Emma Watson is stealing the spotlight

By Helen Barlow

Emma Watson tells Helen Barlow about her role as a celebrity-obsessed thief in The Bling Ring.

Emma Watson
Emma Watson

When Emma Watson spoke to the press at the time of her Harry Potter movies she seemed grown up for her years and very sensible. Now that she's 23 it's still hard to see her as an adult. Today, dressed in a tight miniskirt and ultra-high heels she teeters as she walks into the room. In her latest movie it's another story. She's the sassy savvy Nicki from Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, where she delivers her best performance post-Potter.

Also in the film she indulges in a little pole dancing, so given that Daniel Radcliffe has done full-frontal nudity on stage and gay sex on screen as beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings ... are the Potter kids trying to prove something?

"Ummmm," she ponders, her voice crackling nervously as she looks over at her publicist. "I think Dan and I have approached our careers quite differently but I don't really know what to say to that."

The pole dancing happens in a scene showing the so-called Bling Ring of celebrity-obsessed teen thieves breaking into Paris Hilton's home. The real gang stole US$3 million ($3.75 million) in jewellery, designer clothes and art from Los Angeles celebrity mansions in 2008 and 2009.

"Thanks, I thought it was pretty terrible actually," she says. "It was hardly like a performance. You just see a bunch of kids messing around in Paris Hilton's nightclub room. I didn't strip for anyone. Nicki uses her sexuality as a tool and it's very much part of that culture, so it was important in telling that story. I couldn't have said I wasn't going to do that stuff because it wouldn't have been real."

Given the whirlwind of Watson's existence, her studies at Oxford, her involvement with fashion, and the numerous movie offers she receives, it's often hard for her to decide what to do next. She has turned down many movie offers but was never going to say no to Coppola, even if she wasn't fully aware what she was in for.

"When Sofia said she would meet me and that she had me in mind to audition for Nicki, I thought we were just having a cup of tea - but she knew why we were meeting," Watson says.

"I was slightly horrified when I first read the screenplay. I remember just opening it and going, 'Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, can I do this? Do I think I could pull this off?' And then I thought that I would only ever do this kind of role with a director like Sofia because however distasteful the character is and the things I have to do, the film as a whole was going to be stylish and intelligent."

Watson 23, has been acting since she was 9 and after appearing in eight Harry Potter movies is quite the pro. She had to adopt an American accent for last year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower but this time it was easier, even if the accent was different. "Sofia likes to improvise so I knew I had to know it really well and make sure my lines were perfect."

Watson's character is loosely based on Alexis Neiers, who featured on 2010's E! reality show Pretty Wild, which followed her arrest and court case for her involvement in the Bling Ring. The movie script is based on Nancy Jo Sales' 2010 Vanity Fair article headlined "The Suspects Wore Louboutins".

The story quoted Neiers as saying: "I think that my journey on this planet is to be a leader. I see myself being like Angelina Jolie but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet.

"God didn't give me these talents and what I look like to be sitting around just being a model or be famous or whatever path I want. I want to do something that people notice."

Coppola emphasised to her actors that they were playing fictional characters, so did not arrange for them to meet the real thieves.

What did Watson think of Neiers?

"You've got to admire her because she really goes for it and is definitely gutsy," she says. "I wouldn't say I ever came to like her but I did sympathise with her. I would never say I would condone what she did, but I understood how she got from A to B. That was my job, it was really difficult to understand that aspect."

Some of her understanding came when Coppola arranged for cast to bond at typical Los Angeles locales. "She sent us all to Beverley Hills and we went to Kitson - "celebrity style and designer clothing" is the chain store's motto - and we went out for lunch at this place called Lemonade and, you know, we just hung out. What was really funny was the first day we had this bonding session someone stole my wallet so I think I was like, 'Oh my goodness'. The irony of it happening to me as soon as I got to LA was pretty funny."

She considers herself lucky that she doesn't live in the City of Angels even if she hasn't ruled it out.

"It's so centred on the entertainment industry it's very difficult to speak to anyone who has other interests or has a normal life," Watson says. "I live and grew up in the English countryside. It's another world, it could not be further away from that world and I was really lucky that my parents were insistent that I kept going to school and that I didn't get totally caught up in that. I was lucky I guess."

Like her fellow cast members she did meet Paris Hilton briefly. "She played a cameo in the film so we shook hands but that was it. I met her for two seconds."

Could she imagine living a life like hers? "No, I am quite a shy, private person when I am not doing my job, so probably not. The people that I really admire I never want to meet. I don't want to break the spell. I went to a Patti Smith concert and I almost didn't want to shake her hand. It's really strange, if I see anyone I admire my first instinct is to hide."

Has her own celebrity eased off since the end of the Potter films?

"Things have probably calmed down a bit and I think they probably will continue to calm down, especially since the way I look is still changing. Hopefully I will become a bit less recognisable as I get older."

Her future is a work in progress as she must finish her studies in English literature at Oxford. "I am very close to graduating, very close to having my degree so I am trying to figure out what comes next after that. I definitely want to always make sure I have a life outside playing these roles."

Who: Emma Watson
What: The Bling Ring
When and where: Screens as part of The New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland, Civic, tonight, 8.45

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