The actress returned to her alma mater to serve as the keynote speaker at Harvard College's Class Day ceremony on Wednesday
Credit: Steven Senne/AP

She may be an Oscar-winning actress and the director of an upcoming film, but Natalie Portman says that when she showed up at Harvard University as a freshman, she was eager to prove that she “wasn’t just a dumb actress.”

The A Tale of Love and Darkness actress/director returned to her alma mater in Cambridge, Mass., on Wednesday to serve as the keynote speaker at Harvard College’s Class Day ceremony, an honor she referred to as “one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been asked to do.”

“When I came in as a freshman in 1999, I felt like there had been some mistake” and “that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company,” said Portman, perfectly coiffed with pin-straight shoulder-length hair, black strappy high heels, and a dress with an eggplant vegetable print.

In high school, Portman faced a different kind of social scrutiny, with classmates who weren’t particularly concerned about her acting career.

“I went to a public high school on Long Island. The girls I went to school with had Prada bags and flat-ironed hair. People didn’t pay much attention to the fact that I was an actress. I was known for having a backpack bigger than I was, and always having whiteout on my hands,” said Portman.

But when the academically minded college freshman (she was voted “Most Likely to Appear on Jeopardy” by her high school class) headed to Harvard, she assumed her classmates felt she didn’t belong.

“When I got to Harvard just after the release of Star Wars: Episode 1, I feared people would assume I had gotten in just for being famous, and not worthy of the intellectual rigor here,” said Portman.

And while she eventually came to love her time in Cambridge, she admits there were challenges.

“It’s easy to romanticize my time here, but I had some difficult times here,” said Natalie. “Being 19, dealing with my first heartbreak, taking birth control that’s now off the market due to its depressive side effects .”

But after graduating with a degree in psychology in 2003, Natalie recognized that though she dismissed acting as “frivolous” in the past, it was her true calling.

“I admitted to myself I couldn’t wait to go back and make more films,” said Portman. “I had reclaimed my reason.”

One of those films is her upcoming directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness, an experience Portman calls “the deepest and the most meaningful” of her career. The period film, also starring 8-year-old Gilad Kahana, was shot entirely in Hebrew.

“All of these are challenges [in shooting the film] I should have been terrified of, as I was completely unprepared,” said Natalie. “But once there, I had to figure it all out, and my belief that I could handle these things was half the battle.”