Growing in confidence, learning to handle her fame and dating a rugby hunk — Emma Watson is a girl in bloom
Emma Watson claps her hands to her mouth as if I’ve asked her to do something naughty. “Oh gaaawd, no. I couldn’t do that,” she says, when I ask her to describe herself. “Can I phone a friend? I’ll ring my best friend, Lauren.” She grabs her phone, jiggling her foot nervously. “Pick up, pick up.”
Lauren is her brother’s girlfriend, also her neighbour, and one of the gang of friends and family Watson “constantly” calls on for advice. Lauren is into ethical beauty products, which Watson is thrilled about; Watson’s GCSE geography project on sustainability fired up her interest in ethical fashion, although today that means modelling ethical red-carpet dresses for Erdem or Victoria Beckham, rather than colouring in graphs. Still, she worries about the film industry: “It’s so resource-intensive, wreaking havoc and destruction in its wake.” But she tries to offset this “by making choices about how I live”.
Lauren has started getting organic vegetable-box deliveries, which Watson can’t wait to try, as soon as she is in one place long enough. With her degree to finish — at Brown University, Rhode Island — the promotional tour for her new movie Noah kicking off and filming of Alejandro Amenabar’s Regression starting next month, those organic carrots might have to wait. Watson looks crestfallen when Lauren doesn’t answer, but promises to text me the response. The next day, Lauren describes Watson as: “One smart cookie with an excellent taste in friends.”
The 23-year-old Watson is more fun than I expected. There had been a bit of starry behaviour before the interview, with guidelines by her agent about what was off limits, and repeatedly warned not to mention her personal life. But as my hairdresser said the day before: “Boring. Why don’t famous people realise all we want is to know about their lives?”
I am expecting a strained interview, so I am delighted by the girl who plonks herself onto the nearest sofa in Shoreditch House, greeting the waiters warmly as she requests a glass of water. She is exceptionally pretty, but not unreachably so, with her hair in a loose ponytail, wearing check trousers, a black top and, her one concession to high glamour, a pair of Prada heels. “I dressed up for you,” she says, not looking that much older than when we last saw her as Hermione Granger. Despite her excellent valley-girl impression in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, there were still flashes of bookish Hermione lurking beneath. This isn’t her fault. It was impossible to ignore Watson’s on-screen presence during the decade she spent playing Hermione, so her early adult roles were always going to be like watching your younger sister dress up to go on a first date.
For someone who has starred in eight blockbuster movies and is worth an estimated £30m, she is endearingly modest about how green she felt leaving Harry Potter behind in 2011. Emerging from that magical machine was “really intimidating”, she says. “I’d done two tiny plays when I was, like, six and eight, but I wasn’t driven to act. I wasn’t doing Oscar acceptance speeches into a hairbrush. I took a Beanie Baby to my first Harry Potter audition,” she says, laughing. “It took me a year or two to find my confidence.” Today, she’s excited to be experimenting with different roles. “You can see that by the choices I’m making, from Sofia Coppola, then jumping to a biblical epic. There are no restrictions on me, which is a relief.”
Clearly, she has left behind the choppy waters of late adolescence. “I can take criticism on the chin a lot more,” she says, acknowledging the pressure to look perfect and behave impeccably in the public eye. “As a younger woman, that pressure got me down, but I’ve made my peace with it. With airbrushing and digital manipulation, fashion can project an unobtainable image that’s dangerously unhealthy. I’m excited about the ageing process. I’m more interested in women who aren’t perfect. They’re more compelling.”
And rather than her celebrity contacts, she says it’s her mum and friends she turns to for advice when dressing for a big event. “I love showing them images and asking, ‘What do you think of this dress?’ I call on my boyfriends for advice all the time,” she says, before quickly correcting herself. “I mean friends who are boys, and my girlfriends.”
She chooses her words carefully, and talks about being normal a lot. It’s something celebrities do and it often feels disingenuous. Kate Winslet, for example, may want to swear her way through an interview, but you know that beneath lurks the steely heart of a first-class diva. However, Watson genuinely seems to be pulling off the mammoth challenge of living a relatively normal life, despite being one of the most famous girls in the world. Normality and a proper education were what she was looking for when she enrolled at Brown, but in retrospect she knows it was unrealistic to think she could rock up on campus and live the beery life of a frat girl.
“After Harry Potter, all that mattered was university. I didn’t even know if I wanted to be an actress,” she says. Her agent didn’t send her any scripts during her first year. “For a while it was amazing, as the American press afforded me so much privacy.” However, she couldn’t escape her fame. “On the first day, I walked into the canteen and everyone went completely silent and turned around to look at me.” It’s not a memory she relishes. “I had to say to myself, ‘It’s OK, you can do this.’ You just have to take a deep breath and gather your courage. I have moments where I walk into a bar and it will take me making a joke to put people at ease, to realise I am just a girl.”
She dismisses suggestions of problems at Brown, but says: “It wasn’t always easy to break down barriers, as having men from the British press following me with cameras didn’t help my mission to integrate myself.”
She spent a year studying at Oxford “because my parents did, and I wanted to experience it”. However, they couldn’t be less interested in her films. “My dad never watches films and only reads books. And my mum owns, like, four VHS videos. They’re supportive, but they wouldn’t know how to advise me.”
Her parents divorced when she was five, but they still live in Oxford, and Watson is the eldest of her seven half- and step-siblings. “I feel so strongly tethered to England. The people who have known me longest are here.” She pauses, frowning. “The time I remember before I was famous was here too.” The way she refers to these two sections of her life, schoolgirl and global star, reminds me of the way people talk when they have experienced trauma, seeing their lives separated into pre- and post-event. “They are two different parts of my life,” she says carefully. “The time before I was famous is important as it formed who I am, and my closest friends, who I completely trust, are from then. They ground me, which is something I purposely cultivate.”
Her mother was surprised by how much Watson wanted to pass her driving test. “It’d be easy to have a full-time driver, but I try to maintain my normality and independence.” Such as? “I don’t have round-the-clock security, and I try not to draw attention to myself when I’m not working.”
She’s on Twitter, but is probably slightly disappointing to her 12.4m followers, as there are no selfies or snaps of homemade cakes, even though she enjoys cooking. “Raspberry and amaretto cake is my favourite, but I also like banana choc-chip bread and egg tortilla. Cooking helps me to relax, and I think people close to you appreciate a home-cooked meal,” she adds coyly, although it’s about as close as she’ll get to revealing anything about her newest relationship, with Matt Janney, rugby hunk and Oxford’s most eligible bachelor. “I can’t comment on it, I’m sorry,” she says, suddenly jumping up and hastily bundling her things back into her bag, which has exploded across the sofa beside her. “I’m trying to keep my private life sacred, although I don’t want to lock myself up and never go out. So I guard it, because I don’t date people who are famous, and I don’t think it’s fair that, all of a sudden, intimate details of their personal life are public as a direct result of me. I find that so uncomfortable, and I wish there was a way I could protect those people, but it’s not in my control.”
When I suggest her boyfriends are consenting adults, she looks worried. “But you don’t choose who to love, who you have feelings for, do you?”
She throws her phone into her bag and retreats home to pack, as she’s flying to LA. Just a normal girl, then, off to present an Oscar.