WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Mischa Barton was having a rough week. Ziggy, her beloved canine companion, had just died; she was grieving. Still, there were things to look forward to, like the screenplays stacked atop the glass table in center of her living room.
“I just started reading scripts again, which is a good thing,” Ms. Barton, 33, said. “But it means I’m not really reading novels properly.”
The actress has taken a few dozen roles since leaving “The O.C.” in 2006. None has managed to eclipse Marissa Cooper, that teen soap’s frequently imperiled female lead.
And in the last year, she’s made a conscious decision to stay out of the spotlight. She’d been back on the East Coast, living a quiet life in the Hudson Valley. “I really thought it was time to take a step back from L.A., but you can’t do that forever,” she said.
It wasn’t so much a want as a need. In May 2017, she began appearing in court over a dispute with two former boyfriends, Jon Zacharias and Adam Spaw. One, she said, had filmed her during sex without her consent, and the other made copies with the intent to distribute them. Both men have denied any criminal wrongdoing.
“You cannot be too careful,” Ms. Barton said. “Young women especially — truly anybody — and that was prior to the #MeToo thing, where now it’s burst wide open.”
For over a year, the lawsuit dominated her life. “It’s not a joke when you end up having to go to court and fight for those things,” Ms. Barton said. “It’s not really possible to keep everything else going at once.”
The court dealings resulted in both men agreeing not to sell or distribute the material. Her attorney, Lisa Bloom (who would go on to represent Harvey Weinstein later that year, then regret it), continued to support Ms. Barton in her monthslong battle with the second man, who in the end agreed to a five-year restraining order.
Ms. Barton’s boyfriend of two years, an Australian model named James Abercrombie, was by her side the entire time. “That’s really I think the thing that drove us closest together,” Ms. Barton said.
Ms. Barton would fly in from New York for court appearances, but otherwise stayed off the West Coast. “A little bit of it did feel like running away,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be back East, so I went back, and I was living in upstate New York, total farmland, riding horses.”
Ms. Barton said she continued to look at scripts and take roles during that period but the work became too much on top of the legal proceedings.
Now, she says, she’s “come into the clear” and is ready to move on. She has both Mr. Abercrombie and her other dogs, which include a Cavalier King Charles Beagle-Spaniel mix named Charles Dickens, to lean on for emotional support. (“He really is the best dog,” she said.) And her first high-profile project in years has brought her back to Los Angeles — at least for filming.
In October, Ms. Barton announced in an Instagram video that she would be joining the cast of “The Hills: New Beginnings.” It is a reboot of “Laguna Beach,” which was the follow-up to the MTV series that “The O.C.” spawned. The new show will star original cast members, including Spencer and Heidi Pratt, Audrina Patridge, Whitney Port and Brody Jenner. Ms. Barton believes that Mr. Pratt willed the show back into existence. “He says he prayed on it every day for 10 years to come back, and I believe him,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a word of a lie.”
The producers of the show pursued Ms. Barton for three months last summer. “Obviously, I’m a working actor, so I do take jobs in general,” she said, “but when it comes to things I know are going to be big endeavors, it’s always kind of a process with me.” Reality would be a whole new genre for her. Plus, she initially thought the idea of her being scouted for the show was a joke.
And rightly so: Why her? MTV was looking for a familiar face to add to the cast of returnees, one who might relate to them as a peer. Ms. Barton “was experiencing that sort of life of Hollywood and entering that world at the same age as ‘The Hills’ cast and going through a lot of the same experiences,” said Nina L. Diaz, president of entertainment at Viacom.
So what convinced her? She hoped, she said, to “situate myself in a different part of my career, make a new friend group and move out of the stale typecasting I had gotten myself into.”
MTV also felt that her particular story line would draw in viewers. “She’s been out of the spotlight for some time, and she knows there’s a lot of curiosity about her and her story,” Ms. Diaz said, “and she’s a great example of a new beginning.”
“People seem to have always associated me with one thing, and I thought it would be a good opportunity for them to get to see the real me,” Ms. Barton said.
“The Hills” had a “nudge-wink” relation to actual reality. In its final scene, Kristin Cavallari and Brody Jenner’s tearful “goodbye” is revealed to be staged on a Hollywood backdrop filmed on a back lot. But Ms. Barton said the new version is more like a docu-series. “It’s not in any way really scripted at all,” she said.
Ms. Barton ended up signing on last minute, even after the show had started filming. While the actress was aware of “The Hills,” she didn’t spend any time with the cast before shooting the reboot. Ms. Barton does know the Jenner family from “back in the day,” as well as Stephanie and Frankie Delgado. She’s since made organic connections with the cast. “Audrina I’ve become really close with, and we hang out as friends,” she said. She also mentioned Ashley and Jason Wahler a new additions to her social circle.
But entering into the drama that once plagued the cast members was an adjustment for her. “It was just funny in the beginning because they do have a lot of drama and history that obviously I’m not privy to,” she said.
Ms. Barton was skeptical about members of the cast herself. “I think what’s really interesting is the people I was most afraid of going into this turned out to be the easiest people to deal with, so I found that to be really funny, and it’s an obvious life lesson,” she said. “The people that you like right away are not always your real friends.” In particular, she found that to be true of Jason and Heidi, who she says is “really chill” (a word she hates). “The people that you have the most trepidation about turn out to be the best,” she added.
The irony of Ms. Barton joining the reboot is not lost on her, considering “The O.C.” and her character Marissa Cooper inspired the reality show. “In the beginning, there was an expectation of me to still remain being Marissa Cooper in this ‘Laguna Beach’ California world, but it’s not feasible at the end of the day,” she said. “You are going to see me.”
Ms. Barton was a star of “The O.C.” for three of its four seasons, departing when her character was killed off.
At the time, there were conflicting stories surrounding her departure. She maintains that leaving was her choice. “I just had a lot in my career that I wanted to do and accomplish,” she said. “I felt like things were really heavily reliant upon me, and I was getting no time to do any of the other offers that were out there.”
She also thought Marissa’s story line was becoming too chaotic. “She of those burnout characters where I don’t know how much more we could have done with her anyway,” she said. The alternative to Marissa’s death, she said, was to send her off into the sunset and maybe have her come back in a season or two. But Ms. Barton didn’t want that. “I fought tooth and nail for that to not happen, because I just don’t think that’s Marissa Cooper. I just don’t think sailing off into the sunset’s the proper goodbye.”
Looking back, Ms. Barton doesn’t regret leaving the show, though she said that era of her career was “intense.” “Making the show was a lot towards the end,” she said. She was a teenager when “The O.C.” premiered and had entertained the idea of applying to the Yale School of Drama before the acting opportunity appeared before her. “I really feel like everything sort of worked out in the way it was probably supposed to,” she said. “I may never have gotten a job or a career if I hadn’t taken just taken it then.”
In 2006, after leaving the show, Ms. Barton did go back to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, with the encouragement of Richard Attenborough, who directed her in the 2007 romantic drama “Closing the Ring.”
The year that film was released, she was arrested on charges that she was driving drunk and without a license. In the decade that followed, she was hospitalized twice: after threatening suicide in 2009 and for erratic behavior in 2017, just months before the lawsuit unfurled.
“It’s not the kind of thing you want to go over again and again explaining because life is complicated and so many weird things lead to an incident like that happening,” she said, referring to the most recent incident, in which a neighbor called 911 to report that Ms. Barton was a suicide risk. “It’s not cut and dry. All I can say is it was a huge wake-up call about a lot of things.”
Since her departure from “The O.C.,” her acting credits have included the short-lived CW show “The Beautiful Life,” “Dancing With the Stars” and a handful of independent films. Between filming, Ms. Barton took on fashion projects. She released a handbag line in 2008 and opened a London boutique in 2012, but her business ventures were short-lived. The licensing partnership fell through and Ms. Barton had poured a plethora of her own finances into making and selling merchandise. “Retail is not exactly a cakewalk, so just taking care of the store and dealing with production, quality and employees …” she said, trailing off. “Just the whole thing became overwhelming and beyond expensive.”
Today Ms. Barton is focused on becoming more “grounded.” She maintains a well-stocked home pharmacy of vitamins and supplements: Vitamins B and D, collagen, hyaluronic acid, magnesium, Vita Greens, spirulina, turmeric and Bragg’s Apple Cider vinegar are all on display in her kitchen.
“I think the guy at the Vitamin Shoppe would basically say that I have almost everything that you can take,” she said.
Fashion has remained a passion. She’s interested in designing a capsule collection of clothing someday. “I had a couple of people approach me, but it’s not something I take seriously yet,” Ms. Barton said. “I really think it would have to be the right people.”
She also has a minor film role in a satirical thriller with the “Stranger Things” actor Joe Keery in the pipeline. She is looking for more character-driven roles, knowing that as she gets older, the opportunities change.
“I do like comedies and can play the snooty whatever,” she said. “But I quite enjoy things that are a bit more real.”
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