Where Prominent Celebrities Went to College
It can be hard to imagine that some of the biggest names in the world had a completely different life before they were rich and famous. But before they were A-list movie stars, bestselling authors, Olympic athletes or Nobel Peace Prize winners, many celebrities went to college, turning in term papers and cramming for final exams like every other hardworking student.
And then there are the celebrities who went back to school after they became famous, like Natalie Portman, who famously said, “I don’t care if [college] ruins my career. I’d rather be smart than a movie star.”
From community college to Ivy League, here’s where 30 famous faces went to school.
Having discovered a love for acting in high school, Tom Hanks studied theater at Chabot Community College in Hayward, California for two years, an experience he later said “made me what I am today.” He then transferred to California State University, Sacramento, interning at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland during his studies. Ultimately, he learnt more doing his internship and dropped out of college. The rest is box office history.
Not many Brown University students graduate with an armed guard in tow. However, “Harry Potter” actress Emma Watson is no ordinary student, and was well-protected when she collected her English Literature degree from the Ivy League school in 2014.
After graduating from high school, Oprah Winfrey enrolled at Tennessee State University on a full scholarship she had won in a public-speaking competition (she also won the Miss Black Tennessee pageant). Winfrey majored in Speech Communications and Performing Arts and at the same time as her studies, she worked as a news co-anchor at Nashville's WLAC-TV station, becoming both the station’s youngest news anchor and its first black female news anchor.
Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal was already acting on TV and in film when she started her degree at New York’s Columbia University, but that didn’t distract her so much that she didn’t complete her course in Literature and Easter Religions. Clearly the academic sort, she also went on to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Incidentally, her younger brother and fellow A-list actor Jake enrolled at Columbia too, but he didn’t complete the degree program.
Legendary director Steven Spielberg is proof that it’s never too late to go back to school. He dropped out of California State University, Long Beach in 1968, but returned 34 years later to complete his degree program. One of the films he submitted for assessment was “Schindler’s List,” which passed, naturally.
It’s common knowledge that J.K. Rowling was a single mom living in Edinburgh and struggling to make ends meet when she wrote her first “Harry Potter” book, but you may not know that before that, she studied French, Greek and German at Exeter University in England, spending a year studying in Paris as part of her course.
Before he was a megastar musician, John Legend was a high school salutatorian (the second highest achieving student in class), which gave him the offers of scholarships from Ivy League schools like Cornell and Harvard. Legend opted for the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied English with African American Literature and served as president of a co-ed a cappella group.
There aren’t many actress/neuroscientist combos out there — but step forward Mayim Bialik. The “Blossom” and “Big Bang Theory” star obtained an undergraduate degree in neuroscience with minors in Hebrew and Jewish studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, followed by a Ph.D in neuroscience from the school in 2007. “I basically walked off the television and onto the UCLA campus,” said Bialik of her transition from the set of “Blossom” to the lecture hall.
If Matt Damon hadn’t gone to Harvard University, would he have come up with the idea for “Good Will Hunting,” which is set at fellow Cambridge school MIT? We’ll never know. Damon didn’t graduate from Harvard, dropping out in 1992 to follow his acting dream, but he did get an honorary degree from the school in 2013.
Proving that there’s more to supermodels than outer beauty, Christy Turlington studied Religion and Easter Philosophy at NYU, fulfilling her long term goal of completing a degree. In fact, Turlington has two degrees: after her BA at NYU, she got a master’s in Public Health from Columbia University.
Life could have taken a very different path for Korean American actor John Cho, who played Harold Lee in the Harold & Kumar films; he was a teacher for a short time after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with an English degree. However, he always pursued acting on the side and finally got his big break.
Multi award-winning actress Frances McDormand studied theater at Bethany College, a private, liberal arts college in West Virginia. She graduated in 1979, then went to Yale for a master’s degree in drama. It was at Yale that she met and roomed with fellow actress Holly Hunter. The two became such good friends that they carried on living together in New York City after graduation. The former Ivy Leaguers have starred in many films together, including “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona.”
Although acting was in his blood (both his parents were actors), Chris Pine decided on an English major at the University of California, Berkeley. It was after he graduated in 2002 that he attended the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts and started taking acting classes. “I never had a passion for acting, I never wanted to do it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “But like any human being — people want to be loved, and it seemed to be the thing I could do where I got love.”
Voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school, Rashida Jones proved her classmates right. But she didn’t go straight into acting — there was the small matter of a BA in Comparative Religion from Harvard before she landed on-screen roles in “The Social Network” and “Parks & Recreation.” Drama was always a passion, however, and even during her studies Jones wrote music scores, performed in campus plays and served as the musical director of the co-ed a cappella group.
English actor, rapper and activist, Riz Ahmed, studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, one of England’s most prestigious schools. Ahmed, who went on to star in the award-winning “A Night Of,” formed a drama group at Oxford to keep his creative juices flowing, which led to his next step: studying classical acting at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
Academy Award winner Julianne Moore graduated from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts in 1983, and returned to speak to theater students in 2011, telling them to create their own opportunities. “This is your life, don’t wait for something to happen,” she said. After graduating herself, Moore moved to New York City and worked as a waitress while auditioning for acting roles.
Tom Hiddleston didn’t just go to one college; technically, he went to three. His high school was the extremely prestigious prep school Eton College (also attended by Prince William and Prince Harry), which prepared him for an undergraduate degree at one of England’s top universities, the University of Cambridge. Hiddleston then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where he’s in great company — its alumni include Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh.
Jodie Foster’s acting career began with a Coppertone suntan lotion commercial when she was only three years old and it wasn’t long before she got roles in film and TV, but she never neglected her education. She graduated magna cum laude from Yale with a bachelor’s in Literature in 1985, and got an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the same school in 1997.
Gerard Butler’s acting career didn’t start until he’d already been focused on quite a different path for several years. He studied law at University of Glasgow in Scotland, his home country, and was even president of the university law society. After graduating, Butler
secured a job at a law firm, but then decided he wanted to be famous and started auditioning for acting roles.
Scotland’s oldest university, University of St. Andrews (founded in 1413), was the school of choice for a young Kate Middleton, and it was a move that changed her life in a major way. While studying History of Art and staying at St. Salvator’s Hall university accommodation, Middleton met a certain royal…
Prince William chose University of St. Andrews to study art history, where he was officially enrolled as “William Wales,” and his nickname among his new fellow students was reportedly “Steve.” When the royal student realized art history wasn’t working out for him, his new friend Kate Middleton suggested he change his main subject instead of dropping out, and he subsequently focused on geography for his degree. By the time they graduated in 2005, Prince William and Middleton were officially dating.
Three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep studied music at the private, liberal arts school Vassar College (which was then all-female) in Poughkeepsie, New York, but quickly realized her passion was acting. After graduating from Vassar, Streep earned a Master of Fine Arts from the prestigious Yale School of Drama in 1975.
Sacha Baron Cohen
English actor, screenwriter and producer Sasha Baron Cohen, responsible for unforgettable characters like Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev and Brüno, studied History at University of Cambridge’s Christ’s College. He joined the Footlights, the university drama club, although he later admitted he was “a bit embarrassed about telling people I wanted to be an actor and comedian because it's a bit like saying, ‘I'm so good looking and I want to be a model.’”
Australian actor, singer and producer Hugh Jackman spent a gap year in England before going home to Australia to attend Sydney’s University of Technology, where he took a drama course to make up extra credits in his final year. He graduated with a BA in Communications in 1991, by which time he knew he wanted to make acting his career. However, he turned down a role on popular Aussie soap opera “Neighbours” to study performing arts at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts of Edith Cowan University in Perth.
Actress Jessica Chastain got the chance to study performing arts at the renowned Juilliard School in New York thanks to Robin Williams, who funded her scholarship. Williams had also attended Julliard on a full scholarship and graduated in 1976. Chastain graduated in 2003 and relocated to Los Angeles to try to make it in acting.
“Master of None” creator Aziz Ansari is a man of many talents; he acts, writes, produces, directs and makes people laugh. None of these are likely to have been cultivated at NYU Stern School of Business, where he obtained a degree in marketing in 2004.
Actress Lupita Nyong’o, known for roles in “12 Years a Slave” and “Black Panther,” studied her craft over a three-year degree in film at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, graduating in 2003. She later went back to school, getting a Master’s degree from Yale School of Drama in 2012, weeks after finding out she had the “12 Years a Slave” part.
South African social rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu studied his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology at King’s College London, England and worked part-time as a curate in local churches at the same time. Tutu went on to become one of the world’s most famous and dedicated humanitarians, campaigning on poverty, racism, sexism, transphobia and other important issues.
Natalie Portman already had a very successful acting career when she decided to go back to school. She attended Harvard University, graduating in 2003 with a degree in psychology, but continued to act throughout her studies, appearing in the 2002 release “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.” Portman’s academic work has been published twice in scientific journals.
Tennis champ Venus Williams, who has four Olympic gold medals and seven Grand Slam titles to her name, received her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Indiana University East in 2015. The athlete said this achievement fulfilled her lifelong dream to have a business degree and that it would help her to become “a better leader, a better planner, to be better at all of the things I wanted to do in my businesses because I’m so hands-on.”