When actor and director John Krasinski accepted the invitation to address Brown’s Class of 2019 graduates as Baccalaureate speaker during Commencement and Reunion Weekend, he initially considered it a great honor. Even so, the Class of 2001 alumnus said he almost immediately regretted accepting it.
Simply put: He was terrified.
To put him at ease, University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, who each year organizes the Baccalaureate ceremony, gave him a ring with some guidance a few weeks later.
It didn’t go so well, Krasinski recounted, with a laugh.
Cooper Nelson, he said, offered some examples of past Brown speakers from whom he could perhaps draw inspiration — perhaps U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had given the Baccalaureate address in 2002. There was also the Dalai Lama, who gave an Ogden lecture at Brown in 2012. The Tibetan spiritual leader was one of the funniest speakers that Brown had ever hosted, Cooper Nelson told him.
“I mean, he was the funniest?” Krasinski said. “I can’t contend with the Lama on a bad day, but to know that he brought his A game? He had a tight, 15-minute comedy set? No, no thank you.”
That was one among many comical moments in Krasinski’s sweet, funny speech titled “What Do I Know?” which he ultimately did deliver, despite his nerves, at Brown’s annual Baccalaureate ceremony on Saturday, May 25. He also cowered behind the dais at the front of the First Baptist Church of America and grabbed urgently for a glass of water to calm himself when Brown President Christina Paxson, during introductory remarks, noted his membership in People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” brotherhood.
But the service, which celebrates the graduates and honors the many spiritual and cultural traditions of the Brown community a day before they earn their degrees at Commencement, included more than just moments of levity. Paxson noted that Krasinski — an acclaimed actor, writer and director perhaps best known for his role as Jim Halpert in the Emmy Award-winning television show “The Office” — once said that “…the best thing about Brown was that everyone was doing whatever the hell they wanted, in a good way.”
“John totally got Brown,” Paxson said. “He got the kinetic intellectual environment. He got how Brown students encourage each other’s creativity. He got the way everyone collaborates. And he got the openness to all things, that willingness to explore and try on different hats — perhaps the signature virtue of the Brown experience.”
Krasinski earned his bachelor’s degree in 2001 with a concentration in English — and will receive an honorary doctorate at Sunday's Commencement. His return to campus was met with roars of cheers and applause from the Class of 2019 as he entered the church. He said the invitation to serve as Baccalaureate speaker was far from his only moment of terror at Brown, recalling his own apprehension on the day he graduated, 18 years ago.
“I was terrified because all these people came up to me and said, ‘The future belongs to you,’” he recalled. “Woah! What? I am currently searching for an apartment and trying to keep the number of roommates in the single digits. Literally nothing belongs to me.”
It was on College Hill where Krasinski, on a whim, joined the student sketch comedy group Out of Bounds. But he said the group’s importance in his life wasn’t that it vaulted him into acting. (His biggest role at Brown, he claimed, was as “Terrified Hostage Guest Number Two” in a production of “Die Hard the Musical”). Rather, it was the community he found.
“I went in for the audition, and my entire life changed,” he said. “Nope, not because I got in, not because I started acting. It was through that group that I found my way into this community. It was through that group that I met my people. And all of a sudden, I was surrounded by the most inspiring peers. I mean, every single one of them seemed way smarter than me, way cooler than me, way more interesting.”
He said that being a student at Brown offered him the experience of his life.
“It was without a doubt the beginning of everything,” he said “For the next four years, I wanted to be part of it all. I formed a new way of thinking, a new way of executing those thoughts. I leapt out of my comfort zone, then stayed there, then leapt again… I took chances, I failed and I took more chances.”
Krasinski urged this year’s graduates to do the same as they approached their lives after Brown.
“Find more of your people,” he said. “Lean all the way in. Take chances. Fail big and take chances again. Listen to music. Remember to believe in something. And fall in love as many times as it takes. And remember, before you do something special, just do something.”