Hermione and Ron move to the fore in the third "Harry Potter" film, ready to make magic.

It's been almost three years since J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" characters moved beyond the literary phenomenon and became part of a hugely successful movie franchise. In that time, the primary image associated with the films has been Daniel Radcliffe, playing the wholesome teen wizard Harry, with his trademark round glasses and his perpetual expression of faint surprise.

Well, things are about to change. Now it's time for Harry's sidekicks to grab a piece of the action. The third film in the series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (it opens June 4), spreads the story much more evenly among Harry and his Hogwarts school pals Hermione Granger, played by Emma Watson, and Ron Weasley, portrayed by Rupert Grint.

Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican director of "Prisoner of Azkaban" (he succeeded Chris Columbus, who directed the first two), notes: "Ron and Hermione are companions in adventure in this film, and they effectively drive the third act. It's pretty amazing to see."

There's no question Watson is pleased with her contribution to "Prison of Azkaban," even before she has seen it. She strolls into a room near the production offices, sits upright on a sofa with three embroidered cushions with a likeness of Harry Potter and an owl, and starts chatting.

"The third book is definitely my favorite, and it's a good script for Hermione," she says. "She has some great scenes." There's a split second in the trailer for the new film when Watson as Hermione apparently punches someone, then says: "That felt good!" And did it? "You're very right about that," she giggles. "Yes, I loved it. My first screen punch! It was fantastic!"

So who was on the receiving end? Wouldn't you know, it was Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), the rather odious Hogwarts pupil who is a constant thorn in the sides of Harry and his two friends.

"It's been building up for ages through the first three films," Watson says, flailing her arms wildly. "He's been insulting, rude and really hateful. Harry's going, 'Ignore him, don't say anything,' and suddenly Hermione gets so angry she ends up punching the guts out of him. It's fantastic! Very girl power!"

Even apart from this scene, Watson thinks Hermione is finally coming into her own: "She's had two films of being put down by teachers and rudely insulted by Malfoy. In this film, she thinks, 'Right, that's it, I'm not having any more of this.' She storms out on a teacher, punches Malfoy, fights with Ron. She's really fired up. She's not taking nonsense from anyone."

Watson is disarmingly articulate in explaining this. Slim, petite, with a sparkle in her eyes, she wears a pale green cable knit sweater over a T-shirt, flared jeans and cream sneakers with a gold trim. She looks like many English girls of 14 and reveals a bristling intelligence when she speaks. She also has a finely tuned sense of humor. Since landing the role of Hermione, she has constantly stressed how little she has in common with her character. Now she feels less sure.

When Cuarón (who's noted for his work on 2002's "Y Tu Mamá También") met the three young actors, he asked them to write an essay about their characters — what they felt, what drove them, what they believed. The way the three responded fit their characters perfectly: Radcliffe wrote one page and felt he had done rather well. Grint, in true Ron Weasley style, somehow avoided doing it at all. Watson, reacting like Hermione to a set task, wrote some 16 pages — which prompted much on-set teasing.

"Was it 16?" she says now, covering her face and blushing slightly. "Might it have been 12 … or a little less? All right, I enjoyed writing it. But my handwriting's big! I leave big spaces between words." In retrospect, she found it a useful exercise. "It made me see Hermione in a completely different way. Alfonso made me think: Why does she do the things she does? Why is she such an annoying bookworm? I thought maybe it's her mask, her front, so she doesn't have to show any emotions or feelings. I'd never thought about that before, so for me she became a much deeper person."

At this point, Grint enters, having completed a tutoring session. (There is an unofficial Harry Potter school at this studio, and all the young actors and their doubles have lessons for up to five hours a day.) His red hair is worn longer than in the films, almost falling into his eyes. He is ultra-casual in T-shirt and baggy pants.

There's a telling teenage moment between him and Watson; he moves toward a chair next to the sofa but is then persuaded to sit beside her. After much eye-rolling from them both, with Watson complaining he has forced her to move from a warm spot on the sofa, they finally settle down.

Grint agrees that the new film offers more scope. "There's a story line developing between Ron and Hermione," he reflects.

"It's like a little thing going on between them, and there's a lot of awkward moments in this third one. A few hugs. And we fall out a lot as well. Alfonso thought that was a replacement for our relationship."

What he enjoys most is being involved in stunt work. In one scene, Ron is pulled along the ground and through a hole in a tree. "That was fun," he says with a smile. "I did swallow a lot of grass, though."

Grint, who will be 16 in August, admitted it was hard to adjust to another director after two films with Columbus. "But Alfonso was great. He was into us having a say about things. He wanted us to customize our school uniforms. He thought it would look different, for instance, if we all wore differently knotted ties.

"So I did mine a bit scruffy. I had my shirt half untucked, the top button of my shirt undone." He pauses for effect. "A bit like I wear my real school uniform, actually. Dan was a bit tidier than me, but Emma being Hermione, everything was perfectly done up."

He's an engaging young man, with sleepy eyes, a slow smile and an ability to stay quiet in conversation, then deliver a funny line almost sotto voce. Grint is an intriguing contrast to Watson, who talks fast and energetically, in perfectly formed, complete sentences.

Both want to continue acting. "I'd be up for doing all seven Harry Potter films," Grint says. "I really enjoy acting. You meet new people, go to different locations." Another trademark pause. "It's quite easy as well."

Watson has learned she likes performing and expressing herself: "I love art. I love being on stage, singing, dancing. So even if I don't end up acting, maybe I'll try screenwriting, whatever gets thrown at me." She wrinkles her nose. "I can't really see myself in an office."

The adults around them think they can fulfill these ambitions. Cuarón says of Watson: "If she decided, she could have a big career. She's growing up so beautifully. I'd love to work with her again, away from 'Harry Potter.' She listens intensely, and there's an intelligence and warmth about her." As for Grint, he enthuses, "I've never seen a young actor with such a brilliant timing for comedy. But that's Rupert in real life as well. Definitely there's a career there for both of them if they want it."

An important neutral voice is also pushing Watson's claims. Jina Jay, one of Britain's leading casting agents, specializes in finding child actors, including Jamie Bell for "Billy Elliot." "I feel Emma has enormous potential as a future leading actress," she says. "I'd expect her to explore her abilities carefully beyond 'Harry Potter.' I also feel she's clever and focused enough to only choose material and directors for whom she feels passionate."

It's striking how unspoiled and natural Watson and Grint seem. "They're not like stage kids at all," says David Heyman, producer of the "Harry Potter" films. "They don't behave like stars, and we don't treat them as such. A lot of the cast and crew are like family here. They've been on all three films. So the kids get gently teased, and treated like everyone else. There's a mischievous air on set."

It helps that these unlovely studios, situated in the middle of nowhere about 20 miles north of London, lack glamour. And they are hard to find. In the three years since filming started on the first "Harry Potter" film, only a handful of fans have even made it as far as the security gates.

Watson and Grint are determined to remain levelheaded. "I still do normal things," Watson insists. "There's nothing I can't do now which I could before the films. I hope I'm exactly the same person."

Grint echoes her sentiment: "My friends don't think I've changed. I've tried to stay pretty normal throughout all the films, and my friends and family have helped in that. I've just kept living the same way."

[David Gritten || LA Times, 8 May 2004]