Robert De Niro stated the truth at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts graduation on Friday: “You made it — and, you’re f—ed.”
At the Madison Square Garden-set ceremony, he bluntly noted that graduates with degrees in nursing, dentistry, business, law and education all have a future of stability ahead of them — a choice those other students made using reason and logic, but one that the crop of performers could not ever make.
“You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can’t fight it — you just go with it,” he explained. “When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren’t just following dreams, you’re reaching for your destiny. … You’re an artist — yeah, you’re f—d. The good news is that’s not a bad place to start.”
The actor and Tribeca Film Festival co-founder continued his frank speech by clarifying what’s ahead. “Now that you’ve made your choice — or, rather, succumbed to it — your path is clear. Not easy, but clear. You have to keep working, it’s that simple. You got through Tisch, that’s a big deal. Or, to put it another way, you got through Tisch? Big deal!
“A new door is opening for you — a door to a lifetime of rejection. It’s inevitable,” he warned of post-graduate life. “How do you cope? I hear that Valium and Vicodin work! … You don’t want to block the pain too much. Without the pain, what would we talk about?”
“Rejection might sting, but my feeling is that often, it has very little to do with you. When you’re auditioning or pitching, the director or producer or investor may have someone different in mind, that’s just how it is. That happened recently when I was auditioning for the role of Martin Luther King in Selma! Which was too bad because I could’ve played the hell out of that part — I felt it was written for me! But the director had something different in mind, and she was right. It seems the director is always right.”
He then laid out a few universal industry tips:
Your job is to help the director. “The way the director gets to be right is you help him or her be right. … You’ve been hired because the director saw something in your audition, your reading, in you that fit their concept. You may be given the opportunity to try it your way, but the final decision will be the director’s. … It’s best when you can work it out together.”
Collaboration lends itself to leadership. “As a director or a producer, you also have to be true to yourself and to the work. … The power doesn’t come from the title, the power comes from trust, respect, vision, work and again, collaboration. You’ll probably be harder on yourself than any director. I’m not telling you to go easy on yourselves, I assume you didn’t pick this life because you thought it would be easy. You may have to answer to a director, but you always have to answer to yourself.”
Be brave. He also shared advice he tells his children: “Whatever you do, don’t go to Tisch School of the Arts. Get an accounting degree instead,” he joked. Then I contradict myself, and as corny as it sounds, I say, Don’t be afraid to fail. I urge them to take chances, to keep an open mind, to welcome new experiences and new ideas. I tell them that if you don’t go, you’ll never know. You just have to go out there, be bold and take your chances.”
Always do your best. “You’re not responsible for the entire job, but your part in it. … You will put your everything into everything you do. You won’t judge the characters you play, and you shouldn’t be distracted by judgments on the works you’re in. Whether you’re working for Edward or Rico Fellini or Martin Scorsese, your commitment and your process will be the same.”
Rejection — it isn’t personal. The actor suggested a mantra for the new grads: “Next!” a phrase to be shouted when “you didn’t get that part” or “you didn’t get that waiter’s job at the White Oak Tavern. … There will be times when your best isn’t good enough. There can be many reasons for this, but as long as you give your best, it’s okay. Did you get straight A’s in school? If you did, good for you, congratulations. But in the real world, you’ll never get straight A’s again.”
Stay in touch. Pointing to the multiple films he’s made with Scorsese, he said, “Treasure the associations and friendships and working relationships with the people in your classes and your easily work. You never know what might come from it,” he said in closing. “I’m here to hand out my pictures and resumes to the directing and producing graduates!”
Watch the full speech here.