Inside the Life and Work of Actress Misty Upham

by Jackie Willis 12:05 PM PDT, October 17, 2014
Photo: Getty Images

The mysterious disappearance and death of Misty Upham thrust this rising actress into the headlines. Though Upham starred in several critically-acclaimed films, she was still cleaning homes when she auditioned for August: Osage County, and many people may now be hearing her name for the first time.

ETonline took a look back at the life and work of an actress who had starred alongside such film greats as Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), Benicio Del Toro (Jimmy P.) and Melissa Leo (Frozen River).

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Native American Upbringing: Born on July 6, 1982, in Kalispell, Mont., Misty was raised in Auburn, Wash. -- about 28 miles south of Seattle -- and was a member of the Blackfoot Tribe, the largest Native American tribe in Montana. Misty has said she is the direct descendant of the last chief.

In 2013, Misty starred alongside Del Toro in the drama Jimmy P. Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, a film that explored the life of a Native American Veteran suffering from a series of psychological issues.

For Misty, the film hit close to home. "I had no dreams and no way to make a dream," she told Reuters at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. "I had to leave the reservation. So 18 years later, [I am] coming full circle to the reservation I left to fulfill my dream."

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Misty also touched on the beliefs of her tribe while at Cannes that year. "We believe in spirits," she said. "We believe in ghosts. We believe in shape shifting. We believe in medicine and curses. We are very spiritual people."

She continued, "What somebody else would call delusional, to us it is normal."

Acting History- According to her IMDB, Misty began her acting career at the age of 13 when she joined the Red Eagle Soaring theater group. Over the next four years she was accepted into several theater groups across the Seattle area, and in 2001, she landed the role of Mrs. Blue Cloud in the film Skins. The actress played a victim of domestic abuse on the Pine Ridge reservation. IMDB points out that she was "insistent" on doing her own stunts in the movie.

Making Ends Meet: In an editorial piece for Women in the World in January 2014 (via The Daily Beast), Misty revealed that before landing her August: Osage County role, she was up to her "elbows in cleaning products and rubber gloves."

She recalls that director John Wells called her in 2012 for an audition while she was working as a housekeeper in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Misty said at the time in her life, she wasn't even sure her car would make it to the audition on the "fumes" she had in her gas tank. "After my audition, I waited on the curb for hours for a friend to bring me gas -- the glamorous life of the working actor," she writes.

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The actress details the her experience working as a house cleaner, and the mistreatment that can come with the profession. "And then there are bad days and really tough employers," she writes. "People who insist you work all day and then refuse to pay you a fair wage, or deny you your wages altogether; the ones who fire you without cause or warning, or force you to work overtime with no additional compensation," she writes. "Most painful are the employers who don’t seem to see you at all, as if you are not human, less than them. You feel invisible -- that is, until they realize they've seen you before. (Aren't you that girl from Frozen River?)"

Misty was hoping that her role in August: Osage County, in which she plays Violet Weston's (Streep) housekeeper Johnna Monevata, would draw attention to the treatment of domestic workers. "Whether or not you see the film, chances are there's a Johnna in your life: your mother, your nanny, the homecare worker who helps your grandmother get to her weekly bridge nights with 'the girls,'" she wrote. "We owe it to them to join their fight for basic labor rights."

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Other Actors Who Inspired Her: According to IMDB, the actress admired the work of Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Tilda Swinton and Emily Watson. As for male actors, Misty was a fan of James McAvoy, Jeremy Renner, Steve Zahn, Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis. 

Critically-Acclaimed Performances: Misty was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female for her role in the 2008 film Frozen River. Starring alongside Melissa Leo, the crime drama takes place in the days leading up to Christmas near a little-known border crossing on the Mohawk reservation between New York State and Quebec. Two single mothers - one white (Leo), one Mohawk (Misty) - are drawn into the world of border smuggling across the frozen water of the St. Lawrence River.

Upon hearing of her co-star's death, Leo said, "So so sad to hear this news -- all our thoughts are with her family and with her beautiful spirit."

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Misty was also nominated for a SAG Award for Best Ensemble Performance for her role in August: Osage County.