This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.
Diane Neal has spent much of her life in the glow of a photographer’s flash or the focus of a TV film camera. For a model and actress, it has been lucrative work, but Neal, who graduates with an associate degree from the Harvard Extension School in May, knows a hefty paycheck isn’t everything.
“Money buys you two things: time and opportunity,” said Neal, on campus recently for one of the School’s creative writing seminars. “But if you don’t make use of either one of those things, it’s pointless.”
Best known for her role as assistant district attorney Casey Novak on the popular police procedural “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Neal has made the most of both. She has devoted much of her off-screen time to charity work, and then taken the opportunity to go back to school and use her Harvard education to inform her current political campaign.
“This run is about the people of NY19. I want to represent us. Big money and the party machines have enough advocates,” said Neal, who announced her candidacy for New York’s 19th Congressional District seat in February.
Neal once dreamed of a different spotlight entirely. She graduated high school at 16. “I was the kind of kid nobody spoke to unless they needed their homework done. I did no school plays. I was a science kid. I thought I was going to go into medicine or be an astrophysicist. A Nobel or a MacArthur ‘genius’ prize, that’s the kind of thing I would fantasize about.”
Instead, in 1993 she landed a modeling contract after her sister signed her up for a contest during her first semester of college. For the next few years, Neal crisscrossed the globe for photo shoots, excited by foreign countries and cultures. The travel fueled her interest in and compassion for others. “You see all these people who have such capacity, and because of their circumstances, they are never going to have the opportunity to live up to it.”
Later, on breaks during filming “Law and Order: SVU,” Neal quizzed the show’s guest stars. What “motivates you? What gets you going? What’s your worst fear?” she asked them. “I wanted to absorb everything I could about every part of everyone I met even in every job, from the wealthy people to the poor people to everyone in between.”