TORONTO - Emma Watson is ready to break the spell.
Yes, to date she remains best known as Hermione, the resolutely loyal sorceress and driven student from the blockbuster Harry Potter series.
But brace yourself for a whole new Watson. That's her, loose and giddy, clad in a corset, shaking her rump during a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the coming-of-age dramedy The Perks of Being a Wallflower, out Sept. 21. And yes, that's her, speaking in a precise American accent as Sam, something of a sweetly lost soul trying to find her footing as a high school senior while befriending a depressed, possibly suicidal freshman (Logan Lerman). Next year, in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, she pole-dances and does drugs, and she faces the apocalypse (as herself) at James Franco's house in Seth Rogen's comedy The End of the World.
It's all part of Watson's mission to challenge herself by being as anti-Hermione as possible in her post-Potter endeavors. Perks was Watson's first major project after wrapping Harry Potter, and she chose it precisely because Sam was so different from anyone she'd ever imagined playing. "It was way out of my comfort zone, doing the crazy dancing and the Rocky Horror stuff. This movie has helped me shake off a lot of the fear and restrictions I put on myself," she says. "I'm slowly breaking down the barriers. Slowly, I'm giving myself permission to be an actress and not worrying so much what people think about it."
Because Watson, 22, grew up on the Potter sets and never went to a high school, she didn't have much to draw on from personal experience. So while admittedly "super-anxious," she turned to her co-stars Ezra Miller and Lerman and writer/director Stephen Chbosky, peppering them with questions about prom and homecoming and teen hangouts.
Despite their differences, Chbosky immediately saw why Watson would be perfect as Sam.
"There's so many things that link Emma to Sam," Chbosky says. "I first met her in New York City at this hotel, and we met for breakfast. What I saw was this girl who was beautiful and successful, but there was something about her that was lonesome and dying to make a connection to being young.
"That was perfect for Sam. Emma has so much talent, and she wanted to showcase all these other sides of her. This was a great vehicle for her."
Watson, too, connected deeply with the character.
"The same way that Sam is quite hard on herself, I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Finding a way to like my imperfections and accept that I'm a human being and doing my best and finding a way to love myself and respect myself, that was something that really spoke to me. I had a tough adolescence in my own way, and my friends got me through it. I can relate to the special people who get you through hard times."
An interesting mix
On set in Pittsburgh, Watson went to the mall and hung out with the cast, with no airs or graces about her. Chbosky marvels that for someone who grew up "in the eye of the hurricane," Watson was never aloof or distant or cold.
"As a person, she's a perfect combination of a proper English girl and a bit of a circus performer. She and I had a laugh once where I drew a diagram of her life and her personality. There's the half that's always on time and considerate and professional and very serious. And there's the side that loves to dance and loves a good joke and is silly and can really enjoy making beans on toast for a bunch of her fellow actors at 3 a.m. She's both things at the same time."
That combination of propriety and naughtiness is why Coppola cast Watson in Bling Ring, about a teen gang that burglarizes celebrity homes in Hollywood.
"I like that she's so different from the character and was really dedicated to transforming herself," Coppola says. "I also love that she has a sweet young face but is playing not a nice girl. It's fun to see her that way that you wouldn't expect. ...
"(Emma) is very nice and smart. She seems very aware. It's impressive having grown up the way she has, she's serious and hardworking."
There's something incandescent about Watson, an elegance coupled with an endearing bubbliness. She's tiny, yet the opposite of fragile. Despite growing up in the business, she seems neither jaded nor spoiled. Financially, she's firmly entrenched in the top 1% in England, where she lives (and dates Will Adamowicz). She's the face of the cosmetics brand Lancome. On this day, she's dressed in a gorgeous embellished Jason Wu top, which any fashionista knows doesn't come cheap. But ask her about being so wealthy, and she doesn't talk about the perks the money affords.
"It's funny. For a lot of people, the focus of their lives is earning a living, and that's the reason they get out of bed in the morning. So, in a way, you're trying to find another thing to live for.
"It's amazing and freeing. It gives me the freedom to do the things I care about. It gives me choices. It's kind of daunting, and it's kind of weird as well. I never pictured my life turning out this way."
Is she able to have any kind of normalcy? Or is grabbing dinner in public just asking for trouble because she's so recognizable?
"I have to be strategic when I go out. I can't just go to Central Park in the middle of the day. That isn't a real option for me. Sometimes it's annoying, but generally, it's manageable. I just try to surround myself with people who make me feel normal."
'Slowly making my way'
Part of that is why she went to college and hopes to graduate from Brown University this summer. She has shot six films in two years, so life has been hectic. Watson sounds a little rueful when discussing her schedule but says she has no intention of walking away without a diploma.
"I'm slowly making my way. ... I've been back to back for a long time. It's been really fun. I'm really glad I did it. It gave me my life in a way.
"When you're playing someone else and you're playing a public persona for the media, you almost lose your own identity and who you are. Being able to go to school and be around people who don't work in this industry was a big part in helping me stay somewhat sane. I made a lot of sacrifices. It was really hard to get it done. But I'm so glad I did."
She treasures her college experience. In fact, the only time Watson gets upset is when she's asked about stories that circulated earlier about her being bullied at Brown, a school that has been attended by legions of boldfaced names, including John F. Kennedy Jr.
"It upset me so much. It made me so mad. It was such irresponsible journalism and had nothing to do with my experience. It's horrible. And with no evidence. No grounds whatsoever. People were asking me if I was OK. It broke my heart. I was treated so well at Brown. I was spitting. It's not what I experienced. It made me mad, very mad."
Mostly, though, Watson seems balanced and enviably Zen. She's loving her job at the moment and appreciates the life she's able to lead because of it. So much so that when she's home, she goes to the movies with her friends, despite the crowds and ringing cellphones and gawkers.
"It's so worth it to me. I love the communal experience of watching a movie together. I go and buy records. I hang out with my cats. I paint. I do yoga. I sleep. Occasionally, I read. This is a book (co-star Ezra Miller) is getting me to read, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He loves that book. I haven't finished it yet."
A work in progress
Watson herself seems to be on a journey of sorts, trying to discover what's ahead of her. If the acting thing ended tomorrow, she'd be a visual artist.
But for now, she's content to see what filmmaking has to offer - Watson is now shooting Darren Aronofsky's Noah, playing Russell Crowe's daughter Ila, and follows that up with Guillermo del Toro'sBeauty, his take on Beauty and the Beast- and satisfied that, yes, audiences will accept her as something other than a smartypants Hogwarts witch.
"It's less hard than I thought it would be. I feel like there's a side to me that I've kept, that people haven't seen yet. It doesn't feel too scary. I understand why people don't want to let go of me as Hermione. I'm not expecting it to happen overnight."
By Donna Freydkin