Home > News & Events > Podcasts > Actor Matthew Modine at Commencement 2008

Actor Matthew Modine at Commencement 2008

Matthew Modine at Commencement 2008
May 23, 2008 |
| [listen now]

Commencement 2008

Matthew Modine—director, screenwriter, and the veteran of more than 50 films—delivered the keynote address at Goucher College’s 117th Commencement on Friday, May 23, 2008. Read more.

Matthew Modine - Keynote Address

Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2008, deciding what to say today has been one of the most challenging things I have ever done. What could I say that might give you a boost up or grease the wheels for the journey ahead for you?

Dispensing advice is hard, especially to people you don’t know. Opinions are like belly buttons: Everybody has one. Some of yours are pierced … which I think is weird. Others are filled with lint – like mine.

Innies and outties, all the result of having been cut and tied, severing the cord that connected us all at one time to our mothers.

This is getting weird ... so I’m going to move on.

I was having Chinese food the other day and thought that part of the enjoyment of chop suey and moo goo gai pan was finishing it and getting to the fortune cookie. I’ve brought some with me to demonstrate my point.

The funny thing about fortunes cookies – and fortunetellers – is that they often assume that things are not great in your life, or they tend to state the obvious: ‘You’re going to meet a stranger’ or ‘You will take an unexpected trip.’ This stranger you’re going to meet could be the busboy, and the trip might only be to the toilet.

If the message in your fortune cookie isn’t relevant, you’ll leave it on the table. But if the fortune strikes a chord, speaks to a hidden desire, offers hope or promise of a better tomorrow, you might fold it up and take it with you.

Making that fortune cookie fortune become a reality is what I would like to talk to you about today. There are a couple simple keys to making fortunes become reality.

Show up. Woody Allen said that 99 percent of success is showing up. Stanley Kubrick said that sometimes the hardest thing about directing a movie is getting out of the car when you arrive at work.

To make your fortune come true, you’ve got to show up. You’d be surprised by how many unbelievably talented people I have met in my life that wanted to become someone or to do something, but they didn’t show up for an appointment.

Tell the truth. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, telling the truth would be it . The long-term benefits of telling the truth may not make sense to you today, but 20 years from now, you’ll know what I mean. Lies simply get you and others in trouble. It’s easier to tell the truth than to lie, and the truth is easier to remember.

Continue to learn.

Continue to be curious.

Continue your education.

Keep your mind open to alternative ways of thinking and problem solving. Life is not something that we ever truly master. It’s a practice. So practice. As the saying goes, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. Practice. Practice.’

Enjoy your youth and respect your elders. And vice versa.

Someone – an actor, perhaps – said, ‘When you are old enough to play Hamlet, you’re too young to understand it. When you’re old enough to understand it, you’re too old to play it.’ This is one of the conundrums of youth. It’s a good play. If you haven’t already, you should read the play. It’s good. Very uplifting. By the end, everyone is dead.

This is the best advice I ever received about how we look. My acting teacher, Stella Adler, said, ‘If you’re not pretty when you’re 20, it’s not your fault. If you’re not beautiful when you’re 30, it is.’

If you’re beautiful when your 20, you’re lucky. And we adore you, but secretly we’re all jealous, and we hate you. Right now you are at the height of your physical power. Unless you’ve gained weight from the school’s catering.

Your eyes are still good. You can party and stay up late and yet still wake up and go to work. This won’t last. And partying becomes less and less and less attractive with each passing year.

Now that you’re being thrown out into the wilds of nature, you’ll lose those extra pounds you’ve put on during college. Now you will be forced to forage like wild animals for worms and grubs as you go off to find work and shelter.

We parents will take pleasure in your starvation because we know the only time you will ever come home is for food. And, yes, to ask your mom to do your laundry. We parents will use food as a form of bribery to regain our superiority. Which leads me to imagination.

Develop your imagination. Go to museums and study art. Be curious about how things are made and what goes into making them. The best way for you to shape your future is to first imagine your future. Then you can go about designing it.

My life and my career came to be by first imaging how I wanted to live and what I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to be an actor – ‘to be’ and ‘actor.’ ‘To be’ requires an understanding of who you are, which requires a bit of self-examination. Discovering who you are. Not what others think of you, not what advertisers want you to think of yourself. Not your friends or family, but you. It’s a little voice, and it’s hard to hear.

Sometimes this requires you to go away to a foreign land or some place you’re not familiar with to hear it. You really have to make an effort to hear that little voice. But what joy when you do!

‘To be’ is what separates the individual from the mass. Acting simply means doing. So to be an actor means to be yourself – doing.

Don’t confuse imagining the future with worrying about the future. Certainly we must consider the future, like chopping wood for the winter or making sure we have food in the cupboard. Imaging the future requires you to be here now. In this moment. Don’t worry about the future, but be prepared for it. Be who you want to become.

Take chances. Don’t be stupid; don’t bungee jump without a bungee cord or jump from a plane without a parachute, but do take risks. If we didn’t take risks, humankind wouldn’t have crossed the oceans or discovered new lands. We wouldn’t have gone to the moon. If you didn’t take chances, I’d bet a lot of you wouldn’t be here at this graduation today.

Do yourself a favor: At least once a year, learn a new song that makes you happy.

Carry that song in your heart. The funny thing about singing is that if you love what you’re singing, and the song means something to you, it doesn’t matter that you don’t sing well. People will hear your heart, and they will learn something about you that isn’t able to be heard any other way than by song.

Dance. The same as what I just said about learning a song.

Love. Open your heart to others and don’t be broken-hearted when it doesn’t work out the way you imagined. It rarely does. But the more your heart is open, the more opportunity you will have to find love.

And in the end, love comes most easily to those who have come to really love themselves. This may sound egocentric, but it’s not. Really, if we all loved ourselves a little bit more, the world would be quite different.

Don’t waste your time being jealous. Jealousy has to do more with you than anyone else.

It’s OK to be afraid if you don’t know what you plan on doing now that you’re graduating. I bet a lot of your parents are afraid that now that you’re out of college, you’re planning on moving back into the house. But that’s OK. You’re like geese returning to your nest and will now poop all over the place.

Don’t look to magazines as representations of how to live your life. Look at them and know that everything in them has been expensively art directed and the peoples’ faces heavily airbrushed. Magazines are not actual representations of life.

After today, many of you will never see one another again. This might be a good thing for some of you. As time goes by, you will look back on your college troubles and wish that you could have them again.

Before you say goodbye to one another today, make sure you bridge any gaps that might have occurred between one of your classmates. And if one of your classmates comes to you to ask your forgiveness, give it. Anger and grudges are poison. Forgiveness is a weapon not used often enough.

Now that you have education, I suggest you travel. Go out into the world and see what it looks like from outside the halls of education. Now that you’re book-smart, go get street-smart.

The more you travel and understand other cultures, the more you’ll see clearly that we are all one big family. The more you travel, the more you will understand that hatred is taught. No one is born into this world with anger or prejudice. This is taught. We absorb the disappointments of our parents and the society we live in. Education and travel opens the mind and exposes all of our senses to diverse cultures.

Learn to accept that tomorrow morning will be different than yesterday. It is an unarguable fact. Tomorrow you and everything else in the universe is one day older. Accepting change is a conscious step to making sure that you are present and living in the moment. It’s kind of like surfing. When you’re on a wave, you don’t think about the waves from the past or the waves you’ll ride in the future. You ride that wave. And every wave is different than the last.

Keep dreaming about that ‘great wave’ that will one day come. It will, and you’ll catch it and have a great time on it if you are prepared for it. Practice, practice, practice.

Respect your elders, but don’t hesitate to question their authority or opinions. Authority should always be questioned, and as I said before, opinions are like belly buttons.

Look for support from people you admire. Seek them out and try to discover why they are successful and why you admire them.

There are many directions you can take in your life, many different paths. Try as many as you can. If you don’t like the direction that path is taking you, take the next exit and try a new direction. Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the paths you didn’t take than the paths you did.

And finally, I leave you with advice from the songwriter Johnny Burke (music Jimmy Van Heusen.) Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing them.

Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar. And be better off than you are. Or would you rather be a mule?

A mule is an animal with long funny ears. He kicks up at anything he hears. His back is brawny and brain is weak. He’s just plain stupid with a stubborn streak. And, by the way, if you hate to go to school, you could grow up to be a mule.

Or would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar. And be better off than you are. Or would you rather be a pig?

A pig is an animal with dirt on his face. His shoes are a terrible disgrace. He’s got bad manners when he eats his food. He’s fat and lazy and extremely rude. But if you don’t care a feather or a fig, you could grow up to be a pig.

Or would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar. And be better off than you are. Or would you rather be a fish?

A fish won’t do anything but swim in a brook. He can’t write his name or read a book. To fool the people is his only thought. And though he’s slippery, he still gets caught. But if that sort of life is what you wish, you could grow up to be a fish.

And all the monkeys aren't in the zoo. Every day you meet quite a few. So you see it’s all up to you!

You can be better than you are. You could be swinging on a star!

Click here to listen to this Voicebox episode.
Back to Podcasts