The magician David Copperfield once said, “The real secret of magic lies in the performance.” Actress Summer Bishil has taken that to heart. Case in point: Her role as Margo Hanson on Syfy’s The Magicians.
Margo was originally a one-note character but Bishil did so much more with her.
“It’s funny, I don’t think Margo wasn’t even supposed to evolve into what she evolved into. I think she was always supposed to be there for the funny little one-liners. I was determined to make her matter. I think the writers picked up on that. It’s not always that way. You can be on a show for years and have very little to do. I’m lucky that they (developed) her. I was always determined to show her humanity. As a person, it’s hard not to become invested in your character when all your character is doing or saying ‘F*** this, f***that,’ or just there to be looked at, or she’s a write-off. It motivates you. It motivates you to find something else, find something that resonates. I did that as much as I could. It really paid off,” explained Bishil.
Based on author Lev Grossman’s series of novels of the same name, The Magicians – created for television by John McNamara (Vengeance Unlimited) and Sera Gamble (Supernatural) – is currently on its fourth season. It has recently been renewed for a fifth.
“I love John,” said Bishil. “He’s a huge believer in me, in Margo. He identifies with Margo the most. I can tell he enjoys writing for her. He wrote Episode 10 (‘All That Hard, Glossy Armor’) for this season. It was the most professional episode I’ve ever done for television. I’ve got to say that I love that man.”
The Magicians centers around Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph, Aquarius – another McNamara show), who is a student at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy. A lifelong fan of the Fillory and Further series of fantasy novels from his childhood, Quentin discovers that they are in fact based in truth and pose a great danger to the world.
According to Bishil, this is the busiest she’s ever been on the series.
“There’s a lot going on. Margo finally gets to go on her quest and it finally comes to fruition by Episode 10. It really changes her, it’s a big moment for her. It’s a challenging time in her life. It was amazing to play. It’s what I signed up for in the pilot. I was waiting for this all these years,” she said. “Honestly, it would be very easy for Margo to become one-note. If I slept on the job in one scene, it would be very easy for her to become very obnoxious and without heart. I have to be constantly vigilant in order for her humanity to shine through.”
She continued: “I don’t have a lot of scenes that are slowly paced and are about character. You don’t often see her sad. There’s a lot of anger in Margo, so creating that dimension and showing a well-rounded spirit is golden. It’s really challenging with a lot of the lines I’m given. As profane as they are – there’s a lot of profanity – the scenes move very quickly. If I lose sight of who she is as a human being, she becomes a caricature.”
Bishil’s The Magicians co-star Rick Worthy (who appeared on McNamara’s short-lived detective series Eyes and on Supernatural with Gamble), who plays Henry Fogg, the dean of Brakebills, has high praise for her.
“I have so much respect for Summer. She’s taken the role of Margo and has done magic with it. She’s a fan-favorite. She’s taken the character and demanded from the producers that they give her something great to work with and she’s done it. (In the) first six episodes of Season 4, she really, really shines. They all do. She has taken the role and she’s made Margo funny and demanding and unapologetic. For lack of a better word, she’s got balls,” said Worthy, laughing. “She’s made Margo a sensational character. Young girls go up to Summer at cons, they hug her right away, and tell her how much they love her – it’s so nice to see that.”
According to Worthy, Bishil is the opposite of her character.
“Summer’s not like Margo. She’s pretty quiet and funny as well,” he said. “When she turns on that switch, she becomes Margo. It’s wonderful to watch.”
Born in Pasadena, Bishil lived in the Middle East from 1991-2002. Her mother is of Mexican descent and her father is of Indian descent. She and her family returned to the United States about a year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“I didn’t grow up around the arts per se – my father was in finance, my mom was a teacher. There wasn’t a lot of theater to watch… There was not a huge emphasis on it at the majority of schools I went to. It’s not like American schools where everybody gets a chance. If you weren’t good, you weren’t gonna be in the school play. You’d have to audition and it was brutal. I just wasn’t exposed to it a lot, so my exposure was just really the films and TV I’d watch. I loved it. A few resonated enough with me so that if we ever moved back to the U.S., that’s what I’m gonna do. I have incredibly supportive parents. When I moved back here when I was 15, my mom said, ‘Let’s do this. We’ll get you an acting teacher and see where this goes,’” recalled Bishil.
During her teens, she didn’t go a school that focused on acting. Instead, Bishil took industry classes and completed industry workshops. She also got an agent and a manager.
“I started working in my teens,” said Bishil. “Acting classes revolved around getting jobs because I started working early. I was accepted to the American Conservatory (Theater in San Francisco) but I couldn’t work until I was done. But I already started working and I was really loving it. I didn’t want to take that step.”
Her very first acting role was at the age of 14 on the short-lived Nickelodeon TV series Just for Kicks, which was about a girls soccer team. Her breakthrough role was in 2007’s Towelhead, which was based on Alicia Erian’s novel of the same name that was adapted and directed by Emmy winner Alan Ball (Six Feet Under). It starred Oscar nominee Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense).
Set in 1990 during the first Gulf War, Towelhead is a coming-of-age story about Jasira (Bishil), a 13-year-old Lebanese American girl. She struggles with her sexual awakening and her strict father Rifat (Peter Macdissi, Six Feet Under). Bishil received critical acclaim for her performance in Towelhead.
“It was a pretty run of the mill audition. I was auditioning a lot at that time. What was different about it during that time was that I was actually right for it,” she explained. “This was before the winds of change with diversity were happening. Those roles were very limited. It was hard to cast me for more traditional roles like the girl at the school. This was before colorblind casting had taken hold in the industry.”
Bishil continued: “When I read it, I was immediately like, ‘Finally, something I could book. Something that feels tangible.’ It was special to me the minute I read the script. I felt honored to get it at such a young age. I was 17. I remember being incredibly painfully shy. I remember my representative when I got my first audition, ‘Forget about it. You’re never gonna carry a film. You just started acting.’ I dropped him. I said, ‘You’re not for me.’ It was this weird kismet, this-was-for-me thing. I went back to my callback and booked it. It was the first time I trusted my instincts and stood up for myself.”
Still, that’s not to say she wasn’t nervous, especially working with a seasoned veteran such as Collette, someone whom Bishil admires.
“I was nervous going into a situation with established talent and I had to carry film,” said Bishil. “It was terrifying but I think those nerves helped me in a strange way.”
Next up was 2009’s crime drama Crossing Over with Hollywood legend Harrison Ford (Star Wars), Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), and Ashley Judd (Kiss the Girls). Although it was critically panned, Bishil was praised for her performance as Taslima Jahangir.
“It’s always surprising and amazing when you’re praised for a performance because you work so hard on it – you never know. At least I don’t,” she said. “I spent so much time working and, in the process, I shut myself off from the world. I immerse myself. When it comes out and people have related to it and it resonated with someone, it’s really rewarding.”
In 2010, she appeared as Azula in The Last Airbender – based on the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender – directed by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense). Even though the movie didn’t do that well, Bishil enjoyed working with Shyamalan.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “He’s a nice man. He’s a great director, obviously. It was a bummer it was so limited. My character would’ve been a tremendous one to take on. It was really upsetting when it didn’t pan out. But I had a nice experience with him, however brief it was, and I had been a huge fan of his over the years. I still am.”
She spoke about how there are more opportunities for minorities in Hollywood.
“Getting projects with diverse casts wasn’t happening as often back then. I do think they are plenty more roles like Margo where it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” said Bishil. “There’s definitely more opportunity for people from all walks of life. There’s this feeling of hope and excitement. It’s not something that’s going to hold me back, nor should it hold any actor back.”
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