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Exclusive Interview: Summer Bishil for "Towelhead"

By Paul Fischer Friday September 19th 2008 12:10AM
Summer Bishil for "Towelhead"

20-year old Summer Bishil makes a formidable big screen debut in Alan Ball's controversial "Towelhead," in which she plays a 13-year old Arab American dealing with her own sexual awakening.

Born in Pasadena, California on July 17, 1988, to an American mother and a father of East Indian ancestry. Summer is the youngest of three siblings. She and her family moved to Saudi Arabia when she was three.

A year later, the family relocated back to the Pasadena area for a short time, awaiting the transfer of her father to the small Island Kingdom of Bahrain. There Bishil and her brother attended the British school of Bahrain for three years before transferring to the Bahrain School, which is the only US Department of Defense School in the Middle East.

She returned to Southern California with her mother and brother just shy of her fourteen birthday. In love with the idea of becoming an actress since the age of five, she took her first acting class at 14. Nine months later, a manager and agency signed her.

The actress finally sees the release of the long awaited Towelhead and spoke to PAUL FISCHER.

Question: First of all, what was your audition process like for this? What did you have to do to convince Alan that you could pull this off?

Bishil: Oh, wow. I was a nervous wreck the whole audition process, I think, because I just wanted it so bad. I auditioned a total of three times. One time, the last time, I tested with Peter Macdissi and I totally messed up on my lines, and they were really patient. And I walked out thinking I blew it. And then I got a call that said that I didn't, and that was pretty crazy. But the audition process lasted for months. There were months in between the callbacks.

Question: Had you read the book?

Bishil: Yes, I read the novel. It was a lot of my source material for my performance and stuff.

Question: Were there any elements of this character that you could identify with, or lack thereof?

Bishil: There was many elements that I could identify with and some that I was totally clueless about. When I was 13, I was not at all like Jasira. So I had - to me, she seemed so much younger than 13. And I had to think back to when I was, like, 11, to play her. And sort of undo things. Then the one that did resonate with me was -- her quest for understanding of herself and the people around her, I really kind of got. And her feelings of separation and confusion, really.

Question: This film has been around for a while. I know it was at the last Toronto Film Festival?

Bishil: Right. Yeah. A year ago.

Question: A year ago, right. Is it frustrating for you to - I mean, I presume that this is a very touchy film. And also, of course, there are all the problems about WIB and Warner Brothers, and all of that. But is it frustrating to be here a year later talking about this movie?

Bishil: Not talking about it, because it's been such a huge part of my life. Like - I don't know. Like, some people have asked me thought. Friends are like, "Wow, you filmed that, like, two years ago. Aren't you bored?" And it's like - you know, I'm lucky to have gotten it. And two years later it's still the most interesting thing that's happened to me. [LAUGHTER] So. It's exciting. I'm happy that it's out. Yeah, I would like to have worked on something else by now, but I haven't. I did Crossing Over a year ago. I am pretty anxious to work. But it's all so fun. You know, I've never had a big premiere. And you get your makeup done and - you know, it's exciting.

Question: I guess one of the problems about this delay is that a lot of people have not as yet experienced seeing your work in the movie, which does, I presume kind of prolong the waiting game for you as far as the next job goes.

Bishil: Yeah, I think so. I think that that's definitely an issue. And it's tough, because I'm not really one ethnicity, and I'm not really one type of person. There are a lot of roles out there that are driven toward that, and made for people like that. But they're few and far between.

Question: I guess we live in very conservative times, and this film does touch on very contentious issues in dealing with this girl's sexual development. What kind of concerns have you had in playing the part? And do you think that mainstream America is ready for a film that is as open as this?

Bishil: You know, I don't know. I kind of think about it, and I guess I'm mainstream America. You know? I'm part of the general population. And there's definitely groups of people in certain demographics that are not going to want to see this movie, and are not ever going to want to see this kind of movie. But I think that's why they should be made. And I do feel proud of having made a movie that does challenge some preconceived notions and stereotypes, and takes a look at a young, mixed girl, who is American above all else, growing up at a time where it's not okay to be what she is, ethnically. That's not embraced. And trying to find who she is as an individual, not being defined by her ethnicity or by her nationality or by her sexuality. And coming into that power, and understanding what that means. I mean, that's never going to be a film that brings in the bucks like Transformers does. But it's a good film.

Question: Do you think this is an empowering film for young women?

Bishil: I do. I think so. You know, I don't think it's a film that an 18-year-old girl is not going to want to see. I really don't. I mean, maybe, yeah, they like seeing the Transformers, and they like seeing those. But there's also a need and a desire to see other things. And - you know, I think that's important, to make those films, because a lot of people don't think that there's a market for that. And there is, because when I read this script, I remember my friends being like, "Oh my God. I can't believe somebody's making this film, and I can't believe it's a man that wrote it." Because it really took a look at a young girl at a time in her life that was so critical to her development, and is what so many young women go through. And nobody ever sees a girl on screen going through that journey and arriving at a point of empowerment. They always see the victimhood side of it. And they don't - you know, those kind of Lifetime movies that show all the victimhood, and never show any true liberation.

Question: What were the difficulties that you faced in dealing with the sexuality of this character? I mean, obviously, you're not an experienced film actress. What kind of discussions did you have with Alan to make sure that there was a comfort zone for you to work in?

Bishil: We really didn't talk too much about the rape scenes. You know, and I think that was what helped me. I didn't really talk it to death. And I didn't think it to death. I didn't really think about them. I knew that I would have to do them, and perform them. But I just did a lot of work. You know, I really - and I knew I didn't have experience, and that was something that pushed me to work harder, I think, because I was so afraid of failing, and so afraid of just getting fired. And I just wanted to prove to Alan so much that he didn't make a mistake. And, you know, I read the book over and over. And I made notes. And I developed things that worked for me that were not in the book, necessarily. Like, I thought that she feels that she's ugly, and that's one of the reasons why the attention from Mr. Vuoso is such a power to have in her life for a while, and is so important to her. And ultimately harms her. And I developed a nervous tic for her, where she would tap her finger three times. And then I changed her body posture, because she was self-conscious about hair she had on her arms. And was self-conscious about her new breasts. I did a lot of things that just kind of made her.

Question: How about working with Aaron? What did he bring to the table to help you to remain comfortable?

Bishil: I think Aaron just being Aaron is what made me comfortable. Because I remember when I auditioned with him, I was just so intimidated. Because, you know, I had seen his work, and it's really great, and I loved it, and I was a total fan. And I was scared. But he's just so nice, and he's so funny. And he's not this intense - you know, he's not pretentious at all. You could just chill with him, you know? He's just a cool guy.

Question: Do you think this film is coming out at the right time in our culture, in our society?

Bishil: I do. I think it is coming at exactly the right time. And it's interesting to see the parallels of this young girl's life, and the political situations now.

Question: Do you know what you're doing next, by any chance?

Bishil: No, I don't have anything coming up. I have Crossing Over. Wayne Kramer wrote and directed it, and it's with Harrison Ford and Sean Penn.

Question: Who do you play in that?

Bishil: I play Taslima. She's a young Arab - I'm sorry, not Arab. She's a young Bangladesh girl. Couldn't be more different! [LAUGHTER] Wow, I should have known that. And she's Muslim, and she's pretty fundamental in her beliefs, and she's 15 years old. And it's based on a true story - she writes an essay that does not go over well at her school, basically stating that people should try to understand the Muslim's perspective so that the confusion doesn't lead to terrorism. They don't get it. They report it to the authorities. She's detained, and she's ultimately deported from her family. And she's American. She just doesn't have a passport. But in every other way, she is. She doesn't speak Bengali. She talks like any other American kid. She just wears a hajab, and - you know, has these things going on. But she's American. It's a tragedy, because she's not treated as one, unfortunately. She's deported for her beliefs on a country that's based on everybody believing what they want to believe.

Question: What are you doing when you're not working?

Bishil: I read a lot. I'm also writing. I love to write. I'm writing a screenplay, and I kind of just hang out with my friends. I wanted to start school, but I can't really do that right now.

Question: Is the screenplay based on any of your own experiences?

Bishil: It is. It very much is. Except the young girl never lives in Bahrain. She lives in Saudi Arabia until she moves to America after 9/11.

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