Television stars tied into multi-year contracts are not generally afforded much flexibility to make films outside their scheduled breaks. Unless, it seems, they are Rachel Bilson. The 25-year-old actress is shooting the female lead in Doug Liman's sci-fi adventure Jumper in Toronto, while filming the fourth series of The OC in Los Angeles. Her publicist is probably not being facetious when he tells me she won't have another day off this year.
That two productions are willing to bend over backwards for Bilson speaks volumes. Bilson is locked into The OC on a seven-year contract, the norm for most American TV shows. And young actresses were presumably clamouring to work with Liman, known for making Vince Vaughn famous (Swingers), Matt Damon much more famous (The Bourne Identity) and not least for the conception of Brangelina when he cast Angelina Jolie opposite Brad Pitt in Mr and Mrs Smith. Liman is an old friend of Bilson's, having directed The OC's pilot episode back in 2003, but it is unlikely that her turn as spoilt, cocky Summer was her ticket to the role. More likely, it was her assured performance as a student besotted with a guy she can't have (Zach Braff) in the new "dramedy" The Last Kiss. Television stars often rush to cash in their new-found fame by taking roles during filming breaks, however,The Last Kiss is Bilson's first film. "I was definitely patient," she says. "It's so important to do the right kind of movie for your first one, especially coming from a teen drama. I felt that was really important in order to be taken seriously and maybe respected a little more in the film community."
Bilson exudes an uncommon gratitude for the station in life she has been afforded thanks to that teen drama. Ask her how she feels about being tied to The OC and there is not one iota of resentment. "Everything I have is because of this show and I'm so grateful for that. I'm just along for the ride."
Bilson had almost worked with Scrubs star Braff once before when he asked her to star in a music video he was directing. It didn't pan out, but once she heard he was to star in The Last Kiss, a remake of the 2001 Italian film L'Ultimo Bacio, she determined this "great project with great people" was the film she'd been waiting for. Like many actors in her age group, Bilson is completely enamoured of Braff's 2004 film Garden State, though he was not the only draw.
"I still can't believe it when I see my name on the poster next to people like Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson. I have to pinch myself because it's so odd, in the best way. I loved that there are different ages and different relationships in the film. And that it speaks to a wide variety of people because of that. My character Kim seemed such a natural, a girl you would know or could really relate to. She's a college student who's a little naive and carefree and is infatuated right off the bat with Michael." She grimaces slightly before adding, "I used to be a little like her."
Kim pursues Michael with a single-minded determination that borders on stalking. "Yes, people were a little worried there might be a boiled bunny at the end. She's a little crazy but she's young and it's her first experience at this level and, you know, we act a little crazy at times."
Director Tony Goldwyn explains Bilson's casting: "She seems innocent but she really knows how to use her sexuality." She blushes when I recount this. "Oh, I wasn't aware of that. It just came naturally. Well, some of it. Seducing is always a little awkward but I think it kind of worked out." As part of that seduction, Bilson got to play her first sex scene. "It's such a weird concept, doing that with a guy in front of a bunch of other guys. And it was worse that Zach was a friend."
The new series of The OC will see Summer attending the Ivy League college Brown and re- fashioning herself as an environmental activist. "Summer has evolved so much. If she evolves any more she's going to burst but she's grown up a lot with having to deal with her best friend's death [played by Mischa Barton]." Bilson herself spent a year at college in San Diego but dropped out once she decided to pursue acting seriously. She has Hollywood in the blood: her great-grandfather worked at RKO Pictures, her great-grandmother was a screenwriter, her grandfather is a film director and her father a writer-producer.
"I grew up around sets and I did lots of plays like The Crucible in high school. I was having so much fun that my dad actually said to me one day, 'Do you want to do this? It seems like you really love it.' And I said, 'Of course.' I didn't really get serious about it, though, until I was 19."
She filmed a few commercials and won a couple of guest roles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Eight Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter. When she won the role of Summer, she was told it was for a couple of episodes. As series creator Josh Schwartz recalls, "She came in and was not what you expected in that part. She was adorable, funny and smart, and the more we gave her to do, the more she kept nailing. We watched a scene between her and Seth [Adam Brody] and knew: this girl is amazing. Let's make her a series regular."
Brody evidently approved, too - the pair started dating, and have been together for three years. They are a low-key couple who live separately in the Hollywood Hills, and are more often spotted out with their dogs than famous friends. "It's hard for anyone not to be noticed if you date another actor who's known. It just makes it two people instead of one." They steer clear of places where they know the paparazzi will be lurking and would never be seen dead with an entourage.
"I think when you exploit yourself in that way, you're not being yourself as an actor, you're representing this whole other entity, a product almost. But I feel like I don't have it that bad in terms of being recognised. I do have people come up to me but it's really nice to know you have fans because it means you're succeeding at your job."
Her Hollywood blood makes her fallback career choice somewhat unlikely. "If I wasn't acting, I'd be a teacher. I love kids. I always wanted my own classroom." For the time being, she has other goals: "I want the roles that Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson are offered."
Is she really far off that? She blushes again: "Of course. I'm just at the bottom. Trying to work my way towards anything."
'The Last Kiss' is on general release