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.’—Mischa Barton
“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 IF IT 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.