For the last four years, Kristin Cavallari has been a struggling actress living in L.A. She hosted a now-defunct UPN show about party planning that was canceled after two episodes. Earlier this year, she played alongside Rob Schneider in a high school comedy that went straight to DVD.
Now Cavallari has landed a role in which she knows all eyes will be on her. She’ll take over for Lauren Conrad as the star of MTV’s most-watched series, “The Hills,” which continues to follow impossibly beautiful, thin and rich twentysomethings as they galavant about L.A. The series returns tonight at 10.
Despite billing itself as a reality show, “The Hills” has only become less realistic over its five-season run, and its increasingly weary star, Conrad, allowed the drama of her friends to take center stage.
But Cavallari says she is ready and willing to step into the role the show’s producers have crafted for her.
“I pretty much do anything they have me do because I don’t care,” she said. “I mean, we’re filming a TV show. Let’s make it interesting. Let’s have a good time with it.”
There’s a lot riding on her shoulders. Ratings may be signaling what could be flagging interest in the show itself -- earlier seasons attracted around 5 million viewers per episode, but last season those figures dipped below 3 million.
But “The Hills” will almost certainly benefit from Cavallari’s familiarity with viewers, who came to know her as the star of “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” a reality show that documented life at her high school. She knew Conrad back then; on “Laguna” they fought for the affections of Cavallari’s then-boyfriend, Stephen Colletti.
A harsh reality
On “Laguna Beach,” Cavallari soon learned the realities of reality television, sobbing for hours after its premiere. She hated the way the producers made her the villain when it was really Conrad who was trying to steal her boyfriend. Friendships were ruined. She and Colletti eventually split.
“I almost felt like it was unfair for [MTV] to come into our lives at such a young age and sort of mess with things,” she said. “I don’t regret it, but I was 17 -- of course I wanted to be on TV. I felt like they should have been a little bit more careful with us.”
She’s grown a thicker skin since. In the commercials MTV has been airing for “The Hills,” the pint-sized blond stands in front of a row of glittering, oversized letters that read “The bitch is back.” Towering in high stilettos, tossing back her hair and pouting in bright red lipstick. But that’s not who she really is, she said.
The producers provide Cavallari with the stories, and she shows up to the pre-selected locations for the episodes, which are shot Wednesday through Friday each week. And then she improvises, often going for the jugular on hot-button issues.
“They tell us what to talk about,” she said, shrugging. “Listen, I have fun with it. They film ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ the same way.”
She treats “The Hills” like work, she said.
“What else would I see it as? Hanging out with my friends? That’s not it. It’s a job. It’s pretty easy,” she said, giggling self-consciously. Asked why she was laughing, she replied: “Because I don’t think I’m supposed to be saying this.
“The thing is, if this was a reality show about my life, they would follow me going to auditions and studying with acting coaches, but they didn’t want to show that because it’s not glamorous. They make it seem like we have perfect lives and like we have all this money.”
Who’s fooling whom?
Not that anyone still buys “The Hills” as real. “Maybe people in Kansas. In Middle America they think it’s real. Living in L.A., it’s hard to tell what people really do believe.”
The show’s creator, Adam DiVello, thinks viewers are interested in watching the show for its stories and aren’t as “concerned about exactly what’s happening in these kids’ lives and how accurate it is.”
“This is a sliver of Kristin’s life, and it’s not every person she knows in her life. She has an idea of where we’re going with the show,” he said. “I think she’s walking through and knows this is all going to be a drama.”
For whatever reason, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, the show’s press-obsessed newlyweds, still insist “The Hills” is real.
“The Hills could not be more real; that’s what I keep laughing at,” Pratt said. “It’s a dream role for these girls to get so out of hand and so out of line on TV, and then when the tabloids ask them what’s going on they say, ‘I’m just filling out the story line.’ That’s an easy way out.”
But Cavallari insists the opposite. To hear her tell it, she’s put on quite a show: “Everyone is trying to get story lines and create drama in their lives. It’s just so . . . fake. There’s no truth to it. At all.”