Actress Misty Upham, Blackfeet, approaches each role with almost religious fervor. That’s not surprising for someone who once planned to become a nun.
Growing up in Seattle, Upham’s love of religion and music drew her to the church. But her life took a different direction when her parents enrolled her in a summer theater program for Native youth. Soon she was a stand-out performer and Hollywood beckoned. Chris Eyre introduced her in Skins, his second movie, but her real breakthrough came when she played a Mohawk in the Oscar-nominated Frozen River.
Since then she’s kept busy. Coming up is a role in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, based on the bestseller by Michael Dorris. But first, French director Arnaud Desplechin has chosen her to co-star with Benicio del Toro in Jimmy Picard. Based on the book Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, it tells the true story of a friendship between a Blackfeet World War II veteran and a French psychoanalyst.
Via e-mail, Upham told ICTMN about the thrill of working with a top director and actor.
How did you get involved? What attracted you to the project?
The casting director contacted my manager and asked me to tape a monologue from The Exiles. Sent it in and a few days later Mr. Desplechin asked for a meeting. I met with him and the producer at Chateau Marmont. We discussed everything from Blackfeet history to Benicio to my career beginnings. He knew all my work and could tell me details about it which was really touching. We had a wonderful discussion and I left feeling really good about the whole thing.
What’s it like working with Desplechin and del Toro?
I haven’t started filming yet, but from what I can tell I’m going to really love working with Arnaud. He’s a director who’s in control, but not controlling. He was really open to my ideas and input as well as my knowledge of my tribe’s history and language. He was full of energy and super excited which was fun. We laughed and after the meeting went for a smoke outside. Can’t wait to get to set. And Benicio is one of my idols. Never thought I’d be working with him. Love his work. He’s definitely prepared and interesting in every role he does. Still have to pinch myself every day.
How are you preparing for your role?
I have my own process which I’ve developed over the years. Lots of meditation and character development in terms of energy and spirit. I don’t believe acting is technical. Acting is basically feeling and experiencing emotions and situations and being really truthful about it. I believe that acting is a prayer. So I go deep into it. Hard to explain. Can be quite abstract, but it’s what works for me.
As a Blackfeet actress, what’s it like to play a Blackfeet character?
Awesome. Never thought I’d get to play a Blackfeet. Was thinking of writing a script myself, but just haven’t come up with the right idea yet. Then comes this project and I’m like, “Finally.” I can finally talk and act like myself. The Blackfeet slang and dialect are very distinct. People can tell who we are just by hearing our expressions and accent. It’s very sing-song; up and down and all over the place.
What do you think about del Toro’s taking a Native role?
I think it’s great that someone of his caliber is portraying one of my people. He’s done Native roles before. One in particular, The Pledge, was amazing and unforgettable. That’s the first thought that went through my head when they told me I’d be working with him. I thought, “This is amazing, but I know people are gonna protest and be upset.” At the end of the day, as much as we’d like it to be about culture and accuracy, Hollywood is about box-office numbers, money and the best actors for the part.
Do you have a romantic scene with del Toro on-screen?
Yes! Can’t wait. I’m gonna savor every second of it.
What are your hopes and expectations for Jimmy Picard?
I hope it goes to the Oscars. A Blackfeet story at the Oscars? That would be amazing. But with an Oscar winner like Benicio, and a director as respected as Arnaud, I have no worries about how this film will do. It’s gonna be great fun.