Tulane University 2017
Don’t be afraid of fear…Throw caution to the winds, look fear straight-away in its ugly face, and barge forward. And when you get past it, turn around and give it a good swift kick in the ass.
President Fitts, Members of the Board, Faculty, Parents, Friends, the brilliant Branford Marsalis, the indomitable Diane Nash, the fascinating Shelley Taylor, RipTide the Pelican, and last but certainly never least, the great graduating class of 2017 – my greetings to you all.
And to all the graduates — the families here, the moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and live-in lovers, not just hello, but congratulations! We salute you. And to the students. You did it! All those classes, all those essays, all those discussions and lectures, all those nights at the computer… and perhaps a greater test of endurance, all those nights at the Camellia Grill, the F&M and all those parties. And yet here you are, you finished the race, you made it through. Now you just have to listen to one more person talk — and I will do my best to not make it a lecture.
President Fitts, thank you for that lovely introduction
And I want to assure to you, you can relax, I’m prepared, I’ve done my homework for today.
Whenever I take on a role, I do my research to truly understand the character I’m playing. When I played a secret agent in Red, I learned how to fire a gun; when I played the Queen, I learned how she interacts with her advisers; and when I played a sadistic, horrible teacher in Teaching Mrs. Tingle, I went to observe some professors at LSU.
They taught me everything.
And to prepare for today, I did my research on what people expect from a commencement speaker. There are hundreds of tips out there — but really just three big ones.
First — Keep it short. No one wants to hear a 30-minute speech. So, that’s it, I’m done, see you at the bar. Make mine a vodka martini with a wedge of lime. The lime is because I’m a health fanatic.
The second point about commencements speeches: Talk about your journey and connect it to everything you have in common with the audience. So, today’s speech will contain advice for any of you born in England who decide to become Shakespearean actresses, and end up doing nude scenes in 10 films. I mentioned that just to see if any of your fathers are getting out their cellphones now to Google me. Dads. Stop. Inappropriate. Put it away. I mean the phone!
And number three. Everyone advises a commencement speaker to say one thing that the students will remember 40 years from now. Now that was hard — it took me weeks to come up with it. And then it came to me, something that I believe you will remember in the year 2057 because it is so true. Here it is. Get ready. “Whether you’re in the French Quarter or the Oval Office, no good can ever come from tweeting at 3 a.m.”
Speaking of 3 a.m., it’s great to be back in a city where I never seem to get to bed before 3 a.m.
Spending the past few days reacquainting myself with New Orleans, going to dinner, walking around your campus, I have just one question: Why the hell are you graduating? What possible reason is there to leave here and go find jobs? It makes no sense. It’s not too late, tell the dean to keep your diplomas and go back to your dorm.
Now, I am not a New Orleans virgin. I have loved The Big Easy all the way back to when Taylor brought me here to introduce to the city he loves just as much as he loves his hometown of Los Angeles. In fact, the first words out of my mouth as we turned off the 10 for the quarter and I looked down from the ramp was: “I want to die in this place.”
For a while, we owned a home here, and my stepson Rio started his bar empire here — Pal’s Lounge midtown and One Eyed Jack’s in the Quarter—and thank you for supporting it with your parents’ hard-earned money.
So, I am still a tourist here, but one with history. New Orleans is my spiritual, artistic home.
After all, it was inevitable that I would fall for a place where it is virtually obligatory to have at least one feathered costume in your wardrobe at all times, a city where you can walk the streets with a cocktail in your hand, let alone one where you can turn a corner at 5:00 in the morning to find a solitary sax player providing the soundtrack to your morning commute.
It’s funky, it’s beautiful, it’s raunchy, it’s sophisticated and elegant, it’s raw and imaginative and witty — violent and sleepy — believe me – long after you graduate, New Orleans will remain a part of your soul.
Okay, four minutes in. This is the exact moment in a traditional commencement speech where the speaker tries to share some pearls of wisdom.
And I will try to rise to the challenge for today is a big moment in your lives. You arrived as nervous, excited freshmen about to enter the uncertain world of higher education…and you now leave as nervous and excited seniors about to enter the even more uncertain world of adulthood. Hello cell phone bills, hello rent, hello car insurance, hello office politics, hello Netflix subscriptions, hello ambition, hello disappointment, and hello to the nerve-wracking yet heady moments when nothing goes to plan…and also hello to those rare, but more exciting and headier moments when something does actually go to plan.
Some of you have a clear idea of a plan and where adulthood will take you. You have known since you were 5 years old. Others of you have no idea, but don’t worry, both ways work. My nephew left school at 16, became a bartender in London and then a plasterer and finished up as a successful writer in Hollywood. I did not go to drama school, as I very much wanted to, but instead went to a teacher’s training college, where I didn’t want to go. We both, my nephew and I, ended up where we were supposed to be.
The trick is to listen to your instinct, grab the opportunity when it presents itself and then give it your all. You will stumble and fall, you will experience both disaster and triumph, sometimes in the same day, but it’s really important to remember that like a hangover, neither triumphs nor disasters last forever. They both pass and a new day arrives. Just try to make that new day count.
And to help you along the way, I want to share a few rules that I picked up during my life of disasters and triumphs. I call them “Helen’s Top 5 Rules for a Happy Life.”
Rule number one: Don’t need to rush to get married. I married Taylor a lot later in my life and it’s worked out great. And always give your partner the freedom and support to achieve their ambitions.
Number two: just treat people like people. A long, long time ago, an actress friend of mine did the most simple thing that taught me a huge lesson. We were in the backseat of a car being driven to the location where we were filming, and she was a smoker, in the prehistoric days when you could smoke in a car, and she got her cigarettes out and before she lit up, she offered the driver one. So simple, but, you know? Thoughtful. To her, he wasn’t a “driver person,” but a “person person” who might want a smoke. Today she would probably be arrested for attempted murder but that’s a lesson I never forgot, and I am grateful to my actress friend to this day. So, remember that every single person, whether they have dominion over your life or not, deserves equal respect and generosity.
And an addendum to rule No. 2. No matter what sex you are, or race, be a feminist. In every country and culture that I have visited, from Sweden to Uganda, from Singapore to Mali, it is clear that when women are given respect, and the ability and freedom to pursue their personal dreams and ambitions, life improves for everyone. I didn’t define myself as a feminist until quite recently, but I had always lived like a feminist and believed in the obvious: that women were as capable and as energetic and as inspiring as men. But to join a movement called feminism seemed too didactic, too political. However, I have come to understand that feminism is not an abstract idea but a necessity if we — and really by “we,” I mean you guys — are to move us forward and not backward into ignorance and fearful jealousy. So now, I am a declared feminist and I would encourage you to be the same.
Oh, and addendum to the addendum — never again allow a group of old, rather grumpy, rich white men define the health care of a country that is 50.8% women and 37% other races.
Okay, back to the rules.
Three: Ignore anyone who judges the way you look, especially if he or she is some anonymous creep lurking on the Internet. And if you are that person lurking on the Internet — STOP IT, just stop it, go outside and DO something.
Number Four: don’t be afraid of fear. Those words bring me back to my grammar school and our headmistress, Mother Mary Mildred, an ancient Nun — is there any other type? — with one drooping eyelid and a lifetime lived behind the walls of a convent. She said those words to me the moment I walked into her class, a trembling 11 year old about to enter high school. Sixty years later and I will never forget those words or that teacher. I think what she meant was, don’t let fear rule you. Now, mind you, sometimes it’s wise to be afraid, like when you are about to take a dive into a pool with not enough water in it. Or drive a car drunk. In moments like those — be afraid, be very afraid and absolutely don’t do it. And if you want more information on this, please visit a paraplegic ward. But for the moments when you are challenged by other fears – like “Am I good enough?” “Am I smart enough?” “Will I fail?” – throw caution to the winds, look fear straight-away in its ugly face, and barge forward. And when you get past it, turn around and give it a good swift kick in the ass. And thank Mother Mary Mildred.
And Helen’s Rule No. 5 for a happy life? Don’t overcomplicate things. You can navigate each day just by following some very practical dos and don’ts.
Like don’t put hot cups on waxed wooden surfaces.
In fact, don’t ever wax wooden surfaces.
Do say thank you when it is merited.
Don’t procrastinate… especially in saying thank you when it is merited.
Don’t lose your sense of humor.
Do confront bullies.
Do open your heart to love.
Don’t confuse sex with love. Love generally lasts longer than two minutes.
Don’t smoke tobacco… or chew it.
Don’t dive into water if you don’t know how deep it is.
And one more thing — don’t procrastinate.
Actually, I would have had more dos and don’ts but I waited until the last minute this morning to compile the list.
Wait…one more, do call your parents at least once a week. Tell them you love them. Then ask for money. Not the other way around.
And parents – and I know this is where my speech gets serious — please know that however much your children can shock and horrify you, it’s all in the natural order of things.
My parents’ generation was born at the end of one world war, survived a global economic meltdown, and then fought a second world war. And of course, for their heroic efforts, they were rewarded by my generation decided to reject everything they stood for.
And you know what? We weren’t altogether wrong.
The young never are, because they carry intrinsically within them the energy and idealism that will regenerate human life on this planet as it hurtles through time and space.
And we do need you to fix things, to make things right, to answer the big and troubling questions of this extraordinary modern world.
How is it that we have figured out how to put everything from our resting pulse rate to every book or song we’d ever want to read or listen to on our iPhones – and yet for six years we haven’t found a way to stop little children in Syria from being murdered by poisonous gas?
How is it that we have taken diseases like AIDS and turned them into manageable viruses controlled by revolutionary drugs – and yet we look around the world and see millions of people displaced, without homes, more than at any time since after World War II – suffering in teeming refugee camps?
And how is it that we have more billionaires under the age of 40 than ever before – and yet we know that the ravages of poverty which America witnessed here in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina still linger not far from the magnificence of today’s commencement?
And that’s where you guys come in. We’re counting on you. We’re counting on you to be our “Generation Empathy” – our “Generation Cares” …our “Generation Game-changers.”
That’s how I see your generation – as empathetic, caring, game-changers — but also as one that is radical, brave and often making trouble. And I hope you’ll never stop because you are doing the right things at the right time at the right age.
Simply put — your decisions, based on your instincts, are pretty well inevitably correct.
So even if you decide to come home late tonight with a tattoo from Electric Ladyland, that tattoo is right for you… unless it’s a Mike Tyson face tattoo. Those are never right.
This brings me to something that may actually tie us together: tattoos.
I know, it’s hard to believe, Dame Helen Mirren does have a tattoo. I got my tattoo when only Hells Angels, sailors and convicted felons got them. I’ll share the story.
When I was on my journey through young adulthood, in that glorious and confusing time that was the early 1970’s, I looked in a lot of different places for answers — eastern, western and all over the place.
And when I found one inspiring answer in Mayan wisdom that said so much in so few words, I had it tattooed on my left hand.
It’s a simple phrase: “Inlakesh.”
It means: “You are my other-self. We are one. I am Another Yourself.”
The Mayans were on to something.
Because if I’m you – I have a responsibility to you. If you’re me – you have a responsibility to me.
The Mayans just had a more beautiful way of saying “we’re all in this together.”
We’re all in this together — remember that, so that you can make some sense out of and fix this crazy, crazy world.
I know you’ll do it. I know that the world you will build will be so very, very different from that world my parents envisioned. A smartphone to them would have been as alien as a little green man from Mars. For you, it is just the starting point of the tools that will be at your disposal to fix all that is broken. Robotics, computer intelligence, medical advances, the constant restless search for knowledge. Your lives will be exciting, revelatory, awesome, in the truest sense of that word.
And yet, the timeless truths of our common humanity, the ones that Shakespeare, Confucius, Moses, Christ, your grandparents and the Mayans understood, those truths will never change.
You are me and I am you.
So just remember the words we talked about today – in La’kesh.
And Class of 2017 – also remember the five words I know you learned at Tulane: Laissez les bons temps rouler!