The starlet of The O.C. is 27 now, with a new horror movie out, A Resurrection. She talks to Ramin Setoodeh about what she’s been up to since her days as a paparazzi favorite “it” girl.
The last time I talked to Mischa Barton was in 2006, right after she had been carried off the set of The O.C. as a corpse in Benjamin McKenzie’s arms. Barton gave a first interview to Newsweek and talked about leaving the series that launched her into the teen stratosphere—turning her into the Katie Holmes of the ’00s. She told me she was moving to London to study acting before transitioning into a full-time movie career.
On a recent morning, Barton reflected on that chapter of her life. She joined The O.C. at 17, while she was a real-life high-school student. She’s 27 now. “It was a long time ago,” Barton says. “In some ways, it feels like yesterday. But yeah…” She trails off.
“I’ve evolved a lot,” she says. “I’m a lot older now. Not a lot older, but time’s passed. I think in your 20s, all your years are quite formative. I’m sure I’m quite different.” The biggest change, according to Barton, is the diminishing public interest in her personal life. She was among the first generation of young celebrities who grew up in the 24-hour blogger’s news cycle. Perez Hilton used to post regularly about her various coffee runs. The paparazzi fawned over her and the other one-named girl starlets (Lindsay, Paris, etc.). “Luckily, [I’m not] so much in the spotlight,” Barton says. “The craziness of The O.C. has died down and gone away.” Barton doesn’t even employ a personal publicist anymore.
Her co-stars from The O.C. have moved on from their idyllic beach houses. Both Benjamin McKenzie (Southland) and Rachel Bilson (Hart of Dixie) successfully landed new TV series. Adam Brody has been working in smaller films like the upcoming Some Girls and Lovelace. Barton herself has crisscrossed between TV, movies, and the stage. In 2012, she played Shelby in a traveling production of Steel Magnolias—in Ireland. "I loved the ’80s,” Barton says. She also appeared in the short-lived CW drama about models, A Beautiful Life. She’s made, according to IMDb, 10 films since 2010—with titles like Cyberstalker and Apartment 1303 3D. Most of them didn’t have a notable theatrical release.
Barton’s new movie, A Resurrection, gives you a sense of her current cinematic oeuvre. It was filmed two years ago, but it was only just released last weekend. Barton plays a high-school guidance counselor who advises a creepy student after his brother is murdered by the class jock. There’s a supernatural element to the story and an eerie scene (after Sandy Hook) in which Barton, covered in blood, crawls across the hallway floor trying to set her students free from a locked classroom. Michael Clarke Duncan, in one of his final roles, plays a principal who meets a gruesome demise.
To prepare, Barton says she threw herself into watching classic horror films like The Shining and The Amityville Horror. “This to me was the turning point, where I discovered all that stuff,” she says. She was drawn to the role because she didn’t have to audition and there would be a community-like feel with the cast, she says. “We didn’t have a huge budget,” Barton says. “We shot it in 20 days. It was fun. It was for me my first true scary film.” Before The O.C., Barton played the dead girl in The Sixth Sense. “But I was 14,” she says. “It wasn’t the same thing. I remember being amazed at how scary The Sixth Sense was when I went to do ADR [automated dialog replacement]. I remember everybody was terrified. When we were making it, yeah, there were fake dead bodies around. It didn’t feel as scary.”
Barton is doing very few interviews for A Resurrection. If she has an aversion to the press, that’s understandable. She was once involved in a bizarre “news” scandal after photos of her supposed cellulite surfaced while she was on the beach. I was told by the film’s publicist before our phone interview that “if personal questions are asked, we will be forced to stop the interview.” In 2007, Barton was arrested on DUI charges, which followed other reports about her checking in and out of rehab and psychiatric facilities. In 2008, she was reportedly dropped by her talent agency. In 2010, she gave an interview in which she said she had stopped drinking.
Despite all these troubles, “the press can get really cunty,” says Jamie Kennedy, a producer of A Resurrection, who says he mostly knew Barton through her TV work. “They focus so much less on people’s work. For a girl who comes on as a young ingénue, they love you and start picking on you later.” (Of the film’s violence, he adds, “As we were making it, Sandy Hook did not happen yet. Do I think I have a responsibility in the entertainment business to think about that? Yes, I do.”)
Barton says she doesn’t miss the spotlight at all. “I’m so relieved it’s not how it was,” she says. “It’s not the person. It was the time. Everything was an ‘it’ girl this or “it” girl that. It was just over the top.”
“I just think there’s a negative side—obviously, that’s an understatement—to having all that attention,” Barton says. “Because it’s not friendly. It’s invasive. I find in order to get your job done, actors need a certain amount of anonymity. You’re being blown up to that extent, and everybody is following every little piece of your life. ‘Oh, she went to Starbucks to get a Frappuccino with a caramel.’ Then they follow you to the gas station. It’s impossible to concentrate on the work. When you just want to go on vacation and you hear a twig snap and there’s a guy in a tree, it’s not relaxing. You can’t be a real person. So I’m happy things have changed.”
Barton speaks in an elevated voice that makes her sound older. She spent the first five years of her life in England, and there are still traces of her British upbringing. “There’s something very regal about Mischa,” Kennedy says. “The way she carries herself, her look, her speech patterns, her name.” She divides her time between Los Angeles and London, where she has opened an upscale boutique to sell handbags and clothes that she designed. “So that’s great,” Barton says. “Having the store. It’s a big accomplishment for me.”
Barton is excited about her career again too. In her next indie movie, she plays a layered alcoholic. “This film is one of the best films I’ve ever been offered,” she says. “Things are heating up again, which is probably a good thing.”
Like her O.C. character Marissa, Barton never made it to college. She says this is one of her greatest regrets. “I flourished in school," says Barton. "I wish I had gone to college. I was very academic ... I always felt like I could have majored in sociology or psychology or something like that.” At least she made good on her promise to enroll in an acting class at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Richard Attenborough suggested that it would help her craft. Her final performance piece was appropriately dramatic. The girl from The O.C. drowned herself as Ophelia.