Wearing a gorgeous Jenni Kayne outfit, Mischa Barton is relaxed as we chat in a Park City hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival. The alluring blonde starlet is at Sundance talking up her new film, Assassination of a High School President, and deflecting media questions about her recent DUI incident that had the young actress suddenly dealing with a lot of unwanted media interest.
But the former TV starlet admits that unwanted tabloid and paparazzi interest has not been easy to deal with. "I honestly don't know what you do, which is what I've been asking myself for the past month or so," a philosophical Barton says. "I think I do a pretty good job of removing myself from that kind of damaging outer judgment, but in something like this, you have to think about it, and you're responsible for your own actions, so it's a growing experience," the actress says, laughingly. "It's just something that you have to deal with, I guess but I find it's just tough on your family which is more annoying than anything."
Barton lives in both New York and Los Angeles, her parents are British and her older sister is a barrister living in London. None of that background prepares her for the kind of media scrutiny she has been under since TV fame found her in the now defunct soap, The O.C. "Sometimes I don't understand what all the fuss is about. Honestly, I'm like, 'Really?' I mean when I'm in New York, nobody follows me around, they never get pictures of me and I live a completely normal life. I go to LA for one day, and there'll be, like, 80 shots."
Barton, who comes across in this interview as smart and down-to-earth, doesn't concern herself as being seen as a role model for young girls even when slipping up. "I mean you have a certain amount of responsibility which is wild. It's funny, because I've always been the big sister to all my friends anyway, so I don't look at myself a lot, or what I'm going through. So when I start going through things, I'll deflect it off, because it's a whole thing to deal with."
Barton has come a long way since her first trip to Sundance a little over 10 years ago, as an 11-year old star of John Duigan's Lawn Dogs. She says that making the transition from child actress to adolescent and now adult was seamless. "You don't even notice it, as a person, because obviously you're going through it, so at every age you are as an actor, you have to kind of feel empowered in your role. There was a brief time when I was in my early teens when I considered dropping acting, and I wasn't that into it, because I think when you're growing that much as a person, I didn't want to put myself in other characters as much. Then you come out on the other side with a good perspective on, 'Oh, I was a child then,' and you're always looking back, and each year you grow so much."
Even at 11, rather than looking as acting as merely child's play, Barton says she "respected it as an adult profession, because the first thing I ever did was with Marisa Tomei, Diane Weist and people like that. I looked up to them, saw that they had incredible careers, and where they'd gone. Sam Cohen was my agent when I was really young and there was something about his energy. I was obsessed with theatre and film as a child and it was the only thing that brought my personality out and made me feel comfortable. But then you go through awkward phases, and your teen years happen."
Her fame came about by accident in many ways, she recalls, as her path became altered by a fateful audition. "I was one of those kids who was willing to try other things, other careers, and go to college. I just happened to get cast on The OC, but I was never set on it." Her character would eventually die in a car crash, and the series itself crashed and burned 6 months later. Barton's success and popularity has segued into a movie career and has even turned the glamorous star into a fashion icon of sorts. "I think growing up in New York, you're aware of fashion as a kid. I was always very individual in the way I dressed and I went through a lot of phases. Being on a show that was so fashionable, I learned a lot about it, and I'm friends with many designers. I think it's such an interesting, creative field and clothing is fascinating to me. It's such an important part of any character you play, or anything you do and is an extension of your personality. So. I mean, yeah, I care about my clothes. I like to be unique anyway and my worst nightmare would probably be wearing the same thing as someone else," she says laughingly.
Barton's movie career looks like taking off, as she firstly plays a snooty senior high school student in a posh private school, trying to find out who stole the school's SAT papers, in Assassination of a High School President, which co-stars Reese Thompson and a hilarious Bruce Willis. The actress says the film differs from other high school satires "because it's really well-written for a teen movie, and that even if there are clichés in there, they don't play into that. I'm the popular girl, but she's dark and kind of more like a vixen. I also think it's beautifully shot, very stylised and I like that it has a straightforward vision, which it kind of sticks to. It also harkens back to more classic teen movies."
Barton says she enjoyed playing a manipulative character and was looking for something different. In the case of Assassination, "the whole idea of the project just attracted me from the title, to meeting the director, to the whole idea behind it, s I'm really open when it comes to choosing projects. I just like to meet people and read through things and I think I've got a good idea once I read the script if I'd do it or not."
Barton has finished shooting two other films beginning with a psychological thriller called Walled In. "I play this girl who comes to fix a building who comes from a family of construction workers. She comes to work on this building that's going to be demolished and it's like a completely strange fantasy that's going on in the building, because this woman is actually keeping this killer captive. It's a really sick, twisted story. Basically, they end up breaking down my who goes through a complete emotional breakdown and is torn to bits." Barton also just wrapped Homecoming. "I play a psychopath in that. It's kind of like Misery, but younger. I develop an entire obsession over my ex-boyfriend, and then I go after and torture his current girlfriend." It sounds like the actress is going through a phase where she's choosing certain dark characters. "Don't say that! I don't need it to rub off on me," Barton says, laughingly.
At 22, the actress says if the acting were to stop she still has a few Plan Bs. "I'm quite creative, so I like writing, I like psychology, anything along those lines as well as history and archaeology, actually" Barton recalls having been a really good writer in school. "It was the only thing that saved me. I write for myself now. I hate it when, as an adult, nobody forces you to write about things any more, so I try to force myself to write."
There is also the charitable side of the actress, a facet that enables her to travel, as she becomes increasingly involved with both Save the Children and a newer charity called One Water. "That's this amazing London-based charity that builds water pumps for children at school, so that girls can go to school and get water. It's like, a playground thing, and they play on it and it pumps the water." She discovered One Water through her older sister "who's 30, lives in London, and is a barrister. Her boyfriend works at One Water and is a part of that charity. He recently took that on. He grew up in Africa, so they go to Africa twice a year."
The actress says that it is important; given her status, to do things like that and give back. "I mean, I've always somehow been involved in charity work. Since I started getting invited to events, I've always gone to the charity ones, because I was dating someone whose family had a charity, so I was always really involved in charity work. I don't know how it happened, but it just did and they would approach me and I just feel like it's strange if you don't do it. But I would like to be on the other side of it, and actually one day start my own, something less noticed, like getting children educated in countries where there isn't enough education."