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Remarks by Sakina Jaffrey ’84, Spring Convocation, April 30, 2014

A very warm hello to President Hill, faculty and staff, Pat Lichtenberg and the Alumni Association and especially to the graduating class of 2014.

I can’t tell you how tickled I am to address this Spring Convocation and be back on this campus that is ridiculously gorgeous even in the rain. I am guessing I was not asked back because of my philanthropic contributions to the school, which, I think, total about $120. (I know, terrible. I’ll do better!) but rather, because some of you may know me as Linda Vasquez from the Netflix show, "House of Cards."

It's probably fitting that "House of Cards" is what has brought me back to Vassar because my experiences on that show have made me reflect a lot on my time here.

I remember going to the very first table read-thru of the show. (That’s when the actors sit and read the whole script together.)

It was a room packed with Netflix executives, producers, crew, actors from New York and LA, and of course, David Fincher, our director sitting at the head of the table. And just before we got started Fincher said,” I just want you to know that every actor in this room was our first choice for the role.”

So nice, right?

And that's exactly what you were told by Vassar five years ago when you received your acceptance letters. That you were

Vassar’s first choice for the class of 2014. Out of 7,822 applicants, you were the very best.

Back to that "House of Cards" read-through.

Fincher is known in the industry as a brilliant director and as fairly intimidating. So it was a huge comfort to hear him dispense that lovely little dollop of praise. You could literally feel the entire room exhale.

Then—right after that lovely "first choice" business, about which I really was hoping to hear much more—he said something else:   

He said …"So… don’t F- it up!!!!”

Somehow, that left a much more lasting impression.

Besides being a genius. Fincher is precise and exacting. He is known for an insane attention to detail, for shooting 50 takes of close-up in a single scene, for directing actors in the minutest detail -- "Don't smile. Don't use your hands. Don't look up when you say that line.” He's also known for hating the color red and, more relevant to my particular circumstance, he is known for firing people.

So the first day of shooting I show up, and though I'm generally not daunted by much, I was pretty terrified. I am sitting opposite Kevin Spacey, (not exactly known for being a pussy cat) and I'm receiving gobs of direction from Fincher, take after take after take. I've never done so many takes in my life! It’s like running a marathon!

And Fincher seems to be saying all kinds of things to me, but all I am hearing is whoochoo, whoochoo, whoochoo, whoochoo, whoochoo, whoochoo, whoochoo, whoochoo whoochoo, whoochoo.

Absolutely nothing is going into my brain. And on top of it, I have kind of forgotten how to breathe.

This goes on for a while. Then finally, there is a moment when, thank God, Fincher leaves to obsess maniacally over some shadow being cast under my right cheekbone. I step away from the set. I go into a corner and I say to myself, “Get a grip!” You know what you are doing. You know how to act. And you are smart. You went to Vassar, for goodness sake! Psychology taught you about sociopaths like Frank Underwood, anthropology taught you about the culture of blood-sucking politicians, Chinese taught you how to decipher language. And your hardcore internship at Green Haven prison got you up close and personal with real honest-to-god killers!”

I took a deep breath, walked back on to the set, and sat in my chair. The camera started rolling. I looked into Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood eyes and I said with brutal authority, “We are not nominating you for Secretary of State.”

I am still surprised that I had to remind myself of my Vassar cred in order to get thru that first nerve-racking day. But I have no doubt that at some point, every one of you will want to reach back to your education here to validate your ticket in life.

I have to admit, the one I thing I wish I had taken while I was here was some political science. For my job, I've had to plow through political biographies, research domestic policy, and dive head-first into the alphabet soup of federal agency acronyms, DNC, D Triple C, SEC, OBM… just to be able to shoot an episode.

Now, there is a Shakespearean convention that is used just brilliantly in House of Cards. I am sure you know it—it’s called "Direct Address." It is the shattering of the fourth wall that enables the viewer to gain access to Frank Underwood’s innermost thoughts and desires. As a result, the audience becomes co-conspirators in Frank’s relentless pursuit of power. We know he is bad—really very, very bad—yet we still root for his success.

Some of you, I'm sure, know exactly what you plan to do with your lives when you graduate. (That's a wonderful thing. I'm guessing. I wouldn't really know.) Others may be more like me. I graduated with no clear idea of what to do after college. My degree was in Chinese language and literature! It took me about a year to realize I didn't want to spend my life reading the inscriptions on the bottom of Ming vases, and another two years after that to admit that, whatever I had told myself previously, I needed to be an actor.

Really, it took the shattering of the fourth wall—my fourth wall, a barrier of emotional resistance and fear and uneasy expectation—to see where my true passion lay.

The professors you have loved the most at Vassar have demanded the best of you. (And few who were not so hot didn't kill ya. So that’s good.) But the great ones set a standard for excellence that you've spent four years trying to live up to.

Your challenge when you leave here is to be your own Vassar. To approach the next step in your life with that same rigor and passion and with an abiding “Get a grip!” faith in yourself. To carry a little bit of this remarkable institution, and these unique experiences, in your DNA.

Address the world directly, address it honestly and we will be your co-conspirators. We'll root for your success.

I am telling you, Vassar has given you everything you will need for the next 60 years.

You won’t F- it up!!!

Thank you so much again for having me here today. 

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, April 30, 2014