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Emma Watson is walking through a field of buttercups and daisies, dappled in sunlight and dressed in white, on a glorious day in early English summer. ‘You’re a dandelion head!’ says one of the team that surround her for the fashion shoot, as if in encouragement. ‘Hello, flower!’ says photographer Alexi Lubomirski, from the top of his stepladder. Watson smiles beatifically, big eyes luminous beneath her gamine auburn crop, but as any conversation with her swiftly reveals, her head isn’t filled with dandelion fluff at all. In the quick breaks from the shoot – wherein she has transformed herself for the camera from the picture of innocence to a raven-haired vamp-siren – she talks about fair-trade fashion, feminism, Kazuo Ishiguro and Catherine of Aragon. For, at 21, Watson – once upon a time the most instantly recognisable little girl in the world – is a force to be reckoned with, and if not quite all grown up, then well on her way to adult maturity.
Still, it’s hard not to feel maternal towards her, at least for anyone like me with children of the same age who has watched her grow up on camera as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films. Hermione was always my favourite – the cleverest girl in Hogwarts, brave and loyal, yet also, in the words of author JK Rowling (who has identified her younger self with her heroine), hiding ‘a lot of insecurity and a great fear of failure’. Cast at the age of nine, Watson has starred in the series for the past decade, with the final instalment released this July; her life is so inextricably linked with the making of the movies that it’s hard to separate where Hermione ends and Emma begins. ‘I was thinking about this the other day,’ she says, when we finally sit down with a cup of tea at the end of the shoot on a bench in the garden of Petersham House. ‘I was wondering about the exchange, about how much of her went into me, and how much of me went into her.’ Watson doesn’t have a conclusive answer, but it’s a question that goes to the heart of where she has come from, and who she becomes next.
Three days before our meeting, she issued an emphatic denial via her website that her recent decision to take time off from her studies at the American university Brown had anything ‘to do with bullying, as the media have been suggesting recently. I have never been bullied in my life...’ she reiterates this to me, with quiet indignation, and repeats that she still hasn’t decided what to do in September. ‘Like a lot of other students at Brown, I might spend my third year abroad.’ Until then, Watson has a packed schedule: promoting the last Harry Potter film (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2); a supporting part in My Week with Marilyn (playing a wardrobe assistant to Michelle Williams’ Monroe); being the new Lancôme ambassador (she’s the face of the brand’s latest fragrance, Trésor Midnight rose, with a campaign shot by Mario Testino); and filming her most recent role in an adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (The Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation, to be directed by the novel’s author stephen Chbosky in pittsburgh).
She is clearly fired up by the new film, which deals with, among other things, child abuse and suicidal depression. ‘I think it is unbelievably important that this film is made. Stephen receives letters regularly that say that reading The Perks of Being a Wallflowerliterally saved their life. I read the whole script in one sitting and it made me cry... It deals with the issues that teenagers go through, the real ones, the scary ones that no one really wants to talk about.’ Describing the character she plays as apparently ‘much more of an extrovert than I am – she’s very good at having fun’, Watson is also able to identify the darker streak of ‘low self-worth’ that lies beneath the veneer of the party girl.
But she has not yet left Harry Potter behind, and Hermione remains part of her, which is hardly surprising. Consider, for example, that Watson’s own childhood photographs were used in a key scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, in which Hermione casts a spell to obliterate her parents’ memory to protect them from evil and loss. ‘All the pictures dissolve, which was horrifying – it’s almost worse than dying, in a way, because your parents are still alive, but they have no awareness of you.’
As she speaks, it’s in Hermione’s voice: light, polite, but occasionally intense. Her manners are impeccable; she says thank you to everyone, and there’s a modesty in her demeanour, as well as her dress sense. Today she is wearing flat black ballet pumps from Zadig & Voltaire (‘The most comfortable shoes, but these are on their last legs’); cropped black Gap trousers (‘They fit so nicely that I bought three pairs’); and a white sleeveless broderie anglaise top by Equipment (‘This I bought in New York a few days ago’). With her pale skin, dark defined eyebrows and short cap of hair, she has a look of Audrey Hepburn and Jean Seberg, but all the while recognisably herself – as she was in Mario Testino’s Burberry campaign. You can see why the fashion and beauty industries adore her; Testino enthuses about her ability to convey ‘a mixture of qualities that are very rare – freshness due to her youth, stardom and current relevance... the real woman of today’. Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative director, is equally fulsome. ‘She has a classic, effortless beauty, and a modernity that is a perfect fit for the brand,’ he says. ‘But more than that, she’s also charming and intelligent.’ And Alberta Ferretti, who has known Watson since dressing her for the first Harry Potter promotional tour, speaks of her ‘reliability’, ‘strong character’ and ‘perseverance’. ‘For me, Emma represents freshness, intelligence, seriousness, femininity... She’s such a great role model for all today’s girls.’ Watson herself returns all the compliments, though she’s too clever to fall for the idea of fashion as being benevolent. ‘It can be savage,’ she says, ‘and cruel, in that it’s prescriptive – you have to look a certain way and fit a certain mould – but also in the way it’s made.’ Her commitment to ethical fashion is manifest in her collaborations with the fair-trade-pioneering label People Tree, and an environmentally friendly collection for Alberta Ferretti, displaying a level of involvement that goes beyond simply putting her name to a brand. People Tree’s Antony Waller describes her as having ‘attended absolutely every meeting and being involved in every decision’, as well as making a trip to the slums of Dhaka to investigate working conditions. ‘When I went out to Bangladesh, to a factory where the clothes are made [for mass-market labels], it was horrifying,’ she says. ‘There is a cost to cheap clothes – if people could see the inhumane way they’re made, they would never in a million years buy them...’
It’s a balancing act, of course, between having the courage to speak out and at the same time increasing her involvement not only with the fashion industry, but the business of being a celebrity brand. Given her great wealth – she is now worth £24 million, according to The Sunday Times Rich List – Watson need never work again, a fact she tacitly acknowledges when discussing her decision about whether or not to continue at Brown. ‘The only reason to go to university is to do what I love, and learn about what I’m interested in.’ That said, she seems unlikely to swerve away from her capacity for juggling different tasks and self-set targets for high achievement; this is, after all, the girl who got top marks for her A-levels and a place to read English at Cambridge (which she turned down in favour of Brown), while maintaining a gruelling filming schedule.
By her own admission, there has never been the space in her life to be badly behaved: her parents – both successful, Oxford-educated lawyers – split up when she was five, so she learnt to divide her time between two different households. Born and brought up in Paris, Watson and her younger brother Alex moved with their mother Jacqueline to Oxford. Her father remarried and lives with his second wife, a former nanny, in north London; they have a boy and twin girls (who were cast as younger versions of Emma in the BBC adaptation of Ballet Shoes). Watson is scrupulously loyal to both parents – and their extended families (her mother’s partner has two sons) – but also remains guarded; not only to maintain their privacy, but as a consequence, perhaps, of adhering to the traditional English etiquette of hiding emotion. ‘When I was growing up, my family, particularly my father, were very stoic,’ she says. ‘I learnt that young, very young...’ She cites Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day as one of her favourite books for its expression of the consequences of discretion. ‘Part of me is very resentful of this British mentality that it’s not good to express feelings of any kind – that it’s not proper or brave. But I also appreciate it. There’s another book that I read when I was very young – The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory, about Catherine of Aragon – and I know it sounds silly, but I thought, “I’ve got to be just like her.” She was the first wife of Henry VIII and she survived, having been cruelly divorced. I remember being really inspired by that.’
Despite Watson’s previous lack of professional acting experience, you can see why she was picked out of thousands of young hopefuls to play Hermione. ‘She was more beautiful than Hermione in the book,’ says David Heyman, the producer of Harry Potter, ‘but she was so focused and self-possessed and fiercely intelligent, just like Hermione – she was always Hermione.’ Determined to get the role, even before her first audition (which took place at her school, the Dragon School in Oxford, one of the most prestigious in the country), Watson, it seems, had no question in her mind that she might be anything other than good, just like Hermione. ‘There has never been room in my life for that – I couldn’t imagine giving my family any more trouble, it’s already been complicated enough.’ At the risk of being reductive, you sense that she inherited her ambition from her father – ‘My dad is one of the top international-communications lawyers in the country, and trying to argue with him was a nightmare, so I learnt quite quickly to be good with words’ – while she is more protective of her mother. ‘My mum is an incredible woman. She moved back from Paris with my brother and me after the divorce, and worked full-time, supporting both of us. But I felt I wanted to take care of her, I wanted to be there for her – I didn’t want to give her a hard time.’
Instead, she seems to have been more willing to be hard on herself; pushing herself through exams, revising in a rented flat in Hampstead in the middle of the night after filming from dawn at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire. The expectation was she would go to Cambridge, but in the end, she decided she needed to get away from the UK. ‘I felt suddenly very claustrophobic... I thought, “I can’t stay here, I won’t be able to concentrate, I won’t be left alone.”’ She won’t be drawn on exactly why she has felt the need to escape Brown – at least for now – other than the difficulty of combining her academic studies with her work commitments. But there are some indications that she is now beginning to value the chance to be happy as an alternative to overachievement. ‘My mother has been reminding me that happiness is important.’ She is rightly cautious about the demands of Hollywood: ‘LA scares the crap out of me. I feel if I have to work out four hours a day, and count the calories of everything I put in my mouth, and have Botox at 22, and obsess about how I look the whole time, I will go mad, I will absolutely lose it.’
But what might be toughest of all is for her to let herself go – to be free to make mistakes or experience the normal failures of life or reveal any form of aggression. Which isn’t surprising, having devoted her career so far to being Hermione, for whom the cause of goodness is a matter of life and death. Watson admits to having felt ‘a bit uncomfortable and awkward’ while portraying the role of bad girl for the Bazaar shoot – ‘It didn’t come naturally at all’ – and to a similar unease during a course of drama lessons when asked to show fury. ‘My acting tutor said the hardest thing for me was to get angry. I almost broke down in tears when they tried to get me to be angry. I said, “I can’t do it, I just can’t do it.” I keep all of that really bottled up somewhere and I feel unleashing it would be the scariest thing – and to let myself be powerful, sexy, all those things, it’s scary for me.’
Yet of one thing we can be certain; like Hermione, Emma Watson is brave enough to meet the most daunting of challenges. Not that I want to see her being good at being bad; rather, for her to allow herself to experience the risk of disenchantment, while keeping her own particular magic intact.