Summer: a few degrees warmer; the Fourth of July; and the name of an emerging 19-year-old from Pasadena, California, who comes of age onscreen in two of the season's most politically charged films. In Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball's first feature, Towelhead, Summer Bishil encapsulates an adolescent's sexual curiosity and bewilderment over racism, divorce, and her centrifuge of emotions in her role as a 13-year-old Arab-American. In Crossing Over, a multinarrative ensemble film about immigration in America co-starring Sean Penn, Harrison Ford, and other heavyweights, Bishil takes on the part of a devout Muslim who is deported from the United States after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Here, the newcomer explains the not-so-simple story of where she's from and where she's headed.
REBECCA SINN: How did you prepare for your role in Towelhead?
SUMMER BISHIL: I auditioned for Towelhead for the first time when I was 17, so the experience of being 13 was pretty fresh for me. It was a pretty strange year for me, different from what my character, Jasira, goes through. Dangerous.
RS: Where were you living?
SB: I was living in Bahrain, but it was getting to be time to go. [The events of] 9-11 had happened, and there were certain things that my parents just didn't want to be around anymore. I went to school with people with armed guards and guys that are trained to kill people with knives.
RS: Quite different from Hollywood. What made you decide to act?
SB: I always kind of wanted to, and when my family moved to California, I was like, "Hell, yeah. Time to freakin' act." My mom loved movies, as did my dad, so movies were always available. I was home-schooled for a while when I lived in Saudi Arabia, and I would watch movies. I don't know if I was too young to be watching movies, but I would.
RS: Did you observe any 13-year-olds for the role in Towelhead?
SB: It was all from memory. When I read that role, it struck a chord for me. I changed my voice-I made it a little high-pitched and less centered. I still don't have great posture, but when I was 13, I sure as hell didn't, so I had the character slouch, too.
RS: Physically, Jasira is very developed for a 13-year-old. Were you as well?
SB: Oh yeah, I had boobs. In fifth grade, I was a swimmer, and I would leave my bathing suit on after practice so nobody would see I had boobs.
RS: Tell me about Crossing Over.
SB: It's based on a true story. My character was 15, and would wear the hijab to school.
RS: Did you research the religion?
SB: I did. I actually read the Koran. I was trying to skim the topic and read little educational novels. But then I was like, "Dude, I've just got to read the text because that's obviously what influenced her."
RS: These are two serious pictures. Do you see yourself as continuing on this path or breaking into something a bit lighter?
SB: I like doing drama. It's a safe place for me, I guess, because I've done two of them and I've liked it. But I would love to do comedy, too-to go and have a good time and laugh.