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'I was really worried at first that people wouldn't accept me as a peer' … actor Emma Watson soon settled into life at Brown University in the US. Photo: Vincent Peters/trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media

This northern summer, Emma Watson will be celebrating an accomplishment that has nothing to do with her acting career. The 23-year-old will be donning cap and gown in Providence, Rhode Island, where she will graduate from Brown University, a prestigious Ivy League college.

"I can't really explain all it means to me," Watson smiles, brown eyes shining. "I am going to throw a huge party."

My mum always said: 'It's important that you keep in touch with your friends.' 

Ostensibly, the Harry Potter star has nothing to prove. The actor played the feisty and brilliant Hermione Granger in the eight Potter movies, the most successful film franchise ever, based on the books by J. K. Rowling. But she says the ceremony will be "a big milestone for me. Brown has this tradition where you walk through a certain gate and then you walk out of it when you graduate. It's taken me five years, but the fact that I'm going to complete it and will come out with a BA in English is a really, really big deal for me.

"I am just so glad that I took the time," she says, referring to her studies, a year of which was spent at Oxford University. "I have the rest of my life to work, but I still had so much to learn. I needed space in which to figure out how to be independent, living in another country and moving away from home. It was a really valuable lesson in learning how to take care of myself."

Wearing a classic black Roland Mouret off-the-shoulder sheath dress, Watson looks stunning when we meet for tea in Los Angeles: more fashionista than student. But there is nothing jaded about the actor; all youthful exuberance, Watson is disarmingly warm.

Watson, like Harry Potter co-star Daniel Radcliffe, has navigated that often treacherous transition from child star to lead actor with grace and skill, choosing roles far removed from the bookish Hermione.

She won glowing reviews for her portrayal of Sam, a free-spirited high schooler, in the 2012 teen flick The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And there was high praise again last year for her performance as one of the entitled, fame-obsessed LA teens robbing rich celebs in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring.

Next, she stars opposite Russell Crowe in the biblical blockbuster Noah. Sporting matted hair and ragged clothes she plays Noah's daughter, Ila. The film, her biggest post-Potter project so far, is directed by maverick filmmaker Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan fame, and will be released here on March 27. It's far from a traditional Hollywood sword-and-sandals affair.

"I couldn't really see it at first," Watson says. "I was like, really? The two-by-two animals with the dove and the rainbow ... It's a little bit cheesy," she laughs. "Darren's films are so gritty and edgy and dark and I couldn't quite mesh that with the biblical story. Then he explained his idea and it all just started to fit." Watson won't elaborate, except to say: "There's a very interesting environmental aspect to the story; it's about the choices that we have to make as human beings and there's a kind of futuristic apocalyptic world."

The film was shot in New York and Iceland. Watson says a highlight was working with Crowe, whom she describes as "amazing". "I don't think anyone else could have played this role," she says. "It needed an actor who you believed physically would be able to build something of the magnitude of the ark, who could be a warrior and also have a complicated, internal world." He was "not intimidating in the way you think he would be. Russell is just a really cool guy and very warm and funny. He did a concert when we were in New York with his band. He was always singing. It was freezing in Iceland and so he kitted out all of the crew with Rabbitohs [the NRL rugby league team that Crowe co-owns] beanies."

The subject matter of Noah resonated with Watson, who was raised in the Church of England and is a regular meditator. "I studied the Bible in school; I don't really subscribe to a specific religious dogma, but I do think that all religions have unifying or universal tenets. I wouldn't say I'm one thing or another now; I would say I'm spiritual."

She is also remarkably grounded for a girl who has been famous since she was cast in the first Harry Potter film at age nine. Watson was born in Paris but grew up in England. Her parents, Jacqueline Luesby and Chris Watson, both lawyers, divorced when she was five and she was raised in Oxfordshire with her mother and younger brother Alex.

Watson says both parents provided crucial stability. "I've had them as role models and their work has always been their lifeblood. It's the reason that they get up in the morning. I'm really lucky that my family are not film-industry-type people. My mum always said: 'It's important that you keep in touch with your friends.' She was really adamant about that. I do have a life of my own and my parents have been strict with me. They don't treat me like a star! No."

Watson spent much of her childhood on set with Radcliffe and Rupert Grint (still firm friends) as well as the cream of Britain's acting royalty: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. Her filming schedule meant working Monday to Friday, but her school held classes at the weekend, "so I would film Potter all week and then my mum would get me out of bed at 6.30 on a Saturday and make me go in and do my school work. So she really instilled this work ethic, this respect for education."

It explains the actor's decision to put her career on hold and go to university. "Having an education is such a valuable asset," Watson says. "I took 12 months off. I've just been studying full-time, reading English literature. I love T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Blake." Her last essay "was on Kant's Theory of Aesthetics".

She admits that while college life was "a great experience", fame made her time at Brown challenging. "I don't think it ever could have been like your standard university experience. I was really worried at first that people wouldn't accept me as a peer, but I was surprised by how protective they were at Brown. There was this weird sort of unifying thing: 'We all go to this college, you're one of us. If anyone messes with you, they're messing with us' kind of thing. It was amazing."

She says stories of students ostracising her at college were unfounded. "I was particularly cross when there were a load of media reports stating that I was bullied - a) I've never been bullied in my life and b) it was the opposite experience. People were respectful, they gave me my space." In fact, adds Watson, one of her most rewarding acting roles was in a student production of Chekhov's Three Sisters. "There was a student director, student actors, student hair and make-up, and that was actually the most fun I had at Brown."

Leaving the (semi-protective) cocoon of college, Watson has inevitably become tabloid prey, which she finds "excruciating". She won't discuss her love life, though she is reportedly dating Oxford University rugby star Matthew Janney. Dating, she says, is something she has always made a point of keeping very private.

"I do find it all very hard," she sighs. "It's difficult to keep it low key and normal, I guess. But the fact that I've been at university and have been able to be around people who aren't in my industry has probably helped."

Time off is spent at home in London, with her two cats. "I'm quite a homebody, I like cooking dinner with friends. I learned how to make Yorkshire pudding recently, and I do quite a good English roast." She's not complaining about her high-profile career, though. "I get to work on films like Noah with Darren Aronofsky and I've been able to travel so much of the world," she says.

Watson's star status and striking looks have led to a stint as the face of Lancôme and modelling work for Burberry. She is a magnet for designers and is at the forefront of cutting-edge fashion: at the Golden Globes earlier this year, she looked captivating and original in a backless Dior dress with cropped black trousers. "I try to be creative and wear something that people hopefully find interesting and a bit different," she says, citing Cate Blanchett as her style (and acting) role model. Favourite designers? "I think what Raf Simmons is doing is amazing. I'll be really interested to see what [creative director] Nicolas Ghesquière does for Louis Vuitton."

The success of the Potter films - the franchise grossed more than $7 billion - has provided lifelong financial security for Watson and her co-stars. Being a multimillionaire is something she still struggles with.

"I found the wealth side of it [Harry Potter] almost overwhelming and for a long time I wanted to pretend it didn't exist," she says. "Not because I am not grateful, but because it made me feel sort of different from my friends and my family and I didn't really like that. I think it's incredible, but to be honest, I'm still really young. I don't have things that I want to spend money on."

One gets the impression that Watson is a genuine grafter, dedicated to the job. "I don't feel entitled to anything because I played one role with very specific parameters for a very long time. I am so fiercely self-critical that I really drive myself."

It comes back to that discipline instilled by her parents. "I have no example of how to live a life if you're not engaged and working hard; I don't think I'd be happy any other way," she says. "I am more confident now and I'm much more focused, more of a go-getter, but I still have to prove myself. I still have to show people what I can do."

Judging from the evidence so far, Emma Watson Act II is going to be well worth watching.

Lead-in photo by Vincent Peters/trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media