We Still Owe Melinda Clarke For Bringing Us Julie Cooper On The O.C.

Photo: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images.
“Jimmy, honey, did you get my froyo? Pistachio. Thanks, sweetie.”
With those 10 words and a sly delivery, Melinda Clarke turned a guest star appearance as a self-described gold-digging Orange County housewife into one of the most compelling series regulars on The O.C. As Julie Cooper (or Julie Cooper Nichol depending on what season you’re on), Clarke wove a complex web of schemes, intrigue, and grifting, creating a character that was sometimes horrible, sometimes endearing, but always — truly, always —  interesting. 
In August 2003, we entered the gilded McMansions of Orange County, CA with Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), a troubled teen from Chino who is taken in by his public defender, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher). From there, he’s introduced to a colourful cast of characters, including Sandy and Kirsten Cohen’s (Kelly Rowan) son Seth (Adam Brody),to cool girl-next-door Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), and her best friend, Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson). As Marissa’s mother and wife of Jimmy Cooper (Tate Donovan), Julie starts out as a villainous presence. A girl from the wrong side of the tracks who clawed her way up the social ladder, she sees Ryan’s arrival — amidst her own personal turmoil — as a threat to everything she’s worked to build for her daughter. But over the show’s four seasons, Julie evolves into a flashpoint for some of the show’s most interesting discussions about class and gender, ending her arc as a woman confident in her own abilities and secure in her independence. She was a “strong female character” before it became a marketing tool. 
Advertisement
Now, 14 years after the show’s finale, Clarke (friends call her Mindy) has returned to Newport Beach — at least, virtually — as the co-host of a highly anticipated podcast with former co-star Rachel Bilson. Welcome to the O.C., Bitches! is part recap, part behind-the-scenes gossip, as Bilson and Clarke interview cast members, writers, artists and musicians who worked on the beloved show. Episode 1, which premiered on April 27, revisited the show’s pilot with creator and showrunner Josh Schwartz. The second installment, released on Tuesday, touched on some of casting director Patrick Rush’s decisions — including the controversial choice to cast 24-year-old Ben McKenzie opposite 16-year-old Mischa Barton as star-crossed lovers Ryan Atwood and Marissa Cooper. Interspersed with Clarke and Bilson’s own recollections and commentary, as well as insights gleaned from hindsight, the podcast is the ideal companion for that O.C. rewatch everyone seems to be embarking on.
Clarke was only 33 when she first zipped up a Juicy Couture tracksuit as Julie. Now 52, she’s lived through her own daughter’s teen years, and looks back at her character with a fresh perspective. 
Refinery29: Julie Cooper is one of the most interesting characters from The O.C. to revisit years later — I know my own feelings towards her have definitely evolved over the years. What has your experience been like?
Melinda Clarke: “Julie started as this very superficial woman, but ultimately, we find that she’s not one-dimensional. She’s a human being on a journey of discovery, which takes her through so many different aspects of what’s important in life. When she loses a child, we really do end up seeing the humanity in her. The character was super rewarding. Doing this podcast and watching it, I’m on my own journey. I’m watching the show with such a different set of eyes. 
Advertisement
“And this is what’s becoming surprising — there’s books that have been written about The O.C. There’s a critical understanding of the show and its impact on feminism, and it’s made me think: Huh, was she really a character that was empowered? Julie is such a survivor. She’s like, I am what I am. So, what? You can hate me, it doesn’t matter. I really envy that.”
What’s been the most unexpected part of this process for you so far?
“We ask all of our guests what it’s been like rewatching the show, and some people are nervous; I think Peter [Gallagher] said that he was nervous to watch. I was concerned because Julie is such a larger-than-life character, and I thought there would be overacting. But Julie is that person: She puts on a personality depending on who is in front of her. She knows her audience. That is the master manipulator that she is. She wants something from Caleb, she wants something from Kiki, she goes about life almost like a grifter to get what she wants. I really was quite surprised at how the magic of the chemistry between the cast holds up.” 
What made you want to revisit the show in the first place?
“The lockdown had just happened, and I got a random email and the subject said: ‘Mindy, it’s Bilson.’ And I was like, Who is this? I didn’t recognize the email, and I hadn’t really been in contact with Rachel. She said she’d been approached to do this and sent me some examples, like The Office Ladies and Fake Doctors, Real Friends. What a wonderful way to engage and reconnect with people during this really difficult time! I’m not used to putting my personal self out there. [As actors,] we do scripted dialogue. We have it edited and lit beautifully. Pushing myself into something a little uncomfortable is a good opportunity.” 
Advertisement
Do you find that people assume that you’re more like Julie than you actually are?
“Maybe! Hopefully, the reaction that we’re getting from the show is that I’m nothing like her. But I do have to say that the wonderful gift about this show, more than anything I’ve done in the past — because I’ve played a dominatrix, and a lot of sci-fi type characters — [is that] Julie’s sense of humour is a lot of Mindy. I’m not motivated by that kind of world, I like simple things in life. I’m much too lazy to be Julie Cooper. She gets up at 5 in the morning.” 
Well yeah, she has to go to Cardio Barre!
“That I actually did! I lived in the Valley, and my daughter went to school there. I grew up as a ballet dancer, and my mother’s been doing Pilates since the 1960s. I’ve been doing it since the ‘90s. Cardio barre opened next to my daughter’s dance studio in Studio City, and I started going. Josh Schwartz, a friend of mine, and myself were on a plane together, and I was telling my friend ‘When we get back, you have to try Cardio Barre!’ And Josh overheard, and then next thing I know, we started shooting the second season and in the first scene [Julie] said: ‘Marissa, we’re late for Cardio Barre.’”
Speaking of that scene, the moment where Marissa throws the furniture into the pool has been all over Twitter this year. 
“That’s how we all feel.” 
Advertisement
You were only 33 when you were cast as the mother of a teenager. Were you ever concerned it might not work?
“Traditionally, Hollywood casts younger women to play much older. The character I played on CSI, the Lady Heather — I was 31 and the character was written as a 45 year-old. I was definitely young [when I was cast as Julie]. My daughter was 3, now she’s 21. Now I’ve actually been through the teen years and I look at it with a completely different set of eyes. But we figured out that Mischa was only 16, so if I was 18 or 19 when I had Marissa, I was only playing a few years older. 
“If you tune into the second episode, we have Patrick Rush, our casting director, and we discuss the fact that Mischa was 16 or 17 and that Ben Mackenzie was 23 or 24, and people would remark on that. But as a casting director Patrick made the point to say: ‘If I had actually cast a young man of 17 next to Mischa Barton it would not have looked correct.’ You needed someone who had a few years. Sometimes boys haven’t matured yet at that age.”
Have you kept in touch with Mischa Barton at all?
“I have not! I’m hoping she comes on the show. I ran into her once at a [benefit]. I kept in touch with Kelly [Rowan] because we were in Toronto at the same time, and Peter [Gallagher] was there. Rachel and I hadn’t kept in contact. I was in Toronto during [the Toronto International Film Festival] and both Adam Brody and Olivia Wilde were there. But other than that, we’ve tried to get together at Peter’s a couple of summers ago, but it didn’t really work out. But we’re going to.”
Advertisement
What’s it been like to see Shailene Woodley’s career evolve since she played Julie’s younger daughter Caitlin in season 1?
“Watching the show now, you realize what a presence she had! My favourite of her deliveries was when we’re on the yacht, and she’s clearly heard about Ryan, and she’s like: ‘Hellooo Ryan.’ She’s definitely a mini Julie Cooper.”
Going back to the podcast, do you and Rachel rewatch episodes at the same time? Or are you on your own separate viewing journeys?
“No, she’s at home with her 6-year-old. We do our own research. When we record, we’re coming to it with completely different experiences and memories. We have a breakdown of the show, and not everything makes it into the podcast. But hopefully the audience will understand that every single episode of our podcast is going to be slightly different. Josh Schwartz obviously knows his pilot scene-by-scene; a casting director is going to remember his experience of the casting process. With Peter, we talk a little more about his experience and less about the episode; an editor is going to talk about adding music — every episode is going to have a different flavour.”
In your own rewatch, is there a narrative arc that you’ve started rooting for as a fan?
“I’m not in every episode, so I’m paying attention to details that I never paid attention to in the past or just don’t remember. For instance, the Tijuana episode. I want to make sure that I bring in discussions about Ryan and Marissa’s relationship, Seth and Summer, Sandy and Kirsten, and all of the other dynamics in the show. I’m really blown away by how they wrote these adult storylines as well. They have to deal with flirtation, possible infidelity. I am really paying attention to Adam Brody’s choices, and how he took that dialogue and character and made it so new and endearing.”
Advertisement
Some of the performances are so much more interesting than they’re given credit for. I was blown away by Mischa Barton this time around. Do you think that the tabloid attention she got around that time got in the way of her getting her due as an actress?
“I’m really glad you brought that up because that’s one of the things I keep commenting on with true honesty: Just how vulnerable and tragic and fragile [Marissa’s] character was. What Julie did to her as a teenager — not being aware of how she was navigating through life and how she felt so alone. I can only share my experience and working with Mischa was an absolute joy. I experienced nothing but professionalism. Yes, she was an It Girl, and in a lot of ways was the face of the show and had a lot of attention. It does take away from the work that she [did] on the show if that’s where the attention was. 
“But Mischa played [that character] with such genuine likeability — the Thanksgiving episode, where she ends up going with Ryan to Chino, she’s excited to be there! She wants to know about him, she wants to connect with him, and he doesn’t want to share all of this with her. By the end of the episode, they’re closer. I don’t remember that storyline very well, so it was exciting to go back and see that.”
I always envied Julie’s impressive array of Juicy Couture tracksuits. Did you get to keep any of her outfits from the show?
Advertisement
“I do have some things! In the fourth season, there’s this dress she wore while kind of dirty dancing in a nightclub, and I have that dress. I still have a lot of jeans for some reason.”
“Rachel keeps saying: ‘I have nothing! How did you end up with things?’”
What do you think Julie would be doing today? I was struck by one of her lines later in Season 1, when she tells Kirsten the Newport Group should be an aspirational brand. That feels so in tune with influencer culture! 

“My fanfiction keeps changing. I kept thinking that she’s probably on the Real Housewives of Orange County and is friends with Andy Cohen. But let’s take it further. She’s still in with Bullit, and he’s a billionaire. Maybe she invested in a company and is a millionaire in her own right, and created a franchise called Newport Wives, Newport Lives. She predicted a cultural phenomenon in the making.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

More from TV