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Misty Upham from ‘Frozen River’

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?

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.