Summer Bishil’s road to a starring role in a major Hollywood film feels awfully like a Hollywood dream.
After some TV work in soaps and “Hannah Montana,” she hears from an Oscar-winning scribe-producer who’s offering the lead. Except the filmmaker is Alan Ball — and what the teenagers in his “American Beauty” went through is nothing compared with what he has in mind for Bishil.
Ball found the material for his directorial debut “Nothing Is Private” — which was bought by Warner Independent at the Toronto Film Festival and is scheduled for release in 2008 — in Alicia Erian’s “Towelhead,” an unflinching coming-of-age novel about Jasira, a Lebanese-American girl who’s desire for suburban acceptance brings her face-to-face with racism, sexism and, ultimately, abuse.
“I saw people from all over the world” in the hunt for a leading lady, says Ball, creator of HBO skein “Six Feet Under,” “but then Summer walked in and that was it.”
Bishil, 19, was born in Pasadena, Calif., but moved to the Middle East with her family at the age of 3. They returned to the U.S. five years ago, and Bishil quickly found her look wasn’t very popular among casting directors.
When the script for “Nothing Is Private” arrived, she was determined to get the part.
And when she did, her parents were remarkably supportive, especially when it came to scenes in which Jasira is molested by her neighbor (Aaron Eckhart).
Ball’s intention was to focus on expressions, not body parts, and shot the scene entirely above the shoulders. It’s Bishil’s performance, in close-up, that carries it — bravery and honesty mixed with fragility and pain.
“There were these long notes in the script of how it was supposed to be handled,” recalls Bishil. “That character was so complex and I worked on it so much. I didn’t identify with her life, but I felt connected to her. I understand her solitude and loneliness and displacement.”
Since “Nothing Is Private,” Bishil’s Hollywood story has gone more to script. Next up is a major role in Wayne Kramer’s “Crossing Over” with Harrison Ford and Sean Penn. In it she plays a Bangladeshi immigrant and devout Muslim.
While the character is different, Bishil says some of the themes are the same, namely how the desire for acceptance can lead to a deeper isolation.
AN ACTOR SHOULD ALWAYS: “Try to be honest with themselves. I think that every time you lie to yourself, you shrink and erase a little bit of who you are. It leaves a person vacant, and you can’t build a character out of nothing.”
I’M INSPIRED BY: “Architecture. There are some exceptional minds out there building and conceptualizing close to or completely self-sufficient homes and buildings, and the aesthetics are astounding.”
FAVORITE FILM CHARACTER: “Nathan Landau, played by Kevin Kline in ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ His performance knocked me off my feet. I was still thinking about that character long after the film had ended.”