The O.C. goes OTT

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Want to meet the cast of The O.C? Just do some baking.

"There's a couple of girls who waited outside the gates on my birthday and they had a little poster and a cake for me ... " says Adam Brody, who plays the witty, yet slightly geeky, Seth Cohen in the hit teen drama. "The only problem was it wasn't my birthday."

We're on the set of The O.C and so far, no cakes. But even the normally cool-headed entertainment journalists here to meet the stars are ignoring their professionalism and requesting autographs - and getting noticeably excited when they spot Mischa Barton and Rachel Bilson scurrying across the set.

Brody's explanation for this is simple. "They're pretty and they're on a hot show."

In the US The O.C regularly pulls up to 7 million viewers. In New Zealand, where it screens on TV2 (Fridays, 8.30pm), it averages 242,000, almost 30 per cent of the audience aged 18-39.

Outside of living rooms, and on magazine covers, T-shirts and websites everywhere, the show has amassed the sort of cult status Beverly Hills 90210 enjoyed in the 90s, even making a star out of creator Josh Schwartz, who, at 26, became the youngest person to create a drama for network television.

Fans will already know the show's premise is much more tongue-in-cheek than the formulaic Spelling drama.

The O.C is set in an exclusive gated community in Orange County, Southern California, where the action centres around the good-natured Cohen family. On the outside it's a flawless existence characterised by wealth, beauty and status. On the inside, it's a cesspit of troubled teens, scandalous business deals and drama queens to rival those from Dallas.

As for the set itself, it's not what you'd call beautiful - basically it's a big warehouse in the heart of Manhattan Beach, a 45-minute drive north of Orange County. But on the nightclub set (where Seth works), the detail is staggering. Even upstairs where the cameras rarely roam, the walls are plastered with posters - the Raveonettes, the Vandals, Frank Black - a tribute to Schwartz' passion for music. (Music buffs will know the closing credits of The O.C roll to It's Too Late by Kiwi band Evermore.)

If this were a real club, you could bet the show's most recognised stars, Barton and Bilson, would be shooing away the paparazzi. Ask them about the strangest things they've read about themselves and they roll their eyes.

"I don't know where to start," says Barton, who possesses the same doll-like quality she has on screen. "We've gotten an exorbitant amount of that because our show is very pop culture and attracts that kind of attention. I think I deal with it ten times more than what is normal for most people."

Only recently she came to grips with the fact she's a role model.

And that's an interesting place to be when your character is Marissa, a spoilt, confused teen who, when she's not drinking out of a brown paper bag, is throwing a tanty - and quite possibly items of furniture - in front of her equally tempestuous mother.

An upcoming storyline concerning her sexuality should make her more popular with male viewers but not all adults are happy about letting their kids see some of the sexier scenes, she says.

"We're in a very conservative time right now," says Barton, sounding scarily grown-up for someone who, according to her co-stars, asked "Who's JR?" during a recent shoot.

"And I think that some adults don't want their children watching it because they don't want them subjected to things too young ... Teenagers do look up to you and it does affect the way they perceive you and I got that from just walking down the street. I felt the character should redeem herself to a certain extent because she is quite crazy and experimental."

Forget for a moment she's dating Brandon Davis, an heir to a billion-dollar fortune. Barton says her upbringing was "totally different" to Marissa's.

"I was born in London, raised in New York so my family's Irish and English. [My family] were kind of freaked by the fact we moved to New York to begin with. And so I went to public schools. It was just very regular.

"You do deal with things at a young age, in New York you are going to grow up fast.

"I think the fundamental difference between somebody like me, who is a city kid, versus Marissa is that she's sort of like this whole breed unto herself, where she hasn't been thrown out into the world and experienced those things and dealt with them head on. She's behind everyone else."

Even so, it was with a degree of naivety that Barton took the part on The O.C. Unlike Bilson, who grew up "addicted" to 90210, Barton didn't watch much TV as a young teen because she was already working.

Bilson, on the other hand, who claims to have said "ew" way back in high school, reckons the show is close to home.

"I definitely went out a lot and had a lot of friends but I never did a lot of the glamorous functions that we go to in The O.C.," she says.

"I think it's similar anywhere. At high school you have your friends and you go out to parties and all these issues come up and you deal with them."

She isn't shy about the fact she's now loaded, happily volunteering that she's just bought a house in LA (with her real-life partner, Brody). But it's the independence she's relishing, rather than the money, she says, and she'd hate anyone to think she was as materialistic as her character, Summer.

"In the beginning of the show my character started off very one-tone, bitchy, shallow, and people would approach me on the street - young girls - and they would be scared of me and think that I was really mean.

I felt that it was my duty to be extra nice just to show them that I'm really not that way. It's hard when people watch you and you come into their home every week, you know, once a week and they're watching.

"They feel like they know you and that's you, and it's hard to differentiate yourself from your character."

Benjamin McKenzie, the easy-going actor who plays Ryan, the outsider from Chino, agrees. He came into acting in a roundabout way, having studied foreign affairs and economics at college. He then spent time in New York waiting tables and auditioning for parts and moved to LA, where he spent a year living on a friend's floor before the part for The O.C. came up.

Perhaps as a result he found it hard to adjust to the profile.

"And I only realised it after I would do something that was incredibly arrogant or just dumb or self-destructive ... You don't know what your obligation is or who you are supposed to be in a certain situation because you've never been there before and all these people have expectations of you based on some character you are playing on a TV show that's filtered into their homes one hour a week. And they have a relationship with you, so they think you are someone who you are not. That can be odd.

"I've never had a stalker who's written their number in blood on my bathroom mirror," he adds.

Brody pipes up. "If they did I'd sleep with them. I figure, if they try that hard, if they can get into my house, it's only fair."

Of all the characters on The O.C, Brody's is the most pivotal. Schwartz wrote the part based on his own teenage experiences, which possibly explains why Seth gets the funniest lines.

Not that Brody, himself a wise-cracking smart-arse, necessarily thinks so.

He explains that during a scene with Marissa, she had just told him her ex was downstairs. "And I said, 'Your ex? Well, part of the ABCs of the exes is to step aside for the I and the you.' That's an example of something that I thought was not so hilarious."

Ask him if he's concerned about being typecast, given the lacklustre careers of the 90210 stars, and he says that he now looks only for challenging roles, such as "albino dyslexic quadriplegics".

He's since played a small part in the upcoming feature film, Mr and Mrs Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Peter Gallagher, who plays Seth's dad, Sandy Cohen, has had his own brushes with fame in the past - sex, lies and videotape and American Beauty are among his many films - and knows what the younger cast members are going through.

"Success like this is toxic," he says. "If it doesn't kill you, it's a miracle. And I think all the kids are really smart and fortunately they are all interested in doing good work and having good careers. But you know, it's really like watching your own kids grow up.

"I just hope when every season begins they come back in one piece, and I still love seeing them all on the set. I don't always hear about what goes on outside and I can see the stresses or the strains but they're good kids and smart. And they want it. So if anybody can survive it, they can."

But what of the real stars of The O.C.? Melinda Clarke, who plays Marissa's bitchy gold-digging mother, Julie Cooper-Nichol, the only member of the cast who actually grew up in Orange County, says after reading the script she wondered if it might be insulting to the people it's sending up.

"I grew up in Dana Point, which is just south of Newport Beach, and within all of that area, these coastal towns, there are these elite, wealthy people living in a bubble. It's not the world I grew up in ... I just didn't live in those circles.

"Since I've been doing this show I've done some charity events and I've been in the room with literally all of the money of Orange County. I've had people actually say, 'It's just like our lives - you guys just need to drink more'."

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