With a humble and graceful ascent to stardom, the creation of an almost intimacy with her fans, and a monopoly on the feelings of young romantics worldwide, Emma Watson has set herself up as both an accessible icon and as the best example of a bridge between old-world glitterati and new-world pioneer.
Perhaps what makes Emma so lovely is that she seems — and I emphasize seems — attainable. Chalk it up to the same psychosis that makes teenage girls melt into charmed little puddles at Justin Bieber concerts, but she (and her entourage of PR reps and agents, no doubt) have put a serious effort into making her seem like she could be your friend, your girlfriend even — yet just a hair out of reach.
Take for instance her candid interviews (“Let’s be honest, I have enough money never to have to work again”), her down-to-Earth Twitter (“I may have watched Harry Potter on Netflix last night. May have…”), and her nerdy heartthrob status as both Hermione and Sam, and you’ll see that she has created a clever simulacrum of personal accessibility. You feel as though you could almost ring her up to grab a pint at the Mayflower in London until you realize she’s at the Vanity Fair Cannes Film Festival Party.1
While Emma had a certain look and a requisite amount of charisma to land the role of Hermione, as even she would surely admit, landing the role was really just a fortunate twist of fate. After all, the part could have gone to a wide variety of nine- to eleven-year-old girls who happened to live in England and happened to have heard about the audition at the time. Then, while many child stars fizzle out thanks to awkward-looking years or a general lack of acting ability, Emma hit her stride midway through the Harry Potter series.2
The fact that Harry Potter became so successful only compounded this luck, and, as a result, compounded her charm. What is special about Emma though is that she has found a way to essentially share her luck and success by acting as a screen for the desires of everyone else who didn’t land that role. She seems like any smart girl who one might find in an English public school, working diligently towards a history of art or literature degree, but thanks to one serendipitous audition, she has reached heights far beyond that. It’s not hard for any young girl to imagine having shown up to that audition only to have switched lives with Emma. It’s not hard for any young person to map their own desires onto the seemingly perfect life of Emma.
All of this plays into the fact that she has become one of the few celebrities that we all want to see do well (what’s the opposite of schadenfreude?). And, for the millennials who grew up with her, she has found her way into the deepest recesses of our hearts mostly thanks to one peculiar fact: she never appears to be playing a role.
Rather it seems as though she uses acting to sort out her multi-faceted personality. We see Emma as nerdy and smart thanks to Hermione, as romantic and compassionate thanks to Sam (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), as sophisticated and driven thanks to Lucy (My Week with Marilyn), and never once does she seem to be keeping anything from us.
We, the audience, feel as though we are her close friends with whom she has grown up. We all feel privy to learning about her personality, her likes, her dislikes, in real-time, just as she learns about them herself. While actors once maintained a strict private life, details of their whereabouts almost impossible to pin down, it feels as though Emma has taken her paper heart from her pocket, carefully unfolded it, and worn it on her sleeve.
And yet, this isn’t entirely true. Although she was talking about her clothing when she said it, her remark that “The less you reveal the more people can wonder” is also demonstrative of her public appearances. The only big, really polarizing interviews she’s given are to Rookie (where Tavi Gevinson seemed to melt into a puddle of drool at Emma’s feet) and to the New York Times’ T Magazine, which she’ll likely never do again thanks to the fact that Will Self seemed intent on infantilizing her and tearing her down.
Rather than spilling her guts in prestigious magazines or making a Miley Cyrus-esque fool of herself for attention, she has buckled down to have a seemingly healthy, surprisingly private romantic life, a top-tier education, and a discerning selection of roles. We feel close to her for the very same vague, but very real phenomenon that made her own Harry Potter franchise such a success: the twentysomethings of the world feel as though they’ve grown up with her, just as they felt like they grew up with the three magical protagonists of J.K. Rowling’s series.
The question though that must be posed is whether Emma Watson — or any celebrity really — is actually as devastatingly lovely in person as she seems on screen and in interviews. One suspects that although we’ve been mapping our ideals onto her — as much as we feel like Dante watching Beatrice in the garden — Emma is still just a person and no matter how bright her smile glows, she’s not quite an angel.
What we do know though is that she is a star born of the moment. She is youthful and enthusiastic about finding roles she loves. She is a Brown- and Oxford-going academic, rocketed to the highest peaks of society’s elite. Surely she quotes Proust in common conversation and is ever-aware of the current exhibitions at the Tate and the British Museum. Yet one imagines she also reads BuzzFeed lists from time to time, and probably enjoys a walkabout in Camden while chowing down on some fish and chips. She is a bridge not only between the London glitterati and the fifteen-year-old girl re-watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in Kansas, but she is also a link between old world glamor and grace and new technology and feminine independence.
She has had a rather idiosyncratic, everywhere-at-once career and when, most recently, she played a narcissistic L.A. high school drama queen in Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, she seemed to break her rule of playing characters that are charming and lovable. Emma, though, is not only creative; she is tactical. Handed a royal flush when she landed the role of Hermione, she has been savvy about playing her cards at the right time. Surely The Bling Ring was all a part of the plan. Her role as Noah’s adopted daughter, Ila, in Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming Biblical epic Noah might be her darkest, most intense role yet, although she doubtlessly chose with great carefulness; and, surely, it will only widen her range.
While it is clear that Emma has been intentional about separating herself from Hermione, she’ll never be able to separate herself from her own magnetism. Even if she is only creating a simulacrum of intimacy with her audience, and even if we map our desires for fame and beauty and creativity and everything that is lovely onto her when she is merely human, there will always be something about Emma Watson that is transcendental, that proves that somewhere, somehow the perfect woman exists not just in movies, not just in the realm of make-believe, but here, as a demi-angel walking among us.
1. It’s the same dual-nature that comedian Aziz Ansari played off of for some of his best bits. Although he was friends with Kanye West, he couldn’t fathom the fact that he could actually be, you know, friends with Kanye West. Thus his jokes about hanging out with the rapper became incredibly poignant because it seemed as though you — a nobody in the audience — had a direct sightline into the world of the extraordinarily famous. Emma has played this “within and within” game too, but in her own distinct way.
2. I still remember watching Prisoner of Azkaban and, even as a twelve-year-old, knowing that she would soon become an unimaginable beauty. It was just luck upon luck: she just happened to have the genetics that not only gave her a warm, understanding disposition but also an incredibly beautiful face that captivates not just fashion magazines with its intensity and aristocratic severity but also happens to have an adolescent, innocent glow that conveys the “perfect daughter” to mothers and the “perfect girlfriend” to sentimental boys.