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Academy Award-winning actress Michelle Yeoh addressed Harvard Law School’s Class of 2023 during the school’s Class Day ceremony at Holmes Field Wednesday afternoon, sharing advice for graduates as they embark on the next stage of their legal careers.
Two months ago, Yeoh became the first Asian woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Evelyn Wang in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Over the course of her career, she has appeared in a number of other critically acclaimed movies, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Crazy Rich Asians.”
The Wednesday event precedes Thursday’s Commencement festivities, during which the Law School will confer 735 total degrees to JD and Master of Laws candidates. The Law School’s Class of 2023 will participate in a University-wide ceremony Thursday morning that will feature addresses by Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow and actor Tom Hanks in Tercentenary Theatre, followed by a diploma ceremony at Holmes Field.
Last year’s Class Day address featured a speech by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch ’81, who spoke at the Law School’s first in-person Class Day in three years.
Yeoh opened her remarks for the graduating class by likening their situation as soon-to-be graduates to that of “a high diver poised to leap into the void.”
“As you know, I am not a lawyer. I can’t even say that I have played one on the screen, so why am I here? Why have I been asked to deliver the keynote speech to you on this pivotal day in your lives as you dive headfirst into a presumably bright but unpredictable future?” she said. “Well, maybe the reason I’m here is because I happen to have some experience leaping off high perches into scary voids.”
“So, do allow me to offer some simple pointers that I’ve picked up along the way in my career full of leaps and dives: ‘How to Survive the Fall in Three Easy Steps,’ by Michelle Yeoh,” she added.
The three steps, according to Yeoh, are to “stay loose,” to “know your limits,” and to “find your people.”
For the first step, Yeoh reflected on advice from her principal in dance school to “stay loose” after suffering a spinal injury.
“With my dreams of dance crushed, I credit the principal of my school for giving me the encouragement that ultimately led me to a career beyond my imagination,” she said. “When falling, the tendency is to tighten up to brace for impact. But in truth, the safest thing one can do is remain calm — even curious — about the shifting world around you.”
Yeoh also discussed her experience wanting to portray action roles at a time when they were “reserved exclusively for men.”
“I was prepared to do everything the men were doing — the choreography, the stunts, taking the blows, the wire work, all of it. What, like it’s hard?” she said, referencing a line from the 2001 film “Legally Blonde.”
“When the chance finally came, I knew it was make-or-break. I had one shot to prove my bankability as an action star and if I failed, I would not get that opportunity again. So, I seized the moment with everything I had and as it turned out, thankfully, audiences were more than ready for a female star in action comedies,” Yeoh added.
This, according to Yeoh, was among many external limitations that she overcame in her career. However, she said, limitations can be both internal and external.
“Internally, knowing your limits keeps you humble, motivated, and focused on a goal to point your finger toward,” she said. “Externally, knowing the limits that are set for you by others gives you a place to point a different finger — I am talking about the middle one.”
“Every demeaning role I was offered, every rejection I was handed, and every time someone underestimated me, I found energy and renewed motivation,” she added.
And for her last point, to “find your people,” Yeoh said, “Life is not always a zero-sum game.”
“For every winner, there doesn’t have to be a loser. In fact, most success stories are less about competition and more about collaboration,” she said. “The truth is, I could not have done any of this alone.”
During the event, Law School professor Crystal S. Yang ’08 was named the recipient for this year’s Albert M. Sacks-Paul A. Freund Award for Teaching Excellence, whose awardee was selected by members of the graduating class.
“I implore you to find your North Star. Figure out what you stand for and what you will stand up for no matter how great the cost. This North Star will help you live a life of purpose and it will help you reorient yourself any time you find yourself lost,” Yang said in her acceptance speech, addressing the Class of 2023.
“I have no doubt that you will achieve great professional success, but remember that you are so much more than the credentials on your resume,” she added.
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