- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

All actresses, you might argue, love attention. You have to wonder whether Summer Bishil loves it more than most, though.

All actresses, you might argue, love attention. You have to wonder whether Summer Bishil loves it more than most, though.

The young actress made her feature film debut last year as the star of Alan Ball’s “Towelhead.” In the controversial film, she played a Lebanese-American teenager struggling with racism and sexual abuse during the Gulf War.

Now she’s back on the big screen in another certain-to-be-debated role. In Wayne Kramer’s “Crossing Over,” an ensemble drama about illegal immigration in Los Angeles, she plays a devoutly Muslim Bangladeshi-American teenager investigated by the FBI after she gives a searching speech in school about the motivations of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Two films in two seasons, both incendiary.

Does Miss Bishil seek out such controversial roles?

“I don’t,” the 20-year-old actress laughs, speaking by telephone from her Southern California home. “It’s just what I get.”

In fact, so far it’s all she’s gotten. Those two performances are the sum of her movie career. “Crossing Over” was filmed in 2007, which means Miss Bishil hasn’t worked in almost two years.

It’s unexpected news to hear from the performer Variety named one of 10 to watch two years ago and whom Vanity Fair included in its prestigious Young Hollywood feature. While “Towelhead” was released to mixed reviews, critics were almost universal in their praise of the star’s work in it. She received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for the role.

Variety’s headline proclaimed Miss Bishil was a “starlet living the dream,” but that proved to be a very short-lived dream. She’s had plenty of auditions — she tried out for Mickey Rourke’s daughter in “The Wrestler” — but no bites.

Some actresses in her position might have worried about being typecast. “I don’t worry about that as much as if I’m going to have a career,” she says. “I feel you’re lucky to be working. If you’re typecast, whatever, you’re working.”

Miss Bishil is reluctant to declare a single reason why she’s not getting offers. She does note, however, that “when I turn on the TV, I don’t see a lot of actresses who look like me. I look different, and I don’t think there’s a lot of roles for me.” To be cast as someone’s daughter, for example, they’d have to cast a “brown person,” as she says, for one of the parents.

“No one wants to go out of the way to ethnicize the cast.”

It’s not that people don’t want to cast someone like Miss Bishil, whose mother is American and father is a Saudi citizen of Indian descent. “People aren’t racist in the industry,” she says. People who want to portray a multicultural world just need to write the work themselves and get it produced. “I saw ‘The Visitor’ and absolutely loved that movie,” she says. “There were Arabic people in that.”

Miss Bishil says she often disappoints people who expect her to be fluent in Arabic. She was born in Pasadena, but moved three years later to Saudi Arabia, and then Bahrain, where she attended the U.S. Department of Defense School. She spoke English the whole time. Her mother moved her and her siblings back to the United States after Sept. 11. Miss Bishil started acting lessons soon after, at 14, and was signed to a manager less than a year later.

Her mother was a little concerned when Miss Bishil accepted the controversial role in “Crossing Over.” “I hadn’t even thought about it, and then my mom says, ‘Oh my gosh, she says some radical things, Summer, I don’t know about this,’” she recounts. “I could not have been more different from this character. That was the challenge. It was a challenge wrapping my head around her because she was so radical. I had to do a lot of reading to get inside her head and learn about Islam.” Miss Bishil’s father is Muslim, but she says she had never even read the Koran before the role.

Miss Bishil is a beautiful 20-year-old, but she’s made her name playing awkward teenagers. In “Crossing Over,” she’s covered in a hijab. The actress actually enjoys it. “Who wants to go to work every day and know you’re going to get sexed up and sell a product, like a commodity?” she says.

Indeed, Miss Bishil has a surprisingly upbeat attitude for someone struggling to make it in the tough terrain of Hollywood. “My dad,” she recalls, “said, ‘Be careful, don’t patronize yourself. You’re lucky, you did two movies. You’re not a victim; you don’t have to be an actress; there are so many things you could do.’”

She’s now attending college, pursuing a degree in journalism. She spent two years writing a screenplay that she now says she hates, and has migrated instead to writing a novel that sounds rather autobiographical. She’s also learning to play the piano, with classes at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.

“Above all, I just felt helpless, like I just had no control over my life,” she says of waiting for calls from her agent. Now she’s taking charge.

“I think it’s going to make me a better actress in the long run than having a career handed to me.”

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