Ever since her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise, Emma Watson has found herself in the enviable position of cherry-picking from the A-list roles in Hollywood. Surprisingly, she has taken on comparatively few.

"I'm a quality over quantity girl," she explains.

Case in point, in order to play Belle she turned down the female lead role in La La Land (which won Emma Stone an Oscar) and reportedly also turned down another of Disney's heroines, Cinderella. Apparently she found Cinderella too passive a character while book-loving Belle was a heroine that resonated with her.

Belle (Emma Watson) in the ballroom of the Beast's castle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
Belle (Emma Watson) in the ballroom of the Beast's castle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

"I've always loved Belle. And in this version, we co-opted the inventor role which had initially been Belle's father and we gave that to her. And of course, she loved reading books." Evidently, that was the way to her heart. In fact, Watson founded a feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf.

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"I'm a bookworm," she declares proudly. Considering she earned a degree in English literature from Brown University in the US, this fact should come as no surprise. "Right now, my book club is reading Women Who Run with the Wolves [by Clarissa Pinkola Estes]. That's my favourite."

Playing Belle came with its share of pressures and, although the film is primarily faithful to the 1991 animated classic, there were a few alterations.

"I felt a responsibility to my younger self because I know that seeing Belle on screen affected how I viewed myself. And I really felt the responsibility of protecting and defending the original DNA of this kind of progressive young woman, who wasn't a princess and who wanted to marry the prince and who wanted to define her own destiny.

"I also love that she is an activist within her own community. We had her teaching another young girl in the streets to read and that's wonderful. I felt like her protector more than anything else," she says. "It was all there to begin with, I had nothing to fix, I just had to keep her pure. "

Emma Watson stars as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
Emma Watson stars as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

This live-action-meets-CGI musical broke records on opening weekend in the US with $170 million in box office receipts. Directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn), the impressive cast includes Dan Stevens (The Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston), Josh Gad (LeFou), Sir Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) and Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts).

Condon sees Beauty and the Beast as making its mark as a return to musicals.

"This represents the re-invention in movies that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman started. (This famed screenwriting duo was responsible for writing the 1991 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, as well as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.) They represent a new source for what could be really wonderful 21st century musicals, like La La Land."

The film was budgeted at $160 million and is already an unmitigated success. "People may not realise this," says Condon, "But even when you are making a movie for Disney, there are limitations to the budget. Be Our Guest took us two-and-a-half years, between the conceiving of it and filming it." For various reasons, the other popular song from the 1991 film, Human Again, had to be omitted.

Condon explains, "It was problematic. It's a very ambitious nine-minute number and it's all done by these CG characters. It just seemed impossible to do it so we adapted it to a different song."

Emma Watson stars as Belle and Kevin Kline is Maurice, Belle's father.
Emma Watson stars as Belle and Kevin Kline is Maurice, Belle's father.

The singing was difficult for Watson but she enjoyed the experience. "I've actually kept up my singing lessons. I found that they changed my speaking voice and gave me more confidence. I would love, love, love to do more musical films."

When Watson isn't in front of the cameras she spends her time working in her other role as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. "It's one of the great honours of my life. It's been such an incredible opportunity and I don't take it lightly," she says emphatically. "I don't want to be a figurehead and I don't want to be just a face of something. I have really made it part of my life."

One of the world's highest paid actresses with a reported net worth of over US$70 million, due to the Harry Potter franchise, she is an avid philanthropist and donates money to The Borgen Project, and Unicef, among many other organisations. She pioneered the HeForShe campaign (men who advocate for feminism) and, as a result, secured a spot on Time magazine's 2015 list of the 100 Most Influential People.

She remains a contradiction of sorts.

Despite all her public endeavours as movie star and political activist, she insists, "I'm an introvert. I'd rather be alone than be with people. It took me a long time to understand that. I used to think there was something wrong with me," she says, candidly. "I need quite a lot of quiet time and time alone, and that is how I put myself together. And if I don't get enough of that, then I start to feel a bit strained," she explains. "I'm a homebody. I potter around, I cook."

Now 26, the Paris-born, London-raised actress prefers her living arrangements to remain a mystery, explaining, "The ability to live a normal life is incredibly important to me. I don't want to live behind bars or gates. I want to be able to live in a community so I prefer not to say where I live."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Emma Watson plays Belle
What: The live-action remake of Disney's Beauty and the Beast
When: In cinemas today