Oct 24, 2014 - Remembering Misty Upham

On October 16th, the body of Misty Upham was found after having been missing from her home on the Muckleshoot reservation since October 5th. A search party for Misty was coordinated by Misty’s family and members of Seattle’s Native community after the family received no support from the Auburn police department. Last Real Indians would like to pay our respects to Misty, her family and her friends in offering our sincerest condolences.

The following comes from Misty’s long time friend Tracy Rector:

My name is Tracy Rector and I am a filmmaker in Seattle, WA. Ten years ago when we first started our Native youth filmmaking program, Misty took part in the intensive weekend as a mentor. She talked about her goals and dreams as an actress and of her passions as an activist. Misty had so much ambition, talent, intensity and many many original ideas. Through out the years I had the opportunity to laugh with her, present with her, teach with her and to honor her ever increasing body of work. It was and still is incredible to see such a bright individual shine with authentic creativity.

I am just heartbroken at the loss of a life so young and full of promise. Misty was a gift and a real character who brought smiles to many people. The following article by Ryan Gilbey is a very respectful piece with international recognition and grants Misty her deserved stature. She will never be forgotten!” ~Tracy Rector Director of Longhouse Media

Independent films show up occasionally on the radar of Academy voters, earning wild-card nominations that are rarely converted into statuettes. In the 2009 awards, Frozen River, a US drama about people-smuggling, was one such movie. Though it earned a best screenplay nomination for its writer-director Courtney Hunt and one for best actress for its star, Melissa Leo, there was important work done in the film also by the Native American actor Misty Upham, who has been found dead at the age of 32. This was recognised when she received a best supporting actress nomination in the Independent Spirit Awards.

Upham played Lila Littlewolf, who accompanies Ray (Leo), a penniless single mother, in ferrying immigrants into the US. Their runs involve evading the police and crossing the frozen St Lawrence river. Tension in the picture was not limited to those treacherous expeditions: the fraught relationship between Ray and Lila, which thaws only gradually, was expertly investigated by both actors. Leo’s prickly demeanour and brassy appearance (tattooed toes, hurricane hair) was complemented by Upham’s taciturn stillness and stoicism. Lila’s past is the stuff of melodrama: her husband drowned on a previous run; their infant son was then snatched by her mother-in-law. But the actor played every scene straight, truthful and unfussy, without pleas for the audience’s pity or sympathy.

Daughter of Charles and Mona Upham, she was born in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation, which borders Alberta, Canada. She lived there until the age of four, when she moved to Billings, in the same state, so that her father could attend Montana State University. Eventually the family returned to Browning before moving to Auburn, WA. “I come from one of the poorest families on the Blackfeet Reservation,” she said. “There was lots of violence, and I felt doomed there.” She spoke in interviews of having harboured suicidal and depressive feelings at an early age; she was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

At 12, she decided she wanted to act, and persuaded her father to take her to drama workshops in Seattle. “I needed to lose the reservation,” she said. “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 13, I stopped being suicidal, and I found something to live for.”

Following an appearance in a theatrical showcase in Seattle with Red Eagle Soaring, Upham landed an agent and a series of parts in films pertaining to Native American life. These included Skins (2002) and Expiration Date (2006) and the TV movies Skinwalkers (2002) and Dreamkeeper (2003). She also appeared in the 2002 revival of the British television series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, as part of a plot-line about the Middlesbrough transporter bridge being dismantled, and reconstructed on a Native American reservation. She took menial jobs between roles, sometimes earning so little that she had to live in her car. Then in 2006 she received a call from Hunt, asking her to star in a short for which she would be paid expenses only. This was a more modest version of Frozen River, which Hunt expanded into a feature two years later, with Upham reprising her role.

Frozen River brought Upham new-found attention, but parts were still fairly sparse. In 2010, she starred in two episodes of the acclaimed HBO series Big Love, about a Mormon family in Utah, and in the drama The Dry Land, which also featured her Frozen River co-star Leo. She was seen briefly as a bar-owner in Quentin Tarantino’s violent western Django Unchained (2012).

She then appeared, and in a larger capacity, in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013), about the friendship between a Blackfoot Native American man (Benicio del Toro) and his therapist (Mathieu Amalric) in postwar Montana. Promoting Desplechin’s movie at the Cannes film festival, Upham reflected on this return to the subject of her own background. “I had no dreams and no way to make a dream. I had to leave the reservation. So 18 years later… [I am] coming full circle to the reservation I left to fulfil my dream.”

She was part of the starry ensemble cast in the 2013 screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’s hit play August: Osage County. Upham played the carer to a fearsome, dying matriarch (Meryl Streep) who presides over a fractured family (including Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch). One of her last performances was in a small role in the blackly comic drama Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston as a woman coping with chronic pain, which premiered recently at the Toronto film festival.

Misty Anne Upham, born 6 July 1982; found dead 16 October 2014

She is survived by her parents and a brother, Christopher, and sister, Amanda.

~By: Ryan Gilbey

Artwork by: Steven Paul Judd

Last Real Indians