Mischa Barton - Renaissance woman
By Kernan Andrews
While she is best known as a television and film actress, particularly for her role in the iconic noughties’ TV series The OC, Mischa Barton finds the most challenging and rewarding parts to play are in the theatre.
Mischa Barton will be in Castlebar next week where she will star in Solar Theatre’s production of Steel Magnolias which will take to the stage in the Royal Theatre. In many ways, this production, which has been running since September, is a return to her roots, as her career began in theatre, off-Broadway, in the mid-1990s.
With Steel Magnolias about to begin its Mayo run, how did Mischa become involved in the production? “It was a bit last minute really,” Mischa tells me during our Monday afternoon conversation, “but the fact Ben Barnes was directing it swayed me as he is a great director, and the cast is terrific.”
While Mischa is the most high profile cast member, her co-stars will be familiar faces from TV - Anne Charleston (Ouiser Boudreaux in the play) was Madge in Neighbours and more recently Lily Butterfield in Emmerdale; Barbara Brennan, (M’Lynn) has appeared in The Tudors and Veronica Guerin; and Gillian Hanna whose credits include Casualty, Drop The Dead Donkey, Poirot, Brookside, and Mr Nice.
“It was luck that everybody happened to be available as after this we’re all working on other things,” says Mischa, “and we might not get another chance to do this.”
Working with an all-female cast, Mischa admits, is an unusual situation to find herself in. “There are usually some men there to break it up,” she says. “Ben I think was terrified directing an all-female cast. I would have thought they would have had a woman direct it. So it was very brave of him as it’s a lot for a man to take on.”
An all-female cast also needs its moments of privacy. “Backstage we’ll be running around naked - not literally,” says Mischa, referring to costume changes and make-up sessions, etc. “We don’t expect to see the stage hands then, so they can’t come back here and have to stay away at those points!”
Steel Magnolias, written by Robert Harling, revolves around the lives of a group of women who meet regularly in Truvy’s Beauty Salon, in small-town Louisiana, in particular the newly-wed Shelby Eatenton. Shelby is based on Robert Harling’s sister Susan, who tragically died young. Like Susan, Shelby is a diabetic. She is also determined to have children despite the severe risks this poses to her health.
“She is the heart of the play,” says Mischa. “She is very straightforward about what she wants. Shelby is such a lovely character. Her favourite colour is pink which is so completely different to me as I hate pink, so it’s nice to play someone who is the opposite of you.
“Shelby wants to give all the time and doesn’t take, she helps people even though she is the most fragile, which is something you find in people who have beeen very sick or who have grown up in complicated situations.”
Despite the impending air of sadness and loss that hangs over Steel Magnolias, the play is best known for its warmth and humour.
“It’s been called ‘the funniest play ever to make you cry’,” says Mischa. “There is a lot of laughter and one-liners. The play also gets to the heart of who women are, how they feel, and how they talk about men in a certain way. You get into this world which is racy and where the men are behind the scenes. There are no male characters on-stage, but they are constantly alluded to and affect what goes on, despite not being physcially present on the stage. Men, those that are brave enough to come along, find they enjoy Steel Magnolias.”
The 26-year-old began her career on the stage in the mid-1990s before appearing in films such as Lawn Dogs and The Sixth Sense by the end of the decade. However it was her role as Marissa Cooper in the TV series The OC from 2003 to 2006, that propelled her to international stardom.
“You can’t be prepared for something like that,” she says. “The OC was a phenomenon, and there’s not been anything like it. People are still watching it, buying the DVDs and the box sets, and it’s been seen in every country around the world. I can’t even walk around Taiwan without being recognised. That is both a blessing and a curse.
“A lot of pressure was put on my shoulders to be the face of the show and to promote the show, and they don’t realise the pressure they put on young people. It was also around the time when the internet and the realm of privacy changed. It was the start of this thing where everything is about celebrity and there is no privacy and I was in the centre of that shit storm.”
Yet Mischa has no regrets about any of it. “I’m glad it happened because I’m a stronger person for it,” she says. “And because it all happened to me so young I was fairly OK with it. Others did it for longer and, I won’t name any names here, don’t seem to be able to remove themselves from their character. When I see how the internet and celebrity culture has gone on since, it makes me happy to be back on stage, there is a calm to that which doesn’t change.”
Over the years Mischa has appeared in a number of American indie films such as Lost and Delirious and Lawn Dogs, of which is proud. Her film career has also seen her co-star twice with Bruce Willis, in The Sixth Sense (1999) and Assassination of a High School President (2008).
“He’s amazing,” she says of Willis. “He’s very funny and he works all the time, he is the consummate professional, and does very different characters. He’s always playing guitar. In Assassination... we had no money and no sets, so we stayed in Bruce’s trailer and hung out with him. After the shoot we would go back to his trailer and he’d play guitar and sing and crack jokes. He’s a cool guy.”
With her experience on stage, the big screen, and television, Mischa feels theatre provides the most challenging and rewarding medium for an actor.
“Theatre is a muscle that’s great to exercise,” she declares. “In film you can get lazy and weak in your discipline. TV involves a lot of work as you have to learn your lines and do your background work before you arrive on set and then you only have a short time to do eight pages of script each day.
“The stage allows you to get to the heart of your character and the play. Theatre allows you to dig out the soul of your character, it gives you time to look deeper at them, and do it in front of an audience. It’s a different part of your brain that you use and flexing that muscle helps you stay sharp.”
Mischa was born in London to an Irish mother and English father, and was raised in the USA. She has described herself as “an English-Irish girl who grew up in New York”, and she draws on this eclectic upbringing in her role as a fashion designer.
Apart from acting, Mischa is a designer of handbags, has recently launched the second season of her own clothes range, and in August opened her own boutique in London.
“So much work goes into designing it’s not even funny,” she says, “but I’ve been doing it for over five years and it’s incredibly good fun. I get inspiration from books and British seventies rock music. I’m reading Dubliners now and I’m interested in the fashions of that time. Designing is a creative outlet.
“I love to see young girls wearing the clothes and bags and I want to design clothes that are stylish and cool but that don’t cost too much. I want to be affordable high street. Unlike Ireland the Britain, that’s something we don’t have in America, where you have to pay a fortune to look good.”
Less well known is that Mischa is a keen amateur musician, playing guitar, keyboards, and drums.
“I collect vinyl and instruments, and a former boyfriend was a guitar collector,” she says. “I won’t be switching careers any time soon, but I love it. The drums was a revelation. It’s stress relieving, you use your whole body and I seem to have a natural ability for it. A friend of mine is a female drummer and she got me into it. There was a drum kit at a friend’s house and she said ‘Have a go’ and I’ve been playing for a year and a half.”
So given her myriad interests, can we call Mischa Barton a Renaissance women? “I am into a lot of things,” she says. “You should see my house in LA, it’s a mish-mash of different styles!”