Mischa & Madge
INTERVIEW:Hollywood star Mischa Barton and Anne Charleston, Madge from ‘Neighbours’, talk to BERNICE HARRISONabout starring in a new Irish production of ‘Steel Magnolias’
’M SO RECOGNISABLE,” says Mischa Barton in a straightforward, this-is-how-it-is, way and she’s right, she is. For four years she starred in The OC, the US-made nougties mega hit TV series that became a global teen phenomenon. There’s also something instantly familiar about people who have appeared in long-running TV series, even if you can’t recall ever seeing a single episode. It’s all the extra stuff – the interviews, the photo-shoots, the product endorsements and the paparazzi shots – the everywhereness of celebrity culture.
The OC ended in 2007 and she’s worked steadily in film since and although she hasn’t done any work that matches that early mega success, Barton has maintained a high profile. Not that the elderly men playing bowls on Tuesday evening in Leinster Cricket Grounds in Rathmines seem bothered and there’s no paparazzi lurking in the bushes waiting to snap the 26-year-old as we sit in the evening sunshine outside their clubhouse. The bowls club is where director Ben Barnes is rehearsing a new Irish production of Steel Magnolias. Mischa Barton is the star, and – the producers, Solar Theatre, hope – the big name that’ll draw the crowds when the production opens in Dublin in September and then tours around the country.
“It’s nice to have a break from it [the paparazzi]. It’s largely the reason to do a play here. There’s less of the fuss and ridiculousness here.” She’s been a regular visitor to Ireland since she was a small child – her mother, Nuala Quinn from Roscommon, brought the family home to the farm on summer holidays and she recently took a road trip around Kerry and Cork. Tuesday was the second day of what will be a three-week rehearsal period and she’s very much in work mode: black skinny jeans, oversized black combat jacket, battered looking pumps, make-up free, tousled hair – the only concession to fashion is her eye-catching gold trimmed black handbag. It’s from her own range, for sale in the Mischa Barton Boutique, the London shop she opened two weeks ago to stock her bags and her new clothing and cosmetic range.
“It’s so amazing to see kids in London walking around carrying my bags,” she says, her voice taking on a genuine excited energy–— different from her steady, low-key regular delivery and it’s one of the few times in the interview she stops looking in the middle distance (or maybe at the bowls players) and looks me in the eye. So that’s retailer added to her model/actor tag, then?
“No. I don’t like careers that have six titles,” she laughs, although moving into fashion indicates she’s savvy about leveraging her recognisable name as a brand.
“I could have done much more though, but I’ve always been choosy about the brands I’ve promoted, I’ve turned down so many.” A fondness for the play also drew her to this Irish production. Steel Magnolias was a long-running Broadway hit for writer Robert Harling before it became a movie. Barton plays Shelby (Julia Roberts in the 1989 movie) a character based on Harling’s own sister whose death prompted him to write the script. Set in a small town hair salon in the deep South, it’s rare in that the entire cast (of six) is female and it’s chock-full of sassy one liners (“If you can’t find anything good to say about anybody, come sit by me.“) as the women fall in an out with each other, sort out their problems and put the world to rights. It’s a laugh and a solid gold tear-jerker – Shelby (like Harling’s sister) is a diabetic, who, following her fairy-tale wedding, risks pregnancy and her life by having a baby.
Working with an all-female cast is new for Barton and it’s a challenge. “It’s unusual for me. I feed off male energy. A lot of my best friends are men.” And it is, she says, “slightly odd being the only American in the cast” (she was born in London but the family emigrated to New York when she was six and she sounds every inch the east coast American.) The Southern accent with its lazy drawl comes easy. “I think for Irish people too, though it might be more difficult for a British actor. For me it’s really easy because of my training”. It’s been fun too, she says explaining to her follow cast members some of the American references such as Bisquick and Wayne Newton. “But that doesn’t really matter so much because the references are usually understandable in the delivery.”
Being in Ireland for 10 weeks means being away from her boyfriend of two months, actor Sebastian Knapp. Like her, he divides his time between London and Los Angeles. He is the first actor she’s dated mostly because “I hate actor talk. It’s so tedious. It’s not rocket science. I’d rather discuss almost anything else.” She does concede, however, that it’s nice to feel understood by someone in the same profession. “He gets the crazy schedules and the travel. It’s good.”
Coming to Ireland also gave Barton the chance to act on stage – it’s where she started at eight and left behind as a teenager when The OC became a hit.
Pay rates mean the stage is a “labour of love” and it’s not, she says, so easy for a star of the small screen to be taken seriously as a stage actress. “There tends to be a stigma attached, it’s not so easy to go back.” Thanks to box sets and endless repeats, hit US drama series now have a life long after their first broadcast.
“The OC DVD sales are unbelievable to me. It blows my mind. It’s been nine years. I think it’s because there’s not that many good new shows to be honest.” Addiction to weekly TV drama she describes as a “crazy guilty pleasure. That’s what drives people to do silly things like chase you down the street.”
Breaking away from a small screen role is something that Barton’s fellow Steel Magnolias cast member Anne Charleston knows all about. For nearly 11 years she was Madge Bishop, Kylie’s mum, in Neighbours, the Australian soap. “Even today, and I’ve left 12 years ago, people associate me with that role, and it is a double-edged sword. It opens some doors and doesn’t open others and it can haunt you, but I’ve been lucky.”
While she has lived here for nearly 20 years. She was born in Australia to Irish parents so buying a house in Galway was a sort of homecoming. She has only been involved with three other Irish productions, instead working mostly in England including a stint on Emmerdale. At nearly 70, she shows no sign of letting up. She’s just finished touring a play in the UK and after Steel Magnolias will have a three-week break in November before heading back to the UK for panto rehearsals.
In Steel Magnolias she plays the curmudgeonly Ouiser – Shirley MacLaine’s role in the movie – who also has some of the best lines. “I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years” being one of most memorable. “It’s a great role,” says Charleston, who like Barton was phoned up and offered the part without the pesky business of auditioning. “There are so many good roles for women in this play, it’s marvellous.”
A hairdresser has been drafted in to teach some of the cast the basics of hairdressing and the rehearsal room, with its pastel coloured chairs and giant dryers, looks like a retro salon. On Tuesday, she was getting used to her new short hairstyle – courtesy not of her newly trained fellow cast members during that day’s rehearsal but a trip to a real hairdressers.
“Ousier would have short hair. Glamorous. Like Joan Collins, well except Joan’s is a wig.” Her homework includes watching Steel Magnolias to get the accent down pat. “I don’t want to start imitating Shirley MacLaine, it’s about letting that wash over me while keeping my ear attuned.”
Evening plans were much the same for the two actors. Something to eat and learn the lines. “I’ll have my nose in the script again. The sooner you get that script out of your hand, the more you can start working on the character,” says Charleston. Barton was heading up Rathmines Road to her temporary home to do that too, but she was also going to the gym.
“Well, she’s a gym freak,” says Charleston, limbering up nicely for Ouiser’s one-liners.
Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling, starring Mischa Barton, Anne Charleston, Barbara Brennan, Gillian Hanna, Karen Ardiff, Natalie Radmall-Quirke, opens in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin on September 11th and tours to Cork, Derry, Limerick, Drogheda, Galway, Killarney and Castlebar