Like Seth Cohen once told Summer Roberts, Rachel Bilson's allure is undeniable.
Since her big break on The O.C. when she was just 21 years old, Bilson has managed to remain the relatable actress we all want to be friends with, whose closet we want to raid and the one we can't really blame our partners for wanting to be with. She's just, well, undeniable.
And at 40 years old, Bilson is showing no signs of slowing down, unlike her iconic character, she isn't exactly suffering a rage blackout over the milestone birthday Aug. 25.
"I'm having really mixed feelings, it's like, 'F--k, am I that old?!'" Bilson admitted in a recent phone interview with E! News, after returning from a Hawaiian vacation. "And then it's like, alright cool, I feel like I've accomplished enough that I'm ready to turn this age."
With those accomplishments—including helming two hit TV series (We still heart, Hart of Dixie!), hosting a popular podcast, designing several fashion lines and remaining a style icon for two decades, NBD!—an older, wiser Bilson was able to offer a piece of advice to her younger self, the actress just starting off in the industry almost 20 years ago.
"Don't ever forget where you came from," Bilson shared. "Keep the people that know you the best and you know the best around and close, and keep your support system because that's the most important thing I think going through any of it. And to just believe in yourself and like not let all of the external distraction crap affect you."
Dealing with all the noise and tabloid attention is something Bilson is used to since The O.C. turned her and her co-stars—Ben McKenzie, Adam Brody and Mischa Barton—into household names and paparazzi magnets. All these years later, people can't get enough of anything having to do with the Core Four. (Remember the Internet's breakdown over Bilson and Brody's random run-in at the airport?)
One recent example of this phenomenon? Bilson's revelation that she was approached by MTV about The Hills: New Beginnings before Barton ultimately joined the cast. (Barton ultimately exited the revival in 2020 after one season.)
"Oh my gosh, that came out so flipped in the headlines," Bilson said. "I never was like, 'Oh, you know, I turned it down so they cast Mischa.' That is not true. I don't know if she was already cast. I have no idea. I was not trying to talk shit in any way."
For Bilson, she's always been more interested in watching reality TV—she, like all of us, was "so excited" for the return of Bachelor in Paradise—than participating in it.
"It's not really my thing," she explained. "The only thing I could see is, like, a cooking show. I am super homebound, grandma, art...I don't know that I would be that entertaining in reality."
Still, given Barton's interview with E! News this May, during which she revealed she felt bullied and "unprotected" prior to her high-profile exit, The Hills casting story added more fuel to the feud rumors, which Bilson was happy to extinguish, saying, "I am sending her all the love and support in everything she does."
Though the former on-screen best friends haven't spoken in years, Bilson said it "would be great to see her" and that she and her co-star turned co-host Melinda Clarke would love to have Barton on their podcast, Welcome to The O.C. Bitches, where they are recapping every episode with various guests who worked on the show.
"I know recently she has said it wasn't the best experience for her," noted Bilson, "so I would love to hear her side of the story."
Welcome to the O.C., Bitches has provided Bilson and Clarke a platform to share their memories and reflect on their own experiences of filming the iconic series, which ended its four-year run in 2007.
Approached with the idea for the podcast during the pandemic, Bilson said, "It sounded like a lot of fun and a nice escape with everything that we were dealing with."
It also provided her with the opportunity to "catch up with old friends" and "revisit something that was so important to me and so much fun. It just felt like the right time to do it. It's always held such a special place for me. It gave me everything and I've always been so grateful for it."
Ironically enough, Bilson was initially only supposed to appear in the first few episodes of the Fox phenomenon. But with one iconic word—"Ew!"—Summer Roberts became a fan-favorite and the actress was made a series regular.
"Obviously it was really great in the sense that I got the role, but I didn't have to do all the things that the other series regulars had to do," Bilson recalled of her casting experience. "It's very nerve racking and I kind of slid on in."
Credit her comedic timing, with creator Josh Schwartz telling her "I made him laugh," she continued. "Obviously, I wasn't what he was picturing for the best friend and from the beach town in Orange County, but I got the part, which is very cool."
And then, of course, there was the potential for the love triangle between Brody's Seth, Summer and Samaire Armstrong's Anna. From the jump, the chemistry between Summer and Seth was, as his character put it, "undeniable," which made sense given that Bilson and Brody dated for three years.
"I was a fan of it because you get to see the person more," Bilson said of dating her co-star. "You work a lot and the hours are long and stuff and someone is experiencing the same things. They understand everything you're going through. There were a lot of perks to it, for sure. And that happens a lot of the time because people meet people in their workplace and it's kind of no different. It was definitely helpful to have someone going through the same thing."
Given the show's surprise success and the instant rise to fame for its young stars, the cast's love lives and reports of behind-the-scenes drama began surfacing. Tate Donovan, who starred in and directed the series, once called out his younger co-stars for their behavior. Bilson recently apologized to him on her podcast, saying, "I hope I wasn't as bad as it's come off."
Looking back on her experience, Bilson explained, "It was all very positive. Was it a lot of work? Absolutely. Especially for Mischa, who was 17 and working her ass off and I obviously didn't work anywhere near the amount that she did."
"But from my own experience on the show, we all had a lot of fun together," she continued. "We were all friends outside of work as well, we hung out a lot and so for me, looking back on it and thinking about it, it's all positive. It was a really good time. We all really became like a family and had a great time on the show together. There were a lot of laughs."
Fortunately for Bilson, social media wasn't something she had to deal with while being thrust into fame, which could have added more pressure to an already hard-to-navigate transition.
"It would have been an even crazier experience, being young and kind of like getting the attention from the show," she said, "and obviously it was like a big time for paparazzi and whatnot, but I wasn't going out to clubs drunk or anything like that. I was pretty domesticated at the time, but we all did go out and still have fun. I always say it was great having that support system, people going through it together, it felt like a really safe way to kind of navigate it at that age and at that time."
Toward the end of The O.C.'s run, Bilson would land her first major film role in 2008's sci-fi hit Jumper. A big break to be certain, but more importantly it introduced her to Hayden Christensen, whom she dated for ten years. While the couple ultimately called off their engagement in 2017, they share custody of 7-year-old daughter Briar Rose.
Becoming a mother changed "everything" about her life as a person and an actor, said Bilson.
"Number one for me is being a mom and being there for my daughter," she explained. "I didn't go back to work full-time until she was 3 years old. It's just so important to me and it has made me happier. As far as work goes, I feel like I can touch on these things. Seeing any scenes dealing with anything traumatic or dramatic with children, like, you finally understand, and I think before having kids, you can't really touch on that in your soul. It's the best thing ever."