‘The Hills’: MTV Exec on New Drama, Mischa Barton & Continuing Without the Entire Cast

The Hills New Beginnings MTV
Courtesy of Ellen von Unwerth for MTV

Nearly 10 years after “The Hills” signed off the air, the reality phenomenon is back with “New Beginnings.” This revival brings cameras back to follow the lives of many original cast members, some of whom are married, have kids or have been divorced.

The original series, which was a spinoff of the high school hit “Laguna Beach,” followed Lauren Conrad as she graduated and moved to the hills of Los Angeles to pursue a career in fashion. Later on, Kristin Cavallari headlined the series, which turned no-name teenagers into pop culture sensations whose faces were constantly plastered across tabloid magazines with rumors of plastic surgery and sex tapes while the drama unfolded on television.

Nowadays, things are different. Conrad has gone on to become a Martha Stewart of the millennial generation and a New York Times best-selling author with nine books and lucrative clothing lines, while Cavallari turned into a businesswoman with a growing empire, including running a lifestyle brand, hosting major television shows and headlining her own E! reality show. Neither of those women will be on the MTV revival, but the show is reuniting others, including Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt aka “Speidi,” once known as one of the most famous couples on reality TV who are now the proud parents of an infant.

Also on the all-grown-up version are Brody Jenner, Audrina Patridge, Stephanie Pratt, Justin Brescia (previously known as Justin Bobby), Frankie Delgado and Whitney Port, who went on to carry her own MTV spinoff, “The City,” which followed her career in New York City, as well as new cast members “The O.C.” star Mischa Barton and Hollywood offspring Brandon Lee.

“The Hills” was always questioned for its lack of reality, with former cast members claiming that the show was largely scripted. But in the world of social media where audiences are exposed to reality 24/7, MTV is aiming to broadcast a more organic story.

“Social media has completely changed reality TV because you have to be completely transparent because the audience is going to see everything anyway,” says MTV’s head of development, Lily Neumeyer, who worked on “The Hills: New Beginnings.”

Ahead of the June 24 premiere, Neumeyer talks to Variety about casting the revival, what drama should be expected within and a possible second season.

How long has the revival been in the works?

It’s been in the works for a while. We’ve been talking a lot at MTV about the properties with IP that we had. In the world with so much content, our brands with IP have the advantage of having high recognition in pop culture, so we always knew we had a lot of value. With “The Hills,” in the same way that we did with “Jersey Shore,” we consider the shows based on specific characters like novels — you read a chapter about people in their 20s and then the next chapter is in their 30s. That’s how we approached “The Hills.” They’re out of that stage of their lives, and now in another stage of their lives just like our viewers, so it seemed like a no-brainer to bring back the same characters and see the new experiences that they’ve had in their lives, now that they’re out of their 20s. 

Obviously with the revival, audiences know these characters and there’s an element of nostalgia, but when the franchise started in 2004 with “Laguna Beach,” no one knew these people. Why did the shows become such a huge phenomenon?

We don’t have access to those places and to those types people, so when you could watch “The O.C.” or “Beverly Hills 90210,” all those shows were based on the same place, but for the first time, we were seeing real people who actually have those lives. Most people don’t know people who have those lives and they saw that these people actually exist. They were incredibly young and beautiful and had great lives, and knowing that they were actually real, and not fake characters, was aspirational.

Was it challenging to get the original cast on board?

It was not challenging. They loved the show, so we just reached out to all of them. It was really easy in some ways, but obviously, we discussed with them about how different this iteration is from the original show because they are in a different place in their lives, and also the reality show landscape has changed, so we wanted to approach it in a much more organic way and true to their lives. They were all for it. They were dying to tell their own stories.

In a promo, Spencer Pratt says, “I would love to be famous again.” Did the cast want to sign on to the revival because they miss the fame and attention that comes with reality TV?

That is Spencer’s humor. He has a podcast called “Make Spiedi Famous Again.” But it has nothing to do with that. When you see him in the show, he goes through everything from family issues to becoming a young dad to what happens when you’re broke. It has nothing to do with fame. It actually has more to do with their own story and growing up and realizing the mistakes when you were young and how you move forward. I don’t think people expected them to be the long-lasting couple from “The Hills,” but they are.

Did you reach out to Kristin Cavallari and Lauren Conrad to participate in the revival?

We had talked with Lauren. We talk to our talent all the time at MTV, so we knew going into this, because we had talked to them many times throughout the years, that they were not interested, so it never really came about because we knew that they were doing different stuff at this time.

If they ever decided they wanted to pop up, would you have them on the show?

Of course. We never would say no to any of them. They’re amazing. 

How did you select Mischa Barton as a new cast member?

Brody and Mischa used to hang out in the same Hollywood circles because they were around the same age, so we thought she would be good because of that, and she also has an amazing story. She’s very open to tell her story. When we first talked to her, she was very honest about all the stuff that has been in the press about her, but that she never gets to talk about that, which is very difficult for a young woman. I think she was excited about being able to tell her own story.

The actual title for “Laguna Beach” was “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.” Was there any interest in casting Mischa Barton because she was the star of “The O.C?”

It’s a great marketing hook, but that’s not why she’s on the show. When we thought about her, we weren’t sure if she would really talk about things, to be honest, but when we met her, she was so honest.

Brandon Lee, the son of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, is also a new cast member. Why did you cast him?

We wanted people who were organically related to this cast, instead of casting people into the show. Brandon is like Brody’s little brother. They both have very famous parents and they grew up in Malibu. I was a little skeptical of his age because he’s younger, but he’s one of the most mature 23-year-olds I’ve ever met. He’s such a delight. He’s incredible and just fascinating.

Pamela Anderson makes an appearance on the show. How did that happen?

It’s the real story. Brandon bought a new house with his own money from his acting and modeling, and she was so proud of him. And she was great — super funny and very nice.

You said that Mischa Barton was interested in joining the cast so that she could tell her own story. Is that why Brandon Lee wanted to join, as well? His life has recently played out in the headlines with reports that he assaulted his father earlier this year.

We all go through different things with our parents at different stages of our lives, but I don’t think that was his motivation at all. He definitely didn’t need to show a different side of himself because I don’t think people know him at all, and they’ll be surprise to see what a fantastic guy he is. The parents did a great job in having him out of the public eye. He might have hung out in famous circles, but not necessarily in front of the press, so he is very different. He’s very grounded and very hardworking.

Since “The Hills” originally aired, one of Brody’s parents, Caitlyn Jenner, had a lot of screen time on “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” and had her own show on E!, so Caitlyn knows reality TV very well. Will she appear on this season?

No. It’s a big throughline for Brody because it’s his own life, but the show is about Brody, so it’s about what Brody wants to tell us about his story, so we follow what he wants to follow. We try to be respectful and allow him to tell it in the way that he wants to tell it. But, of course, if there is a Season 2, then that story continues.

The series finale of “The Hills” had a very talked-about scene: Brody was standing in front of the Hollywood sign, which actually ends up being fake, showing that he’s standing on a TV set. That scene can be interpreted as making a statement that L.A. is fake and materialistic, or that the entire show was fake and scripted. Looking back, what was the meaning of that?

I wasn’t here [at MTV], so I’m not going to talk about that decision — the team at the time thought long and hard about what that meant — but I think the effect of it is that you can interpret it in different ways. I think it’s a bit of both things that you said. For us, when we went back to the cast, the cast felt very strongly that they wanted to show who they are now.

With that being said, this cast is very well-versed in reality TV and they know how to play along with the media and press, so how do you ensure that the show is real and doesn’t seem scripted?

Getting divorced, having a baby — those things, you cannot fake, because that’s real life. Their life crises are so real, and we all know them. We all know that Audrina went through a nasty divorce and custody battle, and that’s the basis of her journey. On one hand, the Hollywood Hills are very aspirational, but there’s something very realistic about going behind the scenes and seeing how they live. On the first show, they used to have the best clothes and best internships and that’s something that most people don’t have access to, so when we started to do the show again, we look at the underbelly where not everything is rosy in the hills.

Is this intended to be a on-off revival, or could there be multiple seasons?

We’re super excited about bringing it back. It’s an amazing group of people and we’re lucky that they’ve invited us back into their lives. We hope it stays for a long time and that people enjoy it. I think that it can continue forever. To see Spencer as a granddaddy one day would be fascinating.