Mischa Barton Is Finally Ready to Tell the Real Story Behind Her Exit From The O.C.

Fifteen years after Marissa Cooper was killed in The O.C.’s season three finale, Mischa Barton exclusively opened up to E! News about her experience on the iconic teen soap.

By Tierney Bricker May 18, 2021 6:04 PMTags
Watch: Why Mischa Barton REALLY Left "The O.C."

"Maybe some people just get lost." 

From the moment viewers met Marissa Cooper when The O.C. premiered in 2003, it was obvious that she was far from your average spoiled rich girl. Played by then-17-year-old Mischa Barton, Marissa was a tragic figure, one that never really seemed like she belonged even though she was beautiful, wealthy and privileged. Over the course of three seasons, she experienced an overdose, her parent's divorce, being held hostage (Never forget Oliver!) and shooting her boyfriend's brother, to name just a few.

Looking back, it really shouldn't have been all that surprising that Marissa met a fiery end in the season three finale considering how much living she packed into those three years. For weeks leading up to the episode, Fox had teased a major death was coming. But for it to be Marissa, the show's female lead? No way. 

A least that's how I felt. When Ryan (Ben McKenzie) pulled Marissa from the wreckage on May 18, 2006—as Imogen Heap's haunting cover of "Hallelujah" played—I was 17 years old and, ironically, a wreck. I didn't see it coming and I couldn't understand why the Fox hit was breaking up my core four (the group name for Ryan, Marissa, Seth and Summer). I was a high school senior living on Long Island, thousands of miles away from the sound stage, unaware that things behind the scenes of a TV show can often be even more dramatic than what's happening on screen. 

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In the years since, though I've grown closer to Hollywood both literally and figuratively, I've remained curious as to what the real story was behind Barton's exit from the show, especially because she was the breakout star. She was on magazine covers. The paparazzi documented her every move. She was a burgeoning fashion icon. To me, she had it all. 

Over the years, there have been a handful of interviews that have tip-toed around the decision to kill off Marissa, but a definitive reason has never been revealed.

Series creator Josh Schwartz told The Daily Beast in 2017, "It was born out of a number of issues: Creative, cast chemistry, ratings."

And when asked if Barton wanted off the show, he said, "Mischa didn't want off the show any more than any of the other kids wanted off the show. It was a complicated chemistry with the cast...but she certainly wasn't actively seeking to leave the show."

E! Illustration

For her part, Barton, now 35, hasn't really addressed her shocking exit from The O.C. in-depth...until now.

Because 15 years after Marissa's death aired, I remain just as curious about what the hell happened as I was sitting in front of the TV in my childhood bedroom with my jaw on the floor. Sure, the show went on for one more season sans Marissa, but that episode truly felt like the series finale for me, a farewell to my favorite show as I knew it. 

So, on a whim, I reached out to Barton, not really knowing if she would want to talk about her time on The O.C. And I was admittedly surprised when she not only agreed, but opened up in such an honest and vulnerable way while on a lunch break.

"I've always felt ashamed in a way to really talk about what went on behind the scenes because I've always been a very private person and very aware of people's feelings," Barton told E! News in that May 14 phone interview. "Now that we're living in this era where we do speak out about our experiences and women do come clean about what was really going on behind the scenes and how they were treated, it's a slightly different thing."

(E! News has reached out to Warner Bros. TV and they declined to comment. Fox did not respond to our request.)

While she is working on a few projects to, as she put it, "really talk about" what she experienced during her three years on the show, Barton answered all of my questions about saying goodbye to Marissa Cooper and how she really felt about leaving The O.C.

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E! News: There have been so many rumors about why Marissa was killed off, so I wanted to hear, directly from you, when did those conversations about you leaving The O.C. start?
Mischa Barton: It's a bit complicated. It started pretty early on because it had a lot to do with them adding Rachel [Bilson] in last minute as, after the first season, a series regular and evening out everybody's pay—and sort of general bullying from some of the men on set that kind of felt really s--tty. But, you know, I also loved the show and had to build up my own walls and ways of getting around dealing with that and the fame that was thrust specifically at me. Just dealing with like the amount of invasion I was having in my personal life, I just felt very unprotected, I guess is the best way to put it.

Warner Bros Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock

I was working so hard, the longest hours probably out of all the characters. It wasn't an easy character for me to play because it wasn't me, which is why I think people liked it or thought Marissa was funny and latched on to her. They felt like this is entertaining because she's all over the place and who is this girl? It's like because this New York girl was trying to play this ditzy L.A. rich kid, you know?

E!: There was a tragic quality to her, a darkness almost. I think that's why people connected to the character.
MB: Well, I think they started to write more serious stuff for me because I wasn't good at the, like, "Oh my god, let's go shopping or get our nails done!" kind of stuff. So then they added her first kiss with a girl and her getting drunk at her dad's party or the scene where somebody gets shot. They needed stuff that played into more of my serious side. I'll be very honest, everyone's got their strengths and their weaknesses and coming from a theater and indie background, my weakness was being ditzy. It wasn't for me, but what I could enjoy was the fashions, the ridiculousness of it all and making it larger than life.

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E!: So when did things start to fall apart?
MB: So halfway through season two I would say, when we started doubling up on episodes and shooting [became] so much harder, and again a lot of that was too much for me. I didn't know where the character was going. I look back on it pretty fondly, but there's stuff I think people did wrong and the way they handled it. So, I just didn't feel I could keep going.

This has been said before, but they kind of gave me an option. The producers were like, "Well, do you want your job and to sail off into the sunset and potentially you can come back in the future in some bizarre TV scenario or we can kill your character off and you can go on with your career that you want and what you want to do?" I was getting offers from big films at the time and having to turn them down. I had always been supporting in The Sixth Sense and any of those things. My dream was to be offered those lead roles, so that's what happened. It just felt like it was the best thing for me and my health and just in terms of not really feeling protected by my cast and crew at that point.

Warner Bros Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock

E!: And you had 27 episodes for the first season, which is almost unheard of. And then seasons two and three were still 22 episodes each.
MB: And I'm not complaining about any of that. Nobody loves their job more than me. For me, acting is a passion and something I genuinely love and it was something that I super enjoy, but also I can always see things for what they are in the business. I was raised with pretty clear vision as to the workings of the industry and the trappings of it and my parents always made that very clear to me. Honestly, 15 years on, I do think it's sad that there wasn't a better way that it could've been handled.

But I also do really love that she had this epic death and that it ended like that because it's memorable and it's not just another flash in the pan. People still come up to me to this day and they're like, "I remember where I was when your character died!" And they're still emotional about it, like it was really me. I think that that's cool that people actually took something away from it. There were lessons to be learned from Marissa, for better or for worse.

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E!: Were you aware of just how big of a deal Marissa's death was?
MB: Not really. They made me feel like the show is going to go on with or without you and it is what it is. So I was just, like, OK, cool, then let's go out with a bang. I remember thinking it would be really funny when we were doing the scene after the car crash and, you know, taking the blood [from] the makeup artist and I was just like, "Squeeze it all over me!" I wanted it to be as gory and as bloody as possible. I in no way want to glorify this accident or the ending of this, so I was just like, "Go out with a bang!"


E!: How did you feel about her death when you read the script? Were you surprised they killed her off in that way?
MB: No. It's tragic, it's poetic. I knew they would find a great song to put it to because music was such a huge part of the show and I know her, as a character, she had really battled to keep it together and was unable to do so. She was just trying to find herself and she was always put into these very complicated situations from a young age to be a perfect society girl. I felt like it was actually a great ending when I read it.

E!: So after you filmed your final scene, how were you feeling? Relieved? Sad? 
MB: It was a bit of both. I was really sad I was going because that was like my family, but there had also been some things that weren't so cool and I would be lying to say I wasn't a little bit relieved that I was going to extricate myself from that situation. For whatever reasons, years later, certain people, when they see me from the show they are so excited to see me and they only remember the good times. So it's a bit of a mixed bag how we all feel about it. I was young, but I was excited to try and get to do new stuff, too, and didn't know if I could keep handling the stress of that environment that I was put in.

E!: I remember at the 2016 reunion at the ATX TV Festival, creator Josh Schwartz said he hadn't anticipated just how angry and upset people would be over Marissa's death at that time.
MB: [Laughs.] I think that's the internal struggle. There were people on that set that were very mean to me. It wasn't, like, the most ideal environment for a young, sensitive girl who's also been thrust into stardom to have to put up with. 

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E!: I'm not sure if you kept up with The O.C. after your exit, but season four, which ended up being the final season, felt like a completely different show in many ways. 
MB: Honestly, no, because I was so busy working and also it wasn't something that I sat down and watched on a weekly basis anyway. I heard rumblings and rumors that it was a very different show. It took a turn in a different direction. But I don't know much about it, to be honest.

E!: Well, did producers ever approach you about returning for the series finale or even for a flashback? They did do an episode where Ryan saw the back of Marissa's head, but obviously, it wasn't you.
MB: No. No. Nope. They didn't. 

Not like she minded. Today, she's looking out for no. 1: Mischa Barton.

The O.C. is streaming on HBO Max.

(This interview was been condensed and edited for clarity.)

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