• Mark Brennan

Summer Bishil on her breakout role in Towelhead and life after The Magicians

Summer Bishil, star of SyFy series The Magicians, talks to us about her experience filming the series and her breakout lead role in indie feature Towelhead, plus how much-needed shifts in the industry over the last few years have increased the roles for which she's now being considered.

Photo Credit: Diana Ragland

I catch up with LA-based Summer Bishil at a time when we've all been binge-watching countless TV series and films. Despite the plethora of American-made shows available, she's recently finished the series Normal People, along with just about everyone else here in the UK enchanted by the hit show.


"My best friend was visiting and said, 'You've got to watch Normal People'. My brother had said to watch it, so many people told me to watch it and I just didn't. Then I finally binge-watched it. I didn't know what to expect and I was so affected by it. Now I'm reading the book, so now I'm affected by the book."


Before the enforced break that came with the Coronavirus, Bishil had already spent some significant time processing the end of an equally significant chapter in her life - the five series run of The Magicians, playing the role of Margo Hanson. It made what was already a strange time that much stranger.

"It's funny. I had just gone through the most prolific, creative period of my life before all of this, a period of great transformation and inward reflection and all of the things that people are saying to use this time for. By the time this happened I wasn't necessarily as creative, because I've never been able to discipline myself enough to summon that energy or feeling when I want it. It just either happens or it doesn't, and it comes in and out of my life. It's not really been something I've been doing too much of during this quarantine. I'm trying not to be self-hating about it though. I'm reading a lot and I'm consuming a lot of creative things. I'm just not myself producing a lot of creative things."


The unflinching look at young, love and sex depicted in Normal People is reminiscent of that explored in the 2007 film Towelhead, albeit a very different kind of story. It was a breakout lead role for Bishil, playing an under-aged Arab-American girl struggling with her sexual obsession and inadvertent awakening at the hands of her Army-reservist neighbour while living with her controlling father. What was it like to land not just a lead role, but also one so demanding?

"I was just lucky, first of all, that it even happened because I had no actual working experience. I had been training for years and hoping. I knew how to stand on the mark, but I really didn't know a lot. I wasn't too intimidated by the fact that everyone in that cast was famous, or more established, or somehow senior to me. I didn't have as much of an intimidation factor, I think, because I hadn't really been immersed in the industry that much.


"I was college age so at that point, so I feel like I had more pressure inside of myself to go to college than to do well in the film. Both were important to me, but I was also 18. I was also graduating high school, and there was also other large transformations in my life. I was really serious about it, I was really serious about the role, but the intimidation elements didn't overwhelm me because I approached it more like a studious task, and it wasn't all or nothing for me."

The established cast included Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette and Maria Bello, with the film adapted for the screen and directed by Alan Ball whose previous credits at that point included the TV series Six Feet Under and the Oscar-winning American Beauty. Any 18 year-old would be forgiven for being intimidated among that group. With the hindsight and experience she now has, Bishil is well aware what an opportunity that was for a young actor.


"It's so funny. The people involved with that film, the writer of the book, the director and writer of the screenplay, everybody I remember on the crew, now that I've had more experience I know what a special experience that was.


"It was very grounding to work with very smart and very kind people for my first creative experience in Hollywood, which was really important because I was very young and the material was very sensitive. There were always discussions and a feeling of safety and respect on the set that I didn't know wasn't the norm because it was my first experience. I didn't know that other people didn't have those experiences all the time on set, or that it won't always be that special or safe."


So much has changed in the world since the film was made in 2007. The Me Too era in particular, bringing with it greater awareness to the meaning of consent and scrutiny of the behaviour of men in positions of power, gives the film a backdrop today it didn't have back then. Watching it now it feels as fresh as any film made recently, and I suggest the audience would have received it in a different way if it had been released now.

"I think they would have, yes. It was before its time, but it touched me and I was young enough to need to see something like that. To see a woman of ethnicity and her trauma talked about in a responsible and emotionally sensitive way from her perspective, was very validating in ways I don't think I was very self-aware about at that point but was very validating. I think the people who did watch it then were probably validated by it. I remember having all sorts of feelings emerging about sexuality and ideas, and what I thought about things at the time because I was young. That information was so new and I was consuming everything and also trying to understand this character.


"I remember I was doing a panel and I remember the director, Alan Ball, saying that there was something that made the character Aaron Eckhart played feel it was okay to violate this girl because she was a woman of colour. She wasn't as visible to the people around her. They weren't seeing her, or her experience of the world, as they might have been had she looked like them. This was back in the '80s and people were, and are, racist.


"It plays a role in the silencing of certain minority female sexual assault victims. It does, that's something that happens. No one was talking about that or saying anything like that, or writing stories that were saying that. As a young adult it wasn't part of your consciousness, or talked about in the way I feel it's talked about now. It was very validating to be a part of something so young that really did examine those issues."


Performing in a first lead role is an experience that comes hand in hand with another - seeing the film screened for the first time and attending film festivals before being taken into distribution. What was it like navigating that side of the business?

"That's the part that was really surreal. I'm glad that, again, I wasn't that affected by the celebrity element. I remember I shook hands with Robert Redford. I didn't know it was that big of a deal because I was 19, thank God, or maybe I was just so nervous. I just remember meeting all these celebrities and not being completely overwhelmed for some reason. I don't know why. I think maybe I was in shock or something, but everyone around me kept saying, 'Oh, this is going to be such a huge thing.' It was being built up around me and I think I was grounded enough to sense it.


"You're young and people are telling you stuff, but it didn't really matter to me. Although it was fun to travel to these festivals, as I was being exposed to all this art and all of these amazing people, I knew that the accomplishment was in getting the film made, sold, and distributed. When the film came out people said, 'You're going to have this great career'. I didn't really get work after it came out. It was very strange to see that contrast and I'm just glad that I stayed level-headed through it all. I think it would have been really difficult to suddenly not be working after people telling you're going to be working all the time."


"I was also self-aware enough about the limitations at that time for women of colour in the industry that I knew it was going to take a very long time to establish myself in the way that I wanted to, and that it would take a lot of work and wouldn't happen overnight. I was prepared for that. Obviously, it's hard when you're trying to get a job and you haven't worked in several years, any actor can relate to that. I knew that my ethnicity was going to come up a lot and be a hindrance to me getting a job."


With Mexican heritage on her mother's side of the family, and Indian on her father's, the roles available to Bishil would indeed be greatly influenced by her ethnicity.

"It did come up a lot and it did limit the amount of jobs that I would audition for, that I would book, and that was really frustrating. That was the most frustrating. When I started acting, I remember reading The Bell Jar and thinking 'I want to be in this movie'. I didn't know that I wasn't ever going to be in The Bell Jar, it just wasn't going to happen [laughs]. It's not necessarily that casting directors were racist or prejudiced, it's just there wasn't a chance in hell whoever signed off on casting people was going to cast me for something. It was very obvious to me, but then there would always be people who were more forward-thinking, and were looking for diversity well before it was really been talked about a lot."


Eventually, however, there was one role Bishil would land that would shape the following five years of her life - SyFy's The Magicians. The show was the R-rated version of a Hogwarts-like school for magicians, in which Bishil played the ruthless and razor sharp Margo Hanson. It was a character full of attitude, fortitude and the ability to cut another down with words in an instant that was a world away from the mild Jasira of Towelhead. Being given the chance to play the character for so long, when did she start to feel like she was hers?


"It's funny you say that because I think there was probably a level of frustration. I know within myself that I would always make very distinctive choices and commit to them. I was always given tons of freedom and flexibility to play around and grow and try all sorts of different things. I was never limited, but I had a really bad tendency of being very critical of myself and not taking ownership of her, wondering if I was doing her justice. I was constantly struggling but I think that's what makes you do good work. I knew if I stopped caring, I probably wouldn't be doing a good job."

Photo Credit: Eike Schroter

With the constant consideration about whether or not her choices for Margo were always the right ones, what's it like to then have different director come in for different episodes with their own ideas about the character - or indeed any character that actors have been living in for a while?


"That can be pretty hard. I've seen that be a challenge for people. I like working with directors, I like having directors direct me. I like having conversations about what the scene is. What I don't like is when there's no conversation. Yes, I've lived with the character for this long but I still would like to have a revolving conversation about tone and intention and all of those things. Specifically, I wanted and needed that on this show because a lot of times if I wasn't careful or if I was a little tired, it could be easy to forget that a scene that looked highly comedic and strange and ridiculous and bizarre was supposed to land an emotional resonance. If I missed that, I would miss a thread for the entire episode and my arc. I always had to have conversations.


"I think what frustrates actors a lot of times is a lot of involvement from people who they think don't know the material or don't know the show. It didn't feel that way to me ever on The Magicians but I do know that our creatives probably chose directors wisely and appropriately and it was a good fit from the start. I think everyone who came onto our show really liked the show, and wanted to be on it and do it and thought it was a good, cool, creative thing to do."


During a break in filming of the series, Bishil was able to take on a small role in Under The Silver Lake directed by David Robert Mitchell of It Follows.

"That was really cool. It was a nice surprise to be able to have the time to do something. It was a tiny role, it took a day. The commitment was low enough that I could still do it, even though I was on a series. It's hard a lot of the time to work things out when you're on a show because that's your first priority and that's great, I loved having a job, but it was a nice little thing to do other than that for a while.


"It was a small role but I remember really liking the script and thinking 'This is something I want to do'. I usually know right away when I read scripts if it's something I want to do. It was very chilled because I only had a scene with Andrew Garfield and he was just very relaxed and kind, and very talented. It did really make me want to do more of that.


"I want to do more art house films. I want to do more independent films and beyond shorter-term projects and a little more nomadic for a while. I want to do drama again. I want to have some growth in another direction. I'm not necessarily racing to sign another six-year contract. I definitely want to be on another set soon, but I don't think that's going to happen with Coronavirus."

The roles that Bishil has been seen for since have given her heart. They are not just different to the part that has defined her career for the last five years, but ones she would not even have been seen for before then because of the more narrow field of view through which casting choices were being made.


"What's great about Margo and why I was so excited when I booked her, was she was so different to than anything I'd ever really been considered for. That's opened up a lot for me but there's also other really interesting stuff that I'm suddenly reading for, and called back for, that I would have never been called back for five years ago. I'm really seeing there's more opportunity and more complex roles I can audition for. I'm noticing it doesn't matter what ethnicity the characters are, I'm auditioning for everything now and it's really awesome."

You can follow Summer on Twitter: @SummerBishil1