"She’s being quite the little bitch, as usual," Mischa Barton explains, hurriedly on the phone. "Anyway, I just need to pop the hood, take a look, see if I can fix the problem, and I’ll let you know if I can come pick you up."
Barton is running late. It isn’t her fault: The vintage Cadillac she is supposed to pick me up in is misbehaving. She has a long, extended explanation about the starter, and the battery, and all the ticks an old car can have.
I ask Barton, best known for her role as untameable party girl Marissa Cooper of The O.C., if I can walk over to her nearby West Hollywood apartment and watch her fix the car. My reasons are twofold: First, I have a mental image of Barton in an oil-covered mechanic’s suit, hair tied up in a red bandanna, waving around a wrench and listening to the Rolling Stones, and wouldn’t it be fun if that were true? But second, and journalistically speaking, I want to watch Mischa Barton actually fix a vintage Cadillac.
"Does Mischa Barton even know about cars?" is, believe it or not, a relevant question right now, given her job as a cohost on Joyride, the Esquire Network’s fancy-car show. Her love of cars — vintage cars specifically — could easily be a hobby she developed just to have something to say for Us Weekly’s "25 Things You Don’t Know About Mischa Barton" column. And while her ownership of a baby-blue, 1970 Cadillac Coupe de Ville has been well documented since 2010, information about said car has been publicly shared mostly when it has been towed, run out of gas, or swiped a parked car.
But it turns out that she does know about cars — enough to fix her own Caddy, and enough to qualify for Joyride. The elevator pitch: "car fanatics" Oliver Trevena (British actor and noted muscle car collector), T-Pain (rapper and owner of 32 cars), Brian Vickers (race car driver), and Barton (actress and "Cadillac enthusiast") drive different types of elite cars and pick their favorites. The former teen star now makes a living talking about V12 engines and taking McLarens on wild spins around a track in the Valley. Barton says she jumped at the chance to do Joyride, and then took lessons with a professional driver so she could keep up with her cohosts. "It takes people a while to trust me," she says of her skills. "They’re so afraid of a young woman in a car like this, but then they’re like, Oh yeah, she can drive that thing. She knows its turning radius to a tee."
We’re testing Barton’s knowledge of said turning radius as she pulls the now-working Cadillac out of the driveway of her apartment building. (The car was fixed by the time I arrive, but Mischa uses the enormous car manual to show me what she did.) A neighbor stops and says hi to her, "the girl with the Cadillac," which must be a nice break from being "the girl from The O.C." I wonder who gets more attention, Mischa — who today, while clad in head-to-toe denim, oversize Dior sunglasses, brown boots, and about a dozen rings, looks exactly the same as you’d remember her — or Maude, the incredibly beautiful boat of a car. I wonder if that’s the point of the Cadillac. And then I wonder, somewhere between the neighborly shout-outs, the extended Mischa Mechanic sequence, and her suggested trip to the Petersen Automotive Museum, if this is all maybe a bit contrived. We’re really immersing ourselves in the legitimacy of this career-related hobby, which, let’s be real, is unexpected for a former model turned O.C. star.
But I realize that I’m being ungenerous, and also that it doesn’t really matter: It’s a perfect December L.A. day, Sunset Boulevard is waiting, and the Cadillac is fixed. I came here to find out what it is like to be Mischa Barton these days, and apparently this is it.
We make it to the Petersen museum, a garish silver- and red-swirled behemoth on the Miracle Mile, and Barton is excited to discover there’s a Bugatti exhibit going on. Barton loves Bugattis. She stands in front of each car, discusses it for a moment, and then reads the placard aloud to me; it’s soothing, sort of like ASMR. She stops by a powder-blue Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. "With cars like these, they sloooooow you down," Barton tells me. "Life just sort of slides into view." She says it genuinely, and I believe her.
Joyride filmed in August and took only about a month, so Barton has had some time to fill however she wants. There are annoying tasks, like visiting her business manager — her Amazon Prime accounts keep getting hacked — and finding a new place to live, since she recently sold her house on Mulholland Drive. "I spent my 20s there, so it was always extremely uncomfortable for me, and I’m not like a Beverly Hills housewife," she explains. "It just didn’t feel organic to me to wake up every day and play the audition game."
Currently she’s spending time "painting the cupboard doors and building shelving and stuff" in her temporary West Hollywood apartment. She goes through her routines matter-of-factly. She works out a lot: She’ll go to SoulCycle, sometimes twice a day, or join a pickup basketball game at a nearby park where her dogs, Ziggy and Charlie, can play. Oh!, she tells me excitedly, she’s gotten really into lighting design, and uses Hue lights in her home. She sort of dates, but mostly avoids dating because everyone in L.A. is terrible. (She says she might move to New York to avoid this. I tell her it’s not any better there.) She hangs out with her group of guy friends. She visits her sister in London. Tonight, after we part, she plans on roasting a chicken for a friend; she’ll give Ziggy and Charlie the carcass as a treat.
It is much calmer than the life you might remember her for — the one she lived during and just after The O.C., the iconic SoCal teen show that turned Barton into an "It Girl." You remember the era: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Kitson, paparazzi campouts on Robertson, DUIs and Juicy Couture and mega clubs. For Barton, it’s the time she was on all the magazine covers — Allure, Glamour, Vogue, Elle. But it’s an era that’s also synonymous with uncertainty and pain: canceled CW shows, The Beautiful Life, a handful of unremarkable entries on IMDb, a DUI in 2007, and years of tabloid headlines picking apart her weight, behavior, career, and love life. In 2009, at 23, Barton was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
"It was an intense time," Barton tells me while coloring car pictures in the Petersen museum’s kids room. (Her suggestion.) "It used to be like 10 or 12 paparazzi swarming the car all the time. … They used to chase you, like all 12 of the cars, creating accidents and stuff in the streets, and it was no way to live. And the magazines, they insulted and judged everything I did. Everyone I dated. I really wanted to step back and take a break and reassess." She says her hospitalization felt "necessary after so many disaster cases. You need to keep your head on straight. I needed that time for me."
Things are much quieter for her now; she still uses a code name for Uber, but she can go to SoulCycle without being followed. We spend almost 45 minutes in the museum’s kids area, and nobody bothers her except a baby who wants to play and the septuagenarian docent who insists that Barton hang her very precise car drawing up on the wall. This is certainly not how anyone would imagine a former Hollywood It Girl spending her afternoon, but why shouldn’t it? Barton and I spend a whole Thursday laughing over adult coloring books — which are a thing — in a museum we’d never been to and were interested in. She enjoys it. I enjoy it. It’s not 1OAK, but that’s a relief.
This is not to say that Barton has renounced her former life entirely. There are parts of fame that Barton still engages in — she likes to go to premieres and she employs a stylist. And she’s still making a living in the public sphere, though there are some decisions she regrets. "Ugh," she shudders when I bring up her recent, fairly unsuccessful run on Dancing With the Stars. "I had no idea it would be so bad."
"I got told off by my dancer. I was supposed to control the costumes, I was told that I could do the design aspect of it, that’s kind of the reason why I agreed to do it," Barton says. The DWTS team had been making her an offer for years, Barton says, but she held out until she could have more creative control. "That didn’t happen. It wasn’t collaborative like a choreographer on a film set. … I was so confused by it. It was like The Hunger Games. It was all a popularity contest. It was awful. I was so glad to get kicked off." (ABC did not respond to a request for comment.)
However, she says, she learned more about pop culture from doing it. And she’s been more active on Instagram and Snapchat since the appearance. "I remember the days when you had no voice, and they could make up stories and say whatever they wanted, and now at least they have an insight into your life. People can see what you’re really like. Twitter less so, but Instagram has an artistic side to it, where you can see through that person’s eye, what they creatively choose, what they’re up to and who they are — you get a feeling for them. I enjoy it now."
As a result, Barton has also discovered one of the new downfalls of fame — Instagram backlash. In July she posted an Instagram of herself in a bikini, on a yacht, looking … somber? Sexy? Sad? The caption was a heartfelt if misguided response to the Alton Sterling shooting. It was, to say the least, an incongruous image to post next to a comment about a recent police shooting of an innocent black man, and the internet let Barton know.
"I mean, yeah, it is what it is," she says of the incident. "I just know now to really try not to make emotional statements, which is the main thing. It tends to happen to everybody at some point."
We move to the museum’s café for a late lunch, and Barton begins to talk about her ghosts. She had ghosts in her old Mulholland Drive house, she says — her maid refused to clean her room. She met with Hollywood Medium recently, and she connected with the ghost of an uncle she’s always admired, an artist whom she never met but thought she could learn from. "He was so right about a lot of shit. I was really freaked out, but I keep going over and over it in my head — it was dead family things he couldn’t have looked up. I think he’s got talent," Barton says.
You cannot talk about Hollywood ghosts with a former teen starlet without immediately asking the following question, no matter how pointed or obvious it is. So I ask Barton if she misses being as famous as she used to be.
To her credit, she answers gamely. "The business has changed so much. It’s just so crazy out there. I’ve been acting since I was 8 years old and then did the theater. My first movies were like old-school; I did Richard Attenborough’s last film … I came from the days of real film. There was no digital. It takes a second to switch your brain over to that; it did for me. Now these young people think it’s so easy to be famous. It isn’t easy. They think it’s so easy to handle fame. It isn’t."
There’s a wistfulness in her voice when she talks about the way things used to be — not for the O.C. era, but for the pre-Marissa actress who imagined a completely different career for herself. Sometimes, talking to Barton is like talking to an aging starlet from the 1940s, which is ridiculous, since she’s only 30. But she’s been through this a lot. The pieces get written every couple years: "What happened to Mischa Barton?" Journalists like me keep showing up, asking how she’s doing, whether Barton can ever reclaim her O.C.-level relevance. There’s a sense that Barton’s career will forever be Remember Marissa Cooper? Where did she go? How can we get her back?
"Fans won’t let Marissa Cooper go," she says when I inevitably ask about it. "It’s so weird. I guess I understand. It was something they really cared about, but …" she trails off.
Later, on our second glass of wine, she brings up some advice she once got. "I keep thinking of this thing I heard, that if you don’t reinvent yourself every seven years, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I think that’s interesting. I think it’s really hard to do — I think it’s extremely scary for women especially, every seven years, but I’m kind of at that crossroads again. It’s about time for me again to reinvent myself and do something different."
When pressed for her plans for this new chapter, they are all sort of vague Hollywood-speak. She lists TV and movie projects that she’s developing. Maybe she’ll go back to New York. She’d love to do a fashion line again. None of it is specific, but none of it seems especially stressful, either.
As we walk out onto Museum Row, I bring up Kitson, that relic of early-aughts fame. "Are you sad it closed?" I ask.
"Ugh, Kitson? The one on Robertson? That tourist trap? I wasn’t even aware that it had." She pauses and frowns a little bit. "I guess now with Dash, and the Kardashians, people don’t really need it." Another pause. "I sort of thought it would stay open forever."