The Beautiful Life star reveals all in a Time Out New York exclusive.
As part of its Fall Fashion issue, on stands September 10, Time Out New York met with Mischa Barton for her first in-depth interview since being placed under alleged “involuntary psychiatric hold” at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in July.
Other medical issues nearly delayed filming of her New York–set TV series, The Beautiful Life: TBL. Barton, 23, plays model Sonja Stone, a paparazzi magnet trying to get her career back on track (real life, meet show!).
Yet during our talk—on the couch in a Tribeca photo studio—the O.C. starlet looks healthy, sits tall and comes off as self-aware and self-deprecating. Here’s a sneak peek at the interview.
Time Out New York: I bet readers don’t know you got rave reviews as a kid, in Off Broadway stuff like Tony Kushner’s Slavs!
Mischa Barton: Probably not. It was a great place for me to start as a kid because I was really shy, believe it or not. I didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. Definitely didn’t feel comfortable with kids my own age. I would go to school during the day and then go to work at night with people like Marisa Tomei and Tony Kushner and Joseph Wiseman, and they would treat me on the same level. And so I opened up and became this extrovert and amazingly crafty kid.
Was your mom a backstage mom, pushing you to act?
It was my idea. My mom was always there. I wanted to write. I wanted to do poetry when I was eight. I wrote a monologue and I performed it at the Circle in the Square in New York and a literary agent came up to me and my mom and said, “Does she want to audition here in New York?” And I said yes because I was a middle child and I didn’t have anything of my own that felt interesting. The youngest was the baby, my older sister was cherubic-looking , and I was strange and skinny and big eyed and weird-looking. I never had that cute Lindsay Lohan sweet look so I could do Disney films.
And yet somehow you landed…
And then somehow I ended up doing The O.C., this big TV show which I struggled with because it was too commercial and the character was very all-American and I was pushing to play that—pushing to play something completely opposite of me. Whereas this show, The Beautiful Life, it’s easier and more comfortable because I’m playing a worldly New York model. She’s closer to me.
You sound like an actor. I’m sorry, but I’m used to thinking of you as a brand.
Yeah. [Nods knowingly] Look, The O.C. was a storm. It was a huge show, much bigger than I realized. Thailand or Russia and London—there’s nowhere I can go where people don’t recognize me. But I don’t want to get caught up in this actress thing, so I sit back and say, Eh, whatever. And I think that’s why the press jumps at me, because I don’t care enough. I just want to do good work.
The press also jumped because you had some drama of your own: the DUI, caught with weed a few years back.
And the people who supported me from the beginning were my fashion friends, who had always been there when I was growing up in New York who know my work and indie films; they rallied around me and hired me for things like my Neutrogena campaign and brining me back into the fashion world and dressing me in their clothes. I was and am glad to wear their clothing and show up at their events, because they were kind to me when I was a broke actor. Zac Posen is on the first episode [of The Beautiful Life], and I’ve known him since he was 15. He took me to my first nightclub.
You were going to nightclubs at age 15?
Ha. I grew up in New York and I grew up fast. I knew all these creative, interesting people, all these interesting actors and models. I went out at a young age—not doing drugs or drinking too excessively. Not drugs—I was a Goody Two-shoes at that point. I did really well in high school. If anything, I might be regressing now—acting a bit younger. [Laughs] That’s what The Beautiful Life is about too—kids who have access.
The show is about what young models do with that access—use it or abuse it.
Right, you either work or you don’t work and only play. I have an insane work drive and don’t like when I see people sitting on their ass. What I do is kind of stupid: [In a duh voice] “I’m just an actress and model half the time, God.” At the same time, I try to do good things and am frustrated that I do all this charity, and supporting my artist friends, people are like, “Why do you do that? For press?” Reporters ask that, going for the negative, and I wanna bang my head against the wall.
The press affects you.
But I don’t stop. Look back at the coolest people in history and people were always rude to them, always wondered and questioned what they were doing, and they never stopped. And that’s what I tell myself when it gets difficult: People are waiting for you to stop what you’re doing, so you never get anywhere.
A lot of people are watching you now, speculating you were in rehab back in July.
Here’s what happened: Before the show started, I was traveling abroad for contract stuff and I went through a terrible surgery—a wisdom tooth surgery, all four removed. It was a nightmare. I’ve never had surgery before—it all went wrong and I had to have a second surgery and it almost delayed shooting because it was a nightmare to me, because I couldn’t deal with the thought of not getting there on time. So with the travel, and surgery and prep for the show—it was hell.
Is this when you were checked into Cedars?
Yeah, I went through a tough spot where everything compounded on me, and it was like a perfect storm, like everything was happening to me at once. The show, travel and then this fairly routine surgery that went wrong—it’s still just healing. But I had to get through it without proper painkillers because I couldn’t take those during work. So it’s been a nightmare.
How did you end up in a psychiatric hospital?
I was down in the dumps about everything there for a while. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom about things and have to get the most stressed-out just to feel better again. I got completely stressed-out and couldn’t handle everything, and now I feel really in control.
Was it an official nervous breakdown? Drugs?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I had a friend who had a quasi–nervous breakdown, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing. I’m not sure I’m capable of a full-on nervous breakdown, but it was pretty bad. It didn’t last that long. It was more about the pain. I have a newfound respect for people who have chronic pain. I started getting migraines.
How long were you in Cedars?
They don’t keep you in the hospital. I wasn’t there very long.
Did you sit around sharing feelings and making mosaics—that kind of thing actually helped someone I know who was in an institution.
Did they teach you how to deal with the pain?
Not really. I just wanted to get back to work. The doctor told me I was lucky I didn’t lose feeling in my lips and face, which would have been horrifying and couldn’t act properly. My mom was like, “Now’s a good time to get it done, before the show.” And it was the worst time to do it.
What was it like for your mom?
[Rolls eyes] I don’t know. [Looks away] It was miserable for everyone. But I really don’t know.
Is your mom the one who admitted you into the hospital involuntarily?
[Nods yes and rolls eyes again] I’ll tell you that story but not the whole world. The funny thing is, if all this happened in New York, no one would care.
People would be like, “Nervous breakdown? I had one yesterday too. Where are we going to brunch?”
[Laughs] Yes, exactly, New York lets you be who you are, and people aren’t as judgmental. I’m so glad to be back here.
You’ve shot four episodes. The bad press seems to be diminishing.
The show will speak for itself. It’s a great show.
The first scene is you popping pills, late for a gig.
That was in there before all this happened! But the character references me on purpose. I hope people will see me in it, and that will capture them from the beginning, and then they’ll buy into this character and see how she’s different. Sonja isn’t me, but there’s a great line in it: Someone says, “She’s at her best when she’s working.” That’s how I feel about myself right now. I’m ready to work.
The Beautiful Life: TBL premieres Sept 16 on the CW.