LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Indian Country Today caught up with actor Misty Upham, Blackfeet, as she basks in the glow of the rave reviews she’s been getting for “Frozen River.”
Indian Country Today: Growing up, how much were you exposed to your history and culture?
Misty Upham: I’ve practically grown up a third part rez. My family and I travel back to Montana throughout the year and are very tight with all our family. We talk to them every day and spend our summers there for the cool events. So I feel very connected to my people and our family and history. I know my family tree history and spend a lot of time at all the sacred places on our rez. My dad made sure that we knew and had our connections.
ICT: How did you get into acting?
‘Frozen River’: how to make a Native movie
When writer/director Courtney Hunt conceived “Frozen River,” she probably didn’t realize it would be the start of a 10-year journey. But she persevered, and the result is an award-winning movie that’s earning praise from Natives and non-Natives alike.
A decade ago, Hunt was visiting her husband’s home town near the New York-Canada border when she learned of the smuggling culture there. Smugglers’ Alley was the nickname given to the Mohawk land that bridged the border. She was intrigued — especially when she found out it involved crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River.
She met two women who were smuggling cigarettes and began talking to them. She wanted to know what made them turn to crime — to risk their lives on a thin sheet of ice.
She started visiting the reservations and doing research. “I made friends with a woman who’s considered a medicine woman on Akwesasne,” said Hunt by telephone, “and I gave her a copy of my short film, which is a Civil War short, and told her I was interested in writing a story about smuggling.”
Originally conceived as a short also, “Frozen River” evolved over time. At one point Canada lowered the tax on cigarettes, so smuggling them became less profitable. The smugglers switched to illegal immigrants, especially after 9/11 caused authorities to tighten the borders. Hunt modified her plot accordingly.
Who’s in charge?
As she worked on the story, she met a perplexing number of leaders in the Mohawks’ three-chiefs system of government. Fortunately, they seemed open to the idea of the movie. They saw it as a nice little women’s film.
When it came time to shoot, Hunt’s Mohawk friend assured her that everyone approved. “But what she’d done is she talked to the people on the Canadian side,” said Hunt. “She hadn’t talked to the tribal council on the American side, and they were like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I was like, ‘Oh boy. I’m in trouble now.’”
Fortunately, continued Hunt, “They voted 2-1 to let me stay. One of the chiefs was like, ‘I’m offended by this.’ And the other two sort of had the idea of, ‘Yeah, but it’s awfully close to the truth.’”
Hunt found her Native actor by a novel method. She went online to NativeCelebs.com and browsed through the profiles. She stopped when she saw the head shot of Misty Upham, Blackfeet. “She looked like a Mohawk to me,” said Hunt. “She looked believably Native. She didn’t look so Western that you think, ‘Is this Shania Twain or something?’”
Upham sent her a reel of her performances in “Skins” and “Edge of America.” They talked on the phone and got along. Upham liked the challenging Native role and Hunt appreciated her acting
Upham: I started out in a workshop for Native youth one summer, just for fun. I found I was really good at it and was encouraged to keep going. I was asked to join the mother company and soon started to enter the classical theater companies, receiving awesome top-notch training and getting so much experience in about four years’ time. I found my love for acting in the dusty theaters of Seattle and was greatly nurtured. I wrote, directed and starred in a play that got the attention of a casting director in Los Angeles, and the next thing I know I have an agent and my first film.
ICT: How did you get the role in “Frozen River”?
Upham: Courtney looked me up on Native Celebs and called my agent while I was promoting “Edge of America” at Sundance. We talked for an hour or so on the phone and she had a “really good feeling” and asked me to do “Frozen River,” the short. We all loved working with each other so much that over the three years it took to get the feature going, we kept in touch and all made plans to be back.
ICT: Did you research the Mohawk culture or the smuggling issue before you started?
Upham: No. I really just went by the script and took my direction and tried to stay true to it. I knew about smuggling because my own tribe does it. So I kind of grew up with this knowledge of it to the point where it wasn’t shocking at all. Some of the cast were actually smugglers, so I just asked them about it and kept it in the back of my mind.
ICT: What was it like working with Courtney Hunt? With Melissa Leo?
Upham: They’re both really cool ladies. Courtney’s really chill and gave really mello direction. She’s a mum to everyone she meets. She’s one of the funniest, coolest, most stable people I know. Melissa is like a master class of acting. Plus she’s a really good friend and we’re really tight. I’d work with both of them again in a second.
ICT: What were the biggest challenges in playing the role?
Upham: The cold. I got sick. I felt so ugly because of shaving my head and gaining all the weight. So it was kind of hard to know that I’d see it all on screen soon. Plus being so “stoic” and minimalist wasn’t fun in terms of wanting to show everything I’ve got. I have an arsenal of training and had to keep it all in a small space.
ICT: Have you heard from Native people about the movie or your performance? What have they said to you about it?
Upham: I have heard only good things about it. A lot of people were scared for this to come out because they were afraid of how the Native community would react to us showing a not-so-pretty-side of this certain community. But I knew it was just a movie (an awesome movie) and had a good modern story that would change people’s perceptions. I can’t be afraid of reality and true stories for film.
ICT: Do you feel the role will overturn people’s perceptions of Native women? And open doors for you and other Native actors?
Upham: Yes. I do. I feel that a lot of people are beginning to see that Natives are “normal people” with jobs, family lives and existing outside stereotypes. Lila Littlewolf didn’t drink. That’s the best part for me.
ICT: I’ve heard that your father doesn’t think Sony is promoting your role sufficiently. What’s the story there?
Upham: I think people have valid reasons for questioning my absence in a lot of the press. But it is out of my hands. I am doing what I can to promote this film with Sony Classics. It’s the business. Maybe something we can change for the future. But the grassroots Native support is what matters and people going to see the film. If we can show the studios that Natives will turn out for a film and support our actors, I think they’d take our work a little more seriously. Money is the key in Hollywood. Sell tickets, get respect. That’s how it goes.
ICT: What projects are you working on now?
Upham: There are several in the works, but I never jinx them until I know for sure. But I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as it happens. I am also writing my own stuff.