Q&A: Catching up with Josh Duhamel, UND honorary degree recipient

Hollywood actor and UND honorary degree recipient, Josh Duhamel talks education, home state and career

This past Saturday, at UND’s general spring commencement, Hollywood actor and Minot, North Dakota native, Josh Duhamel joined the graduating class to receive an honorary degree. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

Josh Duhamel took 13 years to obtain a bachelor’s degree in biology.

So many notable series and movies filled that span, however, that the Minot native became, ostensibly, one of the most recognizable North Dakotan and a Hollywood heartthrob.

Duhamel, though, might describe himself as “just some dude,” or, at least, so he does to his over 2 million Instagram followers. Perhaps, that is because the Transformers star did not really seek fame when he dropped out of Minot State, a single credit short of graduating. He followed a girlfriend to California and intended to pursue dentistry.

“It didn’t work out,” he said with a chuckle.

What did was Duhamel’s acting, which, after a modeling bout, budded in several song clips, including Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle. Then came the role of Leo du Pres on ABC Daytime show All My Children that earned Duhamel a Daytime Emmy Award in 2002 for Best Supporting Actor.

Duhamel’s segue into leading characters commenced in 2003 with Danny McCoy, head of security for the Montecito Casino in NBC’s Las Vegas. His portrayal caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who, as executive producer, reportedly personally picked Duhamel to channel Colonel William Linnox in the blockbuster Transformers franchise.

In 2005, Duhamel, after taking a course online, finally completed his undergraduate education at Minot State. It was not for another 13 years, dominated by reprised performances in Transformers, several TV shows, a couple of Taco Bell commercials and North Dakota Tourism campaigns, that the announcement  broke – Duhamel was to receive an honorary doctorate degree from the University of North Dakota.

This past weekend, during UND’s general spring commencement, Duhamel walked across the stage together with the third largest graduating class in the University’s history.

In the couple of days the actor spent on campus together with his 5-year old son, Axl Jack, UND Today caught up with him to chat about the occasion, his continuous support for UND and North Dakota and his prolific career. A condensed version of the conversation follows.

You received an honorary degree from UND. How does this make you feel?

Honestly, when I first heard [about it], I said, ‘No, I cannot do that. I didn’t even go to school there.’ Honestly, I felt a little bit embarrassed by the whole thing. It is so flattering that they want to do that. Then, they called again and I was like, ‘Ok, you know what, I cannot possibly… this is such an honor to be even considered for it.’

I am very humbled by it. I am very excited and honored by it. I am just trying to take it all in.

In Life as We Know It, which is only one example, you wore a t-shirt with UND’s athletics logo at the time. Where does this desire to represent the University in that fashion come from?

First of all, I love the state of North Dakota. I like to support it in any way I can. It was also the fact that most of my friends came to school [at UND]. It was just a way for me to sort of wink [at] my state. People might have not known what I was wearing but I knew and everybody where I am from knew. So, for me that was fun to be able to support UND that way. 

What is the backstory of getting UND to star in the movie? 

I went to the wardrobe people when we were first doing costume fittings. As a sports director on the movie – his name was Messer – he was kind of … I think Messer encapsulates who this guy was. As a sports guy, he wore hats, he wore t-shirts. He wasn’t well-to-do. He was just a regular guy. I asked [the wardrobe department] if I could wear [a UND shirt]. They had to, of course, contact the University of North Dakota and clear all that stuff because anytime you wear a logo or a title, you have to get cleared. By the way, we got the clearance.

At first hesitant to accept an honorary degree from an institution he has not attended, Duhamel said the honor humbles him. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

You have been spotted at UND hockey games. Do you play?

I played hockey from the time I was a kid, really young, all the way I was 14. Seventh or eighth grade, I had to choose between basketball and hockey. Because at the time I was so gangly, tall and sort of awkward, I just felt like basketball was the way to go. I really did love hockey. All my friends – huge hockey fans. All played hockey. I was sort of the outcast who chose basketball. 

What was your favorite subject in school?

My first love was art. If I were good at anything, it was drawing, painting and sculpture and stuff like that. I also loved biology stuff. I spent a lot of time outdoors observing animals, amphibians, mostly frogs and turtles. I ultimately got my degree at Minot State University in biology with a minor in art but what I am not good at is probably math. I was more of a dreamer, I guess. I was good at writing and drawing and artsy kind of stuff. 

You wanted to be a dentist, right? Why? 

I did want to be a dentist. The reason why I felt I could be a dentist is because […] half of being a dentist or half of getting into dental school is having this perceptual ability. I knew I could do the perceptual stuff because it was all hands and stuff like that. When my mom asked me as a sophomore in high school, I told her I wanted to be a dentist for that reason. Then, I could make mom proud to be a doctor and I could do something that I loved and be good at. It didn’t work out. 

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Didn’t you get your degree in 2005?

At least I got it. At least I know have a degree. I put a lot of work in for that. A biology degree was not easy. It was a lot of stress and a lot of hard work. I would have been disappointed in myself had I not gone back and finished.

I think that to me is what is most important about getting a degree. If I were to speak to the students here or any students anywhere, I would say, it is not so much what degree, but the fact that you got it and the fact that you persevered and made it through and got that degree because it is really easy for people to quit half way through and just say, ‘You know what, I want to get into the job world,’ which is fine. A lot if successful people do that. But if you have that fortitude to go forward and keep working toward that degree, it means you are probably going to have that same fortitude going forward in life. But if you quit early, you are probably going to quit in other things too. That is why I think those degrees are so important to get. I don’t use mine but I learned a lot in getting it and not just about biology but about going after something and finishing what you started even if it is 13 years later. 

For several years now, you have been the voice and face of North Dakota Tourism campaigns. Do you learn any new things about your home state doing these campaigns?

I learn a lot every time I come back and do the North Dakota campaigns, I really do. I mean, I have been to the UND campus, I have been to Medora and some of the other places that we all know about. But last year, for example, I went to the earth lodges outside of Mandan. I learned so much about the Native Americans and how they were able to survive through the winters in those earth lodges and how they kept things cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It was pretty innovative what they were able to do with that thing. They really were resourceful. Obviously I knew, but until you get in there and learn more about it – it is pretty impressive to see. That is just one example.

How often do you take your son, Axl Jack, to North Dakota? What do you like to do together out here?

He is with me now. He comes back a few times a year with me. We were just at my lake cabin in Minnesota the last couple of days. He loves it. He loves his cousins. I want him to have as much of this state and as much influence on him from the people and from family and friends, getting to see what life is like here because Los Angeles is great, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want my kid to be influenced only by Los Angeles. I am trying to get him out here as much as possible, get him to know my friends, his family, the lake cabin. I think it is important for him. 

Duhamel’s honorary degree comes over a decade after he earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Minot State, following a 13-year academic pause. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

What inspires you? 

I really love the unknown. I guess I have always been a little bit of a risk taker, often times to my detriment. But at the same time, for me, I love the idea of what is the next adventure, what I am going to be doing next. That idea that I am not sure what is going to be next keeps me hungry, keeps me going because I never really get comfortable. I have had a lot of fun, I have been able to see a lot of new things. I love the creative side of this. I love the imaginative side of it. I guess that is what really inspires me – trying to continually get better and better.

Do you have a favorite character or a project?  

I think the most fun I have had in this business and the most difficult thing I have done, for sure, is the movie [The Buddy Games] that I wrote and directed two summer ago. It will be coming out later this year. Talk about a four-year degree in making a movie – from the conception of this thing all the way through, even now, to the selling to the potential distributor and how we are going to market it.

Before I’d go to the set, I’d do my thing and that was kind of it. I’ve always had an interest in directing. I watched to see how the producers manage the money, make sure that we made our days and we didn’t go over. I watched it but until you are in it, it has just been a whole different experience for me. I am very proud of the movie. The movie is outrageous. I am glad I am getting my honorary degree from the University of North Dakota now, because if they’d seen the movie, they might have not given me the degree. 

Any parting advice for UND students?

If I was to give advice to anybody, especially UND students at this time, I would say, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You are going to fall down flat on your face several times, get back up, keep going. If I only knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have worried so much about stuff that didn’t really matter. [You] got the degree, [you] are moving in the right direction. Go easy on yourself, work hard and don’t be afraid to make mistakes and go after what you believe you can do. Go after your dreams because believe me you can do it.