Interview: Misty Upham — Frozen River Less Scary Than Hollywood

Sometimes when I talk to someone who doesn’t work in the entertainment industry, I find they have this notion that being an actor is all glamorous and exciting, that actors make tons of money, live in mansions and have lackeys on call 24/7 to fetch nonfat, decaf, sugar-free iced mochas and book massages. Well, maybe if you’re Jennifer Aniston.

But for most, it’s a much more difficult road. Misty Upham starred with Melissa Leo in one of last year’s best films, Frozen River, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as best supporting actress. But in this e-mail interview I did with her, it’s obvious her life isn’t all about the limelight and limos. She remains grounded and is delightfully candid about her experience thus far in Hollywood. After reading this, I challenge anyone to still think an actor’s existence is always easy or pampered. It takes guts to pursue this life and I think Upham’s got it in spades.

PCN: What was scarier–going across that icy river in the movie or coming to L.A. on your own?

MU: Definitely moving to L.A. on my own. I had to do a lot of things for the first time. I have a lot of quirks, fear of walking across crosswalks, for instance. My family nicknamed me Monk. The river is a piece of cake. I trust nature.

PCN: I read that you rent a room in Melissa Leo’s house. How has she helped you navigate Hollywood?

MU: I did rent a room, but I’ve recently moved in with my boyfriend. She did help me a bit, but Melissa’s very much about people taking care of themselves and finding their own way. She did as much as anyone would but it ultimately was up to me.

PCN: Most actors, when they get a big break, they immediately quit their day job. Why have you kept yours at the diner/laundromat?

MU: Because the money from Frozen River was just enough to pay my car payment and my phone and have some left over for groceries. That was over two years ago. I have recently moved on from that job as well, though. Lots of changes. But I kept it for so long because my boss supported my career and worked with my schedule. She bent over backwards for my comfort. But recently it’s finally come to that point of being in a place where I have to ask myself, “Am I really going to go for this? Or is it going to continue being a dream?” I’ve decided to make this dream come true. And this year has been life-changing to say the least. The opportunities I’ve been offered have given me the confidence to leap without looking.


PCN: Do patrons ever recognize you? How do they feel having an Indie Spirit Award nominee handling their underwear?

MU: Patrons did recognize me, but mostly from [KABC’s] George [Pennachio]’s news piece. Folks couldn’t care less that I was nominated against Penelope Cruz at the Indies, or that I went to the Oscars. They just wanted to know if George Pennachio was as nice in person! Towards the end I was getting a lot more looks and whispers and had a few people recognize me from screenings. It was getting a bit weird. And any fluff and fold worker will tell you that people don’t give a shit about bringing in their dirty undies. I’ve seen it all. Yuck!

PCN: You have two kinds of jobs–one sometimes includes scrubbing toilets and the other is making movies. Any similarities between the two?

MU: Yes. Both include lots of shit and tears! Just kidding. Both require you to humiliate yourself in a way. I think the best actors are the ones that have no shame. The ones that forget about their cellulite and just give a good nude scene. Picking my customer’s pubes off the toilet seat was very humilating, but not as humiliating as being yelled and snapped at by my co-stars in front of the entire crew. I’d wear those rubba gloves any day!

mistyPCN: I read an early draft of the Frozen River script and Lila was described as having long hair, which is the stereotypical image for Native American women. Whose idea was it for you to have short hair in the movie?

MU: I kind of shaved my head, then told [writer/director] Courtney [Hunt]. And it just worked. A bit of scare there, but she stuck by me. Glad to get rid of the stereotype long hair. Sick of it in actuality.

PCN: What Native stereotypes in movies annoy you so much you just want to pull your hair out?

MU: The broken English. I studied Oxford English books for fun when I was sixteen, so it annoys me beyond belief to see every script with ghetto talk. Yeah, some people talk like that but a lot of people don’t. I’m sick of saying things like “usedta-could.” Then there’s the “rez uniform.” Ripped, ’80s mom jeans, flannel shirt…need I say more?

And the number one most annoying is the non-Native Native factor. We saw it in Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Last Of The Dogmen, etc. Non-Native person finds the Indians, gets adopted, becomes the best hunter/warrior, learns the language fluently (meanwhile the Indians are still struggling with “hello” and “buffalo”) and then there just so happens to be another non-Native person there, which makes it perfect that they hook up and live happily ever after. It’s still taboo to fall in love with an Indian.

PCN: What would be your dream part and which actor(s) would it be opposite?

MU: I would love to play lovesick loser or a sexy bitch. And I would give my right boob to work with Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Helen Mirren, Seth Rogen, Emily Watson, Woody Allen and James McAvoy. And just for kicks and giggles: Matisyahu. He’s Kosher-sexy!

PCN: You recently went to the Oscars. What was your favorite experience there? Favorite person you met?

MU: Probably laughing with Mickey Rooney about how he and his wife fell into the paparazzi hedge by the E! camera. Or chatting with Josh “W.” Brolin before getting champagne fuzzies. But as usual Anne Hathaway was a class act. So nice and so down to earth despite the fact that the entire room wants to ravage her. She always takes the time to say hi and she remembers my name. And my mom’s. She’s the best.

PCN: The question covers anything that happened at after-parties.

MU: Well, I can’t tell you any of that good stuff or I’d never be invited back again! But I can tell you that I was drunk and stumbling down the stairs when John Singleton chased me down to tell me how much he loved our movie and seeing that we were both nerds who didn’t carry cards or pen and paper, made me promise to Facebook him. That was awesome, what I can remember of it anyway…

PCN: Did your manager at the diner/laundromat really write you up for not working Oscars weekend?

MU: They threatened to, but only so the other workers would stop complaining about covering me.

PCN: When you were growing up on the reservation, if someone had said you’d grow up to be a Spirit Award-nominated, red-carpet-walking, Europe-traveling, Alps-skiing girl with Tarantino as a fan, how would you have responded?

MU: And at what age did I sell my soul to the devil?

PCN: What’s next for you?

MU: The L.A. audition trail. Talk about crazy and dangerous. I’m ready for the ego-beating, snuffy attitudes and toffee-nosed receptionists. Let’s be insecure together! 🙂



  • Reply
    March 30, 2009 at 1:29 am

    Mmhmm…you tell it. girl. Whoever said life in this town is easy has never really tried working here! Fantastic interview, chica…Upham sounds like a really cool, totally down-to-earth actress. I think I’m in love… 🙂

  • Reply
    Lizabeth Ann
    March 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Thank you for the terrific Misty Upham interview! Her performance in “Frozen River” was no less than brilliant! That, and “Tell No One” were by far my favorite movie experiences of this past year.

    By the way, Harlan Coben will make appearances on Glenn Beck’s, and The Sean Hannity Show this week.

  • Reply
    ARB Ent
    March 30, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I believe every word of this interview. Sadly, the really talented people too often get overlooked in this industry in favor of reality show contestants with sex tapes. Based on her performance in Frozen River, Misty may be one of the few to rise above it.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Upham seems like that rare “nice person” you hear about in Hollywood. I wish her all the luck in the world.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2009 at 10:06 am

    She reminds me of where America Ferrera was not all that long ago.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Let’s face it, guys in Hollywood can be unconventional looking, but the public wants their leading ladies hot and usually white. It’s not fair, but it’s not new.

    • Reply
      March 30, 2009 at 10:17 am

      I hear you, Scriptpimp, but that attitude is changing. How else do you explain Misty’s nomination or even Melissa Leo’s for that matter? Or the fact that a small movie like Frozen River, without a single recognizable star besides Michael O’Keefe in a tiny part, got at far as it did? Or Slumdog Millionaire (without any stars) wins an Oscar?

      Hang in there, Misty!

  • Reply
    March 30, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    What a down-to-earth interview ~ thanks, PCN and Misty! It’s a great reminder that no matter what career you’re in, and especially the creative ones, to keep doing what you love, no matter what, and not to sweat the small stuff.

  • Reply
    March 31, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    I am so glad that you did a write-up on Misty…. I was so touched by her performance in FROZEN RIVER. She had so many layers. Initally, “Lila” possessed a cold, icy, self-serving exterior. As her character developed, we (as the audience) discover that she is really a vulnerable young mom that just wanted to buy her baby a new crib….. There were so many non-verbal nuances in her portrayal that took the written text to the next level. Way to go, Misty!

    • Reply
      March 31, 2009 at 3:08 pm

      I couldn’t have said it better myself, Harmony.

  • Reply
    June 24, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Nice to see an interview with Misty. I enjoyed her performance in Frozen River.

    • Reply
      June 24, 2009 at 11:08 pm

      Thanks, Charles. I enjoyed Misty’s work in that, too. I also love how refreshingly candid she was in this interview.

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