Just 9 when she won her big break, the 20-year-old star says goodbye to Hermione and embraces her favorite adventure yet: College life

By Michelle Tauber
Updated December 06, 2010 12:00 PM

Yes, Emma Watson has spent the past 10 years of her life starring in the most successful film franchise of all time. But as a freshman at Brown University in Providence, she still had to try out for a school production of Chekhov’s play Three Sisters before landing the role of Irina. “I did two rounds of auditions,” she says. “It was really fun. I loved it.” Naturally the production played to a packed crowd during its entire run. Says Watson: “Somehow we pulled it off and got good reviews.”

She may as well get used to it. At 20, Watson is garnering her best notices yet for her mature work as brainy, brave Hermione Granger in part one of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the first of the two final installments of the $5.4 billion-grossing series. “This Hermione is the closest Hermione to my own personality,” she says. “I felt earlier on I played more like a parody of myself.” In the darker Deathly Hallows, Hermione “has developed into something much more human and organic.”

Watson herself admits that she hasn’t always embraced her alter ego-or the vast machinery that goes with being part of the Potter empire. Only 9 years old when she landed the breakout role, the academic, introspective Watson-she scored the highest possible marks on England’s version of the SATs-has long been torn between the runaway success of her acting career and her own yearning to pursue a life outside of Hollywood. “From a very early age, she always said that if she really had to make an absolute choice between films or education, she would choose education,” says producer David Barron. She never had to choose, and last year she enrolled at Brown. Those who know her say they’ve never seen her so happy. “Emma was always as bright as a button,” says longtime Potter producer David Heyman, “but I think she’s more content in herself than she’s ever been.”

Driven and focused, “the person who is hardest on Emma is Emma,” says Heyman. “She’s quite ambitious for herself.” Not surprisingly, the British-bred daughter of lawyers excels in her schoolwork at Brown, where she plays field hockey and rooms in a dorm suite with five other girls. (Among them: Scout Willis, the 19-year-old daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.) But for the aspiring history major, who had never acted professionally prior to Potter, the best part about college life is the chance to be with her peers far from a movie set. “I’m learning more outside the classroom than I am in it,” she says. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

While she happily blends in on campus-buying candy in bulk for her art class; reading the newspaper at her favorite local coffee shop-she is anything but ordinary on the red carpet. An emerging fashionista whose recent pixie cut sparked breathless headlines, she has leveraged her fashion savvy into a second career: She’s the face of British clothing brand Burberry and has recently partnered on clothing lines with designer Alberta Ferretti and fair-trade clothing company People Tree. “She’d be picking fabric swatches after filming Harry Potter for 12 hours,” says Antony Waller of People Tree, who also accompanied the actress on a trip to garment factories in Bangladesh in July. “This is not Emma being the face of a fashion line, but Emma trying to make a difference. She wanted something to put her heart and soul into.”

Looking ahead to life after Potter-part two of Deathly Hallows has wrapped and will hit theaters in July-the single Watson, who dated 20-year-old British indie rocker George Craig last summer, is eager to explore what’s next. “I want to diversify a bit,” she says. Which means “really good supporting roles,” such as a wardrobe assistant in the upcoming Monroe biopic My Week with Marilyn, along with more theater parts: “I’d love to do some Shakespeare.” Those close to her say the possibilities are limitless. “She could be an academic, she could be a lawyer, she could be a model, an actress, a fashion designer,” says Heyman. “She is formidable. Whatever she does, she will do well. She wouldn’t settle for less.” And yet Watson is aware that Hermione will always be a part of her-and she’s okay with that. “She keeps finding a way back into my life,” says Watson. “It’s a very gradual goodbye.”