Mischa Barton has been famous for so long it’s quite a surprise that she’s only 26. She was starring on stage aged 8 and on screen by 11. And ever since winning her role as a bronzed beach babe in the TV teen drama The OC a decade ago, she’s been an almost permanent fixture in the glossy and the gossipy magazines.
We are meeting in Mischa’s Place, her boutique in Spitalfields, East London, which opened in August and is easily spotted because of the paparazzi outside. Inside there are rails of Barton’s own range of boho-glam clothes, handbags and make-up as well as the iPhone covers she designed for Uunique London. At their launch last month she posed with a £189,000 phone cover made from rose gold, pink and white diamonds and handmade Italian leather. Her own designs are a more affordable £34.99 and feature hippyish appliqué florals or a cartoon avatar of Barton herself, all swirly hair and pout.
In the flesh, Barton is just as Bambi-eyed and swishy-haired, but she’s also slightly haunted-looking in the manner of Kristen Stewart.
She teeters out of her taxi in battered leather jacket, skinny jeans and towering diamanté Jimmy Choos and takes me on a guided tour of the shop, proudly showing off the items that she designed herself. “I tend to be quite opinionated about what I do and don’t like. It’s important for me that girls actually want to wear it and enjoy it,” she says earnestly. “I get a kick out of that, I really do.”
Published at 12:01AM, January 5 2013
So does she plan to do a Victoria Beckham and swap showbiz for fashion design? “I don’t see it as a full-time career,” she says. “I’m slated to do two movies early this year and I just wrapped on another. I don’t want it to overtake everything that I do.”
Barton is understandably wary of having her newly reborn acting career sidetracked. Since leaving The OC in 2007 she has owed her fame to her party-going rather than to her performances. But last autumn she was on stage in Dublin, starring as the doomed Shelby in the bittersweet play Steel Magnolias and garnering plaudits for her tear-jerking performance. “I love the theatre,” she says. “It keeps you alive, it keeps you interested and reminds you why you do what you do as an actor. It’s like a muscle that you need to exercise — if you let it lie dormant, then it’s just wasted.”
Barton was born in London, the middle of three sisters. Her Irish mother Nuala was a photographer, her English father Paul a high-flying financier who travelled constantly for his job. When Barton was 6 her father moved the whole family to New York: “He took a job at the World Trade Centre so that we could kind of sit still.”
As a child, she was “painfully shy. Everything would mortify me, I was really quiet.” Consequently, she wasn’t popular at school. “I was the outside kid — the one who’s sometimes allowed in if she behaves,” she chuckles. Given her timidity, choosing an acting career seems a little perverse. But Barton says that once she had a taste for performance her parents couldn’t dissuade her. “Middle-child syndrome,” she explains. “I was just looking for my own reason to shine, I think.”
She won her first serious acting role at the age of 8, alongside Marisa Tomei in Slavs! at the achingly groovy New York Theatre Workshop. Her performance was described by The New York Times as “chillingly authoritative”. “I played a girl who had been poisoned by radiation. She has these three massive monologues at the end of the play,” Barton recalls.“I learnt the Russian accent, got the monologues down and did it. I never let my understudy near the stage. That was what drove me. I’m very competitive, in sport, in everything.”
Barton made her film debut, aged 11, in the award-winning Lawn Dogs, starring alongside Sam Rockwell. Roles in the blockbusters Notting Hill and The Sixth Sense followed. “I worked pretty seamlessly as a kid,” she says.
Then came The OC. “I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was in New York, it was my birthday, I was coming close to the end of high school, applying for colleges. Ultimately I think I would have gone to Yale Drama School.” Then she got the phone call. “From the pilot we had the feeling they [the studio] were going to pick it up. The second the first episode aired kids recognised me on the street and the paparazzi were out.”
Alas, Barton says she never enjoyed her instant elevation to global stardom. “I’d already had enough success in a more serious way in New York and I was never that press-hungry.
“At the height of the fame of The OC we got sold as these perfect Barbie dolls. It wasn’t exactly what I’d bargained for. I felt it was letting down the days of Sam Rockwell.”
She was working 18-hour days playing poor-little-rich-girl Marissa Cooper and her time off was dogged by photographers. Her weight started to yo-yo. “I was an incredibly thin girl anyway,” she says. “And on The OC they always had that thing of: she’s too thin or she’s too fat. Nothing was perfect.”
When Marissa was finally killed off in a car crash in 2006, Barton looked as though she would follow suit. “It is crazy-making,” she concedes. “When you look at celebrities who have gone a bit batty you can tell it’s after a lot of personal scrutiny over an extended period of time. And I was at a very awkward age . After The OC I ideally would have disappeared for a while, but I was still out there in LA, working. I did want to remove myself from it, but I didn’t really know how.”
The headlines were constant and lurid. She was photographed with Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan; she was arrested on suspicion of drink-driving without a valid licence and in possession of marijuana. In 2009, Barton was even sectioned for a fortnight (which she subsequently explained was because she was terrified of needles and had attacked a nurse attempting to give her a painkilling injection for her wisdom teeth). “They trump it up, make a lot of it,” she says uncomfortably. The Winehouse meeting was “a weird set-up … Amy wanted to meet me and she ran down to the pub and brought all her own paparazzi with her. I never really knew Amy.”
These days, her life seems to be on a more even keel. For the past seven months she has been living with her pregnant sister in London, and is thinking of getting her own place. “I love Primrose Hill and I really like Belsize Park — it’s young-ish, easy, with nice homes — but right now I am in Holland Park.” In her spare time, she takes walks in Hyde Park with her dog Ziggy, reads, and goes to the theatre.
Barton is dating fellow thesp Sebastian Knapp of 28 Days Later fame, but says that the “engagement ring” she was photographed wearing in Dublin was just a high street buy for her Steel Magnolias role.
“I suppose marriage is one of those things that eventually I will be interested in, but not for a while,” she says. “I am a bit of a feminist — I really like women to have their own identity. My sister has a fantastic husband, but they were together 15 years before they married. I think to take your time on things like that is OK.”
Mischa Barton’s perfect weekend
Hiking or hibernating? Hibernating
Builder’s tea or skinny soy latte? Builder’s tea
Wine or beer? Wine
TV or book? Book
Delia Smith or Domino’s? Who’s Delia Smith?
Topshop or haute couture? Haute couture
Full English or a fruit salad? Fruit salad
What could you not get through the weekend without? My dogs