Were she a real person rather than one of the protagonists of the most successful film franchises in history, Hermione Granger would in all likelihood blanch at the latest movie role taken on by Emma Watson.
The 23-year-old actor, who played the bookish Hermione across eight instalments and 11 years, is now the star of Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, a dazed and subtly disturbing tale of real-life burglary, privilege and celebrity which is heading this month for the Cannes film festival.
The picture tells of a gang of teenagers preying on the Hollywood homes of stars such as Paris Hilton (who was singled out for repeat visits), Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. From these figures they swiped more than $3m (£1.9m) worth of cash and goods using only chutzpah and the internet: once they had scoured online celebrity sites to determine that their targets were out of town filming or partying, they simply Googled the stars' addresses and turned up to find invariably that doors had been left unlocked, security systems not activated and, in the case of Hilton, there was even a key under the doormat.
The gang – named the Bling Ring by the LA media – were eventually captured through their own sloppiness, and several members received four-year prison sentences. Watson plays Nicki, a fame-hungry, home-schooled rich-kid who's also quite a whiz at pole dancing. A character less like Hermione it would be difficult to imagine, though the actor maintains this didn't influence her desire for the part.
"It wasn't like I needed to go out there and try to find the furthest part from Hermione so I could get away from her," she told GQ magazine recently, "because that seems like a negative place to jump off from; trying to get away from something rather than trying to get towards something. What I'm trying to get towards is that I want to be a character actress. I want to play parts. I want to play roles that transform me. Nicki seemed like an opportunity to do that."
That transformation entailed taking time out from her studies, at Oxford and at Brown University, to learn to pole dance; Coppola also arranged for the cast members to perform an actual burglary as preparation for the shoot.
"I'm probably the least obvious choice to play the role … The character is everything that I felt really strongly against – she's superficial, materialistic, vain, amoral. She's all of these things and I realised that I really hated her. How do you play someone that you hate? But I found it really interesting and it gave me a whole new insight into what my job, or my role as an actress, could be."
Alexis Neiers, the real-life Bling Ring member on whom Watson's character is based, took to Twitter to brand the movie "trashy and inaccurate". But whatever its factual fidelity, The Bling Ring serves a transparent function in Watson's career: it's a classic post-franchise reinvention.
She began that process partially with her confident, nuanced and funny performance in last year's likeable teen drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower (only her second post-Potter role after a small part in My Week with Marilyn). But now the time is right for her to set about dispelling the past comprehensively. We no longer look at Jodie Foster or Drew Barrymore through their childhood performances and Watson is doing her damnedest to ensure that the slate is wiped clean for her too.
This extends as much to what she won't do as to what she will: it's telling, for example, that she has turned down the lead in Disney's new live-action Cinderella, but accepted enthusiastically the invitation from horror visionary Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) to star in Beast, his new version of Beauty and the Beast.
She also revealed that she has a "no corsets" rule. "Really, I was open-minded about doing anything, but the one thing I knew I didn't want to do was get myself into a corset because I was worried I'd never get out again. I knew that it would be a really comfortable thing to do, but I felt coming straight out of Harry Potter, I had to dive into something really different. I knew that the first few choices I made post-Potter would give people a steer as to what I might do in the future, so I was pretty specific about no corsets."
David Heyman, the producer behind the Harry Potter series, has been watching Watson's progress with some admiration since the series ended. "I think she's a really fine young actress," he says. "And I think it's very exciting that she's continuing to study academically and also to learn her craft. What I think she's realised, and this is a testament to her intelligence, is that she needs to work with really fine directors who challenge her and support her as she experiments.
"Look at Harry Potter, where she worked with David Yates, Mike Newell, Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuarón. These are directors who know how to get the best out of actors in any situation."
Heyman has a point: Watson is currently shooting Noah, a biblical epic with Russell Crowe, for Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky. "For Emma, working with people like Darren Aronofsky, Guillermo del Toro and Sofia Coppola is a way of ensuring that she will continue to be pushed and challenged."
Not that any of this looked like a foregone conclusion as the Harry Potter films drew to a close. Watson's co-star Daniel Radcliffe had been attracting acclaim for his stage work, while it seemed that Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley, would be the first to light up the sky, post-Potter: a news story claiming that Martin Scorsese had predicted great things for Grint turned out to be fabricated but, more importantly, not in the least bit implausible. And yet two years after the release of the final episode, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, it is Watson, rather than either of her male colleagues, who looks like the world-class performer, the daredevil, the movie star.
And she's playful with it. Radcliffe might have starred as an absurd version of himself in the Ricky Gervais sitcom Extras, but Watson has gone one better by playing "Emma Watson" as an axe-wielding tough-nut in the forthcoming Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill celebrity-apocalypse blockbuster comedy This is the End.
Those who were present at Watson's earliest auditions for Hermione were impressed immediately by her assurance. "Emma was fiercely intelligent," says Heyman. "You knew from the moment you met her she was formidable. Bright as a button."
Tanya Seghatchian, a producer on the first four Harry Potters, was similarly gobsmacked. "I watched Emma's screen test and wrote in my notebook beside her name five stars and also: 'Perfect! But she is rather beautiful.' We did wonder if we should give her a more bucktoothed look, like she has in the book. But in the end, we decided that this was cinema and those were some of the compromises we were happy to make."
It was fascinating to watch her development as a performer through the series; there may not have been a great deal of scope for actorly invention within the confines of those slavishly faithful films, but you can see her confidence growing. And some of her scenes are watershed moments for young viewers raised on the series – such as Ron and Hermione's big kiss.
"We felt this pressure to make it look like we wanted to do it, when in reality we didn't," Grint told me in 2011. "I've known Emma since she was nine; we're like brother and sister. The thought of kissing her just seemed so weird."
Heyman says he could see Watson changing as an actor as the series went on. "Her intellect obviously grew during her time but also her sensitivity, her ability to tap into her emotional reserves and bring those appropriately to the screen. She has this knack of capturing the truth of a moment; you could see her blossom as an actress."
Watson, who had not acted professionally before being cast as Hermione, has described her shock at the degree of entrée that Harry Potter afforded her: the fact that Hollywood studio bosses were willing to clear their diaries to meet her when she came to Los Angeles spoke volumes about the power she had accrued unknowingly while she had been beavering away for 11 years in the Harry Potter cocoon at Leavesden Studios.
"I really didn't understand that I had that kind of power. I genuinely didn't. I think my parents were very focused on keeping me down to earth." Those parents, both of whom are lawyers, divorced when Watson was still a child. It would be presumptuous to imply that she got her professional nous from them, as well as her level-headedness, but her career certainly has about it an element of the tactical as well as artistic.
What audiences will see with movies such as The Bling Ring and This is the End is a star associated previously with one role, one persona, announcing its imminent extinction. In other words: Hermione is dead, long live Emma Watson.
Born Emma Charlotte Duerre Watson in Paris, France, 15 April 1990.
Career to date Cast at the age of nine as Hermione Granger, she became one of the most instantly recognisable actors in the world. Contracts with Burberry and Lancôme toward the end of that tenure maintained her high profile.
High point Sassy and sharp-witted in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Bold in The Bling Ring.
Low point Leered over by everyone from the UK red-tops to esteemed film critics. In his review of the second Harry Potter film, made when Watson was 11, the late Roger Ebert remarked that she was in "the early stages of babehood".
What she says "I think my parents were very focused on keeping me down to earth. The biggest compliment I've ever had, getting ready for a premiere or whatever, is that I scrub up all right."
What others say "Watson … acts with the freedom of a Hogwarts escapee who has finally outrun the dogs." (Nigel Andrews, Financial Times, on The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)
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