Anne Hathaway: The reluctant princess

As the star of The Princess Diaries, she's adored by teenage girls and their mothers, but, as Tim Cooper discovers, there's more to Anne Hathaway than meets the eye
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It's not easy being a princess. Anne Hathaway should know: the young American actress has virtually trademarked the role by playing princesses in three successive Hollywood fairy tales. As a result, she grumbles, a constant stream of journalists keep asking her the same dumb questions. And by the time my number comes up, she's had enough. "I don't mean to roll my eyes and be an ungrateful little bitch," she sighs. "It's just that if I get asked one more time: 'If you were a princess, what would you do?'..."

It's not easy being a princess. Anne Hathaway should know: the young American actress has virtually trademarked the role by playing princesses in three successive Hollywood fairy tales. As a result, she grumbles, a constant stream of journalists keep asking her the same dumb questions. And by the time my number comes up, she's had enough. "I don't mean to roll my eyes and be an ungrateful little bitch," she sighs. "It's just that if I get asked one more time: 'If you were a princess, what would you do?'..."

Hathaway, who has been described as a combination of Julia Roberts, Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland, waves a pair of long arms in mock-dramatic despair. "And they are so earnest when they ask that question. I'm like: 'I don't know, ask Fergie - or rather, her daughters. I'm not a princess!'" She folds her long legs beneath her. "I played one three years ago, and all of a sudden I get every single cheesy princess question!"

At the age of 21, Hathaway finds herself simultaneously at the peak of her genre and at a curious crossroads in her career. On the one hand, she is about to be seen in a sequel to her wildly successful debut in The Princess Diaries,and at Christmas she'll be back on the arm of another Prince Charming in Ella Enchanted. On the other, she has already grown out of those roles. "I've done a lot of characters, given a few film experiences now that people can treasure as really fun family entertainment," Hathaway acknowledges. "But that's not why I became an actor. And that's not where I intend to stay."

Hathaway's performances have made her a role model to teenage and pre-teen girls, a demographic in which she reigns supreme: the two Princess Diaries films have already earned upwards of $250m at the box office. She has been tipped to become a "monumental" star by her co-star Julie Andrews. But, wary of typecasting and eager to expand her range, she has begun the process of taking on edgier adult roles.

Last year, she did her best to erase her squeaky-clean princess persona in Havoc, a low-budget feature by the Oscar-winning documentary-maker Barbara Kopple. Hathaway plays a rich LA brat who forms a gang and is drawn into drugs and prostitution. You couldn't get much more anti-princess than the role, which also involved a topless scene for Hathaway; no doubt her bosses at Disney will be glad that Havoc has yet to find a distributor. "It's an oversimplification to say that I did the role just to play against type," she says. "That's not why I did it. I found a character that I thought was interesting, that I'd seen in my own life, and that I wanted to see if I could do. I wanted to be challenged."

So far, she has ticked all the right boxes to make the transition. Having been named as one of People magazine's "breakthrough stars" of 2001, and one of Teen People magazine's "hottest stars under 25" a year later, she has since eased her way gracefully into the adult world. Over the last two years, she has been transformed into a fashion plate, turning up in designer dresses at all the right parties in Hollywood and New York, and being photographed with all the right people, from fellow- teen Scarlett Johansson to Elton John.

Anne Hathaway (yes, it's her real name) is the daughter of a lawyer and a stage actress. She grew up in New Jersey and won a high-school drama prize - as a princess, naturally - before becoming the first teenager to be accepted by the award-winning Barrow Group theatre school in New York. She first came to attention in the TV drama Get Real, and was still only 17 and shooting her first film in New Zealand ( The Other Side of Heaven) when she learnt that she'd landed the lead role in The Princess Diaries - despite famously falling off her chair at the audition.

She says that she thought long and hard before agreeing to reprise her role as Mia Thermopolis, a California teenager who discovers that she is princess of a fictional European country ruled by Julie Andrews. A fear of typecasting? "That was my apprehension for myself," she admits. "My apprehension for the film was that sequels are often made simply to make more money off a formula that's been proven to work. The first film meant so much to so many people that I was wary about trying to exploit their love of the film."

These are not the words that you expect to hear from rising Hollywood starlets promoting a Disney movie. But just as her Mia is a bit of a feisty feminist, so Hathaway is a young woman with a mind of her own, and she's not afraid to speak it. In person, she is anything but regal, dressed in jeans, stripy socks and no shoes. But she does have an old-school beauty, radiating a purity and innocence that recalls Hollywood stars of a bygone era. Her face has an elastic, cartoonish quality, in which all the features are exaggerated - a huge mouth, dazzling smile, giant brown eyes and gigantic eyebrows with a life of their own - which is probably why the camera loves her.

And far from mouthing the usual bland platitudes of most other rising starlets, she turns out to be fiercely intelligent and ferociously independent. This is, after all, someone who turned down more starring roles to enrol at Vassar College to read English and Women's Studies. Having taken an indefinite leave of absence from college ("Until I am spewed across the papers in a drugged-out stupor!" she jokes), she remains refreshingly unafraid to offer well-informed opinions on subjects ranging from our national obsession with Tim Henman to the pressures of being a pre-teen role model.

The latter, it turns out, is a subject on which she has plenty to say, rejecting out of hand the idea that her screen persona demands any responsibility for her off-screen behaviour. "In my personal life, I'm not an angel," she declares, tantalisingly. "I haven't tried to curb myself or my education in life because of other people's perception. But I haven't been excessive about anything. It's not who I am.

"As it is, who I am is somebody that mothers have come up and thanked me for being. But I haven't done it for anyone else except myself and, maybe, to a degree, my parents. You can't live your life to make someone else happy. Also, I believe that if you consider yourself a role model, and you make choices based on that criterion, you're just a big phoney."

Hathaway's next screen role will be in Ang Lee's new film Brokeback Mountain. Due to be seen next year, it is based on a short story by E Annie Proulx about the forbidden love between a ranch hand and a cowboy (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) in early-1960s Wyoming. Both men marry to hide their true sexuality, and Hathaway plays Gyllenhaal's wife in a film that is sure to upset Midwestern sensibilities, and has already had the press frothing about a screen kiss between its leading men.

Hathaway has long admired the director, having seen The Ice Storm when she was 14, and is excited to be involved in such a taboo-challenging film, threatening the macho image of the Wild West. "The mythology of the West is just that - mythology," she says. "It was created by Buffalo Bill to sell tickets to a cowboy show in, like, Chicago!"

She adds: "It is brave of the people involved in this film to tell a story that some people today are still really averse to hearing. And I think it's brave of Jake and Heath to make this film so early in their careers."

Future ambitions for the precocious Ms Hathaway include working with Terry Gilliam ("my favourite director") and Cameron Crowe, but not if it means moving to Hollywood. "I can't live there. I hate cars. And I burn really easily." I suspect there's more to it than that, but Anne Hathaway's far too smart to bite the hand that feeds her.

So, she lives in New York, where she hopes to return to the stage following a stint on Broadway in a 2002 revival of Carnival! She spends her spare time, she says, "going to museums, galleries, cafés, bookstores, movies, lunching with friends", and seeing her boyfriend, who is in real estate. Not quite the life of a princess, perhaps, but pretty idyllic all the same.

'The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement' is released on 22 October

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