15 Actors Who Are Much Smarter Than You Thought

James Franco eyed for Shane Black's The Predator

It is often asked, “would you rather be beautiful or smart?” The two are posed as a juxtaposition, as if someone cannot be both at the same time. Our culture pits the two against each other, with the idiotic and shallow beauty as the enemy of the brainy, ugly nerd. However, this is merely a stereotype: a few lucky people break through this barrier by being blessed with both the beauty and the brains. In particular, some actors and actresses possess both academic and artistic skill, proving that not all movie stars are mindless, pretty faces. Ironically, the nerd vs. beauty myth is propagated by mass media, even though many of the people in media know firsthand that this is untrue. From Ivy-Leaguers to authors, linguists to scientific researchers, these fifteen actors and actresses defy what one might expect from the typical celebrity through their unique talents, skills, and accomplishments. Here are 15 Actors Who Are Much Smarter Than You Thought.

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Natalie Portman in Black Swan
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15 Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman in Black Swan

As you may recall from our previous article about where this year’s Oscar nominees got their starts, Natalie Portman is quite the scholar. Her studies have always taken precedent to her acting career: she even skipped the premiere of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace to study for her high school finals. As a student, Portman co-authored two research articles that were published in scientific journals: the first was as a high school student, and the second was as a psychology student at Harvard University. Beyond her scientific skills, Portman has always had an interest in languages, and has studied French, Japanese, German, and Arabic, in addition to speaking fluent Hebrew. She is also very educated about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has made several guest lectures at Columbia University on terrorism and counter-terrorism. Portman once famously told the New York Times, “I'd rather be smart than a movie star,” and lucky for her, she can have both.

14 Mayim Bialik

Mayim Bialik

While Bialik may play a neurobiologist on The Big Bang Theory, she also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience in real life. While she got her start as the lead in Blossom and other teen television shows, Bialik stopped acting to pursue a degree in Neuroscience at UCLA, completing minors in Hebrew and Jewish studies in addition to her major field of study. While she started studying for her doctorate soon after graduating, she decided to take a break and return to acting in 2005 before completing her doctorate degree in Neuroscience from UCLA in 2007. When deciding whether or not she wanted a career in acting or scientific research, Bialik ultimately chose acting in order to have more free time to spend with her growing sons. Out of all the choices one has to make in life, deciding between two careers most people can only dream of sounds like a pretty good struggle to have.

13 Conan O’Brian

Conan O'Brian

It makes sense that someone with such comedic genius is somewhat of a genius in other fields, too. O’Brian’s academic prowess became apparent early; in high school, he scored prestigious internships and even earned an award from the National Council of Teachers of English for a short story he wrote senior year. After graduating as valedictorian, he attended Harvard University, where he focused on studying history and literature, and eventually graduated magna cum laude. His 72-page senior thesis described the use of children forced to age too quickly as symbols in the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Even though O’Brian took his schoolwork very seriously, he was quite the jokester: for two years, he served as the president of humor magazine Harvard Lampoon, and almost got kicked out of Harvard freshman year for accidentally setting a trash can on fire when he and his roommates tried to see if Twinkie's were combustable.

12 David Duchovny

David Duchovny

Duchovny attended not one, but two Ivy League schools as a student in the 1980s. After earning his Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from Princeton University, he earned a Master’s Degree in English Literature from Yale and was on his way to earning a Ph.D. before quitting to become an actor. While at Princetown, Duchovny was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious honor society in the country, and the Charter Club, one of Princeton’s eating clubs where upperclassmen eat meals and socialize. His 160-page senior thesis was called The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett's Early Novels, and if you attend Princeton you can actually read it at the Mudd Manuscript Library! Duchovny has put his English degrees to good use: in the past three years, he has published two novels, Bucky F*cking Dent and Holy Cow: A Modern-Day Dairy Tale.

11 Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster in Contact

Foster showed signs of being a gifted child from an extremely young age: she learned how to read at the age of three! As a child, she attended a French-language prep school, the Lycée Français de Los Angeles, and balanced her schoolwork with a bourgeoning child acting career. Like Portman, she has a talent for languages, speaking fluent French, and understands Italian as well as some Spanish and German. By the time Foster graduated high school (as valedictorian, of course), she had already made a name for herself as an actress. Nevertheless, she chose to continue her education at Yale University, where she majored in literature and wrote her senior thesis on Toni Morrison. She graduated in 1985 magna cum laude, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1997. Foster’s time at Yale made her realize that acting is not an unintelligent profession, and brought her back to acting after graduation.

10 Geena Davis

Geena Davis in Beetlejuice

A member of the elite genius social club Mensa, Davis is intelligent in more fields than just acting. As a child, she learned piano, flute, and organ, and learned to speak fluent Swedish as an exchange student in Sandviken, Sweden. After attending Boston University, earning her bachelor’s degree in drama, she began working as a model, and later transitioned to acting. Davis also possesses kinesthetic intelligence: she placed 24th out of 300 women who attempted to earn a spot participating in Sydney’s 2000 Summer Olympics. Davis is passionate about gender issues; in 2004, she sponsored the largest research project undertaken on gender in children’s entertainment at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, and in 2007 launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media as a result to the study’s findings. The institute collaborates with the entertainment industry in order to significantly increase the presence of female characters in children’s media.

9 Nolan Gould

Nolan Gould

Though most famous for his role as the youngest Dunphy sibling, Luke, on Modern Family, the young star boasts an IQ of 150 and has been an active member of Mensa since childhood. By age 13, Gould graduated high school by taking a GED test, thus accelerating ten grades in school. He also has an interest in stringed instruments: after receiving a banjo as a gift when he appeared as a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Gould took a liking to the instrument. He learned the double bass soon after, and has started playing other instruments such as the didgeridoo and the mandolin as well as mastering the banjo. On his second appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, he debated buying a theremin or a sitar. At only 18, the age when most students are just beginning college, Gould has a wide future ahead of him in both the acting and academic worlds.

8 Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino is proof that genius doesn’t always require an Ivy League degree: Tarantino dropped out of high school in order to pursue his passion for the film industry. He never really liked school, and ultimately decided that he would be better off without it. While this may not be the path that most people take, it worked out pretty well for him. At around 15 or 16, Tarantino started ushering at a porn theatre, and put himself through acting classes, where he met some actors who would appear in his later films. Aside from that brief acting education, Tarantino never attended college or film school, and learned all about filmmaking on his own. According to frequent collaborator Christoph Waltz, Tarantino has a practically encyclopedic knowledge of film history; Danny Strong, a former actor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he was “that guy” who would try to force people in the video stores to watch the movies he felt were best.

7 Alicia Keys

Keys’ prodigiousness in the musical sphere has been apparent from a young age: by the age of seven, she began playing challenging composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. At the age of twelve, she enrolled in Professional Performing Arts School, where she majored in choir and started writing songs at fourteen. A year later, she signed a contract with Columbia Records, and while she initially struggled with the idea of recording, recording on her own and using her own instruments is what saved her. She graduated not only as valedictorian of her high school, but two full years early. She accepted a scholarship to Columbia University and started attending that fall. However, she soon dropped out because she was too busy with her recording career, and she knew that her musical career is the most important thing in her life. Luckily, her choice worked out, as she now is one of the most famous singer-songwriters in the country.

6 Cindy Crawford

Cindy Crawford

Cindy Crawford began modeling as a junior in high school; this attention, however, didn’t make her forget about her studies. She graduated in 1984 as valedictorian, and earned an academic scholarship to study chemical engineering at the prestigious Northwestern University. However, she soon dropped out in order to pursue a modeling career. Most people probably couldn’t make such a swift switch from engineer to full-time model; then again, most people don’t have the brains or ridiculous good looks to do either. Ultimately, Crawford made the right decision to leave school. Shortly after dropping out, she moved to New York and started getting serious modeling gigs. Now, she’s one of the most well-known supermodels in the world, and has appeared in some of the most popular magazines and fashion campaigns in the country. Whether her career had ended up in engineering or entertainment, Crawford clearly was destined for greatness.

5 Rashida Jones

Rashida Jones in Parks And Rec

According to Jones, she grew up a “straight-up nerd”, and "had a computer with floppy disks and a dial-up modem before it was cool”. She could often be found reading five books at a time under her covers before most kids could even learn to read. However, her most noticeable talent was musical: she was well-known amongst her family to be an amazing singer and songwriter, and is trained in classical piano. After high school, Jones went to Harvard with intentions of becoming a lawyer; however, she decided to change her career course to performing arts after the O.J. Simpson trial. She was extremely involved in extracurriculars and clubs at Harvard, frequently directing, composing, and acting in musical and theatrical performances. She graduated in 1997 with a dual degree in religion and philosophy, and soon went into entertainment. Now, while she’s most known for her acting skills, Jones often writes for film, television, and comic books.

4 James Franco

Franco’s intelligence can probably be attributed to his genetics and upbringing: his parents met as students at Stanford, and once married, they raised their children with a spirit of liberalism and intellectualism. In high school, Franco was a “math whiz”, and even interned at Lockhed Martin, one of the largest aerospace, defense, security, and technology companies in the industry. Despite his intellect and success in school, Franco got in a lot of trouble in high school, and at one point became a ward of the state. However, this inspired him to change his ways, and he ended up attending UCLA as an English major upon graduation. He dropped out after his freshman year to pursue acting, but in 2006 he reenrolled, taking 62 units per quarter (compared to the normal limit of 19). After graduating, he went on to attend graduate school at Columbia, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Brooklyn College while simultaneously attending North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College to study poetry. Franco is a PhD student in English at Yale University, and enjoys teaching courses at schools like NYU and UCLA.

3 Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

A film star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Lamarr contributed a lot more to the world than just her films. During World War II, Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council in order to further the war effort, but was told she would make more of an impact using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. However, this didn’t deter her from her inventive instinct. Lamarr designed a jam-proof radio guidance system to help torpedoes stay on-course. Along with composer George Antheil, she drafted designs for a new frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum technology inspired by the way piano rolls work. While the technology was difficult to implement at the time, the Navy began using it in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. Today, Lamarr and Antheil’s designs are vital to modern Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and CDMA technology. In 2014, they were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

2 Lisa Kudrow

Lisa Kudrow

Despite being most famous for portraying the somewhat offbeat and ditzy Phoebe Buffay on Friends, the real Kudrow is a lot more interested in academic pursuits. While both Phoebe and Kudrow are interested in health, Phoebe takes the more holistic approach by working as a masseuse, while Kudrow took a more scientific route. The daughter of a renowned headache specialist, Kudrow aspired to follow in his footsteps while studying biology at Vassar College. While most people have to work in fast food and other odd jobs to support themselves while trying to break into the acting sphere, Kudrow had quite the opposite experience. Kudrow worked on her father’s staff for eight years, and helped in a research study on the likelihood of left-handed people developing cluster headaches. Instead of continuing her research in graduate school or publishing her previous findings, however, Kudrow chose to go straight into a career in acting.

1 Dolph Lundgren

Dolph Lundgren

Despite being known for playing the brawny, brainless type, Lundgren is actually quite the intellectual in real life. He received a degree in chemistry from Washington State University, a degree in chemical engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney in 1982. During all this time, Lundgren became skilled in karate, and won several championships throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. After graduating from the University of Sydney, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to MIT, but while he was preparing to move to Boston, he was hired as a bodyguard by Grace Jones. He moved with her to New York, where he first began dabbling with modeling, taking acting lessons, and dancing at Studio 54. He soon dropped out of MIT to pursue acting full time. Dolph Lundgren clearly proves that the myth of buff athletes being empty-headed is very untrue.

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