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Mischa Barton: Being in Northern Ireland really touches my soul

Mischa Barton

Hollywood star Mischa Barton talks about her Ulster heritage, why she loves the stage and how she’s never been happier.

Mischa Barton is one difficult lady to pin down. Hollywood's golden girl, who arrived in Dublin for her Irish stage debut several weeks ago, has managed to give me the slip since then. First she was in rehearsals for her role of Shelby Eatenton in Robert Harling's bitter-sweet play Steel Magnolias, then came almost two weeks of shows at the Gaiety Theatre.

Just as I've given up on the elusive star of The Sixth Sense and The OC, she calls me up, late one evening. She's just arrived in Cork, where the play is running until tonight, and is exhausted, hungry but eager to chat. The fact that her mother Nuala hails from Northern Ireland has contributed to her agreeing to this interview. It also helped that the last time Mischa was here, the Belfast Telegraph splashed her across the front page, when she rocked up at the premiere of Closing The Ring, dressed head to toe in Northern Irish fashion.

“You've interviewed me before, right?” she asks me immediately. I tell her I have, back in 2007. She was in Belfast to promote Richard Attenborough's wartime romance, Closing The Ring, in which she co-starred alongside legendary actress Shirley MacLaine.

“And I was on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph too,” she laughs. “My family would have been so proud of that.”

The ‘family' she refers to are on her mother's side. Nuala Barton, nee Quinn, grew up in Newry, Co Down. She moved to England, where she met and married foreign exchange broker Paul Marsden Barton. The couple had three daughters, Zoe, Mischa and Hania. Mischa was born in west London but brought up in New York. Her maternal grandfather, Hugh Quinn, an Irish language professor, lived out his later years in Sion Mills, near Strabane.

Does she still have relatives living in Northern Ireland?

“I do,” she replies. “Lots of second cousins and distant relatives. I used to come over to see my grandad and my great-uncle Joe Morgan.

“My grandad was around for a long time and he was a great man. He lived in Newry but also in Sion Mills, where he died. He came over to see me when I was in New York and LA. I even brought him to Fox [home of The OC]. He was a very proud grandaddy.”

When Mischa was offered the part of fragile flower Shelby Eatenton in Steel Magnolias, she jumped at the chance. It marks a homecoming on two fronts for the beautiful actress: firstly, a chance to revisit her Irish roots; and, secondly, a return to the stage, where it all began. Most people associate Mischa with television and film, but she actually started her career in theatre, appearing in the off-Broadway premiere of the 1994 play Slavs! at just eight years of age.

“Doing theatre is a mental exercise,” she explains. “It's one of those muscles you have to keep working.

“I started in theatre and I love it. It's so raw and real being up there, in front of people. The feedback from the audience is immediate. When actors say they love that buzz that you get from theatre, it's not just a line. It's so true. You're always pushing yourself. It's an amazing experience.”

Steel Magnolias, though written by Harling as a stage play, is probably best known as the 1989 retelling on the big screen. Set In Truvy's hair/beauty salon in the small town of Chinquapin, Louisiana, it's a heart-warming tale of friendship and female bonding. The movie starred Julia Roberts as Shelby, alongside Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah. In this stage production, MacLaine's curmudgeonly character, Ouiser Boudreaux, is played by another familiar face, Anne Charleston, better known as Madge in Neighbours. The touring play also stars Karen Ardiff (Truvy), Barbara Brennan (M'Lynn), Gillian Hanna (Miss Clairee) and Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Annelle).

Mischa says the cast are all getting on well.

“They're a fantastic group of actresses,” she enthuses. “Anne is so sweet. I like her a lot and she has so much experience. But they are all so talented and I am very lucky to be working with them.

“To star in this play and to get the chance to act on stage at the Gaiety

Theatre has been a dream come true for me. The Gaiety is such a beautiful place. It's wonderful to have been part of it, when so many great Irish actors have started out there.

“I just wish my grandad and great uncle had been there to see me.”

Mischa says she was a huge fan of the movie version of Steel Magnolias.

“I watched it many times, of course,” she says. “I think people love it still because it's a reminder of old Americana. There's a real innocence to it.

“Shelby is a real girlie girl. All she wants is to have babies. Her favourite colour is pink. Mine is blue. I like black and gold. I'm nothing like her. Yet our director, Ben Barnes, says that I embody some of the qualities that make Shelby the person she is.”

After a run at Cork Opera House, Steel Magnolias heads north to the Millennium Forum in Londonderry. Mischa says she can't wait.

“As nice as this part of the country is here,” she says, “I am really excited about getting back to Northern Ireland. There's something about that place that touches my soul.”

Mischa's performance as Shelby has won her rave reviews so far, with one critic singling her out as the ‘sparkling' star of the show.

“It's nice to hear things like that being said about you, I must admit,” she says. “Though I don't tend to read what the newspapers say.”

Mischa's love of theatre began at a young age. After starring in Tony Kushner's Slavs!, she went on to ap

pear in several other off-Broadway productions, alongside Marisa Tomei in Twelve Dreams at the Lincoln Centre and Diane Wiest in Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare.

“I've had a charmed life in theatre,” she says.

“I think people tend to associate me with television and movies, but I'm actually a classically trained actress. I worked hard to have those skills and I'm proud of the fact that I have that ability. Like I said, it's a muscle that needs exercised.”

Mischa's first major film role was in Lawn Dogs, an acclaimed drama co-starring Sam Rockwell. She went on to appear in the romantic comedy Notting Hill and the psychological thriller The Sixth Sense. But it was her role as Marissa Cooper in the hit US show The OC that catapulted her to fame. Mischa became a teen superstar and a fashion icon. She won numerous awards for her role and was named It Girl of 2003 by Entertainment Weekly.

But fame came at a price. With her model good looks, rock-star boyfriends and cool sense of style, Mischa found herself a target for the paparazzi. Every move, every mannerism, every outfit was caught on camera and scrutinised. In December 2007, the young actress was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, possession of marijuana and driving without a valid licence. She was detained and released later the same morning from the West Hollywood Sheriff Station on bail of $10,000. But Mischa, who was later charged with two offences relating to the incident, took responsibility for her actions, calling into Ryan Seacrest's radio show to apologise. The American Press had a field day.

Theatre, she mentions, is about taking risks. I ask her if she considers herself a risk-taker.

“I think it depends on the risk,” she replies. “I'd like to think I'm pretty adventurous.”

Then she hesitates. “But I think the older I've become, the less risks I’m taking. I'm more cautious now, definitely with my body and stuff like that.

“I guess I've just grown up. I know there are people relying on me now.”

Her private life remains a subject of intense media speculation. In the past she's been romantically linked with US rocker Cisco Adler, The

Kooks' frontman Luke Pritchard and Northern Ireland model and actor Jamie Dornan. She is currently dating London actor Sebastian Knapp, who was at her side for the opening night in Dublin of Steel Magnolias. The following day a photograph of Mischa, sporting a diamond ring, appeared in a newspaper, raising the possibility that the star was engaged.

Barton, who is normally quite guarded about her privacy, laughs out loud at this. “It was a £3.99 ring from Claire's Accessories that my character Shelby wears in the play,” she tells me. “I just hadn't taken it off.

“I mean, come on, if I was going to wear an engagement ring it wouldn't be a fake diamond. Really, that's so not my type of ring. If I get married, though I doubt I will, let's just say I won't be wearing a ring like that.”

I ask her why she has reservations about marriage.

“Oh I don't know,” she laughs. “I'm still young. We'll see. I don't know if I will, but never say never, I guess.”

Her romance with Sebastian is going well, she says. In fact, right now, she couldn't be happier.

“Life is great at the moment,” she says. “We get on well. I'm enjoying work. It's a combination of things. Yeah, I'm very happy.”

Fittingly, for a fashion icon once hailed as the “face of a generation” by the normally acid-tongued Karl Lagerfield, Mischa has recently opened a new boutique in Spitalfields, London. The shop features her own range of clothes and handbags, which she designs with a team.

“I love designing, that whole side of it is great,” she says. “I'm very proud of the shop. I love fashion, I always have, but I don't follow trends. I just tend to wear what I like. I'd like to think I have developed my own sense of style, and as I've got older, that has become more defined, more consistent.

“I have to admit, it's lovely to be considered a style icon. But I just do my own thing. I always have.”

So what is next for Mischa after Steel Magnolias runs it course?

“Well, I still have a month or so to do of the play,” she replies. “Then we'll just have to see.

“That's an actor's life for you, you just never know what's coming up next. But I'm very excited about the future.”

Steel Magnolias, Millennium Forum, Londonderry, Monday & Tuesday, October 1-2. For details, visit millenniumforum.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph