James Franco – actor, director, writer, artist and perpetual student – told members of the Class of 2016 he could have been a Cornell student decades ago.
“Twenty years ago, I was almost a student here. Cornell University actually accepted me,” said Franco, who delivered the Senior Convocation address May 28. “I still tell people that I was accepted at an Ivy League school … it was the cold one in the middle of nowhere, but it was still an Ivy.”
Franco spoke in Schoellkopf Stadium on a day that was anything but cold.
Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff introduced Franco, remarking, “It’s just another regular day in Ithaca – 90 degrees and hanging with James Franco.”
Kotlikoff described Franco as “someone whose career embodies the experimentation and energy of youth, as well as a remarkable capacity for education, insatiable creativity and more talent and daring than most of us could possibly imagine.”
Franco, who chose the University of California, Los Angeles, over Cornell, ended up dropping out to pursue acting, Kotlikoff said. But he described how Franco returned to education a decade later “at a frenetic pace,” graduating from UCLA and then enrolling in four graduate programs. Franco has since received an M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University and has entered Yale’s doctoral program in English – while continuing to write, act and direct.
Franco said that although he found success and acclaim in his early starring roles – like the TV cult classic “Freaks and Geeks” and TV bio “James Dean,” as well as in the “Spider-Man” movies and “127 Hours” – and had lead roles in “Milk,” “Pineapple Express” and others, he wasn’t satisfied.
“If you know anything about me, you probably know that I’ve played a lot of characters who actively partake in the use of marijuana,” Franco said. “Actually, that’s often the only thing people know about me. And I don’t know whether I should take that as a compliment of my acting abilities – because I actually don’t smoke weed – or if I just have a naturally stoner’s demeanor that lends itself to movies like ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘This Is the End.’
“But in fact, for most of my adult life I’ve done the opposite of checking out – I’ve been struggling to find a way to check in,” he said.
Franco said he “had chosen not to play it safe, and to follow my dreams, so I reasoned that I’d better work hard at it. … So I went back to school. And that’s where my life changed.” This time, he was there because he really wanted to learn, he said.
“Because I’ve pursued what interests me and what excites me, my life is mine to control. And that’s my little bit of wisdom to you,” Franco said. “Don’t be afraid to be beginners. Don’t think that this marks the end of your learning – this should be the start.
“You don’t have to lose your mind and go to every school like I did, but be a bit like Steve Jobs – every once in a while, try a calligraphy class, because you don’t know where it will lead,” he said, recalling how Jobs, before dropping out of college himself, had taken a calligraphy class, which shaped the look and user experience of Apple’s first Macintosh operating system.
Franco also told the Class of 2016:
• “Find your gang. Life is better when it is in the company of others. If you’re a loner, that’s fine – I was a loner once, too. But you will only get better at whatever it is you do if you have a group of similarly engaged people. They will give you feedback, inspire you, and hopefully do better work than you, and push you to rise to their level.”
• “Do what you love, at least a little bit. And if you have to do something else in order to support what you love, do it. … Do what you have to do to work on your passions; just don’t get stuck in the side job.”
• “I’ve found that this is the most important to me – be generous. You are the elite of a nation. You’re Ivy League, baby. You’ve obviously worked very hard to even be admitted here. And now that you’ve gone through the gauntlet, you’re even smarter. So when you have the chance … take a little time to give back.”
Franco said he has been teaching for the past six years and described it as “one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. … [to] give myself to others.”
John Lowry, senior class president, said he has learned “the easy answers to hard questions are rarely the right answers.
“The world’s greatest movements and ideas have emerged from those who have dared to challenge what others saw as futile … what others took to be immovable, fundamental, natural,” Lowry said. “If Cornell has taught us anything, it is to not always think as others do. To not always be as others are. To not always take for truths what others take to be true. Ezra Cornell lived by these principles, and so can we all.”
Also during Convocation, Senior Class Campaign co-chairs Garrison Lovely and Natalie Rosseau announced a class gift of $50,000 to support departments, programs, student organizations, financial aid and other areas of the university.