Summer Bishil sat down with me at the Regency Hotel on Park Ave looking calm, pretty and prepared. She is new to the fame but is not new to performing. Since the age of 5, she had dreams of acting and has landed the lead role in Towelhead directed by the critically acclaimed Alan Ball (writer of American Beauty). She has received so much deserved praise and recognition. Her performance as Jasira is outstanding. Towelhead is about a 13 year-old Lebanese-American girl who is going through puberty and encounters a sexually abusive neighbor in a suburban area of Texas during the first Gulf War. Summer Bishil sat down with me at the Regency Hotel on Park Ave looking calm, pretty and prepared. She is new to the fame but is not new to performing. Since the age of 5, she had dreams of acting and has landed the lead role in Towelhead directed by the critically acclaimed Alan Ball (writer of American Beauty). She has received so much deserved praise and recognition. Her performance as Jasira is outstanding. Towelhead is about a 13 year-old Lebanese-American girl who is going through puberty and encounters a sexually abusive neighbor in a suburban area of Texas during the first Gulf War.
Jasira has her first period, her first time with a boy, and lives under the roof of her strict father. It is a complex role and challenging for any actress. But Summer, (of East Asian descent- she is half-Indian but she spent much time growing up in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) is able to pull it off so well that you actually believe this fine actress is also going through these life changes, becoming a woman.
In reality, 20 year-old Summer is a poised and confident emerging star who is already experienced, talented and ready to tackle her next role and face her newfound fame. Rumor has it she will star with Harrison Ford, Sean Penn and Ashley Judd in an upcoming film, though she did not divulge this info… Keep your eyes peeled-it is almost certain that by the end of this season, Summer is going to be the next big thing!
ASIANCE: So when did you start acting?
Summer: I started acting as soon as I got back to the States. And I was 14. I just started auditioning for agents and managers. I auditioned for a long time and I didn’t really get anything that lasted more than a day until I was 17. I was going to be 18. So it takes a while, (laughter) but not as long as it can take. It was “Return to Halloweentown” for the Disney Channel. That was a lot of fun and I filmed that in Utah. While I was filming that, I was auditioning for Towelhead already and I found out I got it on the set (of Disney film) and I was still filming and I just filmed it when I was 18 and it kind of went from there.
ASIANCE: Have you heard good reviews about the film and your performance, inside industry perspectives?
Summer: From the inside, I haven’t really heard too much and I’m kind of glad. What I’ve learned quickly is not to listen too much to the good and definitely not the bad because you don’t want to be let down. You never really know. You can plan for a film to do really great or not do great and it can be the complete opposite.
ASIANCE: You played a 13 year old in the film but you are 20 now. Was this a challenge? You were so good!
Summer: It was a challenge. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was easy. I think I was eased into the transition of doing nothing to kind of being eased into the scene. Because Alan (Ball) is so nice, he’s such a warm person. I was like, “Oh My God I’m so lucky to be doing a film with Alan Ball because he’s such a great person.” Peter Macdissi was so nice to be around-he’s so funny. It was a really funny set.
ASIANCE: Did you read the book Towelhead that the film was based on beforehand?
Summer: I did. Definitely. I didn’t know it was based on a book initially when I auditioned. I just saw a man had written it I was like, “oh my god… ” but if anybody can do it, it’s Alan. And it’s very similar to the novel, so it’s extremely helpful. And it’s written from the narrative of Jazeera, so I had a lot of source material.
ASIANCE: Do you think rape (like in the movie) in adolescence is more common than we know? How did you feel about portraying this scenario?
Summer: I definitely do think a lot of girls go through that. The statistics are out there and I think it’s something like 1 in 3 and 1 in 6 for boys. I can’t be completely sure but I think that’s what it is. You can’t really be sure and those are statistics, you never really know what happens. I think what’s so common and I was so taken aback by and loved about this book is she didn’t know it was rape. And that’s what happens when you’re young you don’t know boundaries of your own body and what people should respect, what’s wrong and right, and how to distinguish between the two.
Sometimes, there is that scene, where she feels sorry for the perpetrator. And there’s just so many times when people tell themselves “it wasn’t rape” or “no, I wanted it… ” there’s all these conflicting thoughts people tell themselves. I don’t have an insight into that, but you hear reports, you see studies. There’s a lot of research into that and I love that it dealt with that. Sometimes you go into movies and you see a rape and you’re like “nooo!” but it is a rape that happens a lot. It is violent and she knows immediately who to go to or where to go, but this story was different and I liked that.
ASIANCE: How did you get into the character, did you remember when you were 13?
Summer: Thirteen was a pretty important year for me so I remembered it. Jasira was more sheltered than I was. My parents exposed me to a lot more than she had. I wasn’t smarter, I was just luckier. A lot of her social skills weren’t so developed so she was a little awkward and strange. I developed little quirks for her, like when she got nervous she tapped her fingers three times. I changed her voice an octave at least, changed her body posture. I even changed the way her face sat. Cuz when you’re a woman your face sits with some confidence but as a girl it is different.
ASIANCE: Was it hard to do the intense scenes with the men in the movie?
Summer: I think it would have been more stressful had they not been so great. Peter and I got close when we were filming. I think he wanted that for his character. It was easy to get along with him and that’s rare in life, much less working. Aaron Eckhart set the standard for what I expect for myself as an actress. I think the only reason I pulled off those scenes was because of him. He’s just so great and I had to bring myself to that level. I just learned so much.
I think that it was really great how it ended. I liked it and it kind of leaves you wondering what kind of relationship she’ll have with her father later. I hope there will be one, it’s been put out in the open and now it can begin. I think it is a happy ending.
ASIANCE: What kind of issues regarding identity were the most important to you in the film?
Summer: Particularly Jasira, she’s an American. She doesn’t even know she’s a true American and she can own that she doesn’t have to define herself by her ethnicity but everyone around her does. And there is that tendency to fixate on somebody’s ethnicity in America, which is unfortunate because we could be this big melting pot and we could never think about it and what could take place, of course that’s happening with Barack Obama running for president. But it does take away from the individual, that sort of fixation and it does take away from her and it shows how damaging it can be, which is great.
ASIANCE: Do you think acting in parts like this speaks to your own identity, as a woman of East Asian descent?
Summer: I hope so. I don’t make my choices based on that. I just make my choices as an individual and that’s what’s important, that the individual is seen, not the country, ethnicity, not any of that, though that is all good and great. I think we are fighting for the self to be of importance and I do what I want to do and I think that is great.
ASIANCE: What are your future ambitions and hopes for the industry?
Summer: I know I had dreams before this career. I want to be a writer, study international relations, travel the world as an adult. I definitely never want this industry be my world.
ASIANCE: So what do you do in your free time to insure it is not going to be your whole world?
Summer: I love going to the Central Coast; Cambria, Big Sur. I read a lot. I love Ayn Rand. I go to the Huntington library because I live right by there. I love it a lot.
ASIANCE: Do you have a boyfriend? Would it be too much right now with your career?
Summer: No I don’t. It’s probably very idealistic how I look at relationships but I don’t want to enter into them easily. I want them to be greater and I want my love to be epic, not boy meets girl, looks great, in such a gentleman kind of way. I want there to be real character and story with it, and if the connection is that strong this career won’t ruin it.
ASIANCE: Are your parents very involved in your acting?
Summer: My dad is not. He’s very much involved in his own career. He lives in the Middle East. He never moved over with us. He still lives and works in Bahrain. My mom came with me to the set every day for Towelhead. It’s the first time I’m doing any of this press. I think the second time around I’ll be able to do it on my own. I didn’t even know how it works. I didn’t know the logistics- that you stay in hotels, do makeup with stylists before… I didn’t know any of it!
ASIANCE: What has been the most surprising part of the business?
Summer: It will be intense for two days in L.A. and then there will be two months of nothing. That’s the strangest part for me, going home after this kind of thing is like “what do I do now?” You can’t go to college if they need you for those three days for example. That sucks because you don’t have that life set up for you. I was just going to go to Junior College. Because I home schooled and didn’t take my SATs and can’t get in anywhere. (Laughter)
ASIANCE: That’s funny! Well you have found something better! It was nice to meet you, you’re a fabulous actress.
Summer: Nice to meet you, take care!
For more on the movie Towelhead