Since her years as Hermione ended, Emma Watson has fought to assert her own identity. Now that she has found her voice—most notably as a U.N. ambassador—she’s revamping a classic stereotype, the Disney princess, in Beauty and the Beast. Watson talks to Vanity Fair about her metamorphosis from child star to leading woman.
Emma Watson and I are standing on the 23rd Street platform of an uptown-bound E train in New York City and we’re littering. Literally. And literature-ly. The 26-year-old actress is scattering hardcover copies of Maya Angelou’s book Mom & Me & Mom throughout the station—tucking them between pipes, placing them on benches, atop the emergency call box—in hopes that New York commuters will pick them up and put down their smartphones. This display of civil disobedience was conceived by Books on the Underground, a London-based organization that plants books on public transportation for travelers to discover. “We’re being ninjas,” she says with a conspiratorial grin as she digs in a big black rucksack of books. “If there were anyone to be a ninja for, it’d be Maya Angelou.”
Watson is one of the most famous women in the world, the child star who skyrocketed to global fame at the age of 11 playing brainy Hermione Granger. Next month, she’s back on the big screen as Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast—which broke the record for most viewed new movie trailer. (That’s 127 million views in its first 24 hours.) But today she’s makeup-free, her hair shoved into a bun, and she’s wearing a nondescript dark wool coat over a baggy black sweater, completely blending in with New York’s distracted mass-transit masses.
“It’s good that we’re spreading a little bit of love,” she says. As she removes the last book, a train pulls into the station. She hops in, places it on a seat, hops out, and watches from the platform as the doors close and a young man inquisitively picks it up.
Aboveground, over coffee at a nearby café, Watson explains why she thinks reading is “sacred.” There’s the obvious, professional reason: Harry Potter was a literary sensation before becoming the blockbuster franchise that made her famous and a millionaire many times over. But books are also rooted in her deepest personal experiences. “Books gave me a way to connect with my father,” she says. “Some of my most precious and treasured moments . . .” She trails off and, unexpectedly for someone who is known for her composure, tears up. Her parents divorced when she was young. “I just remember him reading to me before bed and how he used to do all the different voices. I grew up on film sets, and books were my connection to the outside world. They were my connection to my friends back at school because if I was reading what they were reading we’d have something in common. Later in life, they became an escape, a means of empowerment, a friend I could rely on.”
I first met Watson, Hollywood’s latest exception to the rule that all child stars inevitably flame out, during Paris Fashion Week more than a decade ago, when she was still a teenager and filming the fourth of the eight Harry Potter films. It was both a homecoming for the actress—she was born in Paris to British parents and lived there until she was five—and a symbol of her maturity on-screen. She was there to attend her first-ever fashion show, at Chanel, which was a big deal considering that up until then she had shopped in the bridesmaid section at Harrods or borrowed dresses from her stepmother for movie premieres.
She was a shy teenager, but friendly, intelligent, and down to earth. Watson is described as much the same today: “She’s way more like a real person than a movie star,” according to Gloria Steinem, who became a friend when Watson reached out to discuss the changing face of feminist activism. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who met Watson backstage at a performance of the musical, sums it up: “She played this very smart, conscious, noble wizard—and then somehow we had the good fortune that she became a smart, conscious, noble woman.”
Emma and I got to know each other, and I visited her on the sets of the last two Harry Potter films. But as the Potter train pulled into its last station, I noticed the clouds of melancholy forming over her fairy-tale life. “I’d walk down the red carpet and go into the bathroom,” she remembers of the last few premieres. “I had on so much makeup and these big, fluffy, full-on dresses. I’d put my hands on the sink and look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Who is this?’ I didn’t connect with the person who was looking back at me, and that was a very unsettling feeling.”
What few people knew when she enrolled at Brown University in 2009 was that she had a desire to give up acting and walk away from Hollywood altogether. “I was finding this fame thing was getting to a point of no return,” she remembers. “I sensed if this was something I was ever going to step away from it was now or never.” She loved performance and telling stories, but she had to reckon with the consequences of “winning the lottery,” as she calls getting the part of Hermione, when she was nine years old and literally still losing baby teeth. As an adult, “it dawned on me that this is what you’re really signing up for.”
The question most people ask when a celebrity moans about being famous: If you hate the fanfare so much, why keep making movies? Watson asked herself that all the time. “I’ve been doing this since I was 10 or 11, and I’ve often thought, I’m so wrong for this job because I’m too serious; I’m a pain in the ass; I’m difficult; I don’t fit,” she says. “But as I’ve got older, I’ve realized, No! Taking on those battles, the smaller ones and the bigger ones, is who I am.”
She recently found the courage to say no to selfie-seekers. “For me, it’s the difference between being able to have a life and not. If someone takes a photograph of me and posts it, within two seconds they’ve created a marker of exactly where I am within 10 meters. They can see what I’m wearing and who I’m with. I just can’t give that tracking data.” Sometimes, she’ll decline a photo but offer up an autograph or even a chat—“I’ll say, ‘I will sit here and answer every single Harry Potter fandom question you have but I just can’t do a picture’ ”—and much of the time people don’t bother. “I have to carefully pick and choose my moment to interact,” she says. “When am I a celebrity sighting versus when am I going to make someone’s freakin’ week? Children I don’t say no to, for example.”
I tell Watson I’ve watched other actors, like Reese Witherspoon, walk down the street and happily pose with fans—and suddenly it becomes clear that the fans of Sweet Home Alabama are different from Harry Potter fans. It’s something Watson is deeply aware of. “I have met fans that have my face tattooed on their body. I’ve met people who used the Harry Potter books to get through cancer. I don’t know how to explain it, but the Harry Potter phenomenon steps into a different zone. It crosses into obsession. A big part of me coming to terms with it was accepting that this is not your average circumstances.” (Since the first movie premiered, in 2001, when Watson was 11, there have been numerous incidents with stalkers.) “People will say to me, ‘Have you spoken to Jodie Foster or Natalie Portman? They would have great advice for you on how to grow up in the limelight.’ I’m not saying it was in any way easy on them, but with social media it’s a whole new world. They’ve both said technology has changed the game.” When she was at Brown, Watson went to a Harvard football game and The Harvard Voice, a student magazine, live-tweeted as its staff stalked her at the stadium. She’s not exaggerating her security concerns, either. She purchased her house sight unseen over a Skype call with a real-estate agent because it had a paparazzi-proof entrance. “Privacy for me is not an abstract idea,” she says.
Watson has a boyfriend, though she adamantly, vehemently refuses to expound on him. (The Internet says he’s called Mack, he’s handsome, and he works in tech in Silicon Valley.) “I want to be consistent: I can’t talk about my boyfriend in an interview and then expect people not to take paparazzi pictures of me walking around outside my home. You can’t have it both ways.” She sits back and wonders if she should finish this thought, and eventually she does: “I’ve noticed, in Hollywood, who you’re dating gets tied up into your film promotion and becomes part of the performance and the circus. I would hate anyone that I were with to feel like they were in any way part of a show or an act.”
Back in college, Watson was like most 20-year-olds, struggling to carve out her own identity, only she did it in front of a rabid fan base and a never-ending celebrity-news cycle. She made international headlines when she chopped Hermione’s long locks into a closely shorn pixie. To this day Watson declares, “It’s the sexiest I’ve ever felt.”
She got into yoga and meditation; being the Type A person she is, though, she wasn’t content just doing it. “Typical Emma,” says Harry Potter producer David Heyman, who has remained a close friend. “She had to become a certified meditation teacher.”
Watson shied away from doing additional big-budget studio films and instead focused on smaller movies, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), and sought out auteur directors, like Sofia Coppola with The Bling Ring (2013) and Darren Aronofsky with Noah (2014). She turned down big offers: from lucrative cosmetics deals to critically acclaimed scripts. (Emma Stone’s role in La La Land was reportedly developed for Watson.) “There have been hard moments in my career when I’ve had an agent or a movie producer say, ‘You are making a big mistake,’” Watson says. “But what’s the point of achieving great success if you feel like you’re losing your freakin’ mind? I’ve had to say, ‘Guys, I need to go back to school,’ or ‘I just need to go home and hang out with my cats.’ People have looked at me and been like, ‘Is she insane?’ But, actually, it’s the opposite of insane.”
What ultimately helped clarify her purpose was reading. Last January, Watson started Our Shared Shelf, her bi-monthly online book club. She used Twitter (more than 23 million followers) to crowd-source the name.
All About Love: New Visions by Bell Hooks, was Watson’s March 2016 book-club selection. Watson traveled to Berea, Kentucky, near the Appalachian Mountains, to meet Hooks, and the two quickly struck up a friendship based on, in the words of the writer, “the belief in the primacy of a spiritual foundation for life.”
“In so many ways she’s not like we think of movie stars,” Hooks told me. “She’s [part of] a very different, new breed who are interested in being whole and having a holistic life, as opposed to being identified with just wealth and fame.”
In early 2014, U.N. Women, the United Nations’ department of gender equality, contacted Watson about becoming an ambassador. Everything clicked: she could focus the prying eyes of the world onto causes that she was passionate about, namely a new initiative called HeForShe, which aims to get men to co-sign on feminist issues. I was in the audience at the General Assembly on September 20, 2014, when Watson, elegantly and discreetly wrapped in a simple silver-gray Dior coatdress, stepped onto the podium and spoke passionately about women’s rights for a little more than 10 minutes. Her battle cry ended with: “I am inviting you to step forward, to be seen, and to ask yourself, If not me, who? If not now, when?”
“I used to be scared of words like ‘feminism,’ ‘patriarchy,’ ‘imperialist.’ But I’m not anymore,” Watson says.
“It was not typical for U.N. Women to have a celebrity give a keynote address,” says the executive director of U.N. Women. “We needed a new messenger to break new ground for us. We didn’t want to just speak to the converted.” Watson blushed at the standing ovation and beamed as then secretary-general Ban Ki-moon became the first person to officially sign on to HeForShe. The U.N. Women Web site crashed in the aftermath of the media blitz that followed—“A good problem to have!,” Mlambo-Ngcuka says—and her speech made headline news around the world, from CNN to fashion blogs. Men like Hugh Jackman, Jared Leto, Harry Styles, Russell Crowe, and Eddie Redmayne aligned themselves with HeForShe. Feminists worldwide heralded their newest spokesperson: “For a time, there was a conversation about whether ‘feminism’ was a good thing or a bad thing,” Mlambo-Ngcuka says. Watson’s speech “gave us the word back.”
The first time Watson saw the final cut of Beauty and the Beast she took along her mother, Jacqueline, and Gloria Steinem to a screening in London. She wanted her mother’s approval, but she needed Steinem’s. “I couldn’t care less if I won an Oscar or not if the movie didn’t say something that I felt was important for people to hear,” Watson says.
Specifically, she must have wanted assurance that her portrayal of a Disney princess didn’t conflict with the ideals of a feminist.
“It was fascinating that her activism could be so well mirrored by the film,” Steinem says, noting that Belle uses reading as a way to expand her world. “It’s this love of literature that first bonds the Beauty to the Beast, and also what develops the entire story.”
This is a new Belle, much of it by Watson’s design. “I was like, ‘The first shot of the movie cannot be Belle walking out of this quiet little town carrying a basket with a white napkin in it,’ ” she says. “ ‘We need to rev things up!’ ” In the original Disney movie, Belle is an assistant to her inventor father, but here she’s a creator in her own right, developing a “modern washing machine that allows her to sit and read.” Watson worked with costume designer Jacqueline Durran to incorporate pockets in her costume that are “kind of like a tool belt.” Another thing: in the animated version, Belle is on and off horses yet wearing a long dress and silk slippers, which didn’t sit well with Watson. Bloomers were created and Belle’s first pair of riding boots. “The original sketches had her in her ballet shoes,” Watson says, “which are lovely—don’t get me wrong—but she’s not going to be able to do anything terribly useful in ballet shoes in the middle of a French provincial village.”
Maturing from Hermione to Belle is a true coming-of-age story for her. “When I finished the film, it kind of felt like I had made that transition into being a woman on-screen,” she says. Belle is “absolutely a Disney princess, but she’s not a passive character—she’s in charge of her own destiny.” What’s more intriguing, however, is how Watson observed a similarly strict code in her real life, too, from what parts she plays to what she reads in bed at night and what clothes she puts on in the morning.
“Emma has an incredible sense of integrity,” says Livia Firth, the founder of Eco-Age, a sustainable-fashion consulting firm. “You can’t marry activism and then do something in your life that is not in agreement.” Firth praises Watson’s choice of dress for last year’s Met Gala: it was designed by Calvin Klein and made almost entirely from recycled plastic bottles. For her Beauty and the Beast press tour, Watson created a PowerPoint presentation that her stylist sent fashion designers. It included a questionnaire about how their garments are produced, what their impact is on the environment, and the moral reason why she should wear one on the red carpet.
As Steinem honors Watson’s high moral standards and relentless activism, I ask her if there’s a risk of becoming, well, annoying to the general public. Is she too much of an ethical Goody Two-Shoes? Steinem is not amused. “Let me ask you something: If you did a story on a young male actor who was very private and involved in activism, would you think he was too severe or serious? Why do women always have to be listeners? Emma is interested in the world, she is caring, and though she is active she is also joyous and informed.” At this point I’m backpedaling—“I think she’s wonderful!”—but Steinem still digs in. “It’s possible to be both serious and fun, you know. That response is why men will ask a woman, ‘Why don’t you just smile, honey?’ ”
The actor Kevin Kline, who plays Belle’s father in Beauty and the Beast, agrees with Steinem. “When someone has a feminist point of view, we tend to think she’s no fun at all,” he says. “But a feminist can be feminine, delicate, vulnerable, sweet—and still demand to be taken seriously. Emma fits the bill perfectly.” A big grin forms on his face as he asks, “Has anyone told you about the dancing scene yet?”
In the film, there’s an over-the-top ball, which required the entire cast and scores of extras to waltz in period costumes for hours and hours. “Ater a long, long day, suddenly Pharrell Williams’s song ‘Happy’ comes on, blasting, and everyone just starts jumping around,” Kline recalls. “It became kind of a wrap party, really celebratory. And I asked, ‘Who did that?’ It was Emma.”