Monday 23 October 2017

Emma Watson: I've always said, 'forget the engagement ring, build me a library!'

She's playing "a Disney princess gone rogue", but after the backlash to that photo shoot, actress Emma Watson is walking a carefully plotted line between art and politics. Here, our reporter meets the guarded Beauty and the Beast star

Actress Emma Watson attends the New York special screening of Disney's live-action adaptation 'Beauty and the Beast' at Alice Tully Hall on March 13, 2017 in New York City. / AFP PHOTO / ANGELA WEISSANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
Actress Emma Watson attends the New York special screening of Disney's live-action adaptation 'Beauty and the Beast' at Alice Tully Hall on March 13, 2017 in New York City. / AFP PHOTO / ANGELA WEISSANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
Emma Watson at a'Beauty and the Beast' press conference earlier this month
Whirl of activity: Watson as Belle in the new remake of Beauty and the Beast
Controversial: The March issue of Vanity Fair is out now. Photograph: Tim Walker/Vanity Fair
Emma Watson's Vanity Fair photoshoot. The March issue of Vanity Fair is out now. Photograph: Tim Walker/Vanity Fair
Emma Watson attending the HeForShe campaign launch at the UN

Stephen Milton

In a warm, airless Central London hotel suite, Emma Watson and her Beauty and the Beast co-star, Dan Stevens, are showering each other with compliments.

"Dan brought such a tenderness and dry humour to Beast, which made him all the more relatable," she gushes. He responds with an equally fawning: "Emma's chief motivation was being able to tell the kind of messages that are pertinent across generations. Not just about wearing Belle's yellow dress."

The largely sycophantic back and forth continues with words on Emma's immeasurable kindness and Dan's boundless generosity. There are tales of Steven's "hair-raising" adventures on stilts to achieve Beast's height, and Emma comparing her singing to legendary off-key chanteuse Florence Foster Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep in last year's eponymous biopic. How watching Katharine Hepburn screwball comedies provided huge inspiration for their characters.

Altogether, it's a perfect puff exercise in promotional Hollywood chit-chat orchestrated by Watson's team of rigid representatives.

Whirl of activity: Watson as Belle in the new remake of Beauty and the Beast
Whirl of activity: Watson as Belle in the new remake of Beauty and the Beast

Before today's audience with the former Harry Potter graduate, journalists had to sign a clause-filled contract. The immovable interview terms demanded no personal questions of any kind; no questions about her background; no mention of La La Land (Watson reportedly turned down Emma Stone's Oscar-winning role). Basically nothing beyond the fairy tale.

There were no such conditions for talking to former Downton Abbey star Stevens.

Now, "no personal questions" is a frequent request delivered by the movie PR folk but usually comes as a verbal, quiet warning not to venture down the path of messy divorce or criminal activity. A binding contract this inflexible, however, is something else entirely - something I have never encountered before.

'Brand Watson' is a carefully master- minded machine: one which boasts nearly 50million social media followers. Unfortunately for the 26-year-old star, a grey area exists between her unrelenting, admirable crusade for gender equality and her acting career.

In playing Belle in the €150million live-action revamp of the childhood classic, Watson has intentionally blended her politics with her art. The feminist campaigner has become a Disney princess. Which, in promotional discussion, invariably forces her to reveal herself, just a little.

"Innately at the centre of Beauty and the Beast was this heroine who went against the crowd, marched to the beat of her own drum," Watson tells me. "Fearlessly independent-minded, defiant. Nothing around her is affirming her choices. She's incredibly curious and learned and does things her own way. And I connected with her sense of defiance. She's a Disney princess gone rogue.

"I watched a lot of films as a young woman that I felt gave me less choices and constricted me, as opposed to making me feel that the world was limitless and possibilities were endless. And I also knew how important Belle is as a symbol because of how important she was to me as a young girl. She was my idol - my own personal heroine - so I know how important it was to get it right."

Getting Belle right in 2017 is indeed important, lest it jeopardise the work that Watson has done - and the reputation she has built as an intellectual and feminist crusader - previously.

Controversial: The March issue of Vanity Fair is out now. Photograph: Tim Walker/Vanity Fair
Controversial: The March issue of Vanity Fair is out now. Photograph: Tim Walker/Vanity Fair

Her public campaign for equality began with an impassioned address in front of the UN in the summer of 2014, heralding the HeForShe campaign, which calls for men to advocate for gender equality. In speaking out, the actor became both a symbol and a target. And her words and actions are now microscopically scrutinised as a result. For example, that same year, her criticism of fellow feminist Beyoncé's music videos for the Lemonade album - which Watson said in an interview exhibited a "very male voyeuristic experience" - was met with overwhelming backlash. Those quotes were resurrected this month when Watson's own shoot for Vanity Fair featured a photo (below) of her with her breasts partly exposed.

In the furore that followed, Watson was forced to defend the photograph. "It just always reveals to me how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is about what feminism is," she said in an interview with news agency Reuters.

"Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. It's about freedom; it's about liberation; it's about equality. I really don't know what my t**s have to do with it. It's very confusing." It's left Watson wedged firmly between a rock and a hard place. And today, when I push her on that difficult position (and much to the horror of her stern publicist), she delivers an uncharacteristically human response.

"To be that public about my opinions and feelings, you can't say something like that and not walk the walk. If you're going to do that, well, I have to live by this. And taking a stance on things doesn't make life easier - it definitely makes things more complicated."

She pauses for thought, perhaps sensing a vulnerability to her words that she then attempts to counter. "You know, the battles I fought and I fight make what I do feel much more worthwhile and it gives me much more of a sense of purpose. And I'm glad that I get actively involved. But it's not easy. Ultimately, I follow my heart because that's all I can do."

There's no doubting that Beauty and the Beast is a passion project for Watson. Directed by Bill Condon - the man behind Dreamgirls and Chicago - the lavish epic is a beautiful spectacle, largely modelled on the 1992 classic, the first animation to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Alongside Stevens and a starry cast including Ewan McGregor as Lumière, Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts and Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, Watson shimmers as Belle, the wayward outsider, stifled by her insular village surrounds.

When she stumbles on the Beast's castle where her father, played by Kevin Kline, is imprisoned, she sacrifices herself and takes his place. She soon learns that Beast and his servants are cursed by a spell which can only be broken by true love.

Emma Watson attending the HeForShe campaign launch at the UN
Emma Watson attending the HeForShe campaign launch at the UN

"It's literally your childhood fantasy," Watson explains, in her signature clipped tones. "I watched that film with a sense of wonderment probably a thousand times, much to the annoyance of my parents. And to actually be in that dress, riding Philippe [the horse], to be wandering around that beautiful castle set, it was amazing. I also felt an immense responsibility. While it was me playing the role, there's a huge pressure because Belle - she's an archetype, she's a symbol, she's every girl. If I do my job well, she belongs to everyone, not just to me."

Watson claims that much modernisation was needed to bring the new version up to date. "The original was released in 1992; now it's 2017: things have moved on a lot from then. I think the film would fall flat if they didn't speak to the times we're in now."

Director Bill Condon says Watson (who today is clad in a monochrome bustier and trousers by Carmen March, one of the many ethically sourced outfits worn for the Beauty promotional tour and documented on her new Instagram page, @the_press_tour) was at the heart of Belle's feminist reinvention.

"She was involved in everything having to do with Belle's environment and costumes. She was so meticulous in the meaning of every costume change, about wearing the appropriate boots and about the dress she wears in the village having pockets.

"Also, Belle was as much an inventor as her father, which was hinted at in the animation. Here we have her doing her own calculations. Emma suggested we could do more with her alone in her own specific world, which led to a washing machine in a well. That was all Emma."

Belle's love of literature is something Watson was also keen to play up. And small wonder, since she founded an online feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, which boasts nearly 175,000 members. "When Belle enters Beast's library, that's not just her dream - that's mine," Watson says. "I love how she swings along on those wheelie ladders, climbing these elevated storeys of books. And, you know, I've always said, stuff the engagement ring! Just build me a really big library."

Emma Watson at a'Beauty and the Beast' press conference earlier this month
Emma Watson at a'Beauty and the Beast' press conference earlier this month

For both Stevens and Watson, Beauty and the Beast marks an opportunity to finally eclipse their signature roles in Downton and Harry Potter, respectively. Do they relish that thought?

Her publicist's nostrils flare slightly, while Watson shyly squirms in her seat. Stevens, however, gratefully responds.

"It's certainly not a burden," he says. "Downton changed my life and I know [Harry Potter] changed Emma's. The privilege of that and to carry forward with roles like this adds to the canon."

"And Emma?" I ask. She hesitates slightly. It's a perplexing display for a question so tame. "I think that I just feel really lucky. For me, Belle was my childhood heroine; [the film] came out two days after I was born. And then, in my early teens, it was about idolising Hermione. So to be given the chance to play my two childhood idols is probably a very unique and rare experience for an actress.

"And I think," she continues, "I think I came out of this with more confidence, with more skills. And more belief in myself. Because when I came off Potter and decided to go to university, that wasn't a career decision the people I worked with were pleased about. But I kind of… I try to stay true to whatever whisper I'm getting from myself and I hope that will see me through. That's all I can do really. Otherwise, if I don't listen to myself, I'd feel a bit lost in it all."

Difficult to imagine Emma Watson, the twentysomething movie mogul and ambassador for human rights, feeling lost. And given the rigorous conditions attached to today's interview, one could easily question whether these humble claims are just part of the act.

Meeting the star today, however, it seems that, under the shiny veneer and terse brand control, lies a grounded spirit and decent human being trying to do some good. Hopefully, she'll stay the course as a campaigner and not become a total princess.

Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas now

Irish Independent

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