, already trying to guide you in the right direction, so did I guide a young toddler. And I gave a free pass to the eye rolling during the adolescent years, I learned to text with her during the high school years — lets see: OMG, FYI, JK and, of course, LOL and WTF. I never did understand that one.

But like your parents did for you, I held my breath for her during the college years. I watched from a distance as she struggled and worked two jobs, juggled church and family and school. It was hard to imagine that that little towhead girl I once knew could handle such an overwhelming responsibility. Well, tonight my niece, Candace Ann Peyton, is graduating with a master’s in marine sciences. Where are you Candle? I am so joyously proud of you. Life is short. When will we ever have this moment again? I want you to stand up and hear you give your Aunt Marcia a big shout out.

On top of that, she returned just yesterday from the Gulf of Mexico, where she was working with other students to do important ocean research before the oil spill makes it impossible. There is another group of UT students down there trying to measure the damage and brainstorm solutions to clean up this devastating mess. We parents can let our breath out now because we can see that your generation is ready to shoulder the burdens, which are, unfortunately, being handed down to you.

In his play, “Skin of Our Teeth,” Thornton Wilder says that the thoughts and ideas of all the great men and women are already up there, in the Heavens, just waiting for us to pluck them down. So in this magical moment of reflection, as you have one foot in the doorway of tomorrow, I am going to use Snow White, the Rolling Stones, a homeless man, and Willie (Nelson) to help me out a little as we examine some of those ideas, and see if we can’t discover something wonderful about where you will place your other foot.

Did I say foot? I meant boot!

But first… Mom advice:

  • Wake up! You can’t accomplish anything by staying in bed all morning. So celebrate! Have a shot — or three — of Patron, and then get on with it!
  • Be nice. No one wants to work with a pain in the ass. Ed Harris would have never cast me in “Pollock” if I was a diva.
  • Never give up. My acting teacher, Lee Abraham, said that the thing he thought I had which made me successful was “drive.” How much you want something equals how hard you fight to get it. YOU must have tenacity. No fear. You must push, push, push. Cultivate your drive.
  • Nobody’s perfect. People ask me all the time, “How do you do it? How do you juggle family and work and a busy life?” The balls drop! All the time! I yell at the kids, or get a parking ticket, whatever. You just pick them up and keep going. And I don’t do it alone — I have a wonderful husband who helps me every step of the way.
  • Work harder than the next guy. You’re just starting. Don’t turn things down. Work begets work!
  • Learn from you mistakes. Every success I have ever had was on the back of 300 failures.
  • Find purpose in your work: I want to share with you a little story.


Act One: (Orchestra plays music by Rolling Stones)

I had just graduated U.T. and was in D.C. waiting tables but wanting Broadway and fame and things, things, things. I simply couldn’t understand why they didn’t write “Sophie’s choice 2″ and cast me as the star. I wanted success! Vehemently.

One day I got a call from a lady who worked for the “Make a Wish Foundation” asking me to play Snow White for a young girl dying of cancer. Of course, I agreed and someone made me a Snow White outfit. I studied all the dwarfs’ names so I didn’t say Dumpy and Humpy, and I generally prepared as an actor for the role. The day before I was to go to the hospital, I got a call to audition for an Oliver Stone movie called “Born on the Fourth of July” that was coming to town. I knew that if I got this role, my career would begin. The problem was, he only had one day to see people and it was, of course, the same day as I was to play Snow White. I desperately tried to get Oliver Stone to reschedule. Not a chance. The next day, I drove to the hospital in my Snow White outfit, the top down on the yellow VW convertible slugbug, pissed off about the audition and chain smoking cigarettes and crying.

I ran into the hospital to make one last-ditch phone call at the pay phone.

“And why can’t you be here?” they said.

“Because,” I sobbed, “I am playing Snow White for a cancer charity! OK?” I could see my streaked and distorted face in the reflection of the metal on the pay phone, and I could also see the guy behind me in a wheel chair looking horrified and sort of slowly rolling back. And I am embarrassed to admit that I even wondered if this were the only role I would ever get in life — playing Snow White for a charity!

I ran down the hall to her room and saw at the end of the hall her mother with a bag of presents, some Barbies and her sister with a camera, her doctor with a Yarmulke on his head and a black nurse with a cross. If it had been a movie, you would have said “no waaaaaayyy, there wouldn’t be all those obvious symbols and subtext,” but there they were. When I walked into Bonnie’s room, I saw a wee girl on a cot. She was seven with the body of a five-year-old. She was pale, bald and frail.

As I gave her the Barbies, I spoke to her in dulcet tones about Dopey and Grumpy — how sad they were they couldn’t be there. And she cut me off.

“Snow White,” she said. “When I die, will the prince kiss me and then I’ll wake up again?”

I was floored. It had never occurred to me that she wanted anything other than a Disney experience. What she wanted was a second chance. I didn’t know what to say. I had no script and figured with a name like Bonnie she likely wasn’t Jewish, but should I talk of Jesus?

An eternity passed wherein my critical mind was beating myself up for even thinking about me. “This is about Bonnie! About Bonnie!” What I did say, or was perhaps guided to say, was “Bonnie, it is much better than that. When you die, God kisses you, and you wake up again.”

She looked at me, disappointed that it wasn’t the perfect Disney ending, but I saw a flicker of gratitude that I hadn’t lied. Then her sister asked her to say “hello” to her dad on the camera. He couldn’t be there. Of course they were struggling financially with the hospitals bills and he was at work.

Bonnie refused to say “hello,” and finally I said, “Oh Bonnie, it would mean so much to him,” and she looked at the camera and said “Goodbye Daddy. I love you.”

In that seminal moment I realized that what I had wanted was not what I had needed.

You can’t always get what you want but if you try, sometime, you just might find you get what you need.

I had needed something spiritual. I had needed to know that my work could be used for something other than the red carpet. I needed to know that art had the potential to heal. I had been given a purpose other than myself.

This purpose has given me much joy — from performing in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” a play about religious intolerance, government corruption and homosexuality, where literally, young men would come up to me after the show and say, “I just want you to know that I took my parents to see this play and then I told them that I was gay,” or even, for some, “I told them that I was dying of Aids.”

And last year on Broadway, I had an absolutely joyful time beating up tough man James Gandolfini. When you find purpose in your work, you will also find joy.

And now, for a brief commercial break: Commencement speech trivia:

Did you know that, according to research, the longest commencement speech ever given was at Harvard in the early 19th century? It was six hours long, with the first half delivered in Latin and the second half in Greek. Afterward, the students were given a test on it. And now, as much as I might like to break that record, Sergio Kindle has given me his No. 2 jersey as a little reminder of what you do to quarterbacks who hold on to the ball too long. So lets move on to:

Act Two: (Orchestra plays from Willie Nelson’s “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground”)

You are going to leave here and you are going to have struggles. You won’t have enough money, you’ll go through heartbreaks, and sometimes it will all just seem too hard. Too much struggle.

Once, when I was poor and sick and going through a hard time in New York, a homeless man approached me on the street to comfort me. “Whatchu crying for baby?” I explained that I was cold and my feet were wet with the snow and I had a fever and no one was casting me.

He said, “You got a home?”
“Yes,” I sniffled.
“You got a job?”
“Yes.”
“You got a family what loves you?”
“Yes.”
“Mmmmmhmmmm. Get your self to work then girl.”

Gratitude seems so obvious, but we forget it all the time.

Don’t waste your time whining about what you don’t have. You have a lot! You have to be grateful for what you do have, and then, give back.

Our human condition encompasses many contradictions. This is the world in which we live — fractured by vast inequities, intolerance, corruption and cruelty on the one hand, and yet exalted by ideals of democracy, beauty and compassion on the other. It is my job, as an actor, to illuminate this double-sided human condition, and it is essential that I am truthful in my work so that you will have empathy and recognize yourself, and you will recognize something, which resonates with the music of your human struggle.
And if you really want to magnify the symphony of life, which lives within you, make a difference and help someone else in their struggle. Because if it is the artists’ job to illuminate the human condition, perhaps it is fair to say that it is all of our jobs to uplift the human condition.

So, as you are writing the script to your life, if you choose to include a mandate that you also shoulder the burdens of your neighbors, near and far, I can guarantee you that it will enrich your symphony. OK, for some of you it won’t be a symphony, but whatever the music. I don’t know — you can back it up with junk in your trunk, whatever, it will bring you joy. The joys which resonate for me, I have come to learn over the years, are the joys of human connection and love. These are universal truths.

I am loathe to give you clichés like “the world is your oyster” because they are designed more to make you feel good about yourselves rather than prepare you for the tasks at hand. You wouldn’t want cliché’s anyway because you already know so much more than I did at your age.

Just know that you will have to step it up. You will have to do better than we did. Just as every four years at the Olympics a new record is broken, so will you have to set new standards of excellence. And I am embarrassed to say that you will inherit a lot of clean up from my generation. Our ancient aquifers are being drained, but from the environmental school I hear “We got it Mom, and we’re on it.”

Wall Street and greed are now synonymous, and from the business school I hear, “We got it Mom. We’re on it.”

Human atrocities are committed worldwide. From the law school: “We got it Mom. We’re on it.”

And an oil spill bleeds black the pearl you were about to pluck from the oyster, and from the marine science school, “We got it Aunt Marcia. We’re on it.”

You will have to say “NO” to much of what we have all said “yes” to for so long. And it will be hard, it will be a struggle, but you can do it. You got it. You’re on it.

When your story gets too fractured — as it will — look for angels. They are usually just ordinary people, even a homeless man, who will remind you to be grateful for the things in life which you value the most. And when you ease some one else’s struggle, you may be the angel flying too close to the ground.

Act Three: (Orchestra plays from Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack to “Into the Wild”)

I had just won the Oscar, had three beautiful children and a hottie for a husband, and I was considered a great success. But it was also the year my dad passed away and our country was at war. I woke up and wondered where my joy had gone? Why didn’t my laughs come from my belly anymore? I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed so hard I that cried. I was looking at my calendar and was saying “Ok, let me just get through this film, ‘Into the Wild,’ and then lets get through this family vacation to Greece, then I’ve got the kids school,” and suddenly I stopped.

What was I saying? Let me get through this film — this great glorious film with my friend Sean Penn? This film that celebrates the journey into nature as one of the most authentic we can make? Let me get through it? Let me get through the family vacation to visit an old friend on a beautiful island in Greece? Let me get through it? And then what? What happens after I get through it? What happens after I check off yet another event in my life? Do I finally start living?

I realized that I was not feeling joy because I was not in the moment. This is what an actor does. We must be in the moment. But I was not in the moment. I was too busy looking at the next act, but with my heart burdened by the act before. And the passion and enjoyment of the process were missing. I had been following the status quo of a linear line to the top. I was following someone else’s script, and I had to rethink the model.

In this great wave of change of which you are sitting in the sweet part of the wave, rethink the model.

Be in the moment. Write your own script. Don’t change the world because you judge the world. Change the world because you love the world. Even my father, a military officer, would say: “Don’t be the architect of war. Be the architect of peace.”

And the answer to peace is sustainable energy. Insist upon corporate accountability. Go “green.” Uphold our Constitution. Be aware. Make a difference. Give back. But remember that even as we are solving world hunger and curing cancer and fighting for human rights, we must replenish our souls with the things which we love.

  • Travel the world. Learn a new hobby. Read.
  • Go visit our National Parks! As you lose yourselves in their splendor, you will take one of the most spiritual, authentic journeys to creation, and to God, possible.
  • Learn a new language — maybe even sign language.
  • Continue learning. Go to the Web site, Ted Talks. I am not even going to tell you about it. Just go there. It’s awesome. And continue learning.
  • Tuck your children in at night. Read to them.
  • Dance.
  • Drop it pop it polka dot it. Pursue your joy.
  • And save a little chapter in your script for your mom and dad. They are, after all, a small part of your authorship. If they’re doing their job, your dad will always have your back. And you mom will be your fiercest advocate, your loudest cheerleader and, if she’s at all like my mom, she will be your best friend who still wants the best for you that the world has to give.

Act Four:

Act Four has no title, because it is your act. You are the continuous play, the never-ending story.

Be your own hero.

We began this evening by talking about “joy.” In closing, I want to share with you the sounds of a father’s joy as he celebrates his daughter’s graduation.

Ladies and gentlemen, John Peyton.

(She listens as John Peyton, father of graduate Candace Ann Peyton, plays a vibrant tune on his harmonica.)

Now that’s joy! Go find yours!