Thursday, January 16, 2014

From The Big Sky To The Big Screen

Misty Upham
By Cindy O’Boyle

A dream, a vision, a goal, a desire, these are all things most of us know we need when working towards success, but not many of us know this at the young age of twelve.  Misty Upham used her dreams to get through some dark and trying times.  Her dreams kept her going and gave her a reason to wake up in the morning and try again.  At the age of 31, Misty has realized her dream of becoming an award winning successful actress.

Misty was born in Kalispell and spent her early years in Browning.  At the age of eight, her family moved to Seattle where her father secured a teaching position.  Family vacations and summer breaks found the Upham family returning to Browning to visit relatives. 

Young Misty could often be found mimicking people, and her parents weren’t always encouraging of her impersonating others.   This was just the beginning of her fascination with acting.  The acting bug bit her hard during the beginning of her first year of junior high.  Her family moved back to Browning, but were not warmly embraced.  (The small town didn’t understand her desire for acting and that she needed to be elsewhere in order to see her dreams fulfilled.) 

Wanting the best education possible for their daughter, the Upham’s decided to enroll Misty in Star Baptist private school in Browning.  It was during this time that Misty befriended a smart Irish girl with bright red hair named Alisha.  Their bond began because they both felt like outsiders.  Her new friend was from Cutbank and made the trip to Browning each day to attend school.  Misty’s new friend was a child actor and the two soon became inseparable.  Misty explains, “During one of my visits to Alisha’s house, I learned that her dad was a security guard for the music group New Kids On The Block.    I was so excited.  What preteen girl didn’t love this band?” 

As time progressed Misty drew more inward and quiet.  It was her friendship with Alisha that helped her become extroverted and helped her feel like she belonged somewhere.  They had many conversations about acting.  To a young aspiring actress, time spent with Alisha and her family was magical.  “During one occasion I asked Alisha’s father what I would have to do to start my acting career.  He quickly replied that I would need to leave Browning and start acting classes and join a theatre group.

“I was fortunate enough that fate would be on my side.  My family moved back to Seattle at the end of the school year because it was a healthier atmosphere for us all.  On a whim, I wrote a letter to Jonathon Tyler Thomas (my secret crush) and asked for acting advice.  To my surprise he wrote back a couple of months later.  His advice was something I had heard before – to join a theatre group.  So I did.”

Misty began her career at the age of thirteen when she joined a community theater group, Red Eagle Soaring.    Misty shares, “Red Eagle Soaring was a theater group for Native American children and it was free.  My sister signed up for the program before I did.  She would come home telling about all the fun she was having.  At first I was too afraid to join.  However, the temptation of free food made me decide to give it a try.”  What began as a summer workshop soon turned into a full-time job.  By the age of fourteen Misty was writing and directing short skits and performing on tours throughout the northwest.  Over the next four years she would be accepted to several Seattle theater companies, all while completing high school via homeschool. 

“It fell into my lap because of God’s timing.  It was only to be a summer class.  I played several characters in the workshop.  The night of the performance I received a standing ovation.  They asked me to join the mother company and I spent two wonderful years training with them.

“I was later asked to join The New World Children Theater Company.  This company’s history touched my heart.  During Medieval times it was illegal for females to act in the theater.  Thanks to Queen Elizabeth’s love for theater – she made it legal for women to act.  I loved being part of a troupe that embraced change.

“Acting was my therapy and allowed me to escape my reality on the reservation.  For me moving around so frequently as a youth didn’t allow me to anchor in any one spot.  Acting became my best friend during a time when I didn’t have many friends.  It allowed me to reach a world outside the reservation and opened my mind up to new possibilities.  Theater was my connection to emotion and energy.”

Misty’s first big break came in 2001 when she landed the role of Mrs. Blue Cloud in Chris Eyre’s sophomore project Skins, where she portrayed a victim of domestic abuse on the Pine Ridge Reservation.    Misty Anne Upham is probably best known for her role in the 2008 film Frozen River, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female.  For this role she had to gain 40 pounds and cut her signature long hair very short.

Other credits include Expiration Date, Edge of America, and Skinwalkers.  In 2010, she appeared on HBO’s Big Love.  In 2013, she played a major supporting role in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P:  Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.  This movie was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 66th Festival de Cannes.

Jimmy P. was shot in Browning.  When asked about returning to the reservation as an adult, Misty replied, “It was strange returning to a place that did not hold many happy memories for me.  However this time, I came back as a stronger person – as a professional.  The first feeling I felt when asked to be part of the film was fear.  I was returning to a place where the people didn’t understand me as a youth. 

“My parents came back to Browning and stayed with me during the filming.  Once filming began, I was so tired that I didn’t have time to think about my fear.  It was here on my native ground that I made a huge discovery for myself.  Being treated as an outsider made me more open-minded and taught me not to be racial or show hatred towards any race.  When you are a city person there isn’t as much of a race line.  You are viewed as people – not races.”

Misty attended the Cannes Film Festival in France.  I asked her to share her experience.  “I flew to France to attend the premier.  I had rushed around all day and had not taken the time to eat.  When doing promos for films, time is always in short supply.  Anyway, I am embarrassed to report that I fell asleep during most of the movie.  Not only did I fall asleep, but I feel asleep on the shoulder of French film director Arnaud Desplechin!  I woke up just in time to see my part in the movie – which is at the very end of the show.”

Misty shared a bit about the movie Jimmy P.    “I arrived in Browning ten days before the movie wrapped.  It was kinda like getting to a party late, but still lots of fun.  I played Jimmy P’s first love and the mother of his child, but the movie is all about memories and works from current time to youth – which is why my part is at the end.  Jimmy P. is based on a book by George Devereux, an early French-psychotherapist and is about an American Indian veteran of World War II.    The film is about some of the pioneering days of psychoanalysis.

“Benicio del Toro plays Jimmy Picard, a Blackfoot Indian who has returned from war with debilitating symptoms; brain injury is suspected, then schizophrenia.  The French actor Mathieu Amalric plays a French doctor of Hungarian Jewish background, who specializes in ethnology and psychoanalysis, based on true life happenings. 

“The movie had special meaning to me because of my family’s history when it comes to war.    My great grandfather, Chief HeavyRunner, was a peaceful man.  Very forward thinking.  He made a treaty to protect our people and the U.S. gave him a paper and said, ‘If anybody tries to attack you, show them this paper and your people will be safe.’  January 23rd, 1870, at the winter campground of HeavyRunner, the U.S. Cavalry attacked under the command of Col. Eugene Baker.  Chief HeavyRunner ran out waving the paper and they shot him on site.  173 women, children and elders were killed.  90 survivors were forced to walk to find shelter.  It was 40 below zero and snowing.  HeavyRunner’s two daughters and two sons survived.  One of his sons, Comes-With-Rattles, was saved by a man named Hiram Upham, an Englishman who adopted him, at Fort Benton.  His name was changed to Billy Upham.  Billy had two sons, Joe and Donald.  Joe had a son named William Upham.  That is my father, Charles Upham.  So I am a daughter of Chief HeavyRunner.

“Getting back to the filming of Jimmy P., everyone on set was so great to work with.  The production teams, actresses and actors work for each other.  We are all a team.  It was during this time that Benicio encouraged me to keep acting and to always believe in myself.  He told me that I was blessed with a talent.  I cannot explain how amazing it was to have all my years of struggles and hard work validated on my own land.  It was an experience I will treasure always.”

I asked if she ever deals with being star struck.  “The sets are usually secluded and everyone is very focused on work.  There really isn’t time to be star struck.  The set becomes home and it isn’t a big deal.  But sometimes…I have to pinch myself when working with professionals like Benicio, George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, mainly because I respect their skill and dedication so much.”

It was during the filming in Browning that Misty was anxiously awaiting the news about securing a part in August:  Oscage County staring Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep.  On her way back to Los Angeles she received word that she got the part.   “The production people on Jimmy P. were all rooting for me to get the role and one of the most influential producers said her husband was working on that production. So she called one of the producers and told them, “You have to hire Misty. We love her!” They all promised to throw me a party because they knew I would get it. We wrapped Jimmy P. and the day I was driving home, I got a call from my manager. He asked, “Where are you?” I said, “Somewhere in the mountains of Montana.” He then said, “I just heard from the studio and they are offering you the part!” Then he told me the details and the phone went dead. I couldn't call him back. I looked up and noticed the blue sky, the clouds and the mountains and knew this would be a moment I would never forget. I began to cry and I told my dad, ‘Dad! I got the part! I'm gonna work with Meryl Streep! And I'm not poor anymore!’ My dad grabbed his camera and took a picture of me. I keep that photo close to my heart.”

On December 25th the film was released and is already receiving Oscar buzz.  It is based on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning play and was produced by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Harvey Weinstein.  In addition to Misty, it stars a stellar cast including Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dermot Mulroney, among others.  The film has won three awards including Ensemble of the Year by the Hollywood Film Festival. 

I spoke with Misty about her role in this film.  I was curious about the audition process for August:  Osage County.  “The casting directors called my manager and asked me to come in. I was working as a house-cleaner to support myself (something I really enjoy is cleaning and organizing) in Los Angeles. I asked my boss for the next afternoon off, put my last ten dollars in the tank and drove to Burbank and read for John Wells and the casting people. He asked me about my background and my experience and then I read through it once and John said, “Thank you.” He was very vague (something I would learn is part of his nature) and I thought I blew it. A friend came to give me money to get home. A week later I was cast as Benicio Del Toro's love interest in Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.  So I left L.A. with a prayer in my pocket.”

When asked what it was like to work with an all-star cast, Misty replied, “Intimidating.  I was so nervous. It took about two weeks before I could step onto set without feeling faint. Then I got to know some of them and realized they’re regular people. Some I didn't want to know because they have been such a presence throughout my life with their work. I didn't want to ruin the fantasy that their “star-power” gave me in times when I wanted to give up. That's what happens when you work on sets. You learn that people are human, just like every day [people]. It's just a bit more complicated with the fame and power.

“My favorite part about the movie is that it’s all about family, dysfunction, selfishness, sacrifice, frailty and love.  One of the lessons I'm learning is that you can love someone without them loving you back. Love is given. Love can never be taken. And if someone doesn't want to give it, all you can do is love them anyhow. That's the beautiful part of this movie. Forgiveness doesn't always happen in our lifetimes. More times than not, it happens too late.”

When asked about upcoming plans, Misty shared, “Award season is fast approaching – January 6th to be exact.  I plan on attending as many as possible.  I have been offered a role in a movie being filmed in Alaska on the tundra.  I am not sure about that role yet.  I am very excited for a film I begin work on in May.  I play a heroine addict and it will definitely challenge my skills.

“I am anxious to begin work with an acting troupe called the Indigo Children.  I plan on training them in the fashion I was trained with a heavy focus on spirituality.  I was trained in a special kind of acting.  It was really useful with most of my early work.  It’s energy acting.  Only a few people are aware of it.  It’s very spiritual.  My teacher was one of my first loves.  We grew up in Seattle.  He taught me how to convey a feeling or a thought without moving my face or saying a word.  It’s all energy.  I’m teaching my troupe this secret formula.  I think it’s a new era of acting.  Anyone can tell when someone doesn’t want you around, or when you walk into a room and realize everybody’s just been talking about you.  It’s energy.

“We should wrap up a project within the next couple of months about my life.  I am the subject of documentary by Ali Talis of New York City, following my career and life as an actress/artist.  It is scheduled to hit the main stream in the fall of 2014.

“Other than that, I plan on relaxing and spending time with my family.  I look forward to spending a nice long summer in California.  London is on the map for fall.  I love medieval history – especially English history.  It will be the first vacation I have had in nearly 19 years.  I am especially excited for Christmas and New Year’s.  I plan on taking my family to New York City.  My family used to watch the ball drop in Time Square with Dick Clark on T.V.  Well, we plan on ringing in 2015 as a family in New York (they have never been to New York) and watching the ball drop live!  It will truly be a once in a lifetime Christmas for my family.”

As America’s first Native American female to make it big in the main stream, it is obvious that Misty is inspiring Native Americans to pursue the arts.  I wondered if that had always been her intention.  “It is my hope that I am inspiring new standards. No limitations. No excuses. Everybody told me I had no chance in hell. For nineteen years I've fought those words and now I'm starring with Meryl Streep. For any actor, not just Natives, work hard, learn, work harder, be professional and work harder than ever. One day, if you don't give up, you can make it. And age, race, weight, type will hold no power over you.

“I think it is important to realize that if you want an acting career it has to be more than a hobby.  You have to dedicate your entire self to the pursuit of a successful career.  It has to take first place over everything – including future plans.  You are married to your career.  Discipline yourself, train hard and never give up.  It has been 19 years and I am just now making it.  Nobody is going to push you – if you don’t push yourself.  You are competing against the world.  Stay focused and dedicated.

“I also think it is important for people to recognize that no matter how bad a person is, how many mistakes they’ve made, whatever their faults are, at one point they were an infant with all the possibilities in the world.  Some get love, some get hate.  I encourage you to view the world like that and it will give you more understanding.  That is why I have no hate towards any race.  It’s all learned and inflicted upon us.  If I could give one gift to the world it would be the gift of understanding.  I think that would change a lot of things.

“Allow yourself the freedom to dream.  Dreams are what make your entire life worth living.  Without dreams, we are nothing.”