January 2023 | Sumalee Montano AB '93


by Laura Frustaci

Sumalee Montano (AB '93)’s recently released film The Deal is available to stream on The Roku Channel. She sat down with us to give us the scoop on creating the film, wearing multiple hats, and her transition from investment banker to successful actor/producer. 

Sumalee tells us The Deal is exciting for her because, “We made a sci-fi adventure film that takes you on a fun emotional ride. And it’s my love song to my mother,” she continues, “At its heart, our film is about love and sacrifice, which are universal themes. We meet a single mother and her teenage daughter who live in a post-pandemic world that’s short on resources and devoid of compassion. They find themselves in a desperate situation, and we experience what they go through trying to escape from a cruel, callous system and protect each other.” That definitely sounds like a captivating emotional journey– and pretty topical considering our current societal circumstances. 

At the center of this filmic journey, of course, is Sumalee – she had originally planned on just producing the project, but when Electric Entertainment (the film’s production company) team members Dean Devlin and Lisa Brenner came to Sumalee to pitch her the leading role, how could she say no? “I was more excited than anything else. For veteran producers like Dean and Lisa to entrust a lead role to me is a dream come true!” Sumalee says. “Prior to them coming on board, I had spent a couple years in script development, working closely with our writer Sean Presant, also a Harvard grad,” she explains further. “I discovered early on that in order to give good notes on the script, I really had to divorce myself from thinking I might ever play the role of Tala, the mother in our story. So when I pitched the film to Lisa and Dean at Electric Entertainment, I was so used to only being a producer and not thinking of myself as an actor that I didn’t pitch myself for the role.”

Which leads us to the next question: how did she manage to wear both hats during the same film? “We filmed The Deal in 2019, before the pandemic hit,” Sumalee reflects. “Since then I’ve executive produced a few films that I don’t act in. The Deal is special because I got to do both... For the six weeks we spent filming though, I was able to take off my producer hat and just focus on acting, because we had such a wonderful director, Orsi Nagypal, and an awesome producing team. It would have been too hard for me to try to do both, especially on the first film I produced. But before filming started and again after we wrapped, I wore both hats.” Overall, Sumalee appreciates the unique challenge that being a multifaceted creative presents. “There are times when I feel like ditching my producer hat and disappearing into my actor hat and vice versa,” she tells us. “At best, getting to wear both hats feels like a lovely dance between different perspectives that I hold. But sometimes it can feel like a conflicting interplay in my mind that I have to consciously resolve. I’m always learning, evolving. And that’s what I love about my work.”


Another potential challenge for this project is that the character Sumalee played, Tala Bayani, is based on her mother. While some actors may find it daunting to hold such a personal connection to the role they’re portraying, Sumalee found it refreshing: “As an actor that’s what I love doing most. My mom would’ve gotten such a kick out of knowing that Tala is her. Although she would argue that she’s the funny one in our relationship and I’m the serious one.

But in the film, we gave the humor to Analyn, the daughter character.” More on the mother-daughter dynamic of the film in the next paragraph! Sumalee explains further, “In terms of how the mother character came to be, I had the basic storyline of The Deal in my mind a couple years before we started developing the script. I just hadn’t decided what the relationship between our two main characters would be. Do they know each other or are they strangers? After my mom died, a friend suggested that I tell a mother-daughter story because I was thinking so much about her. And that was a watershed moment. Everything fell into place after that!”

Says Sumalee about the mother-daughter relationship between herself and her mother, and then her character and her on-screen daughter, “I love how our relationship ended up on screen, everything from how we used to argue when I was a teenager to entire conversations we had later in life, like her instructing me on how to survive when she died. There’s a scene near the top of the film that was completely borne out of those conversations. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was a teenager. And at the time, I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with that. When it came time for my mom to go to the hospital for surgery, I refused to go. I disappeared to go hang out with my friends, which is exactly what we see Analyn do near the beginning of the film, when faced with her mother’s impending death.”

Sumalee concludes, “I easily saw how my relationship with my mom, especially what we went through during the last year of her life, fit perfectly within the sci-fi adventure story I wanted to tell. And what a great way to also disrupt a genre that historically hasn’t centered people of color, women of color, specifically. I was so excited!”

It may surprise readers to learn that Sumalee began her professional career as an investment banker. This foundation, however, did set her down a path towards her current success: “I think if I hadn’t been an investment banker, I wouldn’t be a producer today. Getting my foundation in business is where a lot of my producing instincts come from… The business instincts you also need in Hollywood, for me, come from working at a global financial services company, serving multiple client teams, on deals worth tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.” Sumalee laughs, “It’s funny how a job I quit so many years ago still has relevance to my work now.”

As a successful working actor and producer, Sumalee certainly has wisdom to share with aspiring creatives: “Remember that the journey is the destination. Find a great acting school or coach you vibe with. Hone your craft by studying and taking classes. Try to stay in class until you’re getting paid to act so frequently that being in class doesn’t make sense anymore.” And, another piece of advice, “Those friends you make in class will be your support system to help you weather the inevitable highs and lows of Hollywood. And as a former teacher once told me about your acting muscles: ‘If you’re not using it, you’re losing it.’ That’s why I believe in finding ways to keep building your muscles, like class.”

Sumalee’s time at Harvard had a big impact on how she ended up where she is today, especially with regard to The Deal. “Because of friendships from Harvard, I met Grace Lay, who also produced The Deal with me. Since then, Grace and I have executive produced multiple films together, including Nanny, the 2022 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner (Amazon/Blumhouse), and Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures), which premiered at Sundance and is now up for Best Documentary at the Indie Spirit Awards.”

Sumalee explains that her creative relationship with Grace is harmonious because they strive to tell similar stories: “Grace and I focus on telling intergenerational stories that center multicultural people in front of and behind the camera,” Sumalee says. What are they planning to do next? “LinLay Productions has several other films on its slate. I’m also working on developing my own ideas now for animation and live-action.” And we’re looking forward to seeing all of them!

Sumalee holds a breadth of perspectives in the industry, originating her career as an investment banker and now as an actress-producer. On-screen, Sumalee is a series regular in the action series Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol (Peacock). She has recurred and guest starred on dozens of television shows, including VEEP, This Is Us, and S.W.A.T. She has also acted in nearly 200 animated roles to date, across film, television and triple-A video games, including Sony's Ghost of Tsushima.Off-screen, Sumalee is an advocate for telling intergenerational stories that center multicultural talent in front of and behind the camera. A founding partner of LinLay Productions, Sumalee produced the sci-fi dystopian drama, The Deal (Roku) and executive produced multiple films that have premiered at Sundance Film Festival, including Nanny, which won the 2022 U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Amazon/BlumHouse), and the documentary Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures).


Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong Harvard Postgraduate Traveling fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she wrote her first full-length play. While at Harvard, Laura studied English and performed with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the HRDC, On Thin Ice, and  the American Repertory Theater.

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