"August: Osage County," a darkly comedic play by Tracy Letts, premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2007. It went on to Broadway, where it had 648 performances and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Since then it’s toured across the U.S. and around the world.
One of the play’s key roles is Johnna Monevata, a Cheyenne woman whom the Weston family hires as a live-in housekeeper. Johnna is the witness as the sharp-tongued matriarch lashes out at family members, in-laws and hangers-on. Actress Kimberly Guerrero originated the role and went on to play it in New York and London.
Now Harvey Weinstein and George Clooney are producing a movie version. It’s directed by John Wells (ER) and its all-star cast includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor. It’s scheduled to be released in 2013.
Other than Johnny Depp as Tonto, Johnna may be the highest-profile Native role of 2013. The plum assignment went to Blackfeet actress Misty Upham (Frozen River), fresh off filming another high-profile picture, Jimmy Picard, with Benicio Del Toro. We chatted with Upham via e-mail as she was finishing the August: Osage County shoot in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
How did you get the role of Johnna?
My manager was contacted by the casting who had asked me to come in and read for the director and a producer. Apparently, I was the first read so we moved on it really quickly. Being asked to read first is a good sign. So I met with them at Warner Bros. studios and read for John Wells. I thought I had blown it because they didn’t give any notes and I only read it once. Worst day ever! Then when we were having dinner with the cast they told me that they knew I was Johnna as soon as I left the room. They couldn’t tell me for two months!
You moved to Bartlesville for a few months to shoot the film. As an urban Indian from Los Angeles, did you experience any culture shock?
For reals. The town was lovely and so were the people, but it was hard adjusting to small-town life. Couldn’t sleep very well for the first few weeks. And it was a bit strange seeing tarantulas, scorpions and other creatures I’ve only seen at the zoo. Loved the accents and adored how men in Bartlesville still had that gentlemanly way (opening doors, giving you a hand with your groceries, lots of taking off jackets for us shivering women-folk). The scariest was at night. No traffic. A person here and there. It was so quiet. And families, strangers would open up their homes to me for comfort. Really lovely people!
We heard you had some family, friends and animals with you. Did they help you with the transition?
I brought my parents out for ten days and they brought my mom’s puppies. It did help me feel a little piece of home. But I missed the puppies when they left. That was worse. I kept myself busy with a few friends I made locally. Had so much fun turning the town upside-down. I am a club-girl in L.A., so my new B-ville friend DeeDee showed me how to bar-hop.
Were you nervous before the shoot? Did you do anything special to prepare?
I was extremely nervous. Especially as the cast list kept getting bigger and better. I had panic attacks because it was all so overwhelming. Not only do I share the screen with Meryl, but I am in almost every scene with everyone else. It’s at these points when most actors would second-guess themselves. I thought that if I ever got a chance to work with Meryl, it would surely take my whole life. Never expected my ultimate dream to come true this quickly.
I just studied the script and created the character the way I usually do so. A lot of people were urging me to watch the original performance from the play, but I didn’t want to take someone else’s years of work and use it. Wouldn’t be fair in my opinion. So I just started from scratch. The producers and Tracy Letts himself told me that I was already Johnna. So I just kept it as fresh as possible. Not too much time spent on her details because you never really know until you get to set.
What was it like working with stars such as Streep, Roberts and McGregor?
Nothing less than amazing! It was strange to be running lines with Ewan. I remember thinking, “I am running lines with Obi-wan!” Surreal. But once you get past being starstruck and see how they approach work then it becomes less scary. They’re actors like myself. And wonderful people. I took any chance I could to watch Meryl live. When she worked, everyone watched with awe. Even the props department. It was inspiring to see such respect for a true icon of our age. Amazing.
Did you have any funny or nice moments with your co-stars?
Tons. Watched news coverage of Hurricane Sandy with everyone at Meryl’s one night. She was pointing out her apartment on the screen. Ewan would sing to Muse in the morning while we got our hair and make-up done. That was pretty sweet. And trying to talk George Clooney into trying the amazing crabcakes at Sterlings was fun. He wouldn’t budge.
What did you do in your off-hours? From your Facebook photos, it looks like you hung out with Juliette Lewis in the bars and bowling alleys of Bartlesville.
Yeah. Juliette’s a doll and tons of fun. We went to concerts, bars, karaoke. Love her. Every night’s an adventure!
Did you have any interesting “Indian” moments on or off the set or in town?
I don’t know what you mean by Indian moments, but I guess it was strange that everyone on set would ask me where they could find a shaman or Native jewelry. I was like, “How the hell should I know? I just got here.” [Editor’s note: That’s roughly what we meant.]
How did this shoot compare to your experience filming Jimmy Picard with Benicio Del Toro?
It was longer. Had more budget and was so large that at times I missed working with Benicio. He’s so mellow and collected. He’s like a nap on a summer day.
Do you think your films will do well at the Academy Awards? How many Oscars do you think they’ll win?
I know they will. Can’t wait. It’s gonna be fun! I’d be surprised if Benicio and Meryl weren’t nominated. As for wins it’s too early to guess. Gotta see the other contenders.
Now that you’ve worked with Tarantino (in Django Unchained), Del Toro, Streep, and so many others, what are you doing next? Are there any more A-list actors and directors on your schedule?
Yes. But I can’t talk about it.