Seeing beyond superficial fame
The star of upcoming Disney live-action epic Beauty and The Beast recounts her journey from Harry Potter to devoted humanitarian.
When English rose Emma Watson was cast as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise, she can’t have perceived the extent to which it would change her life. Thrust into the global spotlight at the tender age of 10, she has long expressed a combination of gratitude and anxiety while growing up in the spotlight. Spending her teenage years spending time shaping the characters she portrayed rather than her own identity, the 26-year-old is now finding more time to dedicate to “the self”, as she puts it.
“Fame is not something I have always felt comfortable with,” she begins. “I have really grappled with it emotionally.
“It has taken time for me to be able to put myself first because growing up in the industry is pretty unrelenting. And what I have often find is putting myself first means looking at philanthropic work first. In fact, I would go so far as to say philanthropic work is my way of making sense of the fame, of using it. I have found a way to channel it towards something else, which makes it so much more manageable for me – and this is something I really believe in.”
While Watson has featured on many a ‘Sexiest Women in Hollywood’ list, she has worked hard to prove that she is more than just a pretty face, carving a niche for herself as a role model for young women everywhere. “I want to empower women to do exactly what they want, to be true to themselves, to have the opportunities to develop,” she says. “Women should feel free. There is no typical feminist – there is nothing anywhere that says you have to meet a certain set of criteria.” And, she adds, part of that should be encouraging women to embrace their own definition of femininity: “Shave your armpits, don’t shave them, wear flats one day, heels the next…”
With women’s rights taking the focus of Watson’s modern morals, it was appropriate that in 2014 she was appointed UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. As part of her work she has travelled extensively to countries including Zambia and Bangladesh to promote female education, and kick-started the HeForShe campaign for gender equality, even delivering a captivating speech at the UN headquarters in New York.
“Being asked to serve as UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador is truly humbling,” she said. “The chance to make a real difference is not an opportunity that everyone is given and is one I have no intention of taking lightly. Women’s rights are something so inextricably linked with who I am, so deeply personal and rooted in my life, that I can’t imagine an opportunity more exciting. I still have so much to learn, but as I progress I hope to bring more of my individual knowledge, experience and awareness to this role.”
It is this combination of humility and fragile strength that sets Watson apart from her contemporaries. Her devotion to others never feels insincere and her casting as Belle – a character also known for putting others’ needs before her own – in Disney’s upcoming Beauty and The Beast update makes perfect sense. “I think Belle really inspired me as a young woman,” she declares. “If you listen to the Belle Reprise lyrics, the whole song is about a woman saying: I want more. I want more than people expect me to want. I can’t and don’t know how to accept the status quo.
“That kind of self-belief and defiance and inner strength is definitely something that, as a young woman, I remember – watching her sing that song and feeling really kind of, ‘Oh, this woman is for me; she’s speaking for me; I see something there that resonates’. She is definitely a part of who I have become now.”
Starring opposite Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as the Beast, Watson was determined to make her character feel relatable; a fully formed woman who is instrumental in bringing out the better side of the Beast rather than a two-dimensional princess. For her the film is something deeper than a simple love story. “Belle and the Beast are symbolic for the two sides that are within all of us and how we reconcile those different parts of ourselves; we balance our masculine and feminine energies which we all have inside ourselves,” she says fervently. “It’s also a story about seeing deeper, beyond the superficial, beyond the exterior – and I think that really resonates with people.”
It’s hard to imagine Watson has much time left for other pursuits, but an offshoot of her awareness campaign is growing in popularity by the day: her Goodreads book club, Our Shared Shelf. The idea is to highlight feminist ideas through choosing one book each month and discussing it online. On top of that, she’s become a certified yoga instructor, another practice which helps her cope with the pressures of fame. “I have been doing a lot of that – more specifically on the meditation side of things,” she reveals. “It’s been great to have this year for learning and I’ve been doing my book club which has been wonderful so I’ve been doing lots of reading. It’s been really good.”
This year will also see the Burberry model star opposite Tom Hanks in The Circle, a sinister sci-fi tale that warns of the perils of the relentless march of technology.
In her personal life, however, Watson’s sole focus is feeling good in herself. “I want to feel fabulous and comfortable and sexy and strong and beautiful. And if it’s making you uncomfortable, don’t do it. Moving forward, I’m prioritising just feeling awesome!”
Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas 23 March, The Circle will be in cinemas 4 May.
Karen Anne Overton