Alexander Payne’s advice to UNL grads: Do what you want to do while you still can. Also: Go, Scott Frost.

Alexander Payne’s advice to UNL grads: Do what you want to do while you still can. Also: Go, Scott Frost.
Alexander Payne

Commencement speaker Alexander Payne knew the way into the crowd’s heart at Saturday morning’s ceremony at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

The Oscar-winning Omaha filmmaker, who also received an honorary doctorate of fine arts at the event, talked at length about the distinct advantages of being a Nebraskan. But more important, he ended his speech like this:

“Don’t die with regrets. You’ll regret it. P.S.: Go, Scott Frost! Go, Scott Frost!”

Ahead of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s largest commencement ever, Payne spoke to the graduates about doing what you actually want to do as opposed to falling back on the practical, and he concluded with a bipartisan call for political sanity and civic responsibility.

After sharing a bit of his early history, Payne reached out to the artists in the room.

“My parents absolutely hammered me to be a lawyer,” Payne said, “but I had been movie-crazy since I was a little kid, and it was all I could think about. As a senior in college, I applied to film school, my thought being that even if I sucked at it, at least I could go to my grave knowing I had tried it.”

He didn’t end up sucking at it. Payne, who directed such films as “Nebraska,” “Sideways,” “Election” and, most recently, “Downsizing,” has been nominated for seven Academy Awards and has won two. But long before all that, his parents “kept repeating the single worst advice in the world,” he said, “which is, ‘Go to law school first so you’ll always have something to fall back on.’

“In fact, the opposite is true: Do what you want to do first because you can always fall back on going to law school. These years right now … are the precious years when you’re done with school and you can get out in the world and try any damn thing you want.”

Payne was quick to point out that his story is unique to him. That everyone will face varying levels of familial pressure and financial need.

“But I still suggest that you can figure out how to do it your way,” he said. And besides, he said, being from Nebraska, or having at the very least attended school in Nebraska, will give you a leg up in the world.

“Here’s the big secret, which isn’t so secret,” he said. “You will get farther in life and get there quicker because you’re from Nebraska. I kid you not. We Nebraskans come armed with tools for success, and other Nebraskans know it. (A Nebraskan is) someone who’s honest, a straight shooter, on time, has a good work ethic, a sense of humor, knows what a Runza is and is generally pleasant to be around.”

When Payne tells people on the coasts where he’s from, he sometimes gets snickers: “Who’s from Nebraska?” they ask him.

“And I say,” he told the crowd, “ ‘I’m sorry, what part of Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz (takes deep breath), Harold Lloyd, Darryl F. Zanuck, Hilary Swank, Conor Oberst, Gabrielle Union, Nick Nolte, Marg Helgenberger, Ted Kooser and, I don’t know, geez, let’s see, maybe Warren Buffett, don’t you understand?’ ”

That one got some applause.

Payne then tread into perilous territory, considering the range of ideologies in the room: politics. But he did so carefully.

“OK,” he said, “so it’s a pretty wild time out there. And I’m saying the obvious. The political scene seems not divided between right and left but between crazy and not crazy.”

Payne challenged the graduates to question everything, not take anything at face value, to aspire to be someone on whom nothing is lost.

“Please remember that the question is not whether our country should be more conservative or more liberal,” he said. “What we need are better conservatives and better liberals.

“We are Nebraskans. We are sane. We are fair-minded. We value integrity and honesty. We are humble. In fact, we’re very proud of how humble we are.”

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