Frost Amphitheater

By Megan Calfas

Stanford Live reopens on April 29 with Stanford Under the Stars: Movie Nights at Frost, a series screening movies that star actors who attended Stanford and films set in iconic Northern California locales. Illustration by Helen He '23

Movies kept many of us company this year. They hummed companionship through our phones and flashed color on our computers as we waded, slowly, through 12 months of stubborn sourdough and far too many Zooms. Movies helped us transcend the bounds of our homes, even when staying home was the only option. They were a portal out, letting us dive into other stories, other lives, and other dimensions, all from our living room.

But now, as students trickle back onto campus, some Stanford artists will return too, jumping onto the big screen in a new series of outdoor movies at Frost Amphitheater this spring. Stanford Under the Stars: Movie Nights at Frost will primarily spotlight movies filmed on campus and across the Bay Area or featuring Stanford alumni.

We’ll gather (safely and distantly) and let films continue to transport us to new worlds, this time in community. But first, let’s journey with some of the actors who will be guiding us through these stories and see how they transitioned from Stanford to the big screen and, now, back again.



Students Will Rogers and Sigourney Weaver perform in Stanford Repertory Theater's Androcles and the Lion. Photo by Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

Before she was a movie star, Sigourney Weaver, ’72, could be found sleeping in treehouses on Stanford’s campus. She first embraced acting as an undergrad in a student-initiated, alternative performance company, who “did the most outrageous theater,” according to Weaver.

The company was fueled by a kind of theatrical innovation: creating new stages in the back of trucks, in the middle of campus, and in the parking lots of local high schools. This kind of ingenuity may resonate with current Stanford theater makers, who have been experimenting with virtual productions since students left campus last March.

Weaver’s breakout role as Officer Ripley in the film Alien cemented her as an icon of women’s empowerment. Her embodiment of one of the first true action heroines was a defining start to her career, though she’s continued to be a prolific actress, working continuously for nearly 50 years. She went on to star in Ghostbusters, Gorillas in the Mist, and the Avatar series (where her Navi avatar sported a Stanford tank top, don’t forget), just to name a few. And she’s still going: she filmed the French TV series Call My Agent in January 2020, just before international travel shut down.



Actor and alumnus Sterling K. Brown, ’98, delivers the Commencement address. 127th Stanford Commencement Ceremony, Stanford Stadium. Photo courtesy of Stanford News Service

Sterling K. Brown, ’98, left Stanford with a degree in theater and performance studies. Two decades later, he returned to the stage on campus, this time addressing the graduating class of 2018. He told them “to let their lights shine.”

Brown himself seems to shine brighter and brighter by the day. His 2016 breakout role in the FX series The People v. O. J. Simpson; the popularity of the ongoing hit show This Is Us; and roles in Black Panther, Waves, and Frozen II have skyrocketed his career.

He’s now a two-time Emmy winner and was the first African American man to win the Golden Globe for Best Television Actor in a drama series and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series.

Professor Harry Elam, who taught in the Stanford drama department at the time and recently served as Stanford’s vice president for the arts, is an integral part of Brown’s story. He personally encouraged Brown to audition for an August Wilson play during his freshman year, sparking his love for acting. Brown told Elam on campus in 2018, “Harry, you really have no idea what you did. If it weren’t for you coming to find me, I don’t know if I’d even be doing this. I probably would have stuck with the [economics major] thing and gone into investment banking.”



Stanford Under the Stars: Movie Nights at Frost will feature a number of movies starring Reese Witherspoon, including Election.

In 2017, Reese Witherspoon knocked on a dorm room door, startling the new freshman who had taken residence 20 years after the actress left the Stanford campus. She smiled, reminisced, and snapped a photo for Instagram.

In 1995, Witherspoon started at Stanford as an English major. The following year, however, she left to pursue her already budding acting career. Her fame steadily grew with starring roles in Election, Legally Blonde, and Walk the Line—the last of which earned her an Academy Award. However, the mid-2000s brought a lull in her career. The scripts coming across her desk, she’s said, provided few substantive roles for women.

Frustrated by the limitations and inspired to make a change, Witherspoon started building her own media production company. A starring role in the 2014 hit Wild proved to be a comeback to the screen just as her company was taking off. The company, called Hello Sunshine, strives to “change the narrative for women” and houses projects such as Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere, and Witherspoon’s increasingly popular book club. She continues to work tirelessly in support of women as an actor, producer, and entrepreneur.



In February 2020, Stanford's Institute for Diversity in the Arts hosted an advance screening of Issa Rae's 2020 movie, The Photograph

Issae Rae, ’07, was back on campus just last month to film a scene for the fifth and final season of her hit TV show Insecure. The small but mighty group of students on campus this winter had an unexpected sight come their way when what appeared to be a Stanford class reunion popped up in the otherwise nearly empty halls. This reunion was later confirmed as both COVID-19 safe and fictional—real reunions, the ones Rae may attend herself, continue to be postponed until further notice. 

As the star, writer, and producer of the show, this graduate with a major in African and African American studies has achieved extraordinary success while maintaining an authentic voice and creative control over her work. Rae initially gained attention through her 2013 Web series Awkward Black Girl and the subsequent publication of the New York Times best-selling book The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Alongside a TV career, she’s featured in films such as The LovebirdsThe Hate U Give, Little, and The Photograph. Last month, she signed a five-year deal with WarnerMedia to produce new projects in collaboration with her media company Hoorae. Current projects on the docket include an adaptation of the hit novel The Vanishing Half (by Stanford alum Brit Bennett), Nice White Parents, and season two of A Black Lady Sketch Show, among others.


Megan Calfas is a journalist, playwright, performer, and podcast producer. Currently, she is developing a new musical, teaching classes on live personal storytelling, and producing the podcast The Feminist Present. Previously, she reported on the environment for The Los Angeles Times and graduated with a master’s in journalism from Stanford on Zoom in 2020.

Stanford Under the Stars: Movie Nights at Frost brings a selection of movies featuring actors who attended Stanford and various iconic Northern California filming locations. As the sun goes down, we’ll be showing some of Stanford’s stars (Reese Witherspoon, Issa Rae, Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Connelly, and Sterling K. Brown) in both classic and contemporary movies. Tickets are on sale now. Visit our COVID-19 Safety Guidelines page to learn how we're providing a safe environment as we return to in-person events.