In the past year, Mischa Barton has climbed from #49 to #22 on Maxim magazine’s list of the world’s 100 hottest women. That’s no small potatoes. You must be getting sexier, I tell her, and Barton bursts out laughing. “My boyfriend mentioned that to me,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘Babe, I saw you in a magazine, and you’re climbing the list!’ We both think it’s funny.”
“A reporter said to me recently, ‘You’ve really matured so much in the last three years,’ and I thought that was funny, so I was like, ‘Really? I felt very mature at 18, I’ll have you know!’”
Numerical sex appeal ratings, like paparazzi photos and blogosphere gossip, are just another side-effect of fame, and Barton is taking it in stride. Still though, as she sits across from me in a photo studio in Brooklyn--having just finished a shoot in which she posed topless--it appears to be a valid observation. She is getting sexier--and looks less like a starlet and more like a full-blown star. “You know, a reporter said to me recently, ‘You’ve really matured so much in the last three years,’” Barton says. “And I thought that was funny, because you never look at yourself from an outside perspective, so I was like, ‘Really? I felt very mature at 18, I’ll have you know!’ But since finishing The O.C., a lot has changed for me; my relationships have changed, and I’ve just grown as a person.”
Today, Barton is wearing a flowy top, skinny jeans, battered leather boots and enough bracelets and rings to set a metal detector beeping. Unlike many actresses, who appear as if they could be knocked over with a feather, Barton isn’t delicate. She’s tall, looks like she actually eats, and her famously low voice is just as Eartha Kitt as it’s always been. The stereo is playing classic rock, and the room we’re sitting in is filled with tools and car parts for when it doubles as a garage. The environment fits Barton particularly well at the moment: With heavy fringe and black eyeliner, she looks like a ’70s rock chick who drives a Camaro and kicks ass at pool. Two nights later, though, she’ll be the antithesis of grit, swathed in Missoni and glammed up for the Metropolitan Costume Institute Ball.
Though she was born in England, Barton grew up in New York, and being back here, she says “feels like home, even though I don’t actually have one at the moment.” She spent her childhood and teenage years all over the city, on the East Side, then in Chelsea and Tribeca, where the family kept an apartment until very recently. She credits New York with turning her into that aforementioned precocious 18-year-old. “Here, kids grow up really fast, but it’s good because you experience things young, and then by the time you’re out of high school, you just kind of get it,” she says, “I feel like kids in L.A. struggle--they’re still very much teenagers.”
In Los Angeles, Barton lives by Laurel Canyon, in the pool house behind her parent’s home (“Just because I’m more of an adult now, I don’t want to be living with my parents in the house,” she says) but has of late been spending a lot of time in Paris, a city she prizes for its privacy, and geographical and emotional distance from Hollywood. “In Los Angeles, everybody wants to be in the film industry, even the waitress serving your food,” she says. “There are lots of people out there who just want to be your friend because of your name, or whatever--hangers-on--but I’m quick to weed people out.”
“That was a low point for me. I never, ever would have thought I would be arrested. Like, it was one of those things that I never thought would happen to me, and I was disappointed because it associated me with a group of girls that I would rather not be associated with. That was the biggest bummer for me--I didn’t leave my house. I was too embarrassed. They made such a big deal out of it with these other young actresses that, for a little bit, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.”
Though Barton is extremely close with her family--she frequently travels with her mom, who has accompanied her on today’s shoot--she says that she only counts about five people as real friends, most of which she knows from growing up and who are now just finishing up college. She’s also only dated another actor once, and then, just briefly, but she’s quick to note that she doesn’t deliberately avoid hanging out with people who work in the industry. “I don’t set parameters like that anymore, it all depends on the person,” she says. “I mean, I’m an actress and actresses get a bad rep for being difficult and crazy and all of that, but I get on fine.” She laughs. “I remember when I was younger, I once said I’d never date a musician, and now I’ve dated two.” (Her current boyfriend is Rooney guitarist Taylor Locke. The ex is, of course, the infamous Cisco Adler.)
Since she seems so unfazed by the rigmarole of Hollywood, I ask Barton if she ever finds herself envying her friends who live unscrutinized lives. “No,” she says, “because I see how much they moan over silly things and I’ve already been through so much in life. I would want to go to college for the learning, but there’s so much else that comes with it that I don’t think I need anymore. I’ve been making my own money and living as an adult for far too long.” And, indeed, it’s hard to imagine her stressing over an English essay or staying up late to dump quarters into a dorm- room washing machine. Barton isn’t quite larger than life, but she does have a definite air about her: It’s rare to meet someone who seems so sure of herself and her place in the world.
That tendency to be slightly above the fray has certainly served her well, especially last December, when she was busted for drunk driving in Hollywood. It was an event that was headline grabbing, if far from unusual, and though Barton is remorseful, it hasn’t shattered her, and she’s not dwelling on it. “I make mistakes, and I never claimed to be perfect,” she says. “It’s weird. The way I live my life, I don’t want to be so closeted that I just have to shut myself off and become some protected young starlet that’s removed from reality, but I was also just shocked at what a big deal people made out of it.”
“That was a low point for me,” she continues. “I never, ever would have thought I would be arrested. Like, it was one of those things that I never thought would happen to me, and I was disappointed because it associated me with a group of girls that I would rather not be associated with. That was the biggest bummer for me--I didn’t leave my house. I was too embarrassed. They made such a big deal out of it with these other young actresses that, for a little bit, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Yeah, it was a stupid thing to do. But my friends were really great, and my family was really supportive, and I’ve done a lot to pay back for what I did.” I ask what she means by pay back, expecting an answer about friends and family and regaining trust. Instead, she looks at me and says, “Just like stuff you have to do to please the courts.”’It’s clear that Barton isn’t the type to pay lip service to anything, and this includes the medium that made her famous: television. The rumor mill whirled furiously this past spring when she reportedly turned down an offer to play Georgina Sparks on Gossip Girl, a role that would have reunited her with The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz. When asked what happened, Barton seems unable to suppress a guffaw of laughter. “I was offered to play a role, but just because I’ve come out of The O.C., why would I want to go back on another series that is exactly the same? It’s just not what I wanted to do, and it’s not the kind of material I’m looking for.” I ask her what she thinks of the show. “I’ve never seen Gossip Girl,” she says, “so I don’t know.“
“I’ve always done really dark material. I just like it,” she says. “I like things that aren’t, you know, nothing--what’s the word I’m looking for? I don’t like verbalist dialogue and I don’t do well with projects that don’t have some depth. So, for instance, crappy teen films: I’m useless with that.
In short, anyone looking for Barton to pop up on another television series shouldn’t hold their breath. “In TV, actors literally ignore the directors, which I find wild. I couldn’t understand that when I started on television. I’d always go to the director and ask him questions, and he’d always look at me with a blank stare, like ‘Why are you here? No one else pays attention....’ So I could never really wrap my mind around that.” And even if her fans want her to be, Barton doesn’t and never has seen herself as a television actress. “I did like 15 independent films when I was younger,” she points out, “I’ve done leads in films before.” In the coming months, she’ll do it again. Four times, actually.First up is a femme fatale role in Assassination of a High-School President, a film noir satire about the devious inner-workings of a Catholic high school’s student council, that premiered at Sundance earlier this year. “I think that Assassination will be one of my last high-school projects,” she says. “I was thinking about that, you know. I was the youngest on The O.C. They were all like 26, 27 playing 16 and 17 and I was 17. So, now that I’m 22, I don’t want to be doing that forever.” The film isn’t a standard jocks-and-dorks teen-flick, which was what attracted her to the project in the first place. “I think it’s hilarious. I’ve seen it three times. I mean, it’s not up to me to say--I hope other people find it funny, but we certainly had fun making it,” she says. In Assassination, Barton plays the school’s most popular girl, but the character has enough skeletons in her closet (one of which is revealed in a scene where she lounges, visibly topless, in a bathtub) to keep Barton happy. “I’ve always done really dark material. I just like it,” she says. “I like things that aren’t, you know, nothing--what’s the word I’m looking for? I don’t like verbalist dialogue and I don’t do well with projects that don’t have some depth. So, for instance, crappy teen films: I’m useless with that. As an actor, I can’t even pull myself together to do it, which is why, on The O.C., I was always given the most dramatic things to do. I hated those scenes where we were playing valley-girl-chit-chat-banter.“
Barton also has lead roles in Walled In and Homecoming, two suspense thrillers, and You & I, a film from British director Roland Joffe that’s a girl-on-girl love story based on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it phenomenon of t.A.T.u., the Russian teenage pop music duo who were marketed as a lesbian couple. “I play an aspiring Russian model in it, I have a Russian accent and, yeah, it’s full on,” Barton says. She’s already locked lips with Evan Rachel Wood on Once and Again, and with Olivia Wilde on The O.C., so does “full on” mean a few too-hot-for-TV scenes? “Um, no,” she says, “There’s like an experimental scene, but there’s nothing raunchy. It’s more about their love for each other.”
In Homecoming, Barton plays a psycho ex-girlfriend, and also gets a producing credit. “I got involved in every aspect of making that film,” she says. “I designed the whole character, who I wanted her to be. I got the look down, and I was more assertive in the way I wanted her to be played. A lot of times, when you’re starting out as an actor, particularly on something like The O.C., you have no choice: You’re just told what to do. It’s only recently that I’ve gotten the power as an actor to actually work with the director, and not just be dictated, and it’s my first time playing adult roles like that.”
“Wise beyond her years” is a descriptive that appears in actress profiles just as frequently as the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, but in Barton’s case, there’s nothing more apt--she’s been acting now since she was nine, and with 13 years experience, she’s earned the right to graduate from the high-school roles. As we wrap up the interview, Barton rejoins her mom, Nuala, and begins to gather up her stuff, including some NYLON Jewelry necklaces that she’s keeping. When Nuala jokes that no one ever gives her anything, Barton laughs. “Do you want a popsicle-shaped necklace, Mom? Or some tight jeans?” she teases, proving that--beneath all those adult roles and sexy photo shoots--there’s some teenage sass left after all. -- KATE WILLIAMS