Summer Bishil may be the most engaging one-eyed woman on television right now. Well, sort of — if you've been keeping up with R-rated fantasy drama The Magicians, you already know about that. But if you're still mid-binge on Netflix, you've got a lot of screen time to admire the elaborately embellished eye patches and devastating glares she can throw with one immaculately lined eye. It takes a lot to rule an alternate dimension's kingdom overrun by cruel and violent fairies when your depth perception and executive abilities are in a bind, but perhaps that's just one of things that drew me to Bishil's best-known role as Margo Hanson: mean girl-turned-monarch, deployer of F-bombs, and unexpected heroine. And that's just season three.
Having grown up in the era of Heathers, Clueless, She's All That, and also, yes, Mean Girls, I've known the "mean girl" to be a mainstay character who rarely if ever gets a chance to evolve. She serves to create conflict by antagonizing the nice-girl protagonist and is usually always super hot, wealthy, and shallow as hell. All of which begs the question: Why does she even give a fuck about bothering people who don't pose any threat to her whatsoever?
The '90s didn't answer that question and the early aughts didn't really get around to it either. But here I am in 2019, skidding in my scroll because not since Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the show, not the movie) have I seen a mouthy anti-heroine who can cut a bitch down with her words just as skillfully and effortlessly as she can cut a crease.
Season four of The Magicians began airing in late January and Summer Bishil not only has her other eye back but also heaps more scene to chew, compared to her introduction as the haughty upperclassman intimidating the newbie students at Brakebills University, the fictional school in the show. "I'd be lying if [in] season one I wasn't looking at the material and going, 'Oh god, I hope it expands. I hope there's more opportunity to demonstrate her humanity, her dimension,'" Bishil tells me over the phone.
I imagine how fun it would be to really play into the self-indulgent nature of a character so domineering and unbothered — but also tricky. It would appear that Bishil feels the same, balancing Margo's patent superiority with her unwavering devotion to those close to her, namely her best friend and accomplice Elliot (played by Hale Appleman). The Magicians is an ensemble cast show, but Margo and Elliot are an irrefutable if not codependent pair, which anyone witnessing their lightning-speed banter could immediately assume.
"Every day [Hale and I] came to set to try out as many ideas as we possibly could. Pretty much all of my scenes, I didn't think anything could or should be wasted because I had so little." Their on-screen chemistry is a treat to watch amid much of the dour magical problem solving most of the characters are tasked with every episode.
"I was like, 'Oh my god, now there are really a lot of circumstances that they've written for my character that I could really turn into something great. I sort of approached it the same way as I did season one, just trying to deepen her as much as possible," Bishil explains, adding, "oftentimes with language that is profane."
It paid off. Bishil's character was integrated way more into the show, stomping over every scene she was in and handling every bit of conflict and tension with the grace of a flamethrower (circumstances abetting). But it wasn't always quite that level. Bishil admitted to tweaking Margo's voice after the first season, deepening it slightly in the second season. "I felt like if you were a young woman in this magical kingdom [where there] was so much patriarchy, you would sort of put on an air of, 'Don't mess with me. I can be as assertive as you.' And so for me, that's what I told myself to make some of her language work for me."
Language aside, there's a noticeable shift in Margo's look on the show once she goes from student to high king of a parallel dimension's world. Make no mistake, Margo is always done and put together, but given a crown and a castle — that's when the beauty looks get more exciting. Luckily, the show's makeup department was game.
"A makeup artist who was with us for season two and three, Jennifer Kaminski was instrumental in creating Margo's look because in Brakebills it was sort of simple; it was done but nothing too glam. And when she got to Fillory, I remember [Jennifer] saying to me, 'We really need a risk here.' It's also a very dark castle, [so] a lot of the makeup doesn't read. We have to do a very done look and I think that's who Margo is in Fillory, and I'm like, 'I love that. Let's do that.'"
"I remember her saying to me, we really need a risk here. We have to do a very done look and I think that's who Margo is in Fillory."
A shift from glam-neutral to glam-supreme isn't what I'd call a stretch for a character like Margo or an actress like Bishil, who is no stranger to a beauty treatment. "I do like to try some experimental stuff," she shares about trying a PRP treatment. "I really liked it. I'm definitely open to trying random stuff."
Bishil grew up in the Middle East and says she started sugaring, waxing, and eyebrow threading when she was young, a routine she still keeps up with. "It's something I still do," she says, explaining, "Beauty was definitely celebrated and there was an emphasis on taking care of yourself and getting treatments done from a very young age. I just try to take care of my skin and my hair as much as possible. I feel confident when I've really been taking care of myself."
After her breakout lead role in the 2007 film Towelhead, Bishil admits to giving herself a hasty makeover as a means of separation. "I literally, after my first role, I took some scissors out and cut off all my hair and I remember my mom kinda freaking out like, 'What did you do to your hair??' I didn't know how to separate from [my character] when it was over. And I think that was my way of shrugging it off and just cutting all my hair kinda helped me move on."
"After my first role, I took some scissors out and cut off all my hair and I remember my mom kinda freaking out like, 'What did you do to your hair??'"
Despite the gap between Towelhead and The Magicians, when Summer Bishil wasn't stealing every scene, her skill for deftly weaving compassion and nuanced dimensionality into her characters did not fall dormant, rather she'd probably wager that her love for acting kept her optimistic. "I've never been more excited and hopeful about my future because I feel like there are roles for all types of women now and all types of people," she muses. "I feel like the conversation that we're having now is really working and it is affecting change within the industry. More and more people are going to see themselves represented and it's really exciting."
The Magicians airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m./8 p.m. Central on Syfy.
More women to watch:
- Lizzo Isn’t Just Part of a Movement. She’s a Movement All Her Own.
- Priyanka Chopra Wants the World to Rethink How It Sees Beauty
- Rachel Bloom Gets Honest About Beauty Standards, Money, and the Male Gaze
Now please watch and listen to the original song Rachel Bloom wrote for her Allure digital cover shoot: