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TORONTO — On Sunday afternoon, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the lovely young British actress Emma Watson, best known as Hermione Granger in the immensely popular Harry Potter films (2001-2011), who had come to town to attend the world premiere of Stephen Chbosky‘s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which contains Watson’s first post-Potter starring role, at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday night. I was lucky to catch Watson when I did, because by Monday she was already in Los Angeles for its American premiere. The film, which has become widely regarded as one of the fest’s most pleasant surprises, will go into limited release on September 21.
Over the course of our time together — video of which you can see above, unfortunately in a darker setting than would have been ideal — the 22-year-old and I discussed a wide variety of topics, including: her first acting experiences, pre-Potter; the process through which she was discovered for Potter; the impact that the instant worldwide celebrity had and continues to have on her ability to go about her life; how she picked her first post-Potter roles, including a supporting part in My Week with Marilyn (2011) and a more central part in Perks; and what she made of her first experience on a film that cost as much to make and lasted as long as a mere sequence in a Potter film might have.
Watson was born on April 15, 1990 to two British lawyers who were living in Paris at the time. When she was five, the family moved back to England and her parents split up, so she wound up dividing her time between Oxfordshire and London. At the age of six, she began taking acting lessons and appearing in school theater productions. She so impressed her instructor that when talent scouts came to the school in 1999 and asked for recommendations of children between the ages of nine and 13 who might be worth seeing for Harry Potter auditions, the woman included Watson among a group of 13. The kids ran through some exercises in the school gym, had their photos taken, and were told they’d be notified if they were needed again.
Not long after, Watson got a call asking her to come to London three weeks hence, where she was auditioned more formally. She later learned that the creative team behind the series, including the books’ author J.K. Rowling, wanted her for the part of Hermione after just two auditions, but she had to go through nine — “a real journey,” she describes it — before she was notified that she had won the part. She explains that this was because, “It wasn’t just about finding the right person for each character; it was about making sure that the three of us looked right together and that we had the right chemistry.” To that end, she recalls that both she and the others arrived at the same conclusion about the male parts: “When I auditioned with Rupert [Grint] and Dan [Radcliffe], something just kind of felt right.” She adds, “When they actually told me I had the part, I couldn’t really process it — I couldn’t really believe it — because it had been such a long time coming.”
Over the next decade, the trio of young actors starred in eight Potter films that collectively grossed over $7.7 billion at box offices around the world and single-handedly revived the faltering British film industry, while in the process becoming among the very biggest celebrities on the planet. Asked when she first appreciated the magnitude of the franchise to which she had signed on, Watson emphasizes, “Honestly, I’m still appreciating the magnitude — every day, I’m still trying to get used to what my life is like now that this thing happened. I mean, every day. Honestly, there isn’t a day that goes by that there isn’t something about my day that’s a little bit abnormal or weird that I’m just like, ‘Wow, this thing really had some impact, huh?'” She adds, “It’s been unbelievable, really. I have to pinch myself sometimes.”
For young woman who was always more interested in being an actor than a star, however, Potter‘s impact has proven to be a mixed bag.
For Potter, she felt like she was immediately thrown right into the deep end of the pool. She recalls, “What most actors and actresses do behind closed doors — slowly but surely figuring themselves out, making mistakes, getting better, you know, all of that stuff — I did with the world watching. It makes you very afraid of being bold, of being brave, of really going for it, of putting yourself out there. Suddenly I had this awareness, at like age 12 or 13 — I was like, ‘Oh, my God, the whole world is gonna see this performance,’ and, like, it’s a lot of pressure. So you’re constantly fighting the fear factor.”
She was, however, immensely helped by the unique opportunity that she was afforded to work up-close with several top directors (Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates) and a stable’s worth of great veteran British actors (among them David Bradley, Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh, Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter, Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, the late Oscar nominee Richard Harris, Oscar nominee Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Oscar winner Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Oscar winner Emma Thompson, and Oscar nominee Julie Walters).
Even more importantly, she says, she acquired invaluable experience: “Now, honestly, every movie set that I go on, I walk onto set with the confidence that there is nothing that they can throw at me that’s gonna surprise me. I mean, I have done scenes with animals, with owls, with bats, with cats, with special effects, with thespians, in the freezing cold, in the pouring rain, boiling hot; I’ve done press with every syndication, every country; I’ve done interviews with people dressed up as cows — there’s honestly nothing that’s gonna intimidate me! And that’s a nice feeling to walk on with. ‘Surprise me! Just try! Go on!’ So that feels good. It’s been good and bad. It’s been good and bad.”
But the series has also impacted her life in a way that is much less welcomed — it has taken away her anonymity and made it virtually impossible for her to lead a “normal” life, no matter where she goes or what she does. Indeed, she has been left with the exact opposite problem as the central characters in Perks; they aren’t even noticed by most others, whereas she can’t help but stand out. Most people aren’t particularly sympathetic when they hear the rich and famous lament their situations, and Watson seems to understand that. “I sometimes feel like it’s difficult for people to relate to me,” she says — that is, “until they spend, like, a day with me, and until they walk around with me in public. And then they’re like, ‘Oh. This effects you every day of your life.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.'”
How does she deal with it? “I have to be a lot more calculating,” she says, “because I’m a very private person. I actually really struggle with the attention; I’m generally a pretty shy kind of a person. So it’s tough figuring out how to manage it. But there are ways of managing it, and you just have to be smart. I just try and surround myself, for the biggest proportion of time that I can, with people who make me feel normal, because constantly feeling abnormal is quite difficult. People don’t really understand, but having people stare, and point, and take pictures, even if it is in a positive framework, is quite isolating; there’s no two ways about it. You feel a little bit, you know, freakish.”
I can’t help but wonder what she would decide to do if she could go back to the age of 10, with the knowledge that she possesses today. Would she elect to become a hairdresser or something else, or would she repeat the same decisions that led her to become one the three faces of the biggest film franchise of all time and have to deal with all that it entails? She seems to mull over the question for a moment before asserting, “I don’t really believe in having regrets; it’s just not really in my mindset. ‘Oh, if you could have done it differently, would you?’ It’s like, that doesn’t even occur to me. I’m here, and this is where I am, and I’m just living it. You’ve only got one life.”
When the Potter ride began to wind to an end, Watson was faced with a major decision: at the height of her popularity and power, what did she want to do with the next chapter of her career? She had attempted to study at Brown University, the prestigious Ivy League institution in the U.S., but found it difficult to lead the life of a typical student and also kept getting pulled back to work, so she took a leave of absence. For a while, she “didn’t really want to work.” Then she read the script for My Week with Marilyn and was thrilled to have the chance to play the small part of a young costume girl. And then she started thinking about resuming work more regularly.
As she puts it, “It was really just about waiting for something that just really spoke to me. There was no strategy.” When she read the script for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which had been a best-selling book upon its publication 1999, she was smitten with it. She elaborates, “I pick movies, not roles. And, like, Sam [the effervescent but troubled high school student that she plays in Perks] is a great role, but it’s such a great movie, and I wanted to be a part of it.” Meanwhile, she laughs, “If you had told me that the first movie I was going to do coming out of Harry Potter was an American high school movie, I would have laughed at you. I would have gone, ‘Yeah, no. That’s not what I want to do.’ I didn’t think I was going to do high school movies, period. But then I read the script, and it totally blew me away. And that’s how it happens.”
The reality is that Perks might never have gotten made if Watson hadn’t taken such an interest in it. “The movie has some difficult — and pretty much taboo — issues in it,” she says. “Like, [studios] hear the words ‘child sexual abuse,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, no, we are not going there! That’s not for us! Thank you very much, but we’re not interested. When I read the script, it felt like, ‘Of course someone’s gonna wanna make this movie!’ And then my agents were like, ‘We just don’t know. No one wants to fund it.’ And I’m like, ‘Not with me and with Logan attached? No?’ They’re not in?'” She decided to take matters into her own hands. “I flew myself to LA, and I sat down with everyone — with Disney, with Paramount, with everyone — and they were like, ‘What movie do you want to play in?’ And I was like, ‘I really want to make this movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And Summit [the same studio that put out the Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker and the blockbuster Twilight films] were the ones who were like, ‘We’re in. We’re gonna go for it.’ So, yeah, it was really nice for me to see that I could change the course of things slightly.” She chuckles, “That’s certainly one of the perks of having done Harry Potter!”
Speaking of which, she was in for a big surprise with this film, which was made on a budget and scale that she had never seen before. “It was hilarious to me,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘You can make a movie for like less than a $100 million?! Are you kidding me?!’ And they were like, ‘We’re gonna film it in six weeks.’ And I was like, ‘You can make a movie in six weeks?!’ We did a Harry Potter in, like, seven months! This was like talking another language to me; it was just another world. And then, of course, doing the American accent, and doing the American high school thing — which I have zero personal experience of — I turned up like a quivering, anxious, nervous wreck about doing this movie. I was so nervous.”
Her fears were quelled, however, by Chboskys total confidence in her. She says gratefully, “I don’t know why — he really believes in me… he just totally, 100% believes in me, and he gave me the confidence and the faith in myself that I could pull it off. And that was so awesome. And it just gave me permission to do something different and show a different side of myself, which was just so liberating and exciting.”
The month-and-a-half-long production took place in Pittsburgh — Chbosky’s hometown — and Watson says that she and her co-stars, who include Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller, had “an awesome time” on set and off. “We turned the ground floor of the Crown Plaza into a hippie commune,” she laughs, acknowledging that they formed a band called Octopus Jam in which Lerman played the guitar, Miller played the drums, and Watson sang. “I was deliriously exhausted by the end of this movie — I slept, on average, maybe like four hours a night — because we just stayed up all night playing music, and talking, and just having a good time, really. We had a lot of fun.”
Now, of course, comes the stuff that she loves far less — the interviews, the red carpets, the fashion critiques, etc. Namely, the selling of the work. She has already heard some annoying and reductionist questions and observations more times than she cares to remember — not least of that Perks, like Potter, features a trio of close classmates, two boys and a girl. “I’ve done, maybe, like four or five other movies now that don’t have a trio,” she says, “but, obviously, Harry Potter‘s the one that really sticks out, so immediately people draw that comparison. But just, like, what I would say is go and see this movie ’cause it’s nothing like Harry Potter; like, it could not be more different from Harry Potter. So that makes me laugh a bit. I’m like, ‘You’re in for a shock if you think you’re going in to anything that has any resemblance.”
But, at least for now, the pain of promoting Perks has been a small price to pay for the pleasure of making it, Watson indicates. “I’m just so proud to have been a part of it,” she says, “and I honestly think that the world would be a better place if there were more people like Charlie.” The book Perks prompted piles of letters to be written to Chbosky from young people who told him that it helped them to deal with their own personal demons, and it seems likely that the film version will reach even more people who might feel the same way. “If I make one person feel a little bit less alone for a second,” the actress concludes, then it was all worth it — all worth it — for sure.”
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