Rick Rubin: Founding Def Jam
You know those guys down the hall messing around on BandCamp? The ones whose doorway perpetually smells like Febreze? They may be onto something. Legendary producer and beard-haver Rick Rubin started his own label in his Weinstein Hall room at NYU (the building is now better known for hosting New York’s only Chick-Fil-A). It was in school where Rubin met and signed the Beastie Boys, leaving an indelible mark on hip hop while still finding time to perform in a hardcore band called Hose and throwing “bikini contest” parties fueled by “straight vodka, gin, [and] tons of beer.” What an overachiever.
Natalie Portman: Assisting Alan Dershowitz
Portman actually matriculated at Harvard after she became famous as Anakin Skywalker’s love interest in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Still, she took on a few side projects at school that constituted a major departure from acting. While working toward her degree in psychology, Portman took noted attorney and pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz’s Neuropsychology and the Law seminar. As Dershowitz told the Harvard Crimson when she won an Academy Award in 2010, he hired Portman as a research assistant for his book after she earned an A+ on a paper. She also penned a letter to the Crimson editors criticizing an op-ed’s take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kurt Vonnegut: Studying Science
Vonnegut’s famous dictum that “literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak” was actually spoken in support of writers getting an education in non-writerly things. Vonnegut started school at Cornell, where his family pressured him into studying chemistry, wound up at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Tennessee, where the Army paid for his engineering degree, and studied anthropology briefly at the University of Chicago after World War II, although he never earned a degree until he received an honorary one decades later. “I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far,” Vonnegut explained to the Paris Review.
Jon Stewart: Playing Soccer
The Daily Show host isn’t exactly known for his athleticism, but during his time at Virginia’s William and Mary, Jon Stewart (then Jonathan Leibovitz) was on the soccer team — and on top of that, he was briefly a frat boy, though he quit after six months. During his exploration of the “rich tapestry of Judaica that is Southern Virginia,” Stewart studied chemistry before switching over to biology. Though he may have been bro-ier back then, Stewart was still a nascent comedian: the William and Mary soccer team still gives out a “Leibo award” annually to the resident class clown.
Joan Didion: Graduating Late
After getting rejected from Stanford, an experience she wrote about in 1968, Didion went on to Berkeley, the most prestigious of the Public Ivies. The school turned out to be even more rigorous than her first choice, with a paper that earned an A for a Stanford peer getting Didion a mere B-. After winning a job at Vogue in an essay contest, Didion had to take a summer course in Milton in order to fulfill her graduation requirements, commuting down from her parents’ home in Sacramento to acquire the necessary credits. Needless to say, the English degree was well deserved.
Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson: Hanging Out
According to Matt Zoller Seitz, author of The Wes Anderson Collection, the director and big-name actor met at the University of Texas after striking up a conversation in the English department. The two had recently taken a playwriting class together, but hadn’t been close. Before long, though, the two were sharing an off-campus apartment. To score the better bedroom, Anderson wrote a paper on Edgar Allan Poe on Wilson’s behalf. For a more honest collaboration, the two went on to co-write Anderson’s debut film, Bottle Rocket.
Zadie Smith: Failing at Comedy
Smith concluded her Cambridge career with at least one stunning accomplishment under her belt: the completion of White Teeth, her exhilarating debut novel, complete with a publishing deal. But her time at the legendary British university wasn’t all success; as she recounted for The New Yorker, her breakfast audition for the school’s Footlights comedy troupe resembled “human free fall.” Her interviewers, she implies, were David Mitchell and Robert Webb, the comedians behind award-winning sitcom Peep Show.
Rob Delaney: Getting Wasted
The comedian has managed to write both movingly and hilariously about his experiences with alcoholism.In a piece for Esquire called “My Life as a Drunk,” Delaney recounts a particularly embarrassing episode from his time as an NYU undergrad, where he studied musical theater (comedy didn’t come until a few years later, when he resolved to go into it after a car accident). After going through about a dozen beers while his roommate was out of town, Delaney passed out on his bed, wet himself, and then proceeded to melt his roommate’s mattress pad by putting it in the dryer. Say no to booze, kids.
Haruki Murakami: Opening a Jazz Club
While studying at Tokyo’s Waseda University, author Haruki Murakami majored in drama, met his wife Yoko… and opened the Peter Cat, a joint coffee shop and jazz bar which he went on to co-operate with Yoko for seven years. He chose to go into the nightclub business instead of the corporate world, where his parents wanted him to work, but at least he showed some entrepreneurial initiative by starting the place before he’d even graduated? Of course, Murakami then went on to an even less stable career path (he didn’t actually begin writing until he was 29, almost five years into running the Peter Cat).
James Franco: Basically Everything
You didn’t think we were gonna get out of a list of celebrities in higher ed without talking about Franco, did you? He started at UCLA before dropping out after a year to pursue acting, but then he came back with a vengeance. Graduating in 2008 with an impressive GPA of 3.5, Franco went on to pursue an MFA at Columbia as well as graduate programs at NYU for film and Brooklyn College for fiction. He’s also spent time at Warren Wilson College and RISD, and is currently up for a PhD in English at Yale. It’s unclear whether he’ll ever settle on one specialty, but Franco now has enough degrees for several lifetimes.