When Emma Watson was cast in the Harry Potter films as Hermione Granger, the serious, smart role model to countless young girls, the actress, who was only 9 years old, set a nearly impossible course for herself. Not only did she have to bring life to a beloved fictional character for generations to come, but in an increasingly prying Internet-tabloid culture, she also had to measure up to the perfection of Hermione while creatively moving past that ideal. To grow up in public is brutal on many levels, but Watson, 23, has managed to escape both the bad behavior and the career paralysis that afflict so many child stars. Her biggest act of defiance seems to be her recent move to the United States. She is currently an English major at Brown University in Rhode Island. And although roles in corset movies surely have been offered to her in abundance, she has chosen, post-Hermione, to play two different American girls: Sam, the charismatic object of desire in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in 2012, and Nicki, an aspiring actress and part-time thief in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, out this month.
Interestingly, The Bling Ring, which is based on a true story about a group of teenagers who broke into the homes of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, could be read as the chronicle of Watson’s road not taken. The break-ins were not particularly malicious but, rather, a chance for the gang to live in the aura of stardom by stealing some glitzy baubles and designer duds. Alexis Neiers, the real-life Nicki, has even had her own reality show. “I was dying to play her,” Watson confessed. “Nicki is so different from me. How do I try and understand a young woman who loves these things so much that she is prepared to commit crimes to have them?”
While wildly dissimilar in almost every way, Nicki and Emma do share a keen interest in image control. At our shoot, Watson was meticulous about her hair and makeup, and aware of every frame. It was not diva behavior; she was lovely and polite yet exacting. Perhaps this is how you gracefully transition from child to adult in the global eye: Be bold but never, ever sloppy.
What is the first movie you remember seeing?
Pretty Woman. I was 7, which was way, way too young. That was when I started loving Julia Roberts and American movies. As a child, I loved being onstage. I loved singing, I loved the lights, I loved the adrenaline. I even loved learning lines. I was completely obsessive. A friend of my mother’s found a tape of me auditioning for Hermione. I wanted to get really, really good at my lines. There was reel after reel, take after take, of me doing the same thing over and over again.
How old were you?
Nine. I was crazy. I did eight auditions, and I would literally sit by the telephone in my house and wait for each call. When they had me in for the ninth audition, I was like, Wow, nine! They called me into the producer David Heyman’s office, and he said I was the “preferred” candidate for the role. Before I could obsess over what “preferred” meant, they took a photograph of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and me, and it was broadcast on the Internet that we had been cast in Harry Potter. By the time I got back to my house, there was press waiting outside. We moved straight into a hotel.
Did you ever feel the pressure of having to be a shining example to young girls worldwide?
I was always a very serious child. I remember being 13 and girls in my class saying, “So-and-so is going to kiss so-and-so on the school fields.” I said, “That’s stupid. They’re too young for it to matter—he doesn’t love her, and that’s just a waste of time.” It’s amazing that I had any friends! [Laughs] So I was the right child to get cast: I loved the responsibility.
Did you have your first kiss on camera?
Thankfully, no. I’ve always been fascinated by Elizabeth Taylor, and I had read that her first kiss happened on a film set, which actually made me a little sad. You need to have normal experiences of your own. I’ve never wanted to grow up too fast: I wanted to wear a sports bra until I was 22! The allure of being sexy never really held any excitement for me. I’ve never been in a terrible rush to be seen as a woman.
And yet, in The Bling Ring, you are a little bit of a bad girl.
With Nicki, I was really taking on a character. Some of her lines are so crazy and absurd—making sure she wasn’t a parody was a challenge.
Did her outfits help you get into character?
Who wouldn’t love to go to work in Uggs and very low-slung tracksuit bottoms? The iconic detail of Nicki is her tramp stamp. It’s a lotus flower, a Buddhist-like symbol just above her butt crack. Really classy! [Laughs] And at one point I told the costume designer, “You can see my bra strap in this top; shouldn’t we pin it?” And she said, “No, sweetie—Nicki is all about her bra strap showing.” I was like, Right, okay, different mind-set.
When did you realize you were famous?
I lived in denial for as long as I possibly could. Until the age of 18, I would take the Oxford Tube, which is a public bus. Then it got to the point where the fact that I was on the bus would spread from one end to the other. I’d think, Why am I doing this to myself? Ignoring fame was my rebellion, in a funny way. I was insistent on being normal and doing normal things. It probably wasn’t advisable to go to college in America and room with a complete stranger. And it probably wasn’t wise to share a bathroom with eight other people in a coed dorm. Looking back, that was crazy.
I’m surprised you chose to come to America.
I’ve always loved America. When we came here with Harry Potter, everyone was so warm. Eventually, all of my friends were American, and I think that’s why I was attracted to playing Americans, even extreme ones like Nicki. When I’m presented with a character, I think, Hmmm…I have not had this experience. I don’t really know what this would be like. I’ll have the experience through the character.
Do you have a Hollywood crush?
My cinematic crush has been pretty much the same since I was 12: Kevin Costner. I met him in an elevator the other day, and I couldn’t even speak. He said hello, because he is lovely like that, and I couldn’t say anything back.
Kevin Costner is so American.
Of course! Kevin Costner is forever. And America too!
Hair by Orlando Pita for Orlo Salon; makeup by Dick Page for Shiseido Makeup. Manicure by Sheril Bailey at Jed Root Inc. Set design by Stefan Beckman for Exposure NY.