Playing her childhood heroine

Emma Watson says she wanted to champion the Beauty And The Beast character's values and spirit as Belle made her who she is

Emma Watson has gotten a lot of flak for being a feminist.

The star of the wizarding Harry Potter movies (2001-2011) faced a torrent of abuse from online commenters for making a United Nations (UN) speech in support of gender equality in 2014. Critics lashed out at the English actress again recently, this time saying she had betrayed feminist ideals by posing for a revealing photograph in Vanity Fair magazine.

But the 26-year-old is not about to back down. She responded to critics of the photoshoot by saying, in an interview with Reuters, that they had misunderstood feminism, arguing that it "is about giving women choice - it's about freedom, it's about equality". And she added, defiantly: "I don't know what my t**s have to do with it."

The star continues to bang the drum for women's rights as she promotes her new movie Beauty And The Beast, which opens in Singapore tomorrow and stars Watson as Belle and Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens as the Beast.

A live-action remake of the beloved 1991 Disney animated musical of the same name, this version imagines Belle as a rebel who loves books and teaches other girls in her village to read. She also does most of the rescuing in the movie.

 

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles earlier this month, Watson answers questions with a gentle earnestness. But she gets fired up when she talks about wanting to ensure that this Belle is a positive female role model, just as the character was for her when she was young.

"It's remarkable to play someone whom I'm almost sure had an influence on the woman I've become," says the actress.

Recalling the first time she heard voice actress Paige O'Hara sing the iconic song Belle (Reprise) in the 1991 film, Watson says: "It's kind of the 'I want' song of all 'I want' songs and it just immediately resonated with me. I was so young I didn't even know what I was tapping into, but there was something about that spirit and her energy that I just knew she was my champion.

"And when I knew I was taking on this role, I wanted to make sure I was championing that same spirit, those same values, that same young woman who made a part of who I am today."

In this new interpretation of the classic French fairytale that has spawned films, television series and stage musicals, Belle is also a bit of a feminist renegade, she reveals.

"I love that in our version, Belle is kind of odd and doesn't fit in - you see her reading and you see her not really being a part of the community," she says of the film, which co-stars Josh Gad and Luke Evans.

"She's an activist in her community - she's teaching other young girls to read and there are moments like that when you can see her expanding beyond just her own little world and trying to grow it. I loved that. That was amazing to get to do."

Watson is no stranger to playing smart young women, of course. She was just nine when she landed her first professional acting role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films. The character, which made her a superstar and multi-millionaire, is famously bookish and brainy.

And the actress is no slouch in that regard herself, having studied at the University of Oxford and Brown University, graduating with an English literature degree from the Ivy League college in 2014.

Making Belle a bookworm, who is dying to explore beyond her tiny village, speaks to the power of education and learning, the actress says.

"I think Belle is the ultimate symbol of the fact that books can be rebellious. They can be incredibly empowering and liberating; they are means to travel to places in the world you would never be able to under other circumstances."

The actress was appointed three years ago as a goodwill ambassador for UN Women, for which she helped launch a campaign urging men to fight for gender equality. But she hints that it has not always been easy fighting for such causes.

"I am proud to play a character who has a certain earnestness about her and is not in any way ashamed of that. It's not easy being an outsider or to pick battles or to try and work against a system or the status quo, but she does so with amazing fearlessness," says the star, who is reportedly dating technology entrepreneur William Mack Knight, 35.

For young people struggling to fit in, it can be even harder to stick one's neck out, the actress acknowledges when asked for advice for young people who feel they do not belong at school.

"I think what's difficult about the microcosm of school, and sometimes colleges and universities, is that you feel that the people in your immediate surroundings are the only people in the world. I remember feeling that if I didn't fit in, there was nothing else. And that's a really difficult feeling," says Watson.

But she adds optimistically: "There is a big wide world out there with so many different people with diverse opinions, perspectives and interests. Go out there and find your tribe. Go find your kindred spirits. They do exist - they don't necessarily come easily, (but) pursue the things you love and are passionate about and they'll be there. Don't give up, they are there."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'Playing her childhood heroine'. Print Edition | Subscribe