More than 20 years ago, three children were plucked from obscurity and thrust into the international spotlight, portraying the stars of one of the most well-known stories of all time in a big-budget franchise adaptation.
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint – who were 11, 10 and 11, respectively, when they were introduced at a news conference in 2000 – starred in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which premiered in the U.S. on Nov. 16, 2001, and they would spend the next 10 years starring in the wildly successful film series based on J.K. Rowling’s books.
As child actors go, they fared better than many. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
“The three of them share a bond that no one else could ever relate to,” says Dina Sartore-Bodo, managing editor at HollywoodLife.com. “They were the biggest stars of their age, in a franchise with a dedicated fandom who were desperate for every detail of the movies to be exactly how they envisioned in the books. That’s a lot of pressure.”
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For child actors, fame brings glamour and money but also shifts in relationships with peers and parents, adulthood responsibilities and intense media and public scrutiny about one’s appearance or identity, says Meghan Gillen, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Abington, who studies developmental psychology and body image.
“Childhood fame is glorified a lot,” Gillen adds. “But we also need to acknowledge their humanity.”
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Director Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two “Potter” films, saw firsthand how fame could negatively impact young actors: His prior directing credits included “Home Alone” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which catapulted Macaulay Culkin and Mara Wilson into the spotlight.
Both have since detailed their struggles with childhood fame, and Columbus would learn he needed to prioritize protecting the kids in his films from what he dubbed an “onslaught of publicity.”
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“We’re just working, it’s just a movie,” Columbus told USA TODAY in 2001 of his advice to the young “Potter” actors. “I try to instill that in the kids. I tell them, ‘No weekend at Michael Jackson’s house. None of that stuff. Do not go. That happened to Macaulay. Don’t become seduced by this whole star thing. It’s empty.’ “
Filming in England provided an additional barrier to getting swept up in the rush of Hollywood.
“I originally didn’t want the kids to go to America and do ‘Letterman’ and ‘Leno’ and all that stuff,” Columbus noted at the time. “I thought they’d be much more grounded if they stayed here and did this press and went on to their next movie. The good news is, they’ll go do that and then come right back. It’ll be back to the world of work, and we’ll be back to the way it was, and we’ll all be surrounding each other.”
For all the efforts to protect the actors from any major downward spirals, it was still difficult to keep their growing pains from becoming fodder for Page Six.
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Daniel Radcliffe used alcohol to cope with fame
Radcliffe’s post-wizarding career has been a grab-bag of eclectic roles: acting nude on Broadway, starring as a man who grows horns in a comedy horror film, and portraying a low-level employee of God (played by Steve Buscemi), to name a few.
But toward the end of his “Potter” run, the actor struggled with alcohol use, which was sometimes put on display in tabloids. He has since gotten sober and spoken publicly on the lack of a blueprint for young child stars growing up in the public eye.
“The quickest way of forgetting about the fact that you were being watched was to get very drunk,” he told “Off Camera With Sam Jones” in 2019. “Then as you get very drunk, you become aware that, ‘Oh, people are watching more now because now I’m getting very drunk, so I should probably drink more to ignore that more.’ “
Child actors are “held to higher standards when they’re younger, because they’re in these roles (where) adult responsibilities are expected of them,” Gillen says. “When you have those kinds of expectations placed on you at a young age, you don’t have the opportunity to explore your identity and to have freedom from those responsibilities. … Everyone at one point or another in life needs time to explore and figure out who they are and make mistakes.”
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Emma Watson faced sexualization from an early age
Despite her level of celebrity, Watson has opted for a life these days fairly out of the public eye. After pulling a Hermione and becoming the only one of the trio to go to college (she graduated from Brown University in 2014), she now chooses her acting roles and public appearances carefully, and the rare occasions when she speaks out are usually to bring attention to a cause.
In 2014, the actress spoke before the U.N. to bring attention to HeForShe, a campaign that called on men to help end gender inequality. During the speech, Watson opened up about being sexualized by media as early as 14.
“The male population has had no problem sexualizing Emma Watson immediately,” Radcliffe told The Associated Press in 2014.
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When Watson wrapped up filming the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” movies and debuted a pixie cut – a major pivot from the long, curly Hermione locks fans had come to expect – it came as a shock.
Not only was the change in appearance on-par for a young woman her age (then 20), but Gillen perceives the move as Watson’s response to years of heavy scrutiny and unwanted attention paid to her appearance.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘You’ve sexualized me and I’m just going to do what I want, if this is what I feel like at this moment,’ “ Gillen says. “It’s kind of like pushback to that sexualization and an affirmation of her own identity. … It’s something that for women can really help assert themselves and maybe gain back some of that power that they felt was lost in that kind of situation.”
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Rupert Grint’s quiet retreat – and return
Grint disappeared from public view for a while after “Potter.” He appeared in a selection of English indie films and TV shows, but nothing that has reached the acclaim of his Ron Weasley days.
He’s stayed largely out of sight, until he dipped a toe back in a year ago, setting up an Instagram account “10 years too late” to share the first photo of his newborn baby with girlfriend Georgia Groome (yes, the actress from “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging”).
Given the intense magnifying lens on the “Potter” actors in the franchise’s prime, experts say it’s no surprise that all three actors remain cautious about the image of themselves put out into the world. But their occasional re-entries into the public eye serve as comforting reminders to fans of a beloved collection of films that their childhood idols turned out all right.
“I think (the actors) all appreciate the cultural impact the films have had and the unique opportunity it’s laid out for each them to craft careers they want to have,” Sartore-Bodo says. “I don’t think you’ll ever hear them knock the films or the characters they played. They seem very proud to be known as Harry, Hermione and Ron. These characters define their screen career, and they’re OK with that.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Harry Potter’ at 20: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and childhood fame