People & Place

Misty Upham, Blackfeet Actress Chasing Her Dreams
By Brian D’Ambrosio

Photos courtesy Kerner Managment Associates

When talking about Montana’s connection to Hollywood,
Misty Upham seems like a good place to start. She cultivated a formidable following in 2013, with roles in Jimmy P. and August: Osage County.     Her success is a function of something intrinsic to her personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.     “I always knew when I left the reservation at age 12 that something was going to happen, if I followed my instincts,” said Upham. “I knew that if I didn’t look toward things that didn’t feel right, I could do something. When I think back to that girl with no purpose or no direction, no support, I still had that special knowing in myself, and a sense of what I was meant to be. You can question youth, and ask, ‘How can you believe in something when so young?’ But I’m grateful in the faith.”    

Misty said that her story begins with her father, Charles Upham, an itinerant hitchhiker who had an undiscovered talent for drawing and painting.  “He saw a guitar in the window of a one-horse town, sold a picture he had drawn, and bought the guitar. He could be found walking along the highways, playing the guitar, walking the streets in the cold. His only friend was the guitar.”    A Blackfeet Native and direct descendant of Chief HeavyRunner, Upham was born on the Blackfeet reservation. At age four, she moved to Billings, where her father went to Eastern Montana University while working at Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and K-Mart; later they moved to Fort Belknap and then back to Browning. “I come from one of the poorest families on the Blackfeet reservation,” said Upham. “There was lots of violence, and I felt doomed there.” Upham said the she befriended a girl named Alicia, who was an aspiring actor.  Alicia auditioned for movie parts and excitedly talked of casting calls and acting coaches. “She had red, curly hair, and she reminded me of life off the reservation. She was in Cut Bank, 30 miles away. It felt good to have some normalcy. Her dad was a bodyguard for the New Kids on the Block. I was starry-eyed.”   

Once Upham decided that she wanted to live the dream, she convinced her father to take her to Seattle, where she started attending acting workshops. “I needed to lose the reservation. I needed to leave. My idea was to go to the nearest city and go to the first theatre I could find. I would watch movies, take breaks, and eat.”      At first, she was terrified by the prospect of performing in front of others in a class setting, and she even feared talking to others. “The teacher said, ‘I see something special in you. I see hunger, determination, a survivor.’ I found my personal power and special something. I remember going home from the workshop, shutting the door, and crying. It was something that I could depend on, and I could live for.” The teenager began acting with the Native American theatre group Red Eagle Soaring; other early training was with the Young Shakespeare Workshop and Freehold Theatre. Her break came shortly after high school — in a showcase at Seattle’s Nippon Kan Theatre. Within a month, Upham had an agent and her opening movie role, in Chris Eyre’s 2002 drama Skins, set on a South Dakota reservation.

Continuous work in television and movies followed, including a role in Rick Stevenson’s 2006 comedy Expiration Date, filmed in Seattle.  Upham ended up in Los Angeles working as a housecleaner, sleeping in and living out of her car in between eight-hour shifts of scrubbing her boss’s floors. “Many working actors live with uncertainty,” said Upham.  She landed the role of Johnna in August: Osage County, a young Native American woman who answers an ad for a housekeeper and caregiver for a hot and bothered matriarch played by Meryl Streep. “I wanted to bring the humanity and dignity of this woman to the big screen,” said Upham.  Two months later, she was staying in a Cut Bank hotel preparing for the filming of Jimmy P., a production based on the real-life of a Blackfeet Indian and World War II veteran.  “It was a weird feeling,” said Upham. “There’s Benicio (Del Toro) and he’s practicing square dancing — in the same library I went to as a girl. It reminded me of why it’s important to go after your dreams.”  The 32-year-old walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival for Jimmy P. and received praise for the role of Johnna in August: Osage County. Everything her characters ever felt or were feeling seemed written indelibly on her face. Consequently, audiences took note of a charismatic person who infected them with her emotions. 

Upham said that she plans to move back and forth among all the different niches that the acting profession has to offer, not just parts that designate her by ethnicity. She just finished filming Crawlspace with Jennifer Aniston.  Among other endeavors, she started her own acting troupe called Indigo Children. As a teacher, she is not the kind of person who wants to twist your arm. She is more of an energy broker, sharing and trading what she feels. “I am teaching my actors all about energy,” said Upham. “You don’t have to say a word or make an expression. You project energy and that’s what reaches people across the world.” Upham is grateful for her success, and, in some ways, she is still haunted by it. She hopes her example will allow other Native Americans to see themselves in a new light.  Upham said that young people on reservations are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem. She said that she envisions returning to the reservations of Montana to foster an artistic epidemic to counter the prevailing epidemics of poverty and pessimism. “I know how dark it is on the reservation,” said Upham.  “Anger is all they have. I want to bring art to the reservation and the chance for young people to respect themselves in a safe place. I want to give them something — and that something will save some lives.” 

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Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Helena, Montana. His biography about the life of Flathead Reservation boxing champion Marvin Camel, Warrior in the Ring, will be released by Riverbend Publishing in September.