Saturday, June 25, 2005

Elle April 04 - Mischa Barton

She may play a vulnerable teen on Fox's sudsy hit The O.C., but when the cameras are off, according to the creative team involved in our April cover shoot, recently minted starlet Mischa Barton is anything but your average high schooler. Indeed, Barton's smarts and sophistication wowed the assembled crowd in decidedly grown-up Palm Springs, California. With an extensive knowledge of high style that belies her tender years, she was close to the perfect subject, melding the instincts of a born fashionista with the looks and poise of a model. Of course, Barton IS still just 18-years-old, as evidenced by the constant, comforting presence of her most beloved accessory: mom.

Mischa Barton plays the fragile Marissa protected by a gang of tv hotties on Fox's The O.C.—but in real life she's considerably more hardheaded. The 18-year-old seasoned star talks to Michael Joseph Gross.

When the cast and crew of The O.C. arrive for location shooting at Los Angeles County's El Segundo High School, the yellow brick building becomes a supercollider of dreams and reality. For a glimpse of such stars as 18-year-old Mischa Barton, who plays Marissa, a cosmetically flawless, chemically troubled rich girl next door, El Segundo students have been known to hang out on the school's front lawn until well after dark.

Such enthusiasm helped make the Fox show television's breakout hit of 2003. An edgier, more complex Beverly Hills, 90210, The O.C. surveys the privileges and perils of life in Orange County's exclusive beach community, giving viewers an exhilaratingly naughty charge of envy by depicting high school as a homework-free zone of emotional and erotic drama. The show deftly interweaves story lines involving its teenage and adult characters, a structure that appeals to audiences and critics alike. Barton and 25-year-old Benjamin McKenzie (who plays Ryan, Marissa's hunky former boyfriend), 24-year-old Adam Brody (the winsomely geeky Seth), and 22-year-old Rachel Bilson (Summer, the snob with a heart of gold) became instant stars, as well as fast friends. (Barton and McKenzie reportedly became more than friends, but Barton, who has also been linked to rocker Alex Greenwald—his band Phantom Planet performs The O.C. theme song—denies those rumors: “Actors are a pain in the butt to date,” she says, laughing. “Nightmarishly self-conscious.”)

Though she is the show's youngest star, she is also its most seasoned performer. Born in London, Barton and her two sisters (Hania, 16, and Zoe, 26) spent their early childhood moving around Europe with their father, Richard, an English former foreign exchange broker, and mother, Nuala, an Irish photographer and homemaker. In 1991 the family settled in New York City. Spotted by a talent agent while performing in a show at summer camp, an eight-year-old Barton soon landed prestigious leading roles off-Broadway and a three-season stint on All My Children. Her 1997 movie debut, in the Sundance hit Lawn Dogs, made her an indie film darling and led to memorable parts in The Sixth Sense and Notting Hill (in which she played a vomiting ghost and a child actress, respectively), plus a popular turn on ABC's Once and AgainThe O.C. “It doesn't matter how many films you do,” Barton says. “They don't reach as many people as television does.”

Through all of this, according to another O.C. costar, Peter Gallagher, Barton has kept a level head. “You get very excited about her success, but it also gives you a great deal of anxiety. You don't want to misread her cheeriness, only to discover that she's in silent agony.” Gallagher, like everyone who works with Barton, notes her curious mixture of precociousness and naïveté—which contributes to the most striking quality of her performance on The O.C. Barton's Marissa flickers between the sweet freedom of childhood and burdensome adult realities.

“She's very poised and mature, and then she does something like, Whoa! She is 18!” Brody says. “She missed out on some of the experiences the rest of us had, like drinking in the bushes in ninth grade.” Adds McKenzie, “There's a scene in Notting Hill where she plays a little girl and Hugh Grant asks her, 'Is this your first film?' and she says, 'It's my twenty-second.' That's Mischa.” McG, the music video and film director (Charlie's Angels) and an executive producer of The O.C., explains, “She's 40 and she's four. It's like a savant quality.”

So it's no surprise that over a dinner of swordfish at Morton's in West Hollywood, Barton oscillates between the considered observations of a woman twice her age and the strident enthusiasms of a teenager. (Her body language describes a similar amplitude: Although she has perfect posture, she'll occasionally attack an itch on her nose with such force that you fear for her septum.) She's most eloquent when discussing fashion. Gwen Stefani's style is “well-traveled. It's Jamaican, English, French. It goes anywhere, which a lot of people can't do.” Fred Segal, L.A.'s holy of holies of hipness, however, is “hell on earth. Serious shopping for serious shoppers. Most of those designers are high-end generic. It's not made with any love.”

Other passions include Monopoly (“Who cares about strategy? I don't want some bad neighborhood. I want the blue”), crème brûlée (the New York Plaza hotel's is “killer”), and books (Tony Kushner and J.D. Salinger). Although she passed a high school equivalency exam when she was 15, Barton does college prep work by correspondence with Manhattan's Professional Children's School and will go to college—Yale is a first choice—“as soon as there's a break in my career so that I can take my college experience seriously.”

Of course, Barton—who signed on to be the new face of Neutrogena last year—makes an unforgettable impression without saying a word. In the script for the O.C. pilot episode, Barton's character is described as “heartbreakingly beautiful.” When McKenzie first saw her photograph, he was gob-smacked: “I was like, I'm sorry? This job just keeps getting better and better.” Brody jokes that he experienced no such hormonal rush: “She hangs out with her mom a lot, and that kind of throws off the vibe.” Barton felt no fireworks upon meeting the guys. “I didn't think Ben or Adam were particularly hot. They weren't, like, chiseled, all-American handsome. But once you get to know them you realize they don't need to be perfectly pretty to be hot.” As for Peter Gallagher and Tate Donovan, who plays her father, “So many older women think they're hot, but I don't see it. Which is probably good, because they play parents on the show.”

Brody says that he, McKenzie, and O.C. creator Josh Schwartz are frequently forced to “cock block” when out with Barton to discourage untoward advances by drunken fans. But Barton says that fame more often has a distancing effect: “Sometimes men are scared of me. You know, you become kind of an icon on television, and people are a little bit unsure, careful. It's funny.”

The O.C. has, predictably, inspired an epidemic of remorse among Barton's former boyfriends. “It's shocking, the people who come out of the woodwork,” she says. Then, indulging in a bit of schadenfreude: “It's a killer to all the ex-boyfriends who are like, 'I didn't care at the time, and dammit, I saw you on your show and you look so good.' I'm like, 'Yes, well.…'” Comparing herself to costar Rachel Bilson, she says, “She's way more overtly sexual than I am. She is so petite and I am so tall and lanky. I think I'd be scared of having her voluptuousness. I like being understatedly sexy.”

Barton's high forehead and cheekbones, wide-set blue eyes, and full, pouty lips give her a timeless aspect that's more common in the movies than on television, where beauty tends to be more charming and less awesome. Her look, like Gwyneth Paltrow's, is icy and remote: easier to admire, and harder to talk about, than Jennifer Aniston's, for instance. So it shouldn't be surprising that when asked about Barton, the first (and often only) thing the girls in El Segundo say is, “She's pretty.” Barton's thoughts on such reactions are psychologically astute, if perhaps emotionally less than generous: “I think they're just surprised I'm their age and they could in any way relate to me. Anybody who feels any kind of insecurity in themselves may be surprised that somebody their age would look like this.”

When I ask what kind of fan mail she receives, Barton says, “It's fascinating the stories you'll get.” For example? In a weary, singsong voice, she says, “Like, 'I was in the war and my leg got cut off and I'm in the hospital. I'll never walk again, but all I can do is lie in bed and watch your TV show.' It's just—stuff you get.” She shrugs and takes another bite of swordfish. I ask if that letter came from a soldier in Iraq, and she says, “I don't remember. But that one was big on the list of, like, heart-wrenching stories. Are you joking? The O.C.? Surely there are more important things in life than my stupid show. But, like, okay, if you feel that way. I'm like, that's”—she chuckles and rolls her eyes—“nice.”

A couple of hours later we're at the nightclub the Troubadour, where a middle-aged blond enthusiastically chats up Barton. At the end of the evening, I ask what the woman said. “She knew an actress who had a small part in one episode. She said she was this person's next-door neighbor, and isn't she a great actress. And I said, 'Yes, yes,' to be polite. That's the thing about Hollywood,” Barton says, shifting on her three-inch heels and pulling up the right shoulder of her black minidress, which has been falling down all night. “Everybody knows someone. Or at least someone's sister's best friend's husband. Sweet, but painful.”

The first few times Barton spoke this way about people who admire her, I was surprised. I've never encountered an actress who said this kind of thing out loud, on the record. And while it would be wrong to let Barton's casual condescension go unmentioned, it would also be wrong to dwell on it. Like her character, Barton is a young woman whose circumstances require her to confront very adult situations, and she's doing the best she can. Everyone who survives adolescence does so in part by learning to dull herself to the full humanity of the people around her—particularly that of those who adore her the most.

At Morton's that evening, Barton had announced, without much of a transition, “My favorite part of Central Park is the Alice in Wonderland statue.” There were exclamation points in her eyes. “It's like being a kid. You can climb up and sit in Alice's lap. I love it.” When I asked whether she sometimes feels like Alice, her response made me realize that ignoring people's fantasies about her might be the smartest thing a girl in her position could do. “All actresses, in a way, become these little dolls, these weird figures,” she said. “They get enswamped in the greater, I don't know, world around them. Especially in Hollywood. Things can be far-fetched here.” She restated the thought a few different ways before stopping on an insight that comes close to capturing Alice's elegantly skeptical, subversive spirit—one that's likely close to what the girls in El Segundo think when they see Mischa Barton walking into their school: “You can feel a little bit like you're dreaming it all up.”