Last week, Emma Watson was spotted at the Brilliant Minds Conference in Stockholm. The event – whose theme this year is “CHANGE,” how innovative – boasts speakers like Alicia Keys and Serena Williams’ Redditor husband Alexis Ohanian, as well as executives from companies no one has ever been mad at like Netflix and Spotify. Watson herself was missing from the lineup on the conference’s site, suggesting either a surprise appearance, or that she was attending out of genuine curiosity for what the titular brilliant minds had to say. This was the most recent in a seemingly infinite string of Watson sightings at various European consortiums, summits, and retreats on climate activism and/or women in STEM, where she has been able to pose next to Malala or chat with Al Gore while wearing a sustainable bra. But there is one place from which she’s been distinctly missing: the big screen.
Audiences last saw Watson in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation, where she had the thankless role of “the hot sister,” (and was noticeably absent from the film’s extensive press tour) and then briefly in HBO’s Harry Potter reunion, in which she cried when Rupert Grint told her he loved her. Aside from that, she’s been nowhere, her fans tittering over rumors of a possible Prada campaign. Last year, it was rumored she was retiring from acting, only for her to log onto Twitter to assure people she was merely minding COVID protocols and baking sourdough like the rest of us (post pics, I don’t believe you).
Watson appears to be in a bit of a pickle: her post-Potter acting projects have not been acclaimed or successful enough to boost her attendance at global innovator grifter events, nor has her activism made enough of an impact for her to fully quit acting. On the brink of, I don’t know, getting a normal job as a consultant, Watson stands at an impasse, at which I – and only I – can offer my services. Emma Watson, I am the only person who will fix your career, and I’ll do it for the love of the game.
In order to make changes both significant and positive, we have to first look at the landscape of Watson’s post-Potter career more closely. First: the acting. There is one undeniable but embarrassing hit (Beauty and the Beast) sitting alongside several moderate-to-severe flops (The Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Circle) and some movies that fully don’t exist (Colonia, Regression). Within a steady working decade, Watson has also been in some minor but divisive films by major directors: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, both of which may, in fact, feature her best work. What this survey informs us (me) is that Watson is neither a successful leading woman nor a true blue character actress, but a combination of the worst aspects of each. In fact, Watson’s signature “character” in film is “just some girl.”
The main hiccup here is that Watson is probably the least “just some girl” of all time, and this makes it nearly impossible to root for her in these films, even when she’s befriending a sensitive high school outcast or becoming radicalized against Big Tech while caring for her ailing parents. Bad friends – whoever Derek Blasberg is – have convinced her she is regular. She is not regular at all. She is overeducated and absurdly wealthy. She is not capable of normal-human logic and reasoning, nor is she an underdog. As a beautiful former child star, especially one known for playing an annoying overachiever, Watson perhaps underestimated the steep hill ahead of her. In order to root for her, we needed to first root against her. Daniel Radcliffe skated through the 2010s playing bizarro villains and farting corpses and doing Broadway (something nobody roots for), and Rupert Grint has done his own penance on that Apple TV+ show with the haunted baby doll. The further Watson leans into goodness, the farther she feels from it, the less and less we’re willing to buy it.
The reason people like The Bling Ring is because it’s a movie where Emma Watson goes to jail. Emma Watson needs to play a corporate goon, not a whistleblower; a scheming romantic rival, not a virtuous romantic lead. Emma Watson needs to play someone who could plausibly be laundering money (which it’s possible she has real-life experience in). She has, time and time again, proven herself a wise fool (remember He for She, or when she rapped for gender equality?); why not lean into it? She needs to play stupid, callous, shallow, obscene. She should do a sports underdog movie where she’s a pouty girlfriend, or a political thriller where she’s a politician’s wayward daughter. That she’s convinced every performance of hers matters is near-fatal main character syndrome, but it’s not too late to remedy. And she need not worry about alienating those who look to her for moral leadership. The worse roles (character-wise) she commits to will bolster her activism through the sheer power of what children call “reverse psychology” – on screen she is bad, but in life she is good. Kaia Gerber’s book club is more popular than hers, and we’re not rooting for her to be good at “modeling.” Similarly, we tolerate Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental screeds, because at the very least he’s debased himself into a wholly unlikable character actor.
It’s possible that Watson’s particularly out-of-touch brand of feminism views playing unlikable as distinctly sexist, somehow, but I’d be remiss to not remind her (and you) that some of our finest actresses have leaned into being annoying with grace. Consider Emma Roberts, who has made an art of being a mean girl in full-blown idiot schlock. If I was Emma Watson, I’d be kicking myself for doing The Circle instead of Nerve, a far more vicious social media satire. Or consider another Ivy League-educated blonde, Elizabeth Banks, who has mastered the annoying WASPy blonde better than any of us could have dreamed. Banks doesn’t need to play bombshell or girl next door because she knows we won’t root for her as one. Instead, she basks in her role as a conservative talk show host in 30 Rock and is perhaps the only person who understands the bizarre, yet menacing tone of The Hunger Games films. The apex of this type is, of course, today’s best working actress: Rose Byrne, the queen of the upturned nose and pointed barb. Watson is capable of all of this and more. It only takes a modicum of nastiness, something she showed when she bravely “clapped back” at J.K. Rowling at the BAFTAs this year.
Or better yet, Watson could stand a bit of self-awareness, a self-consciousness that leads her away from calling herself “self-partnered,” and towards roles that serve as a greater critique of an industry that breeds “Watson types” – those too rich and too out of touch to realize their jobs will not save the world. Maybe she could do one of those HBO Max prestige miniseries, like one based on a French movie from the 1990s that’s been brought back as sort of a commentary-like thing on the state of movies and television, starring a not-quite-famous enough European actress who hasn’t done the requisite big budget work to believably pass as someone with career fatigue. Yes, that’s it, exactly: Emma Watson should have been Irma Vep.