Thank you faculty, administration, parents, grandparents, and, uh …. Well, I don’t know who’s all here. Thank you, everyone. Now, I’m thinking I’m sure there are some aunts and uncles here who are, like, “uh, how about a shout for us?” Fine. Aunts, uncles. We’re all here. Let’s not fight.
And, we’re all here for you guys. The Class of 2015. And, congratulations. This is a huge honor for me to get to speak to you. Honestly. Because, it’s a huge day for you…
Because today… [PLAY UP, VERY MELODRAMATIC] Today, class of 2015, you spread your wings and soar. You have climbed a mountain, but your adventure is just beginning. Before you, endless challenges and possibilities. So, stand tall and know that the wind will carry you where ever your dreams can imagine… What if this was my speech?
Seriously? There was a couple GASPS from back here. “What have we done?!” But, I saw a good number nodding. Most likely, a lot of these aunts and uncles. “Yep. That’s exactly it. He’s on point. I gotta spread my wings, ya’ll. I gotta get soaring.”
We can all relax. Especially you, parents. My main message to the graduates is one we can all get on board with, so I’ll just get right to it. Pick your favorite band and just follow them across the country. Hit the road, man.
Two, three years tops. Then, hit Europe. Just a backpack and a rail pass. Right? We’re all on the same page.
This is SO weird. Being up here. It’s weird to think I was sitting where you all are, a graduate of Latin, just 10 years ago. Whoops. My math’s off. Eight. I’m kidding. I’m 62.
Quick side note. In preparation for this, I spoke with your headmaster, Arch. I hope he doesn’t mind, but I want to share a direct and indisputable quote from him. He said, “Jim, your graduating class of 1989 and this current one, are the best Latin has ever had.” Yeah, and he continued “Every year before ‘89 and the ones between us… Meh.” “Those other classes,” and this is paraphrased or made up, “Those other classes… They did what they could. They did what they could.”
The truth is Arch did nothing but sing your praises. He was proud of all your accomplishments. And, he spoke highly of Latin. As he should. We are all very lucky to have been here. Everything that I’ve chosen to do with my life so far – acting, writing, even directing – began in some form here. And, for that, I am truly grateful.
You know, back in 1989, I thought about being this guy…
Wow. It’s as if not a day has passed. What’s my secret? Night creams. As you can see, I looked like Harry Potter. Apparently, I wore shirts that were basically blankets.
And, if you could smell this photo, it would reek of Drakkar Noir cologne. We all put on cologne like this… (DO PHYSICAL BIT) “Ready for school.”
I think about where my head was on that day. If you’re anything like me, I was thinking a lot about the unknown. That unknown being what the next year would bring. For me, that unknown would be 13th grade at a boarding school called The Lawrenceville School. My heart was set on going to Chapel Hill after Latin, but they were like, “meh.” Don’t worry. Second time was charm, I ended up going to Chapel Hill the year after. I just needed to cook a little longer.
The idea of Lawrenceville was exciting for sure. New place. New journey. A new chapter. But, a bit daunting. There was so much unknown.
Truth is, my journey from sitting right where you are now to standing here has been a series of unknowns. We all go through new chapters, new experiences. Some thrilling. Some intimidating and daunting. Some just unwanted. And, we head into each one – face the challenges within – and come out the other side hopefully better for it, or at the very least, having learned something about ourselves.
So, as you head into tomorrow and a new unknown – whatever that is – college, grade 13, this Europe plan that everyone seems on board with…
I want to share with you three things that get me through the unknowns. Three things that have allowed me to face them and come out the other side better for having gone through them.
Follow your joy.
And, embrace the power of the phrase “I don’t know.”
It’s so easy to obsess about an unknown. Trust me. I’ve mastered it. This is not a therapy session. I’m just saying… (POINT TO HEAD) This, is often my own worst enemy. This can imagine every possible outcome – from triumph to failure. And, it will, if I let it.
THIS speech was an unknown for me and I obsessed about it. For all you know, there’s nothing on these pages. It’s just a mantra over and over. “Breathe, Jim. You’re going to be fine.” Okay. One of these pages might be that.
But, I know better. How do you write a speech? You start. How do you make friends in college? How do you face an unknown? You start. How do you tackle a challenge?
Who cares what’s going to happen. The WORST outcome is looking back and regretting that you didn’t do it. That you didn’t take advantage of everything that unknown had to offer. That you didn’t just brave it. That you turned back. That’s the worst that can happen.
So, now you’re in this unknown. Your committed. Now, what?
Follow your joy.
What do I mean by that?
My biggest unknown – at the time – was my decision to move to Los Angeles after graduating from Chapel Hill. I didn’t know anyone out there. And, I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew is what I wanted was out there. So, I got a used car, put on some Drakkar Noir, and drove myself across the country.
Now, I’d love to say that Hollywood greeted me with open arms. “You’ve got a face for action movies! Literally, there’s not one bad angle on your face!”
But, my new unknown started as waiter at a corporate restaurant famous for it’s 26 types of pie. Which, inevitably, customers wanted you to list every single one of them. Even though, more often than not, they’d just say “You know what sounds good? Good old apple pie.”
And, my new unknown, was huge. I’m this big in Los Angeles. For a while, it was easy to feel overwhelmed. What became safe was to go to work, list the pies, and stare at my pager… yes pager. That’s where we were then… Stare and wait for someone to call me.
I had started, but I was taking a backseat.
Someone at work told me about The Groundlings Theater. For those who don’t know, the Groundlings is a sketch comedy and improv theater. It’s where Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig… among many others – all started. Went to see a show. That’s when I saw it. People having a blast on stage, totally in their joy.
I wanted that. Needed that.
Doing theater here at Latin fed my soul and gave me joy. So, I auditioned, got in, and began what basically became a graduate school for me in writing, performing, and directing. I found a home. And, to this day, I still teach and perform there.
Groundlings allowed me to take the large, daunting unknown and shrink it down to something familiar and safe. A place to learn. And be goofy. And creative, while I navigated the difficult hurdles of trying to be an actor in this new unknown.
It was there I met my writing/directing partner, Nat Faxon. One summer, we thought we should write a movie. “Do you know how?” “No” “Do you?” “No.” “Great let’s team up and do it.”
How do you write a screenplay? You start.
Eventually, many drafts later, we had what would become The Way, Way Back. (If you don’t know that movie – you’re dead to me.) That script would get us in the door to meet on another job to adapt the novel The Descendants. “Do you know how to adapt a novel?” “No.” “Do you?” “No.” “Cool. Let’s do it.”
How do you adapt a novel? You start. And, do many drafts. And, have an amazing mentor and fellow cowriter in Alexander Payne.
And that led us, the three of us, on this incredible journey to the stage at the Oscars to accept an Academy Award.
All because I followed my joy. None of that would have happened, if I had been complacent, rattling off pies or afraid of the unknown. Joy can carry you through and remind you why you do it in the first place.
And, finally, the power of “I don’t know.”
This has been a strong, personal lesson for me. And, one that I have to remind myself of everyday.
If you’re anything like me, sometimes I try to do everything myself. I get stressed to a point where instead of reaching out to others – even people I trust – I retreat in. I maintain I can handle the unknown. I can solve the problem. When what I’m really doing is just adding to my own stress. I’m making things more difficult on myself.
This was never more true for me than when we were shooting THE WAY, WAY BACK. After a long eight year journey of trying to get it made… Our dream was coming true. We had decided to direct it ourselves. It is now the biggest unknown I’ve ever faced. Going in, I was a bundle of stress. This baby here. In rare form.
We reached out to a friend of ours, who had just directed his own first big feature, for any advice…
He said, “Just know, you’ll be asked more questions every day than you have ever been asked in your life and you’re the only two who have the answers.”
If you were like me right then you’d say “That’s advice?”
But, he went on to add… Don’t be afraid to answer them with “I don’t know.” You have a crew there – with all this expertise in different fields. They are there to help you bring your script to life. Empower them. Tell them “Bring us three choices.” Like the costumes designer, for example. “Bring me 3 choices. What’s your favorite?” Then, agree with them or not. Make it a collaborative effort.
On the last night of shooting, I watched that lesson in action. And, it stays with me to this day. It was an exterior scene. The one night we didn’t need it to rain, it did. We had gone through this intense, tight 24 day shoot. We had been thrown so much and now we had one night to finish this movie. There was no next day – no money to afford another day… If we didn’t get what we needed before the sun came up, we would have an incomplete movie.
I shut down. The stress overwhelmed me. To come this far and fear not getting done. I went in here. I didn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, behind me, the crew was taking it upon themselves to push through the unknown. Different departments came together, climbed up on roofs, put tarps between two houses – giving us dry shelter to shoot under. That’s the power of a team. Of not going it alone.
Take solace in the fact that you are not only on your journey. You never will be. The people up this stage have mentored you. Your classmates beside you have been there for you. Your family (including aunts and uncles – I can feel your glares)… They have supported you. Championed you. And you’ll meet new friends within each unknown. New people to inspire you. To teach. Use them. Lean on them when it gets daunting. Know that there’s nothing wrong with needing help. And, do the same for them. Because they’ll need you, too.
In closing, as a writer, I know the power of a blank page. It’s daunting. It stares back at you. It’s empty. There’s a long way to go. But, I can put anything I want on there. I am in control.
You are writers. Of your own story. You are in control. Each day is a blank page. Fill it with unknowns. Fill it with joy. Fill it with the people that inspire you, and love for the journey.
Tomorrow is your blank page.
A new journey.
A new unknown.
What do you do?
Congrats to the class of 2015.
Okay. That’s enough of me. Speech over. I’m off to Europe.