Not too long ago, Emma Watson was riding the subway in New York City when a person sitting across from her did a double take. “He went, ‘Oh my God, are you..’ And I was like, Oh my God, he’s about to recognize me and this entire car of people are going to stare at me. Oh fuck. And I was going into panic mode, and then he said, ‘It’s obviously not you, why would you be riding the subway?’ But then things got really terrifying, and he proceeded to tell me everything about myself, not realising it was me. He was like, ‘You know what’s weird, she’s supposed to be in New York, like, right now. She’s promoting a Harry Potter movie.’ And he started talking to me about what he thought about my choice of university and all this stuff, and I just had to sit there and listen for 20 minutes. That kind of experiences just gives me chills because I realize who I am as a person and the way people construct the idea of who Emma Watson is are such different things – they’re so far removed.”
Curled into a worn-in leather armchair in a corner of the Rare Book Room, on the third floor of the Strand bookstore in New York, Watson – elfin and graceful – looks right at home. It’s nice to imagine her like this in the sprawling libraries of Oxford University, where she studied abroad her junior year, and at Brown, from where she hopes to graduate next year. Those are her safe places, away from the winks and nudges, the flashbulbs and camera phones, and the weird subway stalkers that come with being one of the most recognized actresses on the planet. “School was my retreat; the one place I could go where people couldn’t follow me,” she says. Tomorrow, she and her co-star Ezra Miller are going to Oberlin College in Ohio to see one of her friends, and now, as day slips into night outside and commuters start pouring onto the streets of Union Square, Watson, dressed in dark skinny jeans and a loose plaid vintage shirt, seems calm and unhurried. She takes old books from the shelves, opening them carefully on her lap so as not to damage the bindings, and strokes the paper, inhaling their scent. “I love books so much,” she says. “I can’t begin to tell you...”
Watson’s performance in Perks, made for what she says is ‘the catering budget, literally’ of any of the Potter films, is a breakthrough for the actress, whose first tentative steps outside of the Hogwarts grounds are being monitored just as closely as when she was a full-time student there. While they were filming, Sofia Coppola and her casting agent, Fred Roos, called Chobsky and asked to see a few scenes – soon after, they cast Watson as one of the leads in Coppola’s upcoming film, The Bling Ring. Darren Aronofsky, who was working on his epic adaptation of the Biblical Noah story, also wanted to see some footage; he subsequently cast Watson and Logan Lerman and both are currently in production on Noah, due out next year.
“Whatever people might think about it, whatever criticisms they have, all three of us were so vulnerable – all three of us really gave it everything we could and everything we had, and all three of us went into the movie terrified and very much aware of what this book means to people,” she says. “Hopefully, we managed to get the spirit of what people felt in the book up on screen.”
In fact, Watson only decided she actually wanted to pursue acting as a career after she wrapped Perks, about a year ago. She fell into the Harry Potter franchise as a nine-year-old after a casting agent visited her school in Oxfordshire, England, and spent the next 10 years playing the precocious Hermione Granger in eight of the most successful films in the history of cinema. “I’ve done my life backwards; it’s really bizarre,” she says. “Most of my friends are just about to start working, and I’ve had a job for the past 10 years. It’s strange, because most people spend that decade figuring themselves out and figuring out what they like and what they don’t like – just making mistakes in the privacy of their own teenage bedrooms. And I am kind of doing everything in a different way, so sometimes it’s a bit isolating…” She trails off and looks around the room, then at the recorder on the arm of her chair as if she wishes it weren’t there, just this once. “I’m in a slightly different place.”
Perks was a good project for the adult Emma Watson, now 22, who up until then had thought she might try journalism as a career, to start with. “I feel more directly creatively involved with the whole project – you’re part of a very small, passionate group of people who are trying to bring something to life,” she says. “You feel like you’re in a traveling circus, or a company of actors.”
Now, in addition to The Bling Ring and Noah, she is about to start filming Your Voice in My Head, in which she will play Emma Forrest, the writer of the memoir the film is based on, who’s struggling with manic depression, and she’s attached to Guillermo del Toro’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting pairing of fairytale and director and, as it turns out, we have Watson to thank for that, too: “The script came to me, and it was a little bit cheesy and kooky, and I was like, ‘I don’t really want to do this’,” she says, warily eyeing a thirtysomething guy who has been loitering for a suspiciously long time not too far away. “I said the only reason I would do it would be if someone like Guillermo del Toro did it, and Greg Silverman, who’s the head of Warner Brothers, said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you email him?’ So I did, and he emailed back, saying ‘Beauty is my favourite fairytale. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell. I can’t let anybody else do this project, and I think you’re perfect for it.’ And we started talking, having these three-hour conversations, and he’s starting to build the world.”
Because the loitering guy seems intent on pretending to study a shelf of old medical books too close to us for comfort, we walk over to the other side of the room, to some stacks of poetry, scanning the faded spines for familiar names. “I never wanted any of the things that a lot of the people who go into this industry want,” Watson says. “I never wanted to be famous. My parents never wanted this for me. I never even wanted this until a year ago. I was so overwhelmed by the way that people responded to the idea that this might not be what I want to do (something Watson said publicly while promoting the seventh Harry Potter film), but I hope people will respect my choice more now that I really took time to consider it, and what it really means. Now that I’ve made my decision, I’m serious about mastering my craft and really doing things that I genuinely believe are important.” She sighs quietly. “I think the line between what being an actor is and what being a celebrity is has gotten so fuzzy that people don’t even know what we do anymore. Models are actresses and actresses are models and actresses are designing sofas, and it’s crazy. I don’t know if it will change, but I’m going to try to do this the right way.”