In October 2007, Variety named Summer Bishil one of ten actors to watch; the following year showed why. Last fall, when she had her film debut in Towelhead, the reception was twofold: ambivalence for Alan Ball’s first directing foray, in which Bishil plays a 13-year-old Lebanese-American, Jasira, who becomes sexually involved with the middle-aged married guy next door (Aaron Eckhart)—and universal praise for Bishil’s performance.
In her second feature, Wayne Kramer’s Crossing Over, the 20-year-old plays Taslima, a Bangladeshi high schooler in L.A. who gets entangled in an immigration nightmare. Once again, she shares the screen with bigwigs: Harrison Ford, Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta. It’s all looking like the bright start of a long, successful acting career—right?
Time Out Chicago: Your mom’s a white American; your dad’s a Saudi Arabian national of Indian descent. I’m guessing “Summer” came from Mom.
Summer Bishil: Yeah. My sister’s name is Sunshine, and my brother’s name is Skylar. My mom liked a Miss America queen or something that had my name.
TOC: Both Towelhead and Crossing Over place ethnicity front and center. Are you concerned that’ll always be an issue for you?
Summer Bishil: I don’t think it’ll always be an issue. I mean, acting isn’t the only thing I like doing. I’m going to school, and if I don’t get roles that are interesting to me by the time I’m 28, I’ll pursue another career where things are open to me.
TOC: What’s the backup plan then?
Summer Bishil: I was starting to become interested in studying theology when I took the role of Taslima. I recently lost interest in studying theology. [Laughs] I don’t know, maybe journalism.
TOC: Journalism nowadays? You might want to stick with acting.
Summer Bishil: [Laughs] Really?
TOC: So how did Crossing Over develop your interest in theology?
Summer Bishil: My father is a Muslim, but I never had a clear religion. I’d grown up in an Islamic nation, you know, Bahrain, but I hadn’t read about it, and I had never read the Koran. I kept reading and reading.
TOC: Then how’d you lose that interest?
Summer Bishil: It’s like, what are you gonna do with theology? [Laughs]
TOC: Why’d your family move from Pasadena to Bahrain when you were three years old?
Summer Bishil: We first went to Saudi Arabia for two years. At the time, a lot of Westerners were coming to Bahrain. We met this couple, I think in Greece, that said, “Bahrain’s great! Move there!” So we moved there. It’s nice. It’s really small, so when I moved here, I remember going to the mall and having panic attacks.
TOC: In Crossing Over, your character writes an incendiary class paper that takes an empathetic stance toward the September 11 bombers. Didn’t your family move back to the States right after 9/11?
Summer Bishil: It wasn’t that Bahrain wasn’t safe. It just—my mom felt like it was time to go to America and for us to know where we’re from and, you know, be American.
TOC: How was the climate in Bahrain at the time?
Summer Bishil: It was tense, but it would’ve felt tense everywhere. There were snipers on the roof protecting the school. There was always American military guards, and then there was more, and then all of the sudden you saw them in the hallways. It was a Department of Defense school.
TOC: In your first two films, you costar with Toni Collette, Harrison Ford—not bad right out of the gate.
Summer Bishil: It’s amazing. I didn’t know there would be a place for me in Hollywood. I didn’t really see how I was ever going to be a working actor. I was dropped from a management company. They were like, “We just don’t know if there’s a place for you in Hollywood. We don’t know what to do with you. You’re so ethnic.” It was always, “You’re ethnic. I don’t know.” It was agents assuming people weren’t ready for ethnic or whatever, you know.
TOC: And now? What roles do you have coming up?
Summer Bishil: I don’t have anything coming up. I haven’t been able to book anything. I’m gonna be honest. Since filming Crossing Over, it’s been almost two years since I’ve worked. It’s been tough, but I hope I get something. [Laughs]
TOC: That’s why you’re thinking about journalism? You must be getting a little nervous.
Summer Bishil: Oh, yeah, I am. I mean, there’s definitely nights where I wonder if I’m gonna work again, but it gives me an edge in an audition. And it’s prompted me to go to school and, like, learn the piano and do other stuff that makes me happy.
TOC: So what those agents said—is there a place for you in Hollywood—that’s a very real question.
Summer Bishil: I know. It seems to be, yeah. I think there is. I think a lot’s changing, and there’s way more diversity in the world. Hopefully I’ll get something.
Crossing Over opens Friday 13.