Actress Misty Upham Talks Struggles, Triumphs, Meryl Streep, Melissa Leo, August: Osage County and More
Misty Upham’s story strips away the perceived glitz and glamour of Hollywood. She was working as a dog walker and cleaning a home – scrubbing a floor to be exact – when she was offered a chance to audition for one of 2013’s biggest films, August: Osage County. The Meryl Streep/Julia Roberts film, which garnered various Oscar nominations, has led the Native American actress to ongoing acting work. Hers is a story of being a housecleaner one minute to appearing onscreen with one of acting’s greatest living performers, Meryl Streep, the next.
It was back in 2008 that Misty starred alongside Oscar winning actress Melissa Leo in Frozen River. That movie netted her a Spirit Award nomination. The film, which yielded Melissa Leo an Oscar Nomination, could also have brought Misty a Supporting Actress nomination.
The duo of Leo and Upham carried Frozen River. But even with its success, Misty kept walking dogs, cleaning houses and doing things outside of acting to pay the bills.
Finally after the success of August: Osage County, things have begun paying off. An upcoming movie with Jennifer Aniston and numerous other projects are on the horizon. Though she is one of few people of Native American heritage in Hollywood, Ms. Upham found her way into the inner circle every aspiring actor or actress dreams of.
You can read the highlights or listen to Misty’s entire journey in her CYInterview below:
Listen to the entire Misty Upham CYInterview:
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Misty was doing domestic work to support herself when she heard about the role for August: Osage County. Speaking about the illusions of show business for many performers, she shares an inspiring story of being a broke actress trying to juggle it all and move her career forward:
“I cleaned houses to support my acting because I’ve gotten famous off of movies that have paid me not much more than maybe $1400 and stuff. So you get all this notoriety and people pay you to travel the world and everybody thinks you’re rich. And then you come home and you have to pay rent and your phone bill and everything else. So I was cleaning, I would get up at 5:30 in the morning and clean houses until lunch and then go to another house which was a boss in Manhattan Beach. She had a mansion. And then from there I would go down to L.A., pick up a bunch of dogs and hike them up Runyon [Canyon] for 30 bucks a dog and then go clean one more house, go home, eat, shower, go to sleep and do it again.
So I had been in this sort of work cycle for about maybe nine months and I got the call from my manager while I was scrubbing or waxing a floor actually. And he said, ‘They want you to audition for August: Osage County.’ Which was really interesting, because on one of my weekends off I had, I read the play at a friend’s house with Sally Kirkland and Meryl Streep’s role and I was Johnna. And that had been like two months earlier. So I was like really familiar with the material. So I asked my boss for a day off and she was really supportive and said yes. So I went, barely had enough gas money to get there and I ran out of gas at Warner Bros. And so I just kind of parked my car, went in, did the audition, thought I messed it up, went outside, called a friend and they brought me gas money. So yeah, I wasn’t rich when I was hired for this role and it was really funny that I would be playing a housekeeper. I was excited.”
Her dream came true when she got the role and a chance to work with Meryl Streep in August: Osage Country. Her story about working with Meryl presents an amazing portrait of the three-time Oscar winner:
“It’s everything you think it’s gonna be, but even better because everybody’s, you know, I’ve run into Meryl several different times after, during award season and also we both went to Women of the World last year and she has this amazing ability to relate to every shade of person that she’s with and she has that movie star superpower of making you feel like you’re the only one. And I would see her energy change from me to when she would go and talk to the first AD [assistant director] or when she would go and talk to John [Wells]. She just switches through all these currents of energy and so everybody has a beautiful, individual one of a kind masterpiece that she presents them. And her masterpiece with me was just ultimate compassion and it was beautiful.
And as busy as she was and as powerful as she was, she, there is an interesting story, I am gonna try not to cry, I really am, after we filmed with her, right after I did and they wrapped, that was her last take of the movie. And so, she went to go and get ready and they were gonna announce her wrap. And I had been so good at holding it in. I fell on the stairs and I just like broke down, you know, because, ‘Oh my God! My dream just came true.’ And you know, my life, odd, my life goal just happened, even more so than the Oscar. So I sat there and cried for a while. And then I went downstairs, I didn’t know where everybody was and I walked out the first door and I was gonna see what was happening and then everybody was gathered out front and they were clapping. And I was like, ‘Oh no. It’s just me.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We’re clapping because this is the last scene of the movie.’
And so then we went out and they had chocolate covered champagne and chocolate covered strawberries and the entire crew came and everybody stopped their work and Meryl came out and she did this great, she took her wig off and flung it and we all kind of celebrated for five minutes and I gave her a hug and started crying and she whispered to me, ‘Oh, what’s wrong baby?’ And I said, ‘My dream just came true and thought that if it ever came true, it would take my entire life.’ And she gave me a hug and while we were taking a picture, I was always, kind of put myself outside this family, this movie family because I was the housekeeper. That was part of my approach to it.
And so standing on the outside with some of my crew members who were my friends because living with someone for four months, you become sort of best friends in that time and Meryl was standing somewhere in the middle and she was asking, ‘Where’s Misty?’ And she saw me and she like left the middle and came around and stood with me on the side and put her arm around me. So in the crew photo, the last photo, she’s with me on the side. So her work ethic, her preparation, her technique, everything was everything that you would hope it would be, but her humanity would be even greater.”
Misty’s first big acting break came in 2008 when she worked alongside Melissa Leo in the movie Frozen River. She explains how that experience set the tone for the future of her career:
“It was probably one of the most beautiful, exciting, difficult times of my life all for really great reasons. I mean I was transitioning into Hollywood; I was growing up; I was a late bloomer. So that was the first time I was really on my own. And then I got to travel the world and have all these great experiences and that film was so difficult to make. We had zero budget, it was freezing, one day we got shutdown because the sheriff told us the crew would get frost bite ‘cause we didn’t have trailers, we didn’t have heaters, we just had those shaky pouches and I remember we would take turns warming in the picture car. So having come from that experience and everybody told us it wasn’t gonna go anywhere and I just sort of prepared myself for it to just sort of fizzle out.
And then it just sort of took off and Sundance was the catapult for that and then we were on this whirlwind. So life changed really abruptly and I was still carrying the weight of the character. So I faced a lot of image issues during that time and I didn’t feel beautiful at all. … But working with Melissa taught me the kind of independence and the kind of preparation I would need to work with people of that caliber and it really helped me out in terms of working with Benicio Del Toro and Meryl Street and everybody else on the cast of AOC [August: Osage County].
There’s a reason why they’re at that level and it’s their loyalty and devotion to what they do. It’s their focus. It’s their obsessive tendency to want to make this person like perfect and real and you know, people leave their families and their children and move across the country to strange places and do this for the public. So Melissa really had a lot of talks with me in the car while we were waiting and it was all about her stories and experiences and she really I think set the foundation for the toughness I would need for this career and the struggle.”
Speaking of her Native American heritage, Misty says she is a full blooded and a direct descendant of Chief Heavy Runner. Growing up on a reservation did not give her much exposure to the arts. She gives credit to her father for why her dreams in Hollywood came true.
“He went and got his diploma. He had dropped out of high school. And so after he got his diploma, he applied for a scholarship for music and he auditioned and without being able to read music, they gave him a full ride, four year scholarship to Eastern Montana University and he graduated with Masters Degrees in Guitar and Classical music and K-12 Education. So he’s really the reason why I ever had this chance. … I never thought I would get off that reservation and I just saw how few choices there are. There’s no art on the reservation. And my dad just told us one day he said, ‘We’re going back to Seattle.’ So we went to Seattle, we went back home and I joined the first theater I could find, and after that, joined ever other theater and started auditioning for companies and got into every company.”
Giving us her thoughts on Native American stereotypes and how pop culture has impacted people’s views, the actress told us this:
“Part of it is Hollywood and the stereotypes and stuff, but at the same time, Native people feed those stereotypes of what we put out there. Now we’re saying films are the ambassadors of culture; they’re the modern ambassadors in what we put out is what people think of us. So when Natives complain about stereotypes and everything else I’m like, well, you put these films out in the world, that’s what the world’s gonna to think of us. So I decided to stop playing those roles and right before Frozen River came I had walked away from Native films. And I said, I am not gonna do these res[ervation] movies anymore. I’m not gonna do these stereotypes.”
In closing, Ms. Upham offered these words of wisdom:
“I just say, be yourself, be out there and no matter what people tell you to put on as an image, be yourself and it will open more doors for you ‘cause people will realize that you are playing characters and you’re, you know, good actors hopefully.”
Catch Misty Upham with Meryl Streep in the movie August: Osage County now out on DVD and Blue-ray. You can purchase the DVD and find more information here. You can purchase the Blue-ray and find more information here
Follow Misty Upham on Twitter here.
You can email Chris Yandek at ChrisYandek@CYInterview.com
You can follow Chris Yandek on Twitter here.