Emma Watson made her screen debut on one of the biggest projects imaginable: playing Hermione Granger in the eight-film adaptation of the Harry Potter saga. She’s since proven herself far more than a flash in the pan, with roles in the likes of Noah, The Bling Ring, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and This Is The End (where she played a very funny version of herself). She fills the famous yellow gown of one of Disney’s most beloved creations – Belle – in the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. She spoke about the challenges of the role at a recent press conference for the film.
Question: When you accepted this role, knowing what comes with a figure so beloved, what was your approach? What were sort of the things that you thought about in modernizing Belle?
Emma Watson: It’s really remarkable to play a character that had an influence on the woman that I have become. I think the first time I saw Paige O’Hara sing Belle’s Reprise, it just immediately resonated with me. It’s kind of the “I want” song of all “I want” songs. I was so young I didn’t even know what I was tapping into, but there was something about that spirit and that energy. I just knew she was my champion. When I knew I was taking on this role, I wanted to make sure that I was championing that same spirit, those same values, that same young woman that made me a part of who I am today.
Every time we would address a new scene, I just always had the original DNA of that woman in mind. And I had my fists up, I was ready to fight because she was so crucial for me. Playing the character meant just taking what was already there and just expanding it. And I love that in our version Belle is not only kind of awed and doesn’t fit in, but actually an activist within her own community. She’s teaching other young girls who are part of the village to read. We added moments like that where you could see her expanding beyond her own little world and trying to kind of grow it. I loved that; it was amazing to get to do.
Q: How do you move from a character who’s simply an outsider – political by default – to one who is a little more willing to push back against the normal assumptions of the time?
EW: Books can be rebellious, and that’s a big part of Belle’s character. To simply be a woman who could read in that age, in that place, that’s an act of rebellion. Books can be incredibly empowering and liberating. You can use them to travel to places that you would never be able to under other circumstances. And she loves them for what they can do. I was really proud to play a character that has a certain earnestness about her. It’s not easy being an outsider and it’s not easy to pick battles; it’s not easy to try to move and work against a system, to work against the grain, to move against the status quo. But she does so with this amazing fearlessness. She has the support of her father, but really I think it’s something that she weathers on her own at the end of the day.
Q: How would you speak to those feelings of being an outsider and feeling like you don’t quite belong?
EW: When you’re young, it’s a very immediate thing. The microcosm of school makes you feel that the people in your immediate surroundings are the only people in the world. I remember feeling at school: if I didn’t fit, there was nothing else. And that’s a really difficult feeling. But for anyone that feels like an outsider in their environment, I would say that there is a big, wide world out there with so many different people with diverse opinions and perspectives and interests. Go out there and find your tribe, go find your kindred spirits, and they do exist, though they don’t necessarily come easily. Pursue the things that you love and that you’re really passionate about. They’ll be there. Don’t give up. They are there.