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Originally published Sunday, August 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Former Seattle actress Misty Upham finds a great role in "Frozen River"

Former Seattleite Misty Upham's film/acting career takes another step forward with "Frozen River."

Seattle Times movie critic

Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," opening Friday at the Harvard Exit, is a story of adventure, peril and suspense. It's also a story of two women, both mothers, struggling to make ends meet, determined to do whatever's necessary to take care of their children. It is, needless to say, like nothing else in theaters right now, and that uniqueness drew former Seattle actress Misty Upham to the story.

"I thought, this is never going to get made, no studio is going to back it," Upham said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles (where she's lived since last summer). She's been part of the project since 2004, when Upham and co-star Melissa Leo appeared in a short film by Hunt that was the inspiration for "Frozen River" and featured the same characters. Three long years passed before the feature could be made.

In the film, Lila (Upham) and Ray (Leo) are not so much friends as conspirators, drawn into the illegal world of immigrant smuggling. Lila lives on a Mohawk reservation in upstate New York, near the Canadian border, and there's money to be made by ferrying Chinese and Pakistani immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River that represents both an international boundary and a lawless no man's land.

Upham found her character to be a rarity: "a Native American woman who's not in buckskin. She's complex, she has depth and [she's not] standing in the background looking stoic. That's what I loved about this film." She plays Lila with a quiet, carefully controlled determination. "The Mohawk women, the way they hold themselves that's so reserved, that's definitely Lila's main strength."

Hunt, in Seattle earlier this summer for the film's Seattle International Film Festival screening, said the idea for her screenplay came from true stories she'd heard and read about women involved with cigarette smuggling over the border. "I was interested to know more when I learned that they did it by driving across the ice," she said. "They needed to have enough courage to brave that one-mile frozen expanse in order to make much more money."

She described "Frozen River," which won the grand jury prize for dramatic feature at the Sundance Film Festival this year (where it was bought for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics), as an adventure story with universal appeal. "It's sort of an ode to the Westerns, this lawless land where anything goes," she said, noting that Lila and Ray's actions may resonate with audiences as well as any big-budget action film. "Sometimes the adventure in our life is the adventure of paying the rent, which is not so glamorous and doesn't involve pyrotechnics to portray, but is in fact as compelling an adventure of survival as any."

For Upham, the role of Lila is the latest in a film career that took her by surprise. Born in Montana, she moved to Seattle with her family at the age of 8. "I went to high school all over King County," she said — Auburn, Federal Way, Renton, home-schooling. As a young teenager, she began acting with the Native American theater group Red Eagle Soaring (Upham's tribal heritage is Blackfeet); other early training was with the Young Shakespeare Workshop and Freehold Theatre, among others.

Her break came not long after high school, at a showcase at Seattle's Nippon Kan Theatre. "I wrote my own play and directed it and acted in it," Upham remembered. "Somebody in the audience filmed it and sent it to a casting director in L.A. She called the next day and asked me to submit a portfolio. I was so green, I didn't have a portfolio."

Within a month, Upham had an agent and her first movie role, in Chris Eyre's 2002 drama "Skins," set on a South Dakota reservation. Steady work in television and movies followed, including a role in Rick Stevenson's 2006 made-in-Seattle comedy "Expiration Date."

Upham, who says she misses Seattle ("I'd move back to Seattle in a second if I could get the work"), hopes her work in "Frozen River" will bring her more visible roles. But she's not taking any chances — currently she's at work writing a thriller in which she'll star. "I'm writing my own stuff, because there's just not quality work out there for the type of actress I am," she said. "I want [roles] that a Native American could be that have nothing to do with the fact that I'm Native."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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