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Picking their next role: Joe College or hot young star?

Young actors face a tough decision: career or upper education. Some, like Emma Watson, think higher education is worth it. Others, like Blake Lively, skip it.

June 12, 2011|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
  • Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger, of the "Harry Potter" films.
Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger, of the "Harry Potter"… (Matt Sayles / AP )

Two years ago, Emma Watson was facing a quandary many young adults encounter: Is college worth it?

For most 18-year-olds, a university degree is an expensive but necessary investment leading to personal growth and a well-paying job. But for Watson, already a multimillionaire as a result of playing Hermione Granger in the "Harry Potter" movies, the calculus was more complex.

Should she trade red carpets for Red Bull-fueled nights studying? Would the knowledge gained be as valuable as the roles she'd have to forgo? And was it possible for the actress to fit in with classmates who had watched her grow up on-screen?

Watson opted to attend Brown University — a decision that confounded Hollywood directors and publicists.

"I've had to say no to stuff that people have been gobsmacked about. I've had big directors say to me, 'What do you mean, you can't do this movie? We don't understand,'" the actress, now 21, said recently by phone from her native England. "I always hear, 'What do you mean she can't do this magazine cover?' or 'What do you mean she can't have this meeting for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?' And my agent will say, 'She's at school, sorry.'

"Yes, it's hard for me to turn down amazing opportunities. But I've been working solidly since I've been 9 years old. So for me, to have this space to learn and figure myself out a bit is obviously worth it."

Transitioning from child star to adult actor never has been easy. But the explosion of kid-oriented entertainment on cable TV and in the movies means more teens than ever are competing to make the leap into adult acting jobs. So opting to take time out for a college degree — never a requirement in Hollywood to begin with — seems increasingly difficult.

Blake Lively, star of the hot teen soap "Gossip Girl," faced the same decision as Watson but chose a different route. She said she dreamed throughout her childhood of attending an Ivy League school and worked toward that goal at Burbank High School, maintaining a 4.2 grade point average while cheerleading, joining a nationally competitive show choir, playing sports and being elected class president.

But when she began to find success starting at age 17 in the film "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," those around her pushed her to skip out not only on college but also the rest of high school. (She decided to finish anyway.)

"Everybody said, 'Strike while the iron is hot.' And everybody is so replaceable these days that to maintain your 'heat,' or whatever, you are supposed to put aside school," said Lively, who's now 23 and building a film career, including roles in last year's "The Town" and next weekend's "Green Lantern."

"One of the reasons why I wanted to do 'Gossip Girl' was because we had talked about giving me one day a week to go to Columbia starting the second season, once things slowed down. But things never slowed down. The show took off, and they were never able to carve out the time in my schedule. It still makes me sad every day that I didn't have that college experience."

As Lively discovered, choosing college can mean swimming against a tide of advice from family, friends, agents and managers, many of whom are quick to point out that many onetime teen stars — including Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore and Scarlett Johansson — went on to big adult careers without attending a university. (Such members of an actor's inner circle, of course, might themselves lose out on income if a young actor decides to spend years at college rather than on film sets.)

"Nobody cares if you went to school unless you're on the business side of Hollywood," said Cindy Osbrink, head of the youth theatrical department at the Osbrink Talent Agency, whose clients include Dakota Fanning and her sister, Elle.

Complicating the decision further, Osbrink says, is that many young stars find that upon turning 18, their job opportunities suddenly expand because they no longer face restrictions on how many hours they can work as they did when they were minors. "It's a huge advantage to be a high school graduate of legal age" in the acting world, because 18-year-olds can often play younger roles, she said.

Brad Pitt, who attended the University of Missouri's journalism school, acknowledged that many actors develop into well-rounded people without a formal education. But he believes some performers who stop their schooling at an early age may be making a strategic error that could hurt them down the line.

"I worry for the young, young guys, because they haven't experienced enough to know not to get eaten up by the machine," he said. "I worry that they get defined before they really know who they are. … When they blow up too big at too young an age, they don't get the luxury to make the mistakes. They get defined and discarded."

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