Misty Upham Goes Mainstream With Jimmy Picard
By Rob Schmidt
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.
The casting director Avy Kaufman contacted my manager and asked me to tape a monologue from The Exiles. I wasn't familiar with the material, but it was heavy subject matter and really intense so I just did what I felt was right after studying it for a few days. Sent it in and a few days later Mr. Despleshin asked for a meeting. A few weeks later I met with he and the producer Jennifer Roth (The Wrestler, Black Swan) 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. He was so passionate, which I love because sometimes I feel like I'm too passionate about film. But 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 from the meeting 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. And he as an actor and the respect he gives to the craft. He's definitely prepared and interesting in every role he does. Still have to pinch myself everyday. Amazing. Working with another Oscar winner. Scary, but exciting.
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. But I create my characters from before their beginnings. I feel that to really tell the truth, I have to know them inside and out. So you create this world, this entire human and it's beautiful.
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. It's gonna be cool to just be more of me and my family.
What do you think about Del Toro's taking a Native role?
I think it's great that someone of his calliber is portraying one of my people. He's done Native roles before, one in particular was amazing (The Pledge) 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. It's easy to judge the subject from the unknowing outside, which is valid in it's own right, but ask any producer and they'll tell you how difficult it is to get a film going without a star like Benicio. People and companies are investing millions of dollars into this project. People who invest that much want stars, which hopefully secures some of their return on the film. So until we have a legit Native-Benicio, unfortunately most of the time people will take this route. Movies are art, but Hollywood is business and growing up in this business and knowing what I know about the behind-the-screen dealings, it's extremely complicated. It's not just the director's decision. He has to deal with twenty, thirty other people who all have a say in who gets this work. It takes months. And it's a difficult puzzle to put together. So when people complain and hate on the subject I wonder what they are doing to help the struggle? If Native casinos invested in our films we'd have millions of dollars at our fingertips to make movies as we see fit. But I'm helping to raise money for a couple films and whenever we approach any Native money we get no or no answer at all. So what can you do? Whoever is throwing money at the film gets to control it. So if Natives want control, we need financing and we need people to turn up and buy tickets. If our films don't sell, then Hollywood isn't gonna be interested. We need our audience. Show up and buy your damn ticket and bring our box office numbers up. We need to unite and support each other. And on the acting side of things, if there is someone who would have like to go against Benicio for this role, you better have the minerals to back up your guns. Directors don't see blood quantum or ancestory too often. They see talent. And Benicio is classically trained and an alumni of the Stella Adler institute. He's put in years of training, deep training. If he were an athlete he'd be in the NBA or the Olympics. It's not as easy as just being the right race. It takes years to make it. My career is just now picking up and I've been acting and training since I was thirteen. It's been a long seventeen years. It's training. Nothing else can carry you as an actor. And then it comes down to smaller details like age, body-type, looks. It's a fukken tightrope.
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 the movie?
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 director as respected as Arnaud, I have no worries about how this film will do. It's gonna be great fun.
Any other interesting or exciting news you'd like to share with us?
Yes. But I can't right now. Soon.
Most of del Toro's movies make little or no money. His recent "star" vehicle, The Wolf Man, is a good example. Production cost: $150,000,000. Worldwide box-office: $142,634,358. Oops.
Any investors who want a "star" like del Toro to get their money back don't know the facts. The real reason they want del Toro, I'd say, is as a security blanket. He's a known quantity, so he makes the investors comfortable. No one will laugh at them for going with a dark-skinned unknown.
Comfortable with a light-skinned Puerto Rican. Not comfortable with a Native actor. Another word for color-based comfort is prejudice.
For more on the subject, see Del Toro to Play Native Veteran and The Best Indian Movies.