Jeff Jensen
July 01, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When Emma Watson auditioned to play Hermione Granger, it was clear the 9-year-old was just as capable and precocious as the future Mrs. Ron Weasley. ”There was no question,” says director Chris Columbus, who cast her. ”She was Hermione.” Today, the sophisticated little girl (who used to decorate her dressing room with stuffed animals) is a sophisticated young woman who quotes William Blake, stumps for fair trade, and is puzzling through her identity post-Hermione. ”I have spent more of my life being someone else than I have being myself,” says Watson, 21, who famously commemorated the end of Potter by adopting a stylish pixie ‘do. ”I’ve always had a strong sense of who I am, of what I want, but I do need to spend more time figuring that out.”

Watson has taken a thoughtful approach to her life and work. Of the three Potter leads, she took the most time before signing a contract to do the last three films. She wasn’t always sure she wanted to be an actress. According to producer David Barron, the shooting schedule for the final two films was organized around Watson’s studies at Brown University, where she enrolled in 2009. But juggling Potter and college took its toll. After spending a week of her Christmas holiday last year doing reshoots, Watson took a leave from Brown. ”I don’t want to compromise anything,” she says. ”I want to give a proper goodbye to 10 years of work and then resume my studies later.”

One thing’s for certain: She plans to continue acting. Watson is currently shooting an adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 coming-of-age novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. ”This feels big. I’m excited and nervous and can’t wait to see what moviemaking outside of Harry Potter is like,” says the actress, who also recently signed on as a face of Lancôme cosmetics. ”I want to choose projects that mean something to me,” she continues, acknowledging that her Potter paychecks enable her to be pickier than most young stars. ”Film is an incredibly powerful medium, and filmmakers have the power to affect the way people think about the future. I would love to play a part in that. I don’t know everything,” she says matter-of-factly. ”I have so much to learn. And I couldn’t be more excited about that.” Neither could we.

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