Mischa Barton appeared from behind the blue door, labeled “M. Barton,” wearing a leather jacket covered in studs, a gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled over her freshly styled hair, leather boots (also covered in studs) and dark makeup around her eyes. This was last week, at Steinway studios in Astoria, Queens, where the actress was filming the CW’s The Beautiful Life: TBL, in which she plays Sonja Stone, a has-been, pill-popping fashion model trying to reclaim her place on top. Her two miniature dogs, Charles Dickens and Ziggy Stardust, darted out ahead of her and circled at her feet.
“She can come in if she wants, but I’m going to smoke,” she said to no one in particular, though she was addressing The Observer, and retreated back into her dressing room.
Ms. Barton has a reason to be on the offensive, if for no other reason than to get a break from having to be on the defensive lately. She has had to repeatedly explain and apologize for a DUI arrest last year; a series of roles in independent films (remember You and I, the t.A.T.u. biopic?) that haven’t gone as she hoped; an alleged involuntary psychiatric hold at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in July; accusatory tabloid headlines screaming “Cellulite!”
In her dressing room, where a plate of bacon sat on a table (for her dogs, presumably) and a window was cracked for the cigarette smoke, Ms. Barton introduced herself politely this time and with a smile.
“I’m getting sick of answering questions about it,” she said, regarding her hospital stay, as she lit her cigarette and placed an ashtray on the couch. “I just had a bad time of year and now it’s all over and done with, and I’m just very happy to be feeling happy again and back on top of it and not so worried about everything. It was just too much to handle for me at the time.”
Ms. Barton is 23 years old, which, when you think about it, is kind of absurd. She has appeared in 23 films, eight TV shows, four theater productions and two music videos. Born in London and raised in New York City (she attended the Children’s Professional School on the Upper West Side), she began acting at age 8. At 17, she moved to Los Angeles and was cast as Marissa Cooper on Josh Schwartz’s The O.C., which made her famous.
“I went through my teen years in the press, and they got to say whatever they wanted while I was growing up,” said Ms. Barton. “So I’ve gained a few pounds for a little while and now I’m working out again every day. It’s like, the ‘cellulite’ will go away and I will be skinny again. Things happen to you for two minutes, but in the press it’s permanent.”
The occasional Hollywood crackup used to be more forgivable. Encouraged, even! A brief bout of depression put you in a class of actors and directors (Judy Garland, Brigitte Bardot, Liz Taylor) who were so goddamn creative that they suffered for it. Instability, capricious behavior, mood swings and an occasional crushed Valium in a lowball glass of bourbon meant talent, depth and bankable eccentricity. But now …
“One stay in the hospital was turned into this huge ‘She’s lost her marbles!’ thing, and people look at me like I’m unstable and they should probably cross the street when they see me,” said Ms. Barton, with a roll of her heavily made-up eyes. The actress’ eye roll is one of her distinct assets—used to express frustration, sadness, flirting and even joy, if necessary.
“It was more than just a wisdom-tooth surgery,” Ms. Barton said, repeating what she’s told Time Out, The View and other media outlets. “I understand that people think, ‘Oh, wisdom-tooth surgery, that’s so routine and that’s bullshit.’ But for me it wasn’t routine and it was a mess. I was in more pain than I had ever had in my life. I was getting Novocaine shot into my teeth every day. They drilled into my jaw. I almost lost feeling in my face.”
AND IT IF was more than just the surgery? Why wouldn’t it be O.K. to just say, yes, I had a minor breakdown. Why and to whom do I owe an apology for this, exactly?
“I don’t know,” Ms. Barton said. “I think that people just get so upset about it that you feel like you have to explain everything because you don’t want them to be that disappointed in you. But is it such a big deal that I am going to have to explain it for the rest of my career?”
She added: “I have a lot of difficulty with the way our society wants to see its public figures. Before, there used to be a kind of privacy to those people that made them interesting because they were enigmatic. They had something about them that was untouchable. People are becoming more safe in the industry in general about working with people who are artistic and maybe just a little bit more bent. They want the safer option. They want someone more cookie-cutter.”
The Beautiful Life, which is produced by former model Ashton Kutcher and based on a script by Adam Giaudrone, also a former model who is now the supervising producer on the show, will premiere on Wednesday, Sept. 16, on the CW. Ms. Barton is working with a cast of unknowns.
Earlier, on set, her stand-in was sitting on a L-shaped cream couch in an impressive loft apartment for a lighting test. A screen simulating the tops of Soho buildings was rolled in behind the windows. The director for the episode, Norman Buckley, was reading the Huffington Post on his laptop. He read out loud about Michael Douglas’ son, Cameron, facing life in prison for alleged drug dealing. “Well, that’s enough to ruin your weekend, huh?” said one of the set hands.
Mr. Buckley got his start directing episodes of The O.C. “She was just a girl then. Now, she’s a woman,” he said of Ms. Barton.
Then the star emerged, in a sparkly black skirt, a black T-shirt, tights and boots. She ran her fingers through her hair and bit her fingernails while waiting for the director’s cue. The camera focused on a bouquet of yellow, pink and purple flowers. “Action!” Mr. Buckley yelled.
“Oh, you brought me flowers,” Ms. Barton said to a swarthy actor in a suit.
“I know you’re losing patience …” he replied.
“And you need more time, I know. You’re like a broken record,” she replied. “Claudia and I”—and here she forgot her line—“Oh, I have to look at the shit. I fucked this up before.
Someone whose job it is to keep track of Ms. Barton’s lines helped her out. “I’ve been through a lot with Claudia, too, you know, and now I’ve done this horrible thing to her.” More eye-rolling.
Mr. Buckley yelled cut and then turned to one of his assistants, “Oh, man, she’s got such a great face,” he said. Ms. Barton twisted that face into a sneer for the camera. And then, into a forced, angelic smile.
BEFORE THE BEAUTIFUL LIFE, the actress said she had been in talks with the CW about other shows, like Melrose Place, which premiered Sept. 8 on the network. But Ms. Barton felt that a show about fashion was better suited to her.
“Since I have a lot of friends who are designers and I grew up in the city and I know a lot about fashion, it was something that interested me versus making a show that had already been done and was coming back to television,” she said. (Designer Zac Posen agreed to appear in the premiere; future cameos include Marie Claire fashion director Nina Garcia and designers Mathew Williamson and Erin Fetherston.)
Ms. Barton said she found the troubled and bitchy character of Sonja more relatable than The O.C.’s Marissa Cooper. “Marissa was more of a stretch for me,” she said. “The character was changing so much towards the end that I really didn’t know what to do with her. She was an alcoholic and then she was a drug addict, she was a lesbian, she wasn’t, she was in a love triangle. There was no consistency to who she was, so it was very difficult to play her.”
The show also brings the actress back to New York. Ms. Barton remembered when she first moved out to Los Angeles for The O.C.: “It was life-changing,” she said. “It made me extremely famous, so you can’t complain, but it was complicated. I was the youngest out of the cast, and I had no real guidance. I didn’t know anyone. I come from a British family, and they all have accents and a British sense of humor. It’s very hard to find people in L.A. who kind of get your vibe and dark sense of humor.”
Ziggy Stardust, the Pomeranian mix, rolled up and presented his belly. “Oh, Ziggy, you’re so cute,” the actress cooed.
“I’m glad I finally have a reason to be here,” she said. “Having to continually be in L.A. and take those meetings, I felt stuck. New York is where my friends are. I think that even if the show was to fail after four episodes, I would stay.”
On Saturday, the cast of the show converged at SL, a club in the meatpacking district, for a party. Its 31-year-old executive producer, Mr. Kutcher, arrived with wife Demi Moore on his arm.
Mr. Kutcher, who has explored the meaning of beauty with other shows like Beauty and the Geek and True Beauty, signed on to the project because he found Mr. Giaudrone’s story to be familiar.
“I think for the most part we’re raised to believe that we are uglier and dumber than we are, and then you’re put in this world where you think, ‘Is someone really going to pay me to just stand there?’” Mr. Kutcher told The Observer. He said he’d never actually watched The O.C. “But I remember when all of the sudden this girl was getting a ton of press. There was one character on our show of a girl who had been around the business and was feeling like she was on the edge of falling out. And I remember when she first came on the scene, everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, Mischa Barton!’”
On the red carpet leading to the party, the newbie actors were awkwardly hoping for a little attention. Meanwhile, modeling veteran Molly Sims was blocked from the carpet entirely by a security guard who later got scolded for not knowing who she was. Somewhere in the middle of all this was Ms. Barton, pretty in a floor-length pink gown, her hair swooped to the side. The photographers were losing their vocal cords, screaming, “Mi-scha! Mi-scha!”
She expertly tilted her head this way and then that way, peering over her shoulder with her hand planted firmly on her hip. Then she gave the press a confident smile and disappeared inside.