Denzel Washington “Fall Forward” Commencement Speech Transcript
Actor Denzel Washington gave a commencement speech on May 16, 2011 at the University of Pennsylvania. Read the full speech transcript here.
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Denzel Washington: (00:03)
Thank you. Thank you very much. I am obviously the most unorganized. Everybody else has nice boxes to bring their script up in. I just got it all messed up here and put it inside of a magazine. So, in fact, I don’t even have it in the right order. Wait a minute, let me get it in the right order here. So if it starts flying around the stage, just run around and grab it for me and bring it back up here for me. I’ll keep going as I can.
Denzel Washington: (00:49)
President Gutmann, Provost Price, Board Chair Cohen, fellow honorees, beautiful honorees, and today’s graduates. Yeah. I’m honored and grateful for the invitation today. It’s always been great to be on the Penn campus. I’ve been here before a lot of times for basketball games. My son played at the [inaudible 00:01:22] played on the basketball team. Yeah, that’s right. Played on the basketball team. Coach didn’t give him enough playing time. We’ll talk about that later.
Denzel Washington: (01:36)
No, but I’m really pleased with the progress that Coach Allen has made and… No, I do. I am. I really am. And I hope him the best success in the future. And I always get a warm welcome when I come to Pennsylvania, when I come to Philadelphia, except on the few occasions where I wear my Yankee cap. What’s wrong with that? I can’t suddenly just switch up and wear a Philly cap. It’s taking your life in your hands around here when you wear a Yankee cap, I’m telling you. I met a couple of guys and they were like, “Hey, we love you, Denzel, but you’re walking around with that hat on, we don’t care who you are.” So you’ll be happy to see that I’m not wearing my Yankee cap today. I’m wearing my Yankee socks, my Yankee tee shirt, my Yankee jock shorts, my Yankee underwear, my Yankee toe warmers, but not my Yankee cap.
Denzel Washington: (02:42)
But still, I’ll be honest with you. I’m a little nervous. I’m not used to speaking at a graduation of this magnitude. It’s a little overwhelming. It’s out of my comfort zone. You dress me up in army fatigues or throw me on top of a moving train that someone said unstoppable, or ask me to play Malcolm X, Rubin Hurricane Carter, or Alonzo from Training Day, I can do that. But a commencement speech, it’s a very serious affair, and it’s a very different ball game. There are literally thousands and thousands of people here. And for those who say, “Well, you’re a movie star, millions of people watch you and watch you speak all the time.” Well, that’s true. That’s technically true. But I’m not actually in the theater, watching them watching me. I think that makes sense. I’m not there when they cough or fidget around or pull out their iPhones or text their boyfriend or scratch their behinds or whatever it is they’re doing in a movie theater.
Denzel Washington: (03:46)
But from up here, I can see every single one of you. And that makes me uncomfortable. So please, don’t pull out your iPhones and your texts. Don’t text your boyfriend until after I’m done. Please. If you have to scratch it behind, I understand, go ahead.
Denzel Washington: (04:09)
I was thinking about this speech, what I should say. I figured the best way to keep your attention would be to talk about something, really juicy Hollywood stuff. I thought I could talk about me and Russell Crowe getting in arguments on the set of American Gangster or… But I said, no, no, no. You’re a group of high-minded intellectuals. You’re not interested in that. Or maybe not. I thought about a private moment I had a backstage with Angelina Jolie in a dressing room after the Oscars, but I said, no, I don’t think so. This is an Ivy League school. And Angelina Jolie half naked in a dressing room, who wants to hear about that? No one, no one, no one. No one. This is Penn. That stuff would never go over well over here. Maybe at Drexel, but not over here.
Denzel Washington: (05:08)
I’m in trouble now. So I was back to square one, feeling the pressure. So, now you’re probably thinking if it was going to be this difficult, this is much pressure, why did I even accept today’s invitation in the first place? Well, my son goes here, that’s number one. That’s a good reason. And I always like to check to see how my money’s being spent. And I’m sure there’s some parents out there who can relate to what I’m talking about. Yeah. Everybody upstairs. And there were some other good reasons for me to show up. Sure, I got an Academy Award, but I never had something called a magic meatball after waiting in line for half an hour at the food truck. Yeah.
Denzel Washington: (06:09)
Yes. I talked face to face with President Obama, but I never talked face-to-face with a guy named [Queeter 00:06:15] who sings bad songs over at Smokes on Tuesday night. I never been the [inaudible 00:06:24] I never been to [Hemo’s 00:06:27]. Yes, I have played a detective who battles demons, but I’ve never been to a school in my life where the squirrel population has gone bananas. They’re breaking into dorm rooms. They’re walking around campus. I think I saw some carrying books on their way to class.
Denzel Washington: (06:48)
So I had to be here. I had to come, even though I was afraid I might make a fool of myself. In fact, if you really want to know the truth, I had to come exactly because… I had to come exactly because I might make a fool of myself. Now, what am I talking about? Here it is.
Denzel Washington: (07:09)
I found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Nothing. Nelson Mandela said, “There is no passion to be found, playing small and settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.”
Denzel Washington: (07:29)
Now, I’m sure in your experiences in school and applying to college and picking your major and deciding what you want to do with life, I’m sure people have told you to make sure you have something to fall back on. Make sure you got something to fall back on, honey. But I never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward. I figure at least this way, I’ll see what I’m going to hit.
Denzel Washington: (08:04)
Fall forward. This is what I mean. Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball, but you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward.
Denzel Washington: (08:22)
Thomas Edison conducted 1000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that. Because the 1001st was the light bulb. Fall forward.
Denzel Washington: (08:36)
Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You’ve got to take risks, and I’m sure you’ve probably heard that before, but I want to talk to you about why that’s so important. I got three reasons, and then you can pick up your iPhones.
Denzel Washington: (08:52)
First, you will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There’s no doubt about it. And I know that’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony, but hey, I’m telling you embrace it because it’s inevitable. And I should know. In the acting business, you fail all the time.
Denzel Washington: (09:18)
Early on in my career, I auditioned for a part in a Broadway musical. Perfect role for me, I thought, except for the fact that I can’t sing. So, I’m in the wings. I’m about to go on stage, but the guy in front of me, he’s singing like Pavoratti, just [inaudible 00:09:39] and he’s just going on and on and on. And I’m just shrinking. I’m getting smaller and smaller. So they say, “Oh, thank you very much. Thank you very much. You’ll be hearing from us.” So I come out with my little sheet music, and it was Just My Imagination by The Temptations. That’s what I came up with. So I hand it to the accompanyist, and she looks at it and looks at me and looks out at the director and was like, ” All right.”
Denzel Washington: (10:12)
So I start, I’m going to sing. I’m like, “It’s just my imagination once again, coming away with me.” And they’re not saying anything, so I’m thinking I’m getting better. I started getting into it. “It was just my imagination.” And they say, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Washington. Thank you.” So I assumed I didn’t get the job. But the next part of the audition, he called me back. The next part of the audition is the acting part of the audition. I’m like, “Hey, okay. Maybe I can’t sing, but I know I can act.”
Denzel Washington: (10:54)
So they pair me with this guy. And again, I didn’t know about musical theater. And musical theater is big, so they can reach everyone all the way in the back of the stadium. And I’m more from a realistic, naturalistic acting, where you actually talk to the person next to you. So I don’t know what my line was. My line was, “Hand me the cup.” And his line was, “Well, I will hand you the cup, my dear. The cup will be there to be handed to you.” I said, “Okay. Well, should I give you the cup back?” “Oh, yes. You should give it back to me because you know that is my cup and it should be given back to me.”
Denzel Washington: (11:43)
I didn’t get the job. But here’s the thing. I didn’t quit. I didn’t fall back. I walked out of there to prepare for the next audition and the next audition and the next audition. I prayed. I prayed and I prayed. But I continued to fail and fail and fail. But it didn’t matter because you know what? There’s an old saying, you hang around the barbershop long enough, sooner or later, you’re going to get a haircut. So you will catch a break. And I did catch a break.
Denzel Washington: (12:28)
Last year, I did a play called Fences on Broadway. Someone talked about it. Won the Tony Award. And I didn’t have to sing, by the way. But here’s the kicker. It was at the Cort Theatre. It was at the same theater that I failed that first audition, 30 years prior.
Denzel Washington: (12:59)
The point is, and I’ll pick up the pace, the point is every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed. But do you have the guts to fail?
Denzel Washington: (13:11)
Here’s my second point about failure. If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying. I’ll say it again. If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying. My wife told me this great expression. To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did. Les Brown’s a motivational speaker. He made an analogy about this. He says, “Imagine you’re on your deathbed, and standing around your deathbed are the ghosts representing your unfulfilled potential, the ghost of the ideas you never acted on, the ghost of the talents you didn’t use. And they’re standing around your bed, angry, disappointed, and upset. They say, ‘We came to you because you could have brought us to life,’ they say. ‘And now we have to go to the grave together.'”
Denzel Washington: (14:01)
So I ask you today, how many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes? You’ve invested a lot in your education, and people have invested in you. And let me tell you, the world needs your talents. Man, does it ever. I just got back from Africa two days ago, so if I’m rambling on it’s because I’m jet lagged. I just got back from South Africa. It’s a beautiful country, but there are places there with terrible poverty that need help. And Africa is just the tip of the iceberg. The Middle East needs your help. Japan needs your help. Alabama needs your help. Tennessee needs your help. Louisiana needs your help. Philadelphia needs your help.
Denzel Washington: (14:50)
The world needs a lot, and we need it from you. We really do. We need it from you young people. I’m not speaking for the rest of us up here, but I know I’m getting a little grayer. We need it from you, the young people, because remember this. So you got to get out there. You got to give it everything you got, whether it’s your time, your talent, your prayers, or your treasures. Because remember this, you will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. I’ll say it again. You will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you. The Egyptians tried it, and all they got was robbed.
Denzel Washington: (15:45)
So the question is, what are you going to do with what you have? I’m not talking about how much you have. Some of you are business majors. Some of you were theologians, nurses, sociologists. Some of you have money. Some of you have patience. Some of you have kindness. Some of you have love. Some of you have the gift of long-suffering. Whatever it is, whatever your gift is, what are you going to do with what you have?
Denzel Washington: (16:12)
All right. Now, here’s my last point about failure. Sometimes it’s the best way to figure out where you’re going. Your life will never be a straight path. I began at Fordham University as a pre-med student. I took a course called cardiac… I still can’t say it. It’s cardiac morphogenesis. I couldn’t read it. I couldn’t say it. I sure couldn’t pass it.
Denzel Washington: (16:43)
So then I decided to go into pre-law, then journalism. And with no academic focus, my grades took off in their own direction. Yeah, down. I was a 1.8 GPA one semester. And the university very politely suggested that it might be better to take some time off. I was 20 years old. I was at my lowest point.
Denzel Washington: (17:09)
And then one day, and I remember the exact day, March 27, 1975, I was helping my mother in her beauty shop. My mother owned a beauty shop up in Mount Vernon. And there was this older woman who was considered one of the elders in the town. And I didn’t know her personally, but I was looking in a mirror and every time I looked at the mirror, I could see her behind me. And she was staring at me. She just kept looking at me. Every time I looked at it, she kept giving me these strange looks. So she finally took the dryer off her head, and she said something I’ll never forget.
Denzel Washington: (17:41)
First of all, she said, “Somebody give me a piece of paper. Give me a piece of paper.” She said, “Young boy, I have a prophecy, a spiritual prophecy.” She said, “You are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people.”
Denzel Washington: (17:57)
Now mind you, I’m 20 years old. I’m flunked out of school. In fact, like a wise ass, I’m thinking to myself, maybe she’s got something in that crystal ball about me getting back into school next fall.
Denzel Washington: (18:09)
But maybe she was onto something. Because later that summer, while working as a counselor to YMCA camp in Connecticut, we put on a talent show for the campus. And after the show, another counselor that came up to me and asked, “Had you ever thought about acting? You’re good at that.” So when I got back to Fordham that fall, I got in and I changed my major once again, for the last time. And in the years that followed, just as that woman prophesied, I have traveled the world, and I have spoken to millions of people through my movies. Millions who, up till this day, I couldn’t see while I was talking to them and they couldn’t see me. They could only see the movie. They couldn’t see the real me. But I see you today. And I’m encouraged by what I see. And I’m strengthened by what I see. And I love what I see.
Denzel Washington: (19:20)
One more page and I’ll shut up. Let me conclude with this one final point. And actually, the president brought it up, has to do with the movie Philadelphia. She stole my material. Many years ago, I did this movie called Philadelphia. We filmed some of the scenes right here on campus. Philadelphia came out in 1993. Most of you were probably still in diapers, some of the professors too. That cracked me up. But it was a good movie. Rent it on, what do you call it? Netflix. It’s a good movie. Rent it. I get 23 cents every time you rent it. Please rent it. True. Parents up there, rent it. Netflix. Please. Tell your friends too.
Denzel Washington: (20:08)
It’s about a man, played by Tom Hanks, who’s fired from his law firm because he has AIDS. He wants to sue the firm, but no one’s willing to represent him until the homophobic ambulance chaser lawyer played by yours truly takes on the case. In a way, if you watch the movie, you’ll see everything I’m talking about today. You’ll see what I mean about taking risks or being willing to fail because taking risks is not just about going for a job. It’s also about knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It’s about being open to people and to ideas.
Denzel Washington: (20:45)
In the course of the film, the character I play begins to take small steps, small risks. He very, very, very slowly begins to overcome his fears. And I feel, ultimately, his heart becomes flooded with love. And I can’t think of a better message as we send you off today to not only take risks, but to be open to life, to accept new views and to be open to new opinions, to be willing to speak at a commencement at one of the best universities in the country, even though you’re scared stiff. While it may be frightening, it will also be rewarding. Because the chances you take, the people you meet, the people you love, the faith that you have, that’s what’s going to define you.
Denzel Washington: (21:42)
So members of the class of 2011, this is your mission. When you leave the friendly confines of Philly, never be discouraged, never hold back, give everything you got. And when you fall throughout life, and maybe even tonight after a few many glasses of champagne, remember this: fall forward. Congratulations. I love you. God bless you. I respect you.