Actress Rachel Bilson.
By Debra Forman
Fresh as a summer rain, friends and fans describe television and movie star Rachel Bilson as a stunning and intelligent woman, who will always be a California girl at heart.
A native of fabled San Fernando Valley, Bilson began acting professionally in Raisin Bran and Pepto-Bismol commercials before nabbing her first major role as popular girl Summer Roberts on The O.C., the hit FOX television soap that has made her a hot commodity.
Born to an affluent Ashkenazi Jewish-American father (writer/director/producer Danny Bilson) and an Italian-American mother, it is not too much of a stretch that the petite, raven-haired 25-year-old vixen decided to try her hand at the show business industry. Show business runs in her family. Her greatgrandfather, George Bilson, was the head of the trailer department at RKO Pictures, and her greatgrandmother, Hattie, was a screenwriter. Bilson’s grandfather, Bruce, is a film director.
Her parents divorced when Bilson was a child, but regardless of the early split, she says that her family values are strong. She has several older brothers, who spoiled her when she was growing up in the Valley, good training for her spoiled but lovable O.C. character, Summer.
“My childhood was idyllic. I grew up sort of like a princess,” says Bilson. “Now that I’m an adult, I know if you want something badly enough, and you are willing to work hard for it, you can have it.”
One piece of family advice she holds close to her heart came from her mom. “You have to be who you are and be true to yourself first. My mom taught me that it’s none of my concern what other people think of me—it’s their deal.”
Bilson graduated from Notre Dame High School in 1999 (the same school as Kirsten Dunst) and soon after was performing in stage productions of Bye Bye Birdie, The Crucible, and Once Upon a Mattress. She moved on to gueststarring roles on several TV shows, including, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, MADtv, That ’70s Show, and 8 Simple Rules. Then came the action-packed drama The O.C.
Starting with the then scandalous Peyton Place in the 1960s to Beverly Hills, 90210 in the ’90s, every generation of teenagers has had a television touchstone to call its own. The O.C. quickly became this generation’s guilty pleasure.
The glamorous show, starting its fourth season in the fall, takes place in a wealthy harborfront community in upscale Orange County, California, and focuses on the tangled love lives of teens and their parents. The primetime series blends the sudsy delights of adolescent melodrama with sharp social commentary—and newcomer Rachel Bilson is credited with providing much of the show’s edge and élan. She portrays popular girl Summer Roberts, the longtime crush of main character Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), who happens to be Bilson’s real-life boyfriend.
Seth Cohen has long been in love with the beautiful and unattainable Summer Roberts, and is just as bewildered as most men when it comes to women. Seth, and apparently Adam Brody, too, is willing, on-screen and off, to go that extra mile to gain his heart’s desire, even if he comes off as uncool in the process.
“Let’s be honest, when the show started I was far from the hot guy,” says Brody, who recently appeared opposite Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. “But I’ve sort of turned into this cool guy. I guess you could say I am a role model for teens of all ages. Seth Cohen is their hero, which is something I appreciate and take seriously.” The fans do, too.
Everyone wants to know should Seth and Summer stay together or move on? While Bilson doesn’t know too far in advance what is going to happen, she believes in the fickleness of romance.
“Well, I would say you have to keep it interesting,” she says. “You know, like Ross and Rachel were the famous couple of Friends, but they weren’t together for most of the 10 years they were on. It was always that kind of on-and-off thing. And I think that’s what keeps the show interesting. Everyone’s going ‘What’s going to happen? What’s the outcome going to be?’ So if the two couples just stayed together, it would probably be pretty boring.”
While Seth’s love life on the show with his longtime crush has been extremely rocky, in real life Brody and Bilson are a cozy twosome. Even their costars think the two should stay together.
“Rachel and Adam have such a great relationship,” says former O.C. co-star Olivia Wilde. “When they kiss on the show, you know it’s coming from a real place.”
Creator/producer Josh Schwartz echoes her sentiments: “Rachel and Adam are just so damn cute all the time.”
Schwartz also gives us an idea of the future of The O.C. “We try to separate who everybody is in real life from who his or her characters are. I have never even seen Kelly Rowan (who plays Seth’s mom and a recovering alcoholic) have a cocktail in real life and I have never seen (bad-boy Benjamin McKenzie (Ryan)punch anybody. So when we are writing for Adam and Rachel we use that same logic. I think they were a little uncomfortable last year when they had to go off and start kissing other people, but this year they are really together as a couple, so they get to carpool,” he joked. “They save gas mileage. It is an environmental plan.”
Bilson and Brody are also credited with being a private and discrete couple, despite being on one of the most popular current TV shows. They don’t talk about their relationship and keep things mum, much to their credit. Occasionally they are seen together at indie rock clubs and she supports his musical interests when he plays with his band, Big Japan, something he is extremely serious about. So would she ever join him on the club stage? “Nope, never. We keep our lives separate in that way.”
The O.C. has taken fans around the world through the trials and tribulations of several years in high school. Now, the teens have graduated and college awaits them. Summer’s best friend, Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), was killed in a horrendous car crash at the end of the season, so viewers are eager to see how the show will change in her absence and what new characters will be introduced.
“We all graduated from high school, so everybody is dealing with that,” Bilson says. “I am sure Seth and Summer will have some issues to deal with and whatnot because they will be graduating and they may be going their separate ways.”
Bilson says that her character, who went from frosty to mushy in a few seasons, is ever evolving. “Summer’s just your average boy-crazy party girl. She’s a lot like the girls I grew up with in the Valley, but she’s got a lot of layers, too.”
In fact, as the teen character she portrays has evolved to show her softer side, Bilson appears to be a lot like Summer. Rachel’s costars think she is a class act.
“Rachel is probably the coolest person I’ve ever met,” says Olivia Wilde, who played the Bait Shop music club manager on a previous season of The O.C.
And the feeling is mutual according to Bilson. “I go to work surrounded by people I care about who also make me laugh. I work with my friends, and you really can’t ask for more than that.”
When the show first aired, it was uncertain if it would attract viewers. For Bilson, the moment she realized how big The O.C. had become happened at Hermosa Beach.
“They screened the show at this bar/restaurant in Hermosa Beach called Sharky’s, and I remember pulling up in the car with my publicist and I looked outside and there is this huge crowd of people,” Bilson recalls. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on over there?’ And she was like, ‘That’s where you’re going.’ And I was like, stunned. We got out of the car and there were a thousand or more people, and it was so overwhelming. But it was a cool feeling, like you knew that many people were into it and watching the show. It was pretty crazy.”
The craziness has not let up, and oftentimes fans forget that Bilson is just playing the part of Summer. “I think people are so used to thinking of me as my character that they come up and ask me why I’m not with Seth, Ryan, and Marissa. You know, they talk to me like I am my character and not an actress.”
Bilson is quick to point out that life hands you opportunities and you have to make the most of them by being yourself. In fact, one memorable line helped her nab her part during her audition for The O.C. “Yep, it was ‘I gotta pee.’ Basically I got the part by having to pee,” she says with a smile.
She also made famous her signature sound, “Ew!” Creator/producer Josh Schwartz loved the way she nailed it in the pilot and it stuck. “It’s funny because all my friends in high school, we all said, ‘Ew!’ It was like our catchphrase. And so now everyone, you know, whenever they see me, they say, ‘Ew.’ So it’s kind of funny that it
became like ‘the word,’ when it was my word to begin with. But it was written into the script.”
Bilson has already branched out to the big screen in the film The Last Kiss, opposite Zack Braff, Blythe Danner, Jacinda Barrett, and Casey Affleck, a movie due out later this year about a domesticated couple whose future is threatened by anxieties. When it comes to future movie projects, what is she looking for?
“Oh, gosh, anything. I just want a good script with good actors and a good director. That is all that matters to me.”
Like many in the entertainment industry, Bilson supports charitable causes where she can and this year attended the Chrysalis 5th Annual Butterfly Ball in Los Angeles. Chrysalis is an organization that helps the homeless of L.A. find jobs and get rehabilitated. She recently cohosted a benefit at Hollywood eatery Memphis to support the Los Angeles Mission, another nonprofit that serves the homeless who live on the streets of downtown L.A’s Hope Central (known as Skid Row).
Bilson, who has graced several glamorous magazine covers, adores clothes and fashion. Her favorite designers are Stella McCartney and Coco Chanel, and she loves anything vintage—especially shoes and purses. She also enjoys reading. Two recent books she read are Long Way Down by Nick Hornby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. “I am in a real Capote phase right now. Even though I have seen the movie and know all about him, it is still cool to revisit all those books.”
Although she is young, beautiful and famous, Bilson says she lives a relatively quiet life. “I have spent my time house hunting, working, and not really doing anything exciting. I feel as if I am an 85-year-old grandmother already.” She also enjoys taking her dog for walks in the neighborhood. And what does she enjoy doing when she is not working?
“My favorite thing is to be at a hotel because you get to lie in bed, watch a new movie, and order food up to your room. That is the best. After working all season, I really need to go to a beach and have my hotel room and room service and do nothing.”
Being named by several men’s magazines as a “hot, sexy, and seductive young actress with star qualities” and having a huge fan base has not changed this fresh, young actress who’s already made a lasting impression on Hollywood. And it’s a good bet that she will keep doing so for years to come. After all, it’s in her roots.
Reprinted with permission by Lifestyles Magazine.