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HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — It’s 80 degrees and an ocean breeze blows steadily as a gaggle of film-set types, cameramen, soundmen and grips trudge through the sand before someone yells, “Action!” All eyes shift to a sun-kissed, bikini-clad girl deep in conversation with the sun-kissed, bikini-clad girl on the towel next to her.
“Come on, lemme buy you lunch,” she says. “My dad gave me his credit card for emergencies and this is an emergency!”
Welcome to the set of “The O.C.,” Fox’s one-hour drama launching Aug. 5. “O.C.,” of course, is short for Orange County, the wealthy enclave just south of Los Angeles, and the show picks up where “Beverly Hills, 90210” left off. But instead of mining stereotypical images like Rodeo Drive and palm-lined streets, the show delves into Newport Beach’s cookie-cutter mansions and famed Fashion Island Mall. It’s far from campy — rather, a glossy-meets-earnest vibe that allows viewers to fantasize while, hopefully, relating to the characters.
Almost every day is a day at the beach, where the lives of Newport’s warring nouveau riche tribes unfold. And at the center of it all is 17-year-old Mischa Barton, the beautiful actress who played Evan Rachel Wood’s troubled friend on the TV series “Once and Again,” and appeared in ads for Calvin Klein, Dooney & Bourke and Neutrogena. The New York native packed up her TriBeCa apartment and moved to Santa Monica with her mom and younger sister for the summer to star in the series, which is executive produced by “Charlie’s Angels” director McG.
Barton plays Marissa Cooper, the intelligent but bored rich girl next door who might be falling for Ryan, a newcomer from the wrong side of the tracks, played by Benjamin McKenzie.
In other words, let the fashion games begin. “The show centers on wealthy teens, so we’re trying to wear some pretty cool stuff,” says Barton. “I love fashion and I was psyched when I saw what we get to wear.” Her wardrobe closet is full of dresses by Marc Jacobs and Diane Von Furstenberg, Joie-cropped cargo pants, Juicy Couture T-shirts and plenty of Vitamin A and Billabong bikinis. “Marissa has quite a bit of natural style, while her friends look like they just stepped out of a magazine,” Barton explains. “She’s the girl who can throw herself together and look good, and it makes her friends a little bit jealous.”
Like Marissa, Barton, who started acting at age eight at Circle in the Square Theatre and attends the Professional Children’s School, has access to a rarefied world, wearing Chanel to her prom and landing a good seat at the Zac Posen show.
But she’s quick to point out that once the audience gets past “O.C.’s” flashy visuals, the show’s emotional core is what will bring viewers back. “What you find is that Orange County could be like anywhere else and the teens have the same issues,” she says. In Marissa’s case, that would be a cheating golden-boy beau, a shopaholic mom and a dad who’s close to bankruptcy. She faces the evils of drugs and bubble-bath threesomes at a wild beach-house party her friends throw when their parents are out of town.
It’s not quite “Sixteen Candles,” more like the Hilton Sisters Gone Wild, but Barton says the show rings true. “We actually show a good spectrum of how kids party,” she says. “In the fourth episode, we go to a party in a big dilapidated house in a bad neighborhood. It’s not all glamour.” And Barton’s character is one of the few on the show who can see past it all. “She’s multifaceted in a scene where everyone is really superficial. She knows there’s another world out there.”
Out on the beach, five takes later, the director is satisfied and Barton dives into waves to cool off. She looks like a regular California beach bunny, and is hoping to learn how to surf. But Barton is still adjusting to her golden new life. Back in her air-conditioned trailer, she arranges her impossibly long, tanned limbs on the couch. “It’s self-tanner,” she says, “because I burned myself last week.”