Posted on 17-08-2012 | Tags: beauty, family, fashion, harry potter, lancôme, noah, perks of being a wallflower, the bling ring, university
Emma Watson, the onetime co-star of the most successful movie franchise ever, is a very grateful and a very lucky person. How do I know that? Because I sat down with the 22-year-old in a gastropub in a trendy neighborhood of North London, and in the course of an hour’s conversation she said “grateful” five times and “lucky” eight. True, of those five “grateful”s two were of the “ungrateful” form — yet these were embedded in clauses like “I felt guilty because I felt like that meant I was ungrateful. . . .” So, as you can see, Watson is a young woman who wants it put firmly on the record that she understands human lives are shaken up in the snow globe of uncertainty, and that simply because she’s ended up being covered in golden flakes, she doesn’t take it as her due, oh, no.
Pale skinned, serious of mien, with tiny little Meissen china ears furled tightly against her tiny little Meissen china head, her brown hair scraped back into a bunch, her meager form lost in a baggy white T-shirt, Watson still looks younger than she is. She’s neat-featured; all the headlines of her face — eyes, brows, cheekbones — seem as if underlined. And it’s quite possible that this rather serious emphasis, all those years ago, alerted the casting director that this 9-year-old girl should play Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, rather than the umpteen thousand others who were gagging, swooning, dying to do so. Oh, and then there’s her mouth, which, in mid-moue, has a top lip that looks sharp enough to give you a paper cut.
But setting her calendar age to one side, Watson’s neoteny affects more than her physical appearance, for she is enfolded in the diaphanous — yet profoundly real — swaths of her former status as a child star. I can’t say I ever paid that much attention to her acting in the Potter movies, but I’ve looked for many, many hours in the general direction of screens upon which Watson has performed spells, mixed potions, ridden magical beasts and generally cavorted about. With four children of my own, ranged over 11 years, the eldest the same age as the actress, and the youngest just 11, I’ve been exposed to a great deal more of the franchise than I would’ve wished. Watson’s performances, per se, aren’t the point here: it’s that I, like no doubt many of you, have grown older while she grew up. When the first movie, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” came out, I was a relatively feisty 40-year-old. But when “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” finally shazammed to its inevitable happy ending, I was a downright cranky half-centenarian.
So, Watson will always be, for me, a nice middle-class English girl pretending to be another nice middle-class English girl who’s lucky enough to have magical powers for which she’s extremely grateful. That off-screen those magical powers consist of the ability to transform cavorting about into huge mounds of gold — her personal fortune is estimated at $40 million — only goes to prove that we live in a world at least as strange as J. K. Rowling’s fictions. Now Watson has started to cavort in rather more adult vehicles; the first of these is “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” an indie venture directed by Stephen Chbosky and adapted from his novel of the same name (out next month). It’s a semi-disturbing bildungsroman, set in early 1990s Pittsburgh, about a misfit kid named Charlie, who finds his niche in high school when he falls in with a bunch of like-minded misfits. Watson plays his object of desire, Sam, and she does this with reasonable éclat and newfound maturity. She also manages the difficult feat — for a nice English middle-class girl — of sustaining an American accent. I told her how good it was and she thanked me nicely and explained how she’s honed her vowels: “My grandma said — when I was really young and I’d sing along to the radio — why do you sing in an American accent? I guess it was because a lot of the music I was listening to had American vocalists. And that was something Steve said to me as well: try singing the lines in an American accent. That kind of opened me up. Then I worked with a dialogue coach and I just put in the time to really, really listen and just go over it and over it and over it until I could do it without thinking about it too hard. And I just knew it was really important.”
I concede the above has been lightly purged of “like”s (although meanly I left the “just”s and the “really”s), those nonce words so crucial to the speech patterns of any Mid-Atlantean under 30, but it does give a fair flavor of Watson’s earnestness and dedication as an actress. I asked her why she’s waited this long to make other movies and she put her head on one side, thought for a while, then said: “I think at first I didn’t because I was always either studying or filming, I didn’t have time to go off and do other films or other things to sort of show people that, Oh, she is not just Hermione, she is an actress and she can go and do these other parts and roles. . . . I didn’t, because I was so focused on, you know, on my GCSEs and on my AS and on my A-levels and then getting in to university and then whatever, I didn’t really have time to do any of that.” Meanwhile, her “Potter” co-stars, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, had already begun to appear in other contexts before the franchise finished; Radcliffe most notably in a stage production of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” a distinctly challenging part that entails sturm, drang and full-frontal nudity. Watson considered the performance “incredibly brave, and I think people were impressed by his dedication and his work ethic. I mean he did it when he was, like, 17, and that play is dark and demanding and, yeah, and you’ve quite literally got to be ballsy to do it.”
Watson ended up attending Brown University, and when we spoke had just finished doing a year abroad at Oxford University. She has one more semester at Brown before she completes her degree. Not that she’s only studied and Pottered — Watson is the face of Lancôme, and she’s done a fair bit of modeling over the past three years. She told me that this was her way of establishing a public identity for herself separate from the brainiac character of Hermione Granger.
Watson opted for Brown because it gave her more flexibility to complete the Potter filming, and then do the remorseless grind of publicizing the movies. I wondered if she had enjoyed her time there, given that she was always jetting off elsewhere, and she said, “My first two years at Brown weren’t easy, not because I was bullied or because anyone gave me a particularly hard time, but just because, you know, without the collegiate system . . . and at Brown everyone does completely different things and very much chooses their own path, which is great, but it’s also much more difficult, too. You’re not with a group of people all the time at one time.”
Her last year at Oxford had been easier, partly because she was living in college and able to find a circle of friends, but also because she was close to her mother’s home. She grew up there, with weekends at her father’s in the same London neighborhood where we were conducting the interview. (Her parents, both lawyers, separated when she was young.) Observing her career over the years in a desultory way, I’d gained the impression that there was someone altogether savvy watching over her — something she initially caviled about, but then said: “Yeah, I think I’ve been lucky in that neither of my parents got swept up in it, it wasn’t something they wanted for me, it wasn’t something that they were overawed by. They gave me the best advice they could, and I think they gave me very good advice. But my mum particularly said, ‘Right, you’re going to go into these interviews and they’re going to ask you anything they feel like asking you, and every time they ask you a question, think about whether you’d be comfortable discussing it with a stranger.’” Grounded Watson undoubtedly is, and that’s possibly why she was astute enough to realize that the Potter franchise had acted as a splint to her career; which is also why she’s taken the time out at college — testing her legs in a student production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” among other things — before making her own decision about continuing with professional acting. The measured approach is paying dividends: after “Wallflower” she shot “The Bling Ring” with Sofia Coppola in Los Angeles, and when she spoke to me she was about to start to making Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” in New York. It’s a fairly sharp ascent — from kiddie flicks to indie flick to grade-A art-house movies — and I observed that from the outside it looked rather calculating. To begin with, Watson demurred: “I’m not really sure how I’ve managed to do it.” But then she got a little more real: “I guess weirdly in my head I knew what I wanted, I didn’t know how it would or if it would ever happen. But before ‘Bling Ring,’ I said I’d really wanted to meet Sofia Coppola and — this is before I knew that she had a film in mind — ended up meeting her. And Darren was someone who actually I met a good year ago. And then I’m doing a film with Guillermo [del Toro] next summer, and I went to him and said Warner Brothers have given me the script for ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ but the only way I’d really want to do it is if you did it. And then miraculously he said, ‘Oh, funnily enough ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is my favorite fairy tale, I can’t let anyone else do this, I’ll start putting a team together.’ ”
There are inchoate glints here of a future Hollywood mover and shaker, but, speaking to Watson, they were offset by an impression of someone still looking for nurture in each new temporary family she encounters — whether it be the Potter circus, the cast of “Wallflower” or at Brown. I suspect it may be this emotional connection she seeks quite as much as fulfillment through acting. She certainly has no desire for the glitzy lifestyle her wealth could afford her, this she made perfectly clear — and I believe her. (Watson did talk to me a little about her roles, but I simply can’t hear actors when they speak about their work — the world around me grows sort of misty, and often I swoon away altogether. A famous Shakespearean actor was once talking to me over lunch about his Lear, and I very nearly put my eye out with the top of the pepper grinder.)
I was also touched by Watson’s tales of coming to realize the horrific extent of her face recognition as a child star. She told me that up until she was 15 or 16 she still took the bus from Oxford to London, determined to be just an ordinary girl — this was her strange form of rebellion — but that it became too much when everyone on the bus was either talking about or at her. Nowadays, while she can walk around fairly happily in quiet areas of London or New York, there are plenty of other places that are off-limits: “If I went to somewhere busy, I wouldn’t last very long. I can’t go to a museum, I’ll last 10 or 15 minutes in a museum. The problem is that when one person asks for a photograph, then someone sees a flash goes off, then everyone else sort of . . . it’s sort of like a domino effect. And then very quickly the situation starts to get out of control to a point where I can’t manage it on my own.” I suggested to her that with fame there comes a point when you decide that whatever the downside of people gawping at you in the street, there remains an upside, and I was still more touched by the trenchancy of her reply: that it’s more just like “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Nowadays Emma Watson is set to make a lot more lemonade, and as I left her I thought: I damn well hope it’s potable — then checked myself. After all, why does it matter to me? Unlike with her earlier screen incarnation, I will not be compelled by my children to witness these ones. No, I can decide to watch her movies or not, as I choose, just as she has chosen to become a real grown-up actress. And that, surely, is what cinematic art should be: an act between consenting adults.
Source: The N. Y. Times (T-Magazine)