Emma Watson: Is there life after Hermione?

It's not just JK Rowling for whom Harry Potter is now history, as one of the stars of the movie series is discovering. By Tim Walker

When the original Star Wars trilogy came to a close with the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, the leading performers, in what was then – James Bond aside – the biggest movie franchise of all time, must have thought their future stardom was assured. Harrison Ford had already made Blade Runner and Raiders of the Lost Ark; his next two films were Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Witness. But his co-stars were less fortunate: Mark Hamill was so closely associated with Luke Skywalker that he retreated to the stage to avoid typecasting, and didn't make another feature film for six years. Carrie Fisher filled the rest of the 1980s with supporting roles, and then turned to writing novels.

Today, the biggest movie franchise of all time is Harry Potter, with eight films and box office of $7,706,147,978 (£4,755,340,955) under its belt. Just as its creator J K Rowling is striking out with her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, so the films' three lead actors are beginning their post-Potter careers. At the ages of 24 (Rupert Grint), 23 (Daniel Radcliffe) and 22 (Emma Watson), they might well look at their predecessors' experience and wonder whether their best years are already behind them. Will they be Harrison Fords, or Mark Hamills?

Radcliffe has moved on with The Woman in Black, the most successful British horror film in 20 years. Grint was in the little-seen Second World War drama Into the White. And next week, Watson faces her first big box-office test since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two eased past the $1.3bn mark to become the highest-grossing film of 2011, and the biggest earner of the whole series.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is based on a beloved young adult novel by Stephen Chbosky, who is also its director. It is set in 1990s Pittsburgh, and once again Watson plays the girl in a boy-girl-boy trio of high-school outsiders navigating the perils of adolescence. In this case, of course, those perils are more proms than potions. The young actress is required to portray a regular, troubled teen; unlike most of her peers, however, she has limited personal experience from which to draw inspiration.

A wealthy celebrity throughout her own teens, Watson was cast as Hermione Granger, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone – the highest-grossing film of 2001 – when she was only nine. There is plenty of evidence, too, to suggest a precocious shrewdness about her career. After fulfilling her contract on the first four Potter films, Watson was the last of the three leads to commit to completing the franchise, and her salary per sequel was doubled to £2m. "The pluses outweighed the minuses," the then-16-year-old said of her decision. "Let's be honest," she told one US magazine, aged 17, "I have enough money never to have to work again." She is now reported to be worth about £26m. These are not the life circumstances of a regular, troubled teen.

Watson was born in Paris in April 1990, the daughter of two British lawyers who divorced when she was a child. Aged five, she moved to Oxfordshire with her mother, Jacqueline, and younger brother, Alex. Her father, Chris, now lives in London, and her parents have two more children each from their second marriages. Back in England, Watson attended the prestigious, private Dragon School. At nearby Headington, she would later go on to achieve 10 As at GCSE. Meanwhile, she trained and performed part-time with the Oxford branch of Britain's biggest youth theatre school, Stagecoach, whose alumni also include Jamie Bell, Myleene Klass and Cher Lloyd. It was from Stagecoach that she was plucked to play Hermione in 1999.

As the Potter franchise grew in quality and popularity, Watson was consistently awarded more favourable reviews than her two co-stars, though all three of their performances went almost unnoticed, smothered by all the veteran British talent surrounding them: Gambon, Smith, Rickman, Fiennes et al. Watson, Radcliffe and Grint never put in a dud turn, but neither did any of them display the sort of promise that points to awards-laden adult careers – such as, say, Bell did in Billy Elliot.

In 2005, the young actress began a second career as a model, becoming the youngest ever cover star of Teen Vogue. Fashion endorsements and further magazine shoots followed. In 2009, she was named "The Face of Burberry", and nowadays is known as "The Face of Lancôme". That sideways move into modelling, she claims, was a deliberate attempt to create a public profile discernible from bossy, geeky Hermione Granger.

She remains highly visible on news-stands and billboards, and yet her effect on style is negligible compared with contemporaries such as Alexa Chung, Blake Lively or Kristen Stewart – also the star of a box-office-busting fantasy franchise, and whose surly, grunge-lite look is currently so in vogue. Last year, Watson was awarded Elle magazine's Style Icon Award by Vivienne Westwood, but not before the fashion designer could be heard wondering aloud at an awards ceremony: "Who is Emma Watson?"

Watson's personal life has always been the subject of speculation, as is predictable with any young star – especially an attractive female one. Yet she has so far proven level-headed. She declared her intention to attend university following the completion of her Harry Potter duties, and, sure enough, enrolled at the Ivy League Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2009. Last year, she transferred to Worcester College, Oxford, to study English for a year before returning to Brown. She is known to have dated actor Johnny Simmons, and indie rocker/model George Craig. Her present boyfriend, however, is fellow Oxford student Will Adamowicz, who also transferred to the UK from Brown for the year.

In 2007, Watson took on her first non-Potter role, as an aspiring actress in a BBC Boxing Day drama, Ballet Shoes. She has voiced a character in an animated feature, The Tale of Despereaux (2008), played a small part in the Monroe biopic My Week with Marilyn (2011), and even starred in a student production of Chekhov's Three Sisters at Brown – for which, of course, she received no fee. The Perks of Being a Wallflower will be her first lead role that involves no waving of wands.

Her future projects sound more ambitious. Watson has completed production on Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, a based-on-truth tale of teenagers who burgled the homes of Hollywood celebrities and "fashion icons", including Paris Hilton. She's set to start filming on Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic Noah, alongside Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins, and is working with Guillermo del Toro on a new version of Beauty and the Beast – all of which suggests that she has not only fine taste in directors, but also an excellent agent.

In an interview with this week's New Yorker, J K Rowling discussed her career post-Potter. Her new novel is a dark and sometimes dirty satire on rural life, set around a parish council by-election. Teenagers and adults clash or coalesce in the village of Pagford, a microclimate not entirely unfamiliar to fans of Hogwarts. So fearful was the author of the pressure and scrutiny that would be heaped on her forthcoming work that she briefly planned to publish The Casual Vacancy under an assumed name.

The actors who have put faces to her wizarding characters can't even consider such a strategy. Hogwarts provided its protagonists with shelter from the harsher elements of the publishing and film industries, a protective insulation that will be harder to maintain the further they move from Harry, Ron and Hermione. Like Star Wars, Harry Potter created a world of its own, both onscreen and off: separate, somehow, from the day-to-day hits and flops of Hollywood. Now its stars, reduced to mere Muggles, will have to survive in a world without that magic. Watson, for one, looks well prepared.

A life in brief

Born: Emma Charlotte Duerre Watson, 15 April 1990, Paris.

Family: Parents divorced when she was five. Grew up in Oxfordshire with her mother and brother, Alex.

Education: Headington School and Dragon School, Oxford. Then Brown University in the US and Oxford University.

Career: Played Hermione in the Harry Potter films. Her first post-Potter lead role is in the just-opened The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Has been the "face" of both Burberry and Lancome.

She says: "It's only recently that I've felt much better in my own skin and known my own worth a lot more."

They say: "From the first moment, I thought you are going to be able to play a bright articulate girl with conviction, because that's who you are." J K Rowling

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