Summer Bishil Aims to Play Against Type

"There are so many things that I could play, but I'm not playing them," says Summer Bishil. (By Dale Robinette -- Weinstein Co.)
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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

Remember the name Summer Bishil. You may never hear it again. But only if you believe Bishil herself.

After a string of appearances on such TV shows as Nickelodeon's "Drake and Josh" and the Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana," the young actress's big break was the 2007 film "Towelhead," a sexually charged drama about an Arab American teenager that brought her recognition from Variety magazine as one of 10 "actors to watch." In her second film, "Crossing Over," Bishil plays an illegal, headscarf-wearing Bangladeshi immigrant who attracts the negative attention of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after writing a school essay that reads as sympathetic to the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (See review on Page 31.)

Not a bad career for a 20-year-old. You'd think.

"I mean, I don't even have a career," she says with the self-deprecation common to many her age. "Maybe I was lucky and just did two movies. Who knows?"

Surely she has been much in demand, though, after that Variety honor, and after an acting nomination for the same role from the Film Independent's Spirit Awards? "Not at all," she says flatly. "I'm not offered anything. I have to audition. I hear a lot of nos."

Part of that may be the nature of some of the parts she has been auditioning for. Bishil -- whose striking olive skin, dark eyes and brown hair come from her East Indian father and half-Mexican mother -- sometimes finds herself going for roles that, well, she's clearly not right for, physically. "I will be at some auditions sometimes where I'm, like, the only one that's not blond," she says. "And I get weirded out. That's just kind of weird. I'm like, 'Wow, I'm sooo different from everyone here! I'm not going to get this!' "

She doesn't obsess about it. "I'm not like 'Oh, my God, I wish I got that part' anymore," she says. Still, the thought that some directors might be typecasting her as someone who can play only Middle Eastern or South Asian characters (and her two film roles so far suggest that it's not that far-fetched) does bother the California-born actress, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain before moving back to the Los Angeles area six years ago.

"I think about it a lot," she says. "There are so many things that I could play, but I'm not playing them."

Such as?

Bishil cites "The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" as one that got away. Based on a video game, the live-action adventure, which she auditioned for, set in medieval Persia is due out next year from director Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"). "I really wanted that," she says. She'd also love to audition for "A Thousand Splendid Suns," the adaptation of the novel by Khaled Hosseini ("The Kite Runner"), said to be in development from writer-director Steve Zaillian. Set in Afghanistan, the story has two meaty women's roles. "I don't know if I could play one, though," Bishil says with a laugh, "because she's supposed to be a super-bombshell." There's that self-deprecation again.

Um, but wait a minute. Persia? Afghanistan? Who's typecasting whom here? Maybe if Bishil wants to break out of the ethnic mold, she should write her own screenplay.

Don't worry, she is. Like seemingly everyone else in Hollywood, the actress has written a script. Called "Pilgrim," the very loosely autobiographical story follows a young woman who moves from Saudi Arabia to the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks, becomes caught up in Islam, goes to war in Afghanistan and develops a heart condition. "There's also been some sexual dysfunction in her life," says Bishil, who's reworking the script into what she calls a "more authentic" novel.

Oh, yeah, writing is her other outlet. "I enjoy doing it as much as I enjoy acting," she says. "And I don't work a lot, so I get the same fulfillment from it." At the moment, she's polishing some of her poetry for submission to literary journals and is hard at work on a second screenplay, this one about a former priest with "strange sexual fantasies" who talks to God. "No one knows whether he's crazy or not," Bishil says.

But what if none of these creative endeavors works out? Bishil says that she has wanted to be a part of moviemaking since she was 4 or 5, when she first saw Kevin Kline in "Sophie's Choice," but that she has a fallback plan. If the auditions dry up tomorrow, it wouldn't be the end of the world, says the actress, who has been taking classes at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif. "I'd like to study journalism, I think," she says.

Journalism? Now that's crazy talk. Stick to something stable, kid, like acting.

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