David Conrad – the keynote speaker for Humanities Day – sat down in Oakland at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for an interview prior to the upcoming event in May.
Conrad starred alongside Jennifer Love Hewitt in CBS’s show Ghost Whisperer, and has had roles in multiple films and plays. But before he became an actor, he was a local student like those attending Humanities Day – originally he went Woodland Hills high school before transferring to the Kiski School. Conrad remains humble, with a good sense of humor, as evidence by his reaction when asked how he felt about being the keynote speaker.
“I wondered who they lost,” he said.
This isn’t the first time he’s played the role of keynote speaker though. Conrad was the keynote speaker and MC for the Lemieux Cancer Center’s opening. He joked about having a similar reaction to that event as well.
“I knew they must have lost Michael Keaton or Jeff Goldblum and called me at the last minute.”
All kidding aside, he said how much an event like this means to him.
“I’m happy to be doing it. I’m concerned about how people look at education, and also the presence of the arts in their life.”
Conrad mentioned his biggest concern for the arts is in Western Pennsylvania because it’s where he’s originally from.
“It’s the land that I like the most; it’s the place that I like the most,” he said.
During his years in Pittsburgh, he didn’t know acting was what he would ultimately pursue. Initially, he was more of an athlete (a swimmer) and interested in law informed journalism. He acted in one play in high school, and it wasn’t until college at Brown University that a shift took place.
“For some reason I just fell right into it. I did 40 plays or something like that.”
Even after all of the plays, it wasn’t until Juilliard – specifically the summer after his first year there – that he thought he could actually become an actor.
For students in the arts, Conrad wants to share his beliefs – the importance of balanced learning.
“We’re a weird country in that we divide what we call the ‘practical’ sciences with the ‘impractical’ sciences. It’s a kind of silly prejudice and a silly division of how people learn,” he said.
Conrad followed that point up with an example of how he knows plenty of mathematicians and scientists who like to read Whitman and Emily Dickenson, as well as Europeans who are lawyers who like to paint. He believes learning should not just be math and science or art, but rather, a bit of everything.
“It should be a process of learning a world, and that world is both measured by calculus but also painted by Vermeer.”
The best advice he received was from his acting teacher at Brown, J.O. Barnhill.
“He said if there was anyone there [in the class] who wanted to make any money in theatre and acting in the next decade, they should leave.”
Conrad remembers that moment vividly.
“It was a really great, shocking splash of cold water. The message is, you’ve got to have guts. It can’t be about living a comfortable lifestyle. It can happen, but you have to confront that that’s really not why you stay up late at night,” he said.