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

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."

Of course, some of Hollywood's most acclaimed actors who started in the business at a young age are college grads. Jodie Foster, 48, who studied literature at Yale, has won two Academy Awards. Natalie Portman, 30, who majored in psychology at Harvard University, won the lead actress Oscar this year for "Black Swan."

And James Franco, 33, who hosted this year's Oscars and was nominated for lead actor for "127 Hours," has been perhaps the most active actor-scholar of late: He is enrolled in Yale University's English PhD program and North Carolina's Warren Wilson College for poetry. In May, he earned a master's degree from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and Columbia University's MFA writing program, after already graduating from Brooklyn College for fiction writing last year.

Yet as Franco and some other actors have found, it can be awkward to be a celebrity on campus. Students are known to doze off during lectures, but when Franco fell asleep during a class at Columbia, someone snapped an embarrassing picture of him, mouth agape, that ricocheted around the Internet. Foster famously had two stalkers while at Yale, one of whom, John Hinckley Jr., followed her to the New Haven, Conn., campus and later shot President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress her.

Mayim Bialik, star of the long-running '90s sitcom "Blossom," went to UCLA directly after the popular show ended and noticed that she immediately stood out.

"One professor even brought his kids in to meet me on the day of our final exam," she said, laughing. "I didn't live in the dorms, because I don't think that could have been normal in any way — being in proximity to that many people excited to be near me."

Bialik flourished in academia and went on to earn a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. She has since returned to acting, playing a neurobiologist on the TV show "The Big Bang Theory."

"The first episode I did for them, the executive producer said, 'Do you really have a PhD?' I hadn't told him, because, well, where do you list that on your theatrical resume exactly?" she said. "So he tweaked the character's profession. But having an understanding of both mental illness and neurosis has been tremendously helpful to me in my acting career."

Shia LaBeouf turned down a chance to attend Yale Drama School to work on films such as Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Spielberg wrote the actor a recommendation letter for the program, as did actor John Turturro. LaBeouf took the ACT entrance exam and sent in the requisite monologues. He had planned to attend school every other semester, alternating with movies. But ultimately, he decided that the rigors of the school's program made it impossible to attend in spurts.

The decision has since led him to feel some insecurity about his acting, stemming from his lack of college training, he admitted.

"I never went to school," he said. "I don't have a style. I know that if I need to cry, this is what gets me there. It's sort of been made up on the fly. I feel vulnerability in that I don't have classical training and that I never had any kind of higher education. I really wasn't very good in school, so I feel ignorant a lot of the time."

Nonetheless, working with director Spielberg had its rewards, added LaBeouf, now 25. "It's hard to say no to Steven Spielberg. I was gonna go to Yale, or I was gonna go work with Steven. And I'm not an idiot. At Yale, I'd have been reading books about Steven."

Producer Judd Apatow was conflicted when he learned that the bulk of his cast on the late '90s TV show "Freaks and Geeks" — which included Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen — had decided to put off college to instead chase their acting dreams.

"When I found out they weren't going to go to college, I certainly felt very guilty about the possibility that them being on a TV show led them to think that higher education was unnecessary," Apatow said. "I would hate to think that if their acting careers didn't work out, they had nothing to fall back on because they bailed on college. But these were very talented people who were eager to get their careers going. And I think that a lot of people believe that if they go to school for several years, they'll lose their momentum and the next job might never come."

Such fears are largely unwarranted, said Nina Jacobson, former president of Walt Disney Pictures. Jacobson said she always encourages young actors to go to college because she feels it gives them confidence — in fact, she once gave that advice to an adolescent Lindsay Lohan, though the actress later rejected her counsel.

"Generally, with that age range, you're just as employable at 21 as you are at 18 — in fact, there are sometimes more roles on the older side of that," said Jacobson, now a producer of teen-centric films such as the upcoming "The Hunger Games." "You can work a little bit while you're in school and just take strategic leaves during summer and holidays."

Watson is doing that now. She took a semester off from Brown to promote the last "Harry Potter" film, which hits screens in July, and will return to her studies in the fall — though maybe at a different campus, on an exchange program through Brown.

"On the last movie, I flew around on this crazy press tour, and then came back and tried to do my finals," she recalled. "I wasn't sleeping. And I realized, 'Oh, my God, I can't do this again.' I wasn't going to be able to get the best out of being at Brown and do justice to saying goodbye to 'Harry Potter' properly."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rebecca Keegan and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°