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Emma Watson on her activism, feminism, and dream of playing strong women like Belle

(Image and artwork by Anya Thakur)

It’s not every day actress, activist, and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gets a tattoo. But before the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) ceremony, the esteemed star did just that.

Watson, who recently attended the BAFTA ceremony with a Times Up tattoo on her arm and in a black velvet gown to take stance against abuse of power in the industry, may be just as famed, if not more, for her women’s advocacy and staunch feminist stance, as the founder of UN Women campaign #HeforShe, as she is for the films she has chosen.

Best known as Hermione Granger, the lead heroine in the Harry Potter film series, and recently appearing in the modern thriller “The Circle” after impressing critics in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” being cast as Belle is a “dream come true” to play an iconic character and archetype, though the film features “an empowered and ambitious young woman who forges her own destiny,” Watson asserts when asked what it’s like to land the role in a press conference.

She’s shared the red carpet with the original Belle, Paige O’Hara, at the Los Angeles premiere, both a tribute to O’Hara and a surge forward for the latest derivation, the first to be produced by Disney, the creators of the much cherished animation. But whether revisionist classic or nostalgic homage, Watson embraces the role, having loved the film since she was child, and the live-action remake is more than a flesh-and-blood (and prosthetic fur-and-horns) revival of the 26-year-old cartoon, its a charming retreat and escape from reality, a pitch to embrace the Disney-esque ideals of hope and connection the film is awash with.

And Watson’s genuine warmth puts those around her during the premiere at ease, conversation easily ricocheting from Belle’s love of books to the movie and its history, fairy tales and stories, empowerment, and progress. Her influence, both as a highly coveted actress, and input into the development of Belle, from giving her a vocation to fill her time as a budding inventor — “a washing machine to give her more time to teach and read” — and costume design — “kind of needs to feel like an action hero dress which is why the front of the dress looks a bit like a coat of armor. It’s got gold flecks in it, and it had that kind of warrior element to it” shaped the portrayal of the iconic character and final film, as she discussed in the press junket, according to blog Raising Whasians.

And how was it she envisioned Belle?

“There is something about the spirit of Belle that is to be championed in all of us,” Watson said when discussing the film in the press junket. “I think that curiosity, that imagination, that ability to see beneath the surface deep, but also to see beyond your immediate surroundings. And she has tremendous vision in all ways, and I think that’s something to be applauded.”

Women with vision, indeed.

Even at the time being, Belle was a big step forward for her time — she was independent and forward-thinking and she asserted her rights, making it in sync with its period in history and yet a triumph. Watson shares the first time she saw “Beauty and the Beast” and her reaction to it, as it came out in her early childhood, and her perspective on Belle’s relationship with the beast, starting out set against each other where she was his prisoner and then the animosity dissipating between them as they got know each other and fell in love.

I have loved ‘Beauty and the Beast’ since I was about 4-years-old,” Watson beamed in an interview preceding the film’s release with Screen Slam. “The movie came out the year I was born in 1990 [sic] and I just fell in love with Belle. She was this feisty young woman who spoke her mind and had all these ambitions and was incredibly independent, wanted to see the world, and was so smart. And I love where she had this relationship with the beast where she’s ‘toe-to-toe’ with him and that seemed to be such a dynamic and interesting kind of relationship that I’ve never seen before in a fairytale.”

For Watson, the original Disney movie as a fairytale is a romance, and an adventure, where Belle is able to leave her idyllic village life and fulfill her yearning to explore the world. She describes how the dichotomy between Beast and Belle changes throughout the movie.

Oh my god! I was just enamored with the whole thing,” Watson exclaimed in the interview. “I was just so in love with it. It was so funny and so romantic in a way that, I don’t believe it, felt contrived in the sense that, like, other fairy tales are. Beast and Belle really dislike each other in the beginning and they really don’t get on. And then they form this friendship and then they fall in love. And there’s sort of just something so beautiful about how that came to be and I’ve just loved it ever since.”

Her view of Disney movies adapts and evolves as she grows older, though many believe they are an event for all ages. Playing the iconic character and exploring her world profoundly impacted Watson.

“As a child you love Disney,” Watson said in the interview. “But as an adult you still love Disney because it sort of connects you with that childlike feeling that, ‘everything is going to be okay and there’s hope in the word’ and, it just sort of, for me it gives me this sense of like, ‘Ah, okay, everything’s fine. Everything’s fine.’ So to get to be in, like, you know, playing Belle, and to get to actually live in her world, is just amazing.”

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