Mischa Barton on Adjusting to Life on Reality TV
"The mind-blowing aspect of doing this was that everyone had a ton of baggage that they hadn’t addressed. It felt like a whole different ball game."
The early aughts were an eventful time. Justin Timberlake went solo. Madonna locked lips with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the VMAs. Everyone who’s anyone had “Juicy” emblazoned across the butt of their plush pants. And, on August 5, 2003, The O.C. premiered, introducing the public to a beautiful, tragic heroine in the form of Marissa Cooper, the privileged and inherently troubled girl next door, memorably played by Mischa Barton. With a penchant for designer labels and a flask perpetually in hand, Coop ruled the Harbor School for three tumultuous seasons — until her untimely death (cue “Into Dust” by Mazzy Star).
In the midst of Kick Off Carnivals, overdoses on painkillers, and Oliver, another show was quietly filming in neighboring Southern California. Dubbed “the real Orange County,” Laguna Beach was narrated by Lauren Conrad and centered on the lives of her group of friends during their senior year of high school. Much like The O.C., there were hookups and breakups, over-the-top dances, and, of course, ample drama — in this case, the real-life kind. Though shortlived, the series produced several spin-offs, most notably The Hills, which followed Conrad and her frenemies as she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in fashion.
Because everything old is new again (Timberlake is still pumping out hits, Madonna is set to embark on an upcoming tour, and Juicy made its triumphant return) so too is The Hills, one of the most beloved, guilty-pleasure reality TV shows in existence, which returned to MTV in the form of The Hills: New Beginnings on June 24. And in an unlikely role reversal, Barton has returned to fulfill the void left by Conrad, who chose to leave the series halfway through its fifth season.
It’s been 13 years, a DUI arrest, and a sex tape scandal since Barton left The O.C., and she’s ready to clear the air. “I’m pulling back the curtain,” the 33-year-old actress says. “I don’t have anything to hide.”
Here, Barton discusses joining The Hills, 2000s fashion, and the possibility of rebooting The O.C.
The O.C. was the primary inspiration for The Hills’ predecessor Laguna Beach. What was your initial reaction when that show first came out?
I don’t think [the O.C. cast] put too much thought into it to be very honest — we were so busy at the time. We were obviously hyper-aware that it was the reality version of the show we just made, but it wasn’t on the tip of our tongues or anything. We never talked about it. It was a very different world. The two didn’t really collide.
Did you ever watch The Hills?
No, I never watched the show. I was very absorbed in my own world at the time and what was going on with me. I watched some episodes when we first started filming, then I quickly realized that was a really silly idea because everybody is now in their thirties and grown up, and there’s no point trying to make connections between what they were doing when they were 23 to now. I purposely didn’t want to draw any more conclusions from something that was quite dated.
Had you met any of the cast previously? I know the majority of The O.C. was filming in Los Angeles around the same time as The Hills, even though it’s obviously set in Newport Beach.
I had never been to Orange County at all! In fact, I’ve spent more time in Orange County since filming The Hills than I ever did in my early twenties. I knew some of [The Hills cast] socially: Brody [Jenner], Whitney [Port], Audrina [Patridge], and Steph [Pratt] a little bit too. It was funny to watch some of the group scenes at the club, because some of the nights when [The Hills cast] was out on the town filming, we were filming [The O.C.] and my cast members and I were going out. I remember one run-in at Les Deux. We rolled in and heard they were filming The Hills so we wanted to get snoopy on it and see what they were up to — if they were fighting or having a good time. I remember going up to the producer van and asking to listen in on the conversation. It was Brody and Lauren getting into it at a party. I was fascinated by reality TV culture, because it was so far from what we were doing at the time.
That was definitely the golden age of reality TV, before Twitter and Instagram came along.
Social media is a blessing and a curse. It’s nice that we have a voice and a collaborative platform, but it can also be quite damaging in the sense that people get so obsessed with it. On the rare occasion that I get hatred, I just delete it or block it and move on. Everybody [on the show] is a little bit different: some people love the photo shoots, and other people are a little more chill. You can’t even reach Justin Bobby — you have to send a pigeon to go find him.
What made you decide to do The Hills?
There’s always been a lot of mystery around me and people have always had a lot of questions, to an almost absurd level. If anything, I’m embracing the idea of being me and clearing that up. But I am a private person; it took me a long time to take this offer seriously. I mulled it over for about three-and-a-half months because, initially, I didn’t think it was a good idea. Then I saw [the cast] together at the [MTV] VMAs and they were very happy and friendly. That’s when the whole thing became very real. It’s one of those full-circle moments where everything seems to be looping back around in life now. We’re all going through things that everybody can relate to: the struggle of maintaining a healthy balance, getting into your thirties and growing up out of the tumultuous nature of your twenties, the ups and downs of Hollywood. I’m glad that we are living in a world where we can be more open and really talk about this stuff. I think it helps a lot of people.
Which Hills cast member was the biggest O.C. fan?
Steph loves to admit how much of a superfan she was. [Laughs] I think Audrina and Whitney watched it pretty religiously too. They obviously all watched it.
Did any of your former O.C. co-stars reach out after The Hills announcement?
Not really. When it comes to O.C. cast members, I’ve only spoken to the parents, Peter [Gallagher] and Melinda [Clarke]. Melinda is iconic. I haven’t really spoken to Ben [McKenzie] or Rachel [Bilson] or Adam [Brody], maybe a little bit here and there.
You did a stint on Dancing with the Stars, but The Hills is a different animal. What was it like shooting staged reality?
There was definitely a bit of a hazing process. It was interesting getting used to the cameras just roaming around and not knowing what anybody was going to say or what mood they were going to show up in. That’s not what goes on on film sets — you’ve got a mark to hit, you’ve got a line to read, you’re prepared for all of that. The mind-blowing aspect of doing this was that everyone had a ton of baggage that they hadn’t addressed. Even though I knew some of them, it felt like a whole different ball game. Just staying on top of the drama in and of itself was a lot of work. We’re all on a mass text and I can never tell who’s going to be the one that’s going to blow up somebody's spot. It’s unpredictable.
The cast is very confident in what they do and how they work as a clique. You just get thrown in the deep end and have to figure it out as you go along. I don’t think any of them meant to do it, but when you’ve got drama and tensions are running high, things happen, especially when you factor in kids and divorces and marriages. I had to assimilate myself to everybody’s past issues. It is quite fun and rewarding once you get to the bottom of it and you start to figure out the people you know you can trust, and the people you know you can’t trust.
Let’s talk about style. Marissa Cooper’s outfits on The O.C. were so emblematic of that point in time. There’s even an Instagram fan account dedicated to show’s going-out tops, @spaghettistrapsoftheoc.
I fought really hard against the things I didn’t want to do and heavily encouraged the things that I thought would make the character. The costumes were really important to me. As a New York City girl who moved to Los Angeles to do the show, I remember asking [the creators] why they signed me on, and they said that I bring a different level of sophistication to the character. Marissa isn’t just a party-girl mess or spoiled rich kid, she’s sophisticated and has real heart. You can’t have her running around in ripped jeans. The clothes made her who she was and brought her to life. For me to play her, I really felt like I needed to wear the shorts, the tennis whites, and the Chanel in order to fully understand who she was. Thank you, Karl, for all of the amazing Chanel. That white floral dress is one of my favorite outfits to this day.
Any regrettable trends from the early 2000s?
There was a spray tanning booth onset and I would run as far away from it as I possibly could. Sometimes I would get snatched and brought in there for a spray tan against my will. There are a few pictures of me floating around with a really dark tan and a white dress, with very blonde hair and very white teeth — it’s pretty jarring.
The Hills also birthed some memorable fashion moments, like Lauren’s headbands and oversized sunglasses.
We have a lot of fun with clothes on the show. It’s insane to film all the time with no wardrobe designer. You have to think about how many outfits you wear in a week and you can’t really wear it again. Accessories are huge. Fashion is wild right now, though. A lot of the trends scare me. I still like mixing high and low, like I always have. I like interesting, cutting-edge designs and cuts. I’ve been really into metallics, lucite, mixing gold and silver. I always like a British aesthetic, too. It really depends on the season a lot of the time. It feels like a full-time job keeping up. Me, Kaitlynn [Jenner], Whitney, and Steph will all compare [clothes]. When we show up to parties together, there’s no dress code, but we actually don’t dress that far off from each other.
Would you be down for another season?
Yeah, for sure. It certainly is an intense schedule, but we really love each other and have fun at this point, so I would definitely be up for it. Let’s get through season one first though.
What did you do when you finished filming?
I told the other girls halfway through the season, “This is so intense, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” And they told me that it’s all about self-care. Everybody is really working their asses off. I have a newfound respect for reality TV stars. You’re not just putting your life out there, but you’re managing every aspect of it, from hair and makeup to wardrobe and events. It’s a lot. After we wrapped, I went to a spa retreat in Austria called Vivamayr and completely unplugged.
The O.C. is available to stream on Hulu. Have you ever re-watched?
No, I don’t sit around and watch it. [Laughs] I think it’s awesome that there’s a whole new generation discovering it. There are only a handful of shows that seem to give people such pleasure and respite, where they get to disappear off into this world that’s far-fetched and makes them happy, and that makes me happy.
What was your favorite episode to film?
I like the episode where she gets drunk at Christmas. She shows up and causes all hell. I enjoyed that aspect a lot — whenever she’s all dressed up and having a moment and causing a scene is quite fun.
Would you be open to an O.C. reboot?
Yeah, sure. I’m more than willing to resurrect Marissa and make that happen. Maybe she fakes the whole thing. [Laughs]
I guess we never saw the funeral...
Yeah, that’s true. What if she just shows up to her own funeral? I could so see it. It would be a Marissa Cooper kind of move.