Summer Bishil stars in “Towelhead,” about a Lebanese American girl’s coming of age in Texas during the first Iraq war.
In an article about the film, Rachel Abramowitz notes Bishil was 18 when she played 13-year-old Jasira in the film directed by Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under,” “American Beauty”), based on the novel by Alicia Erian.
Abramowitz describes the story as exploring “Jasira’s burgeoning sexuality and the fear it instills in her Lebanese single father who wishes she’d remain 9, and the desire it stirs in Jasira’s next-door neighbor, a 35-year-old Army reservist played by Aaron Eckhart.
“To some, the film — with its comic-horrific tone — will be shocking, but to Bishil it was a relief to find a part that not only suited her ethnically but actually resonated with her.
“It was like, finally, I’m reading something that holds a lot of truth in it, and means something. I was so relieved,” Bishil says.
Sexual curiosity and innocence combined
“I was really attached to [Jasira]. It wasn’t so much that I had gone through what she had gone through because I never did, but I understand her quest for understanding of herself and the people around her. And not having full control over her life. Over her body. Over her decisions. And not knowing what it means to own them.”
Bishil plays Jasira not as a budding Lolita, but as an inquisitive naif. “Just because she’s provocative doesn’t mean she’s not innocent,” Ball says. “Just because a child is sexually curious or is looking for pleasure or a sense of power in her existence doesn’t mean they’re not innocent. [Summer] really got that. I didn’t ever want [Jasira] to seem like she was being manipulative. It’s a much purer response. Summer is such a pure person, and I think it really translates to the camera.” ///
The role took a toll
In “Towelhead,” Bishil must imply — and occasionally perform — a range of sexual activity on camera, though Ball wound up cutting most of the graphic sex out of the film. “Summer was a pro,” Ball says. “I think it was much harder on Aaron than for her.”
Still, Bishil found one particularly violent scene was upsetting. “I knew this stuff would have to happen eventually but I didn’t think about it,” Bishil says. Afterward, however, she remembers going back to her dressing room and “having a little emotional tantrum and crying. And being very sad. I was really tired too. I wasn’t sleeping a lot. I was working 16 hours a day and operating on four hours of sleep. I’d come home and couldn’t sleep.
“Everyone was so nice about it. There wasn’t any reason to be crying,” Bishil recalls. But just living in Jasira’s mind was sometimes hard. “I didn’t realize the toll it took on me, until now.”
Acting as therapy
Many actors recognize what a powerful and releasing experience acting can be. Eva Green, for example, has commented, “It’s a way to exteriorize all my shit. To scream and cry and laugh on-screen, it’s almost like black magic. For me, acting is like a therapy.”
But it can also be emotionally challenging, and even dangerous.
Nicole Kidman has pointed out, “You live with a lot of complicated emotions as an actor, and they whirl around you and create havoc at times. And yet, as an actor you’re consciously and unconsciously allowing that to happen.” [From Nicole Kidman - a brief annotated profile.]
Speaking of her intense preparation and portrayal of Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” she said, “Unfortunately the thing that makes me want to be an actor, in terms of wanting to be consumed, is also what can destroy you because it becomes almost too hard. At a stage of life, you have to say, I have to walk away from this.”
Other gifted actors like Kidman may also be very emotionally vulnerable and highly sensitive, which can make self-protection and stress relief especially important, to continue being creative at high levels.