When Emma Watson arrived at Brown University last year, students reacted with giddy excitement—a bona fide movie star living in their midst!—that was tempered by a genuine desire to respect her privacy.
But her fellow freshmen grew up watching the Harry Potter movies, which starred Watson as Harry's pal Hermione Granger, and sometimes they simply couldn't restrain themselves.
In one class, the professor asked students a question, and Watson raised her hand. Just like the fiercely smart, overachieving, always-right Hermione, Watson gave the correct answer.
From the back of the room, one of her classmates called out, "Score 20 points for Gryffindor!"
At Brown, Watson wasn't playing for Gryffindor—the fictional house where Harry and Hermione lived at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—but she has found a real home. When we met for breakfast shortly before Watson began her sophomore year this past fall, she was eager to return to college life.
"The first year at Brown was about finding my feet," she said. "I found a great group of girlfriends, and now that I know how things work and what the professors expect, I'm really excited about going back for my second year, because I feel this time I can relax and enjoy it."
Watson is deeply grateful for the way she's been treated by her peers. "Brown has a real sense of community, and people are very protective of me," she said. "They really look out for me; they want me to feel like I'm part of it. I threw my 20th birthday party at Brown, and I didn't even have to say to anyone not to put pictures on Facebook. Not a single picture went up. That was when I knew I'd found a solid group of friends, and I felt like I belonged."
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This sense of comfort is particularly welcome as Watson adjusts to the end of the Potter saga, a job that defined her life for a decade. After the November release of the seventh movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, the series will conclude next July with the release of the eighth and final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II. When Watson finished shooting last June, she was left with a welter of powerful feelings. "My last day was pretty emotional," she admitted. "It was sad; it's the end of an era. What an amazing learning experience! I gave everything I could to that role, and I got so much from it."
Now that it's over, Watson is reveling in the freedom to make changes—starting with a radical haircut that left her nervously fingering the feathery ends of the new pixie style that was inspired by such icons as Mia Farrow, Edie Sedgwick, Jean Seberg, and Audrey Hepburn.
"I've wanted to do it since I was about 16, and when Harry Potter ended in June, I just needed a change," Watson said. "It was quite symbolic for me. It's very short; it was buzzed at the back and on the sides. And it's really liberating that I can walk out without thinking about it."
With her transformation from bushy-haired Hermione—whose thick tresses were augmented with hair extensions—to a gamine look far better suited to her delicate features, Watson also announced her intention to grow and evolve instead of hanging on to her youthful image as one of the pint-size wizards who captivated people's imaginations all over the world.
The highest-grossing film series in history, the Potter movies were so successful that the seven J.K. Rowling books were expanded into eight major feature films. "It wasn't like I made one movie; it was working consistently for 10 years. There was no reprieve," Watson said. "But I'm glad I saw it through to the end; I played that character from the start, and I wanted to finish what I started. It felt very satisfying that I had completed Hermione's journey."
Watson's parallel journey was less dramatic than some of Hermione's death-defying escapades, but the actress has also lived an extraordinary adventure during the last decade. Her own choices—like those of Hermione—have been dictated by a highly disciplined intelligence, an intense commitment to achieving her objectives, and an iron will.
Watson's passion for performing was originally ignited by a poetry recital competition. "I loved finding out the real meaning of all the words, and how I could say them, and what I could do with my voice, and how I could get the audience to hang on my every word," she explained. "I just got really into it."
She was 7 years old when she read the first Harry Potter book, and she was in the middle of reading the third one when she auditioned for the first movie. "Playing Hermione just came so naturally; I had a real affinity for her," she said. "I felt like I knew exactly who she was. Like me, she's very loyal and determined, she's very intelligent, and she has a lot of guy friends, as I do. Her eagerness to please and to have the right answer is definitely like me. I'm a perfectionist, so my bossiness definitely comes out."
But her decision to go after the role was as audacious as her chances were unlikely, given her lack of acting experience. Even as a 9-year-old, however, Watson manifested a near-obsessive commitment to her goal. "I started working on the audition at 9 in the morning and didn't stop until 5 in the evening," she recalled. "The tape was just me doing the same thing hundreds of times over, until I got it exactly right. I was just amazed at my stamina. The grown-ups said, 'We had to stop you; you wanted to keep going.' I've always been like that; I give 100 percent. I can't do it any other way."
Watson's parents, who divorced when she was very young, are both lawyers—her father is a telecommunications attorney, and her mother is a solicitor—but their little girl made it clear they were not to stand in her way. "I would never have forgiven my parents if they had made me turn down that opportunity," she said. "I just loved performing. It just made me feel alive. It's scary, but that's part of it. I think it's important to have that extra adrenaline. It gives you that extra zing."
Despite the temptations of Hollywood and a complicated family with assorted full, half-, and stepsiblings, Watson seems the polar opposite of wild-child stars who generate lurid headlines. She appears to have spent her entire adolescence as a classic good girl, unremittingly hard-working and conscientious.
"I do things in my own way, but I've never felt any need to rebel," she said. "To be honest, I've always had far too much freedom. I had a job when I was 10. I started living on my own when I was 17 or 18. I've earned my own money; I've traveled the world. What would I rebel against? I've had so much freedom, sometimes it was hard. My parents wanted to protect me, but they had no idea how to. I had to learn as I went and make my own mistakes. I went from being totally unknown and never acting professionally to being in a major movie and being very famous. It all happened so quickly, I didn't have any time to work things out. It's been pretty scary at times."
Read the rest of Marie Claire's exclusive interview with the star in our December 2010 issue, on newsstands November 16.
Want more? Check out Emma Watson's style evolution through the years!