Graduation Speech

by Eric Lange, Miami University Theatre alumnus '95

To the Graduates of 2015!

Eric Lange speech

Eric Lange, CCA Recognition Ceremony, May 17, 2015
Teachers, faculty, staff… Mom.  Dad. The College of Creative Arts! Art. Music. Theatre. Dance. Architecture and Interior Design. You are my people! You are the people I spent four years hanging out with when I was at Miami. I can guarantee this group throws the best party on Campus and that party likely includes someone climbing onto a roof, insence, some form of jello, beads, public performances of scenes from The Princess Bride and “Drunken Sharades.” And what a place to do it! Oxford, OH recently named the “Best College Town in America.” I graduated Miami May of 1995. 20 years ago this month. I started out living in Morris Hall, but I spent 95% of my time locked in a theatre of some sort…crying, pretending I was a tree, memorizing lines, saying “THE TIP OF THE TONGUE, THE TEETH, THE LIPS”…I often wondered what the aliens would think. I was not in a fraternity, but I was in the Glee Club. Like a fraternity, but with more singing.  I grew out my hair and my first beard. Had my first mixed drink at a “theatre party” on Spring St. A Hairy Buffalo. All night long I walked around the party telling people “I’ve never drank before. Will you watch me and make sure I’m ok?” Two hours later it was just me repeating “I can’t feel my face! I can’t feel my face!” I loved my pizza from Brunos and Turkey Gobblers from SDS Pizza (they delivered, that was key), drank one or two beers at Mac and Joe’s…and on occasion would walk, slightly hungover, to Bagel and Deli for some much needed nutrition the morning after. I miss it…

So, I’m deeply grateful to Dean Mullenix for the invitation. It’s such an incredible honor to be asked back here to speak to you all 20 years later. I’m proud to say, I’m still an actor! And I usually say words other people have written. So telling my own story here today, in my own words, leaves me feeling particularly exposed. The process of preparing for today has been difficult.  An introspective therapy session made public. Kind of like getting a colonoscopy at a birthday party. 

I’ve gone through draft after draft, stared for hours at a computer screen, asked family and friends…all to best come up with what I could say to you today that would be helpful, memorable, inspirational, useful. I tried crafting beautiful prose, borrowed quotes from great authors, read hundreds of other commencement speehes…but it all just felt like BS. An image I was putting in front of you to give you comfort in the knowledge that I was, indeed, someone you could learn something from. I mean, I’m basically a TV actor. Do you really want a TV actor telling you how to run the rest of your life? If Charlie Sheen told you “There are no mistakes only opportunities” Would you believe him? 

But here’s the truth: I don’t know the answers. I can’t tell you what will make you successful in your life. No one can. Only you know your life and what success means to you. Success to me meant making a living as an actor. But, then I got there, that goal was achieved, so I had to raise the bar. It’s always changing. It’s a moving target. The thing is…I realized I can’t safeguard you from failure or tell you the secret code to get into the club. But what I can do is help guide you by sharing a few stories that best exemplify the psychological rudders that kept my boat from going over the waterfall. 

Cause 20 years ago, I was just like you guys…I sat there just like you, mind and body strengthened by my four years at this glorious University…but also a little terrified at what was to come…and five months later I moved to LA. A city of 13 million people, of which, 12,994,000 are trying to be actors. The other six thousand are agents. I didn’t know much of anything about LA or marketing myself as an actor or trying to get an agent or even just living alone for the first time in my life!?  Here’s how bad it was:

* I moved to LA on October 13, and I am a huge fan of Halloween. Even when it wasn’t Halloween. When I was six, I put on a gorilla costume, sat in a chaise lounge in the driveway and waved to passing cars. I loved Halloween. So I brought a costume. Hoping I’d have some cool Hollywood party to go to by then. It was like a Fred Flinstone kind of costume, but all I had was the toga part. So, basically a Tiger Toga. SO… Halloween comes around and I have no party to attend because I only know two people in LA. But, there’s this big Halloween parade so I thought I’d go down and see that. Well, being new to town and the freeways (this was before GPS, etc) I had a difficult time getting there. I got lost, they had closed freeway offramps, and I eventually just aborted the whole plan. I drove home alone and a little sad. So on my way home, I stopped and got what was, at the time, a symbol of one of the comforts of home back in Ohio…a Sara Lee Frozen Cheesecake. There was going to be Halloween at my house! I got back to my studio apartment, PUT ON MY TIGER TOGA (dammit!), turned the parade on the TV and got out my Sara Lee Frozen Cheesecake! It was only then I realized… frozen cheesecake is very hard…and frankly, inedible. And I had nothing to thaw it with. But I DID have… a steam iron. SO… while proudly wearing my Tiger Toga…I got out an ironing board…placed the cold, brick-like cheesecake upon it… turned the iron to it’s highest setting, “COTTON”…and steamed the hell out of that thing. It wasn’t instantaneous, I basically slowly picked pieces of the cake off as it defrosted. It took a while, actually, a good…20 minutes or so before I could get any real traction with it. People were glancing in from the parking lot outside my apartment. I would just wave. “Happy Halloween! You want some? I couldn’t get to the parade! The traffic here is CRAZY! I’m from OHIO!”  

As ridiculous as I’m sure I looked, a man-child standing in the middle of a living room defrosting a cheesecake with a steam iron…I was actually feeling really good. 

I was giving myself what I needed…and doing it in a way that was true to me. But, part of that self-ownership actually formed ten years earlier. When I first learned what it meant to be “authentic.”

* As a kid, I always felt like a bit of an outsider. I mean I had friends, I had an amazing support system at home, but still… for many years…I just felt different. I did what a lot of kids do and looked around a lot and compared myself to everyone else. And from my vantage point, everyone had something I didn’t. I wished I was more classically good looking. I wished I was better at sports. I wished I was more accepted in the popular crowd. I wished my hair would lay a different way…I wished my ears didn’t stick out. Let me explain…

You don’t notice them today, but as I kid, I had these rather large ears that stuck out. I mean they were out there. I joked that they could pick up satellite TV. But, I would get a fair amount of teasing because of them. I’d come home from school pretty upset. Finally my Mom said “Look, we think you’re perfect, but if you want to go talk to a doctor about fixing your ears, we’ll take you.” So I went. I was 12 years old. I went to the plastic surgeon and he said “I’ll move your ears back a quarter of an inch and it’ll cost $1200 an ear.” And I immediately said… “No. Nope. I’m not doing that.” It suddenly dawned on me that (1) he would only move them a quarter of an inch so how abnormal could I be!? and (2) my parents were going to shell out $2400 so some bullies would approve of me. What was then immediatlely apparent to me was those were not the kind of choices I was going to make. It was the first time I remember…and I remember this so distinctly…being aware of my own internal compass. I just intuitively knew that there was actually nothing wrong with me. That, in fact, I was unique! I was different! My parents worked so hard to make this person…I wasn’t going to send it back for alterations!

Years later, my hair would become a similar focus of attention. I’d grown into my ears, but believe it or not, I was now balding. And that’s common. But not for a 22 year old in Hollywood. I wasn’t working and casting directors and agents would say “We don’t know what to do with you?” You have this 22 year old face, but the hair line of a 40 year old? Friends would say “Why don’t you just get a wig or get some transplants?” I just couldn’t. I figured this was punishment for when I got blonde highlights in high school and looked like someone in a boy band. God was like, “Well, I gave you a perfectly good head of hair and look what you did with it!?! So… it’s comin’ out.” I tried styling it differently, blow drying it, dyed it black once…it just made my white scalp pop more. But one day, I was a little light in the wallet and I saw a sign that said “7 Dollar Hair Cut.” What could go wrong? This rather intimidating Russian woman sits me down and says “What you want?” I said “Oh just take a little off the sides, but leave the top, please!” “Ok, great” she says, gets out some clippers and runs them right down the middle of my head.  And I sat there stunned that this was happening, it was hair-theft… but I was also giddy…that I was free. Free of having to own this as a “problem.” The intimidating Russian woman with a heavy hand and a need for folicular distruction…freed me. I’m balding. That’s the fact. That’s what it is. And if Hollywood wasn’t having it, well I’d just have to move forward without them. Cause this was me. Authenticity wins again. 

And that felt good for a while…it was like the Rocky montage…I trained, I struggled, I mailed out headshots and resumes, I did theatre, I took classes, I did whatever work I could, but man…eight years later…I’m still not getting to work in film and TV and that haircut mojo had kind of warn off. It was taking a toll on me. I wasn’t where I decided I was supposed to be in EIGHT years. I thougth a lot of my talent, I got great feedback, I knew what I was doing…but I couldn’t catch a break. 

I actually started to think “if you guys don’t want to play with me I’m going to take my big ears and my bald head and go home.” But every time I wrestled with this, some event would pull me back in and keep me from leaving the business.  Well, at 29 years old, this particular event was a stroke.

* Suffice it to say, I woke up that morning to a terrifying new reality.  A good chunk of my memory… including my phone number, my parent’s names, my address, the kind of car I drove… all of it was gone.  Gone.  I was rushed to the hospital and given a form to fill out, which I quickly learned I could not read.  I couldn’t read it.  I knew in my mind I could read, but these words just made no sense.  In fifteen minutes I had five doctors working on me.  I had no idea what was happening, but for all intents and purposes I felt like I was losing my mind.  I sat in that emergency room for five hours, trying to read and remember.  It was surreal.  I remember sitting there at one point thinking “What if this is it?  What if I have a tumor that’s slowly taking my mind away?”  “What if the next five minutes is all I have of what I know reality to be?” And this calm came over me.  That I had lead a good life.  Or at least, maybe, an authentic one?  Suddenly, my ears, my hair… it all seemed incredibly silly.  I’m not a very religious person, but I started looking for a white light. 

Then, all of a sudden, everything came back.  I could remember it all.  Phone numbers, names, everything.  It still took a week’s stay in the hospital for the doctors to discover I actually had a hole in my heart that allowed a clot to flow through the wrong direction and block a part of my brain.  But, because I was young I suffered no brain damage whatsoever, and after a quick outpatient surgery… where they put a small titanium spider patch thing in my heart, I was released from the hospital the next night.  Free… but truly humbled.  The power of one little clot.  It was life-changing.

The next night, when I was out to dinner with my amazing parents who flew all the way from Ohio to stand by my bedside… the waiter gave me a menu… and I could read it.  I could read it.  And the understanding of another concept washed over me in a whole new way.  Gratitude.  For the simplest things.  But, it also gave me something that had started to go missing… perspective.  Even though I wasn’t where I thought I should be, or doing the kind of work I thought I should be doing, I was still working more than when I got to LA?  I was growing.  I was building experience and history.  How easy it is to forget.  How quickly the grass gets greener.  It was a wake up call that every day is an opportunity to do the work and move, sometimes imperceptebly, closer to your dream.  “Every day is the day that every thing could change.”

So I stepped out of that hospital feeling quite emoboldened.  Telling everyone “I’m now part robot!  Yeah, man, my heart held so much it actually burst!  They had to Iron Man my ass back together!”  It was a rebirth.

* And… like something out of a movie, 6 months later, a brilliant, young, well-respected talent manager saw me in a play… and signed me.  Bald head and all.  And three months after that, I was Guest-Starring on The West Wing.  He opened doors and totally turned my career around and the last 12 years have been incredible.  I make my living as an actor.

Since then, I’ve had the privelege of working with people like Al Pacino, Jake Gyllenhaal, Diane Lane, Mary Louise Parker.  I Guest-Star regularly on some of the biggest shows on television.  I’ve killed people, raped people, conned people, abandoned a newborn baby in a hospital.  Played a deranged scientist on a tropical island, a pedophile on two separate occasions, and a serial killer on three separate occasions.  Lured children into a cabin using hamsters only to lock them in there with their mother holding a live grenade…

and taught some eccentric teenagers how to act at a Talented and Gifted High School.  “Look ma!  I’m an ACTOR!” 

* My most recent bucket list moment is one of my proudest… I got to star in a Broadway play.  And there’s a Miami connection there:  When I was a sophomore here, we took a trip to New York to see some theatre.  There were 9 of us staying in one room.  We walked into Times Square, mouths hanging open.  As everyone was looking around I separated from the group.  I had a Yankees hat that I wore for the trip to New York.  I took that hat off and rubbed it on the ground, right there in the middle of Times Square.  I just sort of wanted some Broadway DNA on something I owned.  Well, years later, my first night in New York to do the play, I walked home from dinner and accidentally passed right by the spot where I had rubbed my hat 22 years ago.  I walked over there, said “hi” to the spot and imagined telling my 19 year old self then that in 22 years I’d be starring in a Broadway play just a block from where we were standing.  I probably would’ve laughed.  Dreams do come true.

* But am I happy???  Mostly.  I’m gonna expose myself to you guys… no, no that sounded horrible… I’m gonna reveal something to you guys… in the five months since I finished that play on Broadway, I’ve worked one day.  One day.  It’s embarrassing to say, but it’s just the way it goes sometimes.  My point isn’t that I want you to feel sorry for me, my point is if you rely on this business or any business to provide you happiness… you’re in for a rough ride.  It’s something I still struggle with today. 

There's no “there.” That elusive 'there' with the perfect job, the mansion, the dream, it's not out there.  There is here.  It's in you... right now.  Your happiness is your own responsibility.  The arts are a fickle field.  There are so many ups and downs.  But, honestly, that’s part of what makes it exciting.  Again “Every day is the day that every thing could change.” 

To borrow a cliché… Put your focus on the journey, not the destination and you’ll be just fine.

* Today, I don’t beat myself up much any more.  No, these days my harshest critic is a 15 pound, 26 inch sleep-terrorist named, “Maisie.”  My five month old daughter.  I read this speech to her to test it out… she puked on me, farted and fell asleep.  I think she liked it.  She does smile when she farts, though, so...  But, she’s my new bar for success.  How good of a Dad can I be?  And in return, in just 5 months, she’s reminded me what it is to be an artist… and a human being… more than Hollywood has in 20 years.

Babies are fearless, without judgment, full of limitless, boundless joy and awe expressed instantaneously without fear of being judged or having whatever it is they're currently enjoying being taken from them.  But, mostly, they're exceptionally present and appreciate the true beauty in everything.  Even a cup.  Or Daddy’s iPhone.  Which actually fits in her mouth perfectly.

She’s a reminder of something I learned at Miami:  That, as artists… we could take a cue from babies.  In fact, we have a responsibility to do so.  Yes, the world needs doctors and lawyers and accountants and reality TV show producers… but let us be Practioners of Soul!  Sometimes I think it’s what the world needs MOST right now.  The work we do allows people to recognize their own soul.  In that way we’re kind of like massuesses.  We open up muscles and tendons and get blood flowing to areas that transport you.  That allow the physical to give way to the spiritual.  Yet also we’re like eye doctors.  I thought I saw fine, but once I got glasses I saw all this detail.  I had no idea.  Part of what we do as artists is pull off that layer of the every day, the mundane, the ordinary and reveal to people their deeper selves and what life is all about… which is money.  I’m kidding!

* So what is my advice to you?  A career is a great thing, pursue it with all the authenticity and integrity you can.  I always say, “it’s time, heat and pressure, the same things it takes to make a diamond.”  Work hard, train hard, and go after those jobs… if you don’t someone else will.  But don’t count on those jobs to provide you with all your happiness.  When bumps in the road happen, handle them with humility and be grateful for the outcome. Handle the wins the same way.  (Sometimes the things I lost, were just to make room for the things I didn’t know I was getting yet.)  Know when to step away and let the Universe do it’s thing.  Careers come and go.  Dreams shift and change.  But you always wake up with you. 

On that note, I’m sure you’ve heard a hundred times during your four years here… “What do you want to be?”  Well, my question for you is, “WHO do you want to be?”  Character, integrity, kindness, compassion.  These are ideals worthy of as much care and attention as you give any career.  We have become a culture obsessed with what is or isn't in our wallets, what clothes we wear, what cars we drive… sometimes we forget… “You can starve with more than your stomach.”

So feed the people.  Feed their souls.  We are, after all, Practitioners of Soul.  That’s what art is.  It’s that something bigger.  Be that something.

And, if you find yourself, in the not too distant future, in a studio apartment wearing a tiger toga trying to defrost a frozen cheesecake with a steam iron, don’t worry… I’ve been there too.