She was once called the next big thing but then what happened?

                            June 2003  By Philip Berk

She may be the youngest member of the cast — in fact the only one who is still a high school senior — but she’s unquestionably the most articulate of the bunch.

Could that be because she’s English?

Glamour magazine has called Mischa Barton the Next Big Thing, and Entertainment Weekly put her on their It list.

At her press conference in Beverly Hills, she’s unimpressed with these accolades.

So how did a Brit become the Newport Beach babe she plays in The O.C.

“It was a long journey,” she tells me.

“I was born in London. I’m half Irish and half English. I have two sisters. I’m in the middle. My 27 year old older sister lives in London. She’s a barrister. All of my family are living in either Ireland or London. We moved to New York when I was four because my father, who’s a financial broker, got a position there. He’s always traveled  around, mostly in Europe. When we came to New York I went to public school with my little sister. She’s only two years younger than me and we’re very close. So we’re sort of the American branch of the family.

“One summer my parents decided they didn’t know what to do with us kids; so they sent me and my  sister to this summer camp in Upstate New York. At the time I was interested in reading and writing. Literature was always my best class. I took extra courses and used to write poetry. I decided to turn the things I wrote into monologues, and when I performed one of them in front of a group of parents and friends at the Circle in the Square (a theatre in New York) an agent came up to my parents and suggested I should get into theatre in Manhattan, and the next thing I knew I was auditioning for the Tony Kushner play Slavs.”.

How old was she at the time?

“I was eight. I played an eight year old who had radiation therapy and had died. She comes back, and there are all these long monologue that I had to do with a Russian accent. I had never done anything like that before. I had no theatre training, but they cast me anyway. So I learned the monologues, and I learned the Russian accent, and Tony Kushner was happy. After that I did three other plays in New York and  I just loved it. It became my passion, and then I was offered films. I did Lawn Dogs (which premiered at the Sundance Festival) when I was eleven.”

So she’s been working steadily ever since?

“Pretty much. One of the four plays I did was James Lapine’s Twelve Dreams. But then I wanted to branch out and was offered a lead role in a film, and since then I’ve done maybe ten independent films, Each time I’ve wanted to try new things. I wanted to get as much under my belt as I could. It’s difficult to do that in the theatre. It’s better to get that training in film; so I did a bunch of different roles, big and small.”

Among those were The Sixth Sense and Notting Hill.

But O.C. obviously was her first television experience?

“It was my first time on a show that was being launched, but I did guest appearances on Fast Lane and ten episodes on Once and Again. I met McG (the director of Charlie’s Angels) on one episode of Fast Lane and that was an important connection.”

McG is executive producer of The O.C.

After working with theatre greats like Tony Kushner and James Lapine does she feel she’s was slumming?

“The funny thing about moving into television is that so many people watch television. It’s shocking to me, every time an episode comes on, how many more people will see that one episode than like ten independent films you might have done. It’s fascinating to me how the press reacts to you; suddenly they care about your work, and the things that you’ve done before, that you’re really proud of, gets overlooked. Suddenly everybody zeros in on one thing. And that’s because with television everybody feels they can relate to your character, they  know you. And it’s the same with the press. So it’s been a funny learning curve for me.”

Does she have mixed feelings?

“No, it’s been great. Even publicizing the show has been one of the biggest pleasures I’ve ever had, because we all get to do it as a cast, and it’s a great bonding experience. And then for something to become so successful after we worked so hard, it’s really rewarding.” 

Not to mention other rewards. 

With the money she’s now making, has she been able to buy herself an expensive car?

“I don’t drive actually.”

Not even on the set?

“I honestly don’t. I haven’t gotten my license yet. I only drive on film so everybody thinks I drive, but I don’t. It’s a dangerous thing I do. I’m hoping to get my license this summer, but you know what, I’m going away; so I’m not sure when I’m getting my license.”

She doesn’t say where.

Is she happy with her character on the show?

“She started out as the quintessential popular girl next door. The idea behind the character, she appears to have everything she could possibly want, her family is wealthy, her father has a great job, her mother looks like she’s 25, the family looks kind of perfect in an almost absurd way. And then it all sort of falls apart. But I knew coming in that it was never supposed to stay that way, Marissa is really insecure. A lot of teenagers are, even though things might look good on the outside. Everybody’s got their insecurities.”

So what does she find most interesting about the character? 

“The fact that she breaks down easily. She’s at that point in her life where everyone in high school is looking to move on, to find new cliques, but they know they can’t. She knows she’s privileged, she knows she’s got money, and she’s got everything she needs. Actually she’s a little bit smarter than the rest of the popular girls. I wanted to make her somebody who could move on, have more of a heart, like when her father loses his money, she is willing to move in with him. Her life yo-yo’s up and down. It’s never perfect, and even her relationship with Ryan  — he represent somebody from the outside, from the rest of the world, who’s an escape for her. She’s been closeted all her life in this society and is striving to get out of it. Ryan  represents somebody totally different, kind of on the edge, and rebellious, who’s trying to do the same. I’m really happy playing her.“

Sounds like it.

“I’m happy with where she’s going. She’ll continue to be that girl who’s striving to find where she belongs. She’s going to make her relationship with Ryan work and her friendship with Seth special. She’s known him since he was a kid,  but they never talked  much. Now in one year he’s become one of her best friends.” 

(It could be that in real life she’s more attracted to Adam Brody (who plays Seth) than Benjamin McKenzie (who plays Ryan.)

I wish I had asked her!

Is she aware that she still has a bit of an English accent?

“My accent changes every five minutes. I’ve done every kind of accent, and growing up in New York I was exposed to a ton of different accents. All I know is I worked hard not to get a New York accent, even though that was looking probable for a while. But I am pretty connected to my Irish-English family, especially since my older sister now lives in London. I love to go back. It’s a great release. And don’t forget, my family’s first generation. I’m still very connected to them.” 

The show’s target audience, is it teenagers or adults?

“I think we have an equal following of teenagers and parents, who I think view the show differently. I have teenagers come up to me going, ‘Oh, I love that episode where you overdosed in Tijuana.” And then I get mothers coming up to me and saying, ‘That was my least favorite episode, I didn’t want my kids to see that.’”

She’ll be graduating from high school in June. Can she talk about that?

“My high school experience has been all over the place. I go to an arts high school now. I was in regular public school, but then I had to leave because they didn’t think acting’s a profession; so that didn’t work out, and I ended up in the school I’m presently  enrolled in, which is more lenient towards actors.”

What was she like in high school?

“I just sort of went with it. But I refused to join the drama club because I felt it was a little close to home, even though it was an arts high school. I concentrated on fine arts. I selected my friends randomly. But there was no popular cliques in the school. It was all about whether you were a dancer or an actor or a musician. A lot of the kids went on to Julliard and stuff like that. I attached myself to whomever I related to best, and in fact I had like four friends in high school.” 

Is there anything about Marissa she envies?

“I kind of envy her ability to move effortlessly from one group to the next. She’s good with her parents, she’s good with the kids in school, she could be popular if she wants to be. She knows how to turn on the charm, grin, smile at people, and fake it. That’s something that’s really cool about her. There are not a lot of characters on television like her. She’s more adult than most of the adults on the show, for example her mother who’s always trying to be a kid.”

Does she have that quality?

“I’m not sure I’m able to turn the charm on with everyone. I certainly wasn’t that popular girl in high school. She has that something; everybody wants to know her, not just the cool kids but the dorks as well.”

And what did she know about Orange County before she was offered the series?

“I didn’t spend a lot of time there, but the funny thing is, there are not a lot of outsiders in a place like Orange County. It’s very much its own place and its own people. It’s not a tourist attraction. Nobody goes there to visit. So you either grew up there or you’ve lived in that world. Since I didn’t, I was a stranger to it, but I’ve met a lot of people from there, so I’m getting a better idea of who these people are. And of course my friend McG is actually from there.”

Is she recognized wherever she goes?

“Unfortunately, yes. A lot more recently. I’m not sure why.”

Does it annoy her?

“Annoy me? No I don’t get annoyed. It’s impossible to get annoyed about those things. It comes as part of your job. I would be a little jaded if I was annoyed. even though it can be hurtful the way people follow you and your family and your friends. The things they write about you, I do have a problem with that. I’m not very open about people just snapping pictures of me when I’m with my family, but I don’t dwell on it. You concentrate on your career and ignore what the press does.”