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Natalie Portman offers advice to Harvard seniors

Actress Natalie Portman (with Harvard senior Chisom Okpala, right) at Harvard’s Class Day on Wednesday.
Actress Natalie Portman (with Harvard senior Chisom Okpala, right) at Harvard’s Class Day on Wednesday. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/Globe Staff

Natalie Portman said Wednesday that she was flattered to be invited to speak at Harvard’s Class Day, but she was also intimidated.

The Oscar-winning actress, who graduated from Harvard in 2003, recalled how funny Will Ferrell’s address was when she and her friends, “many of us hung over or freshly high,” laughed and laughed.

“I want to start with an apology,” Portman told grads Wednesday. “This won’t be very funny. I’m not a comedian and I didn’t get a ghost writer.”

Portman wasn’t particularly funny, but she did offer some sage and straightforward advice to seniors, telling them to use their inexperience as an asset as they embark on whatever it is they’re planning to pursue after college.

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It’s a lesson Portman, 33, said she has learned making movies, especially “Black Swan,” for which she earned an Academy Award playing a ballet dancer.

“People told me ‘Black Swan’ was an artistic risk, but it didn’t feel like courage or daring to do it,” she said. “I was so oblivious to my own limitations.”

Portman was just 13 when her first film, “The Professional,” came out. The film didn’t do well at the box office and The New York Times was unkind in its review of the young actress’s abilities.

“Ms. Portman poses better than she acts,’” she said Wednesday, quoting the review. “The movie went on to bomb. But today, it is still the film [people] approach me about the most. . . . Initially, it was a disaster, but the meaning had to be from the experience of making it.”
Recent Class Day speakers have included Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, comedian Andy Samberg, actress Amy Poehler, and TV journalist Christiane Amanpour.

Portman told the crowd she recalls her Harvard years fondly, but was often anxious and overwhelmed while a student there. She’d been in several films before showing up in Cambridge, but thought acting might be too frivolous.

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“I wanted to be taken seriously,” she said, but quickly discovered that “seriousness for seriousness’s sake is also a trap.”

There’s nothing frivolous about Portman’s latest film, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which she wrote and directed. (It’s also in Hebrew.)

Before speaking, Portman, dressed in a sleeveless, eggplant-pattern dress, sat, often with her legs crossed and hands clasped in her lap, for more than an hour while a variety of Harvard students exhorted and humored their classmates from the stage. Sam Clark paused to praise — and perhaps poke fun at — the actress’s impressive resume.

“As an aspiring actor myself, I admire your work in ‘Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” he said.

Portman laughed and then sent the students off on a hopeful note.

“I can’t wait to see the beautiful things you do,” she said.