Mischa Barton: The Free Spirit

When 18 year old British beauty Mischa Barton became an overnight success on The OC, everyone wanted a piece of her. Now she's learning how to deal with the fame, fortune, and the endless gossip.

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NO MATER HOW MUSH SOME MAY want her to, Mischa Barton isn't about to slip into Shannen Doherty's old bad-girl stilettos anytime soon, thank you all very much. Since the 18-year-old, British-born stunner burst onto the TV scene last year as The O.C.'s riotously pretty, turbulent, sometimes chemically dependent high school heartbreaker from one of Southern California's most posh beach communities, she's been simultaneously embraced and gobsmacked by the press. But virtually everybody agreed that she's one of the great tidbits of eye candy on a show redolent of posh, sheen, and flash. Seemingly overnight, her elegant looks (which recall the young Jacqueline Bissett) and poise turned her into a brand-new favorite cover girl, product spokesperson and star-to-watch.

But if people meeting Barton had expected her to be a docile, empty-headed, vacuous bauble, they had another thing coming. An intriguing amalgam of giddy, infectious 14-year-old enthusiasm and impressively centered 40-year-old gravitas, Barton hadn't come to the business overnight. London-born, the middle daughter of a former foreign exchange broker father and an Irish photographer-homemaker mother, she had been successful in show business for a decade when The O.C. turned her into a household name. As a 9-year-old she was already landing tony off-Broadway roles, on which she capitalized by doing three years on All My Children and snagging small, memorable roles in studio films like the upchucking ghost in The Sixth Sense and the kid actress in Notting Hill.

But once The O.C. aired and became a phenomenon for its I canny brew of soap, self-satire, sex and tsuris, Barton became the show's poster child--profiled, photographed, lionized by the press as one of young Hollywood's newest, most exciting citizens and, yes, gossiped about. In a long, grueling photo shoot she could be civilized, patient and uncomplaining. But more importantly, people wanted to know, were she and hunky Benjamin McKenzie more than just costars on the show? Or was that alleged romance merely a press fabrication and was she really dating Phantom Planet band member Alex Greenwald? Was her aplomb in interviews and at social events a sign of enviable maturity or breathtaking snobbery? Most fatally, had head-spinning attention turned her into a party animal and diva of the very first order?

Before The O.C. hit the airwaves, Barton was bracing, funny, merrily sardonic, somewhat naive but nobody's fool. So now the question: Has success spoiled Mischa Barton?

STEPHEN REBELLO: They tell me you work 14-hour days on The O.C., but you're often photographed with oil heir Brandon Davis on red carpets or you're reported being spotted at this restaurant or that club. Are you a workaholic or a social animal?

MISCHA BARTON: Because I'm 18, they, meaning the press, like to push the idea that I'm outgoing and always somewhere. They take pictures of you looking not that happy and they'll make a story out of it. They not only butt in, they put spins on things, wreck things. I didn't realize why the public interest in me was there and there was a learning curve to my finding that out. I'm so not the stereotypical Orange County girl. My idea of great downtime is just taking a vacation somewhere, not partying. The truth is, I don't have much personal time, but it's fascinating how they, the press, blow up the smallest moment and make it seem like a more fascinating one. But, hey, they can't keep writing that stuff about me forever.

Q: Your name has been linked with rocker Alex Greenwald, whose band performs the theme song on the series. More recently, you've been linked with Brandon Davis.

A: I don't like to talk about it, merely because to other people, it's so fascinating--which, to me, is so silly. I don't hide anything but I don't like to parade it. I'm 18, but people take things so ridiculously seriously. It's a pretty old-fashioned mantra, but I try to keep my private life private.

Q: Lately some journalists have compared you and "bad girl" Shannen Doherty. Last season, your show was compared to Beverly Hills 90210, on which Doherty became famous, or infamous, but it's not just that, is it?

A: That was my hugest aggravation when I started the show. Partly that was the network's idea, to ride the back of something that was so successful for 10 years. 90210 is dated now to the extent where you can't even compare. I think our show is very well-written and I've had an 80-year-old and a 6-year-old come up and tell me that they watch it. At the end of the day, thank God, people will realize that the show isn't 90210. And the Shannen Doherty comparison--where do people get this from? I'm clearly not Shannen Doherty.

Q: Maybe it's because of those gossipy reports about your getting testy with the press, copping a sip of a friend's mojito at the Ivy, or reportedly hanging with Paris Hilton. Have you ever caught yourself copping a 'rude?

A: I find a lot of actors in L.A. are like that. When I see someone throwing a real prima donna attitude, though, that's not something I enjoy. I think it's weird that actors get so self-involved. Acting is putting yourself in someone else's skin, not being absorbed in your own. I'm constantly reminding myself how fortunate I am to be in this position. Luckily, I'm also surrounded by family and I get a good talking to from my mother, sister and friends all the time. I get my ass kicked on a fairly daily basis, practically.

Q: Do you and Paris Hilton hang out?

A: That's ridiculous. I've met her once. I've seen her out but there's no way you haven't seen Paris Hilton if you're in this business. She's everywhere. The press wants to believe there's a tie-in with me and that Hollywood set that Paris is very much part of--that "young Hollywood" generation. It's easy to get lumped into that pile but I'm not in it.

Q: When it comes to the public curiosity and perception of you, do you think any blurring goes on between your O.C. character and your off-screen life?

A: I hate it when people automatically assume they know something for sure about someone's work or their life. When you're in a TV show and in someone's home week-to-week, they develop a relationship with the characters. When people come up to you and call you Marissa, that's great. The positive side is our fans, whom I love. They're the reason you're on the air and they give you feedback like, "Please have Marissa get back with Ryan." The negative side is that your personal life gets sucked into it. The press wants to know everything about your private life because they think they know you.

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