To drive around LA is to navigate a sprawling undefinable cityscape in which urban planners seemed to have played no role.  For Cassidy Freeman, though, LA—in her case, Santa Monica’s Ocean Park—feels like a neighborhood. 

Cassidy in Montana.

Having moved there at age 23 after growing up in Chicago and attending college in Vermont, it’s now home, despite her constant travels.  She lives in a bungalow just minutes away from both of her brothers.  She walks her dog each morning, exchanging greetings with neighbors. 

When she meets up with a friend of a friend at a coffee shop a few blocks from her home, she takes a table on the sidewalk then spends the next two hours fielding hellos: from friends, people who bond over her dog’s unusual breed (Entlebucher Mountain Dog), passers-by who might recognize her but are too polite to say so, and one fan who calls out, “I love your work”, then, when he realizes how approachable she is, ends up delightedly posing for a photo with her.

Robert Taylor and Cassidy Freeman in Longmire.

The work he lauds ranges from her roles as Tess Mercer in Smallville and Veronica Sharpe in Razor Sharp to a recurring part on NCIS: New Orleans.  But it is her portrayal of Cady Longmire over five seasons of the crime drama Longmire (the sixth and final season will premier later this year) that has introduced her to six million devoted viewers who love the excellent storytelling delivered by complex, believable characters in a contemporary Western setting. 

Cassidy on her family cattle ranch in Montana.

Shot in New Mexico at Valles Caldera, a location resembling the Wyoming setting of the Craig Johnson novels on which the series is based, and with a cast that has become a close-knit family, Longmire has been an incredible gift for Freeman, and one that’s hard to let go.  “We could have done it longer,” she says.  “There are many more stories to tell.  But creatively, it’s good to move on.  An ending is also a beginning.”

Every cowgirl needs a trusty steed.

For an actress coming off a decade of steady work, Freeman finds herself experiencing a heady moment of freedom in her life, one in which she has the luxury of pausing, taking a deep breath, and contemplating the right next step.  How appropriate, then, that a few weeks after shooting the last scene of Longmire and making the drive home from Santa Fe for the last time, she can return to her happy place near Paradise Valley, Montana, with her dad, her dog, and the horses and mountains that feed her soul.

Cassidy’s family: dad Lee, brother Crispin, Cassidy, mom Glynna, and brother Clark.

Freeman grew up in an apartment in downtown Chicago, just around the corner from her grandparents.  As the youngest of three kids whose parents ran a successful law firm, the school year was a blur of classes at the academically rigorous Latin School of Chicago, family commitments, and a host of extracurricular activities: volleyball, water polo, saxophone, chorus, and acting.

The Longmire actress feels most at home on her family ranch.

Although her parents were hard-charging corporate litigators, they were passionate about the arts and encouraged their kids’ creative sides.  Freeman started auditioning and signed with an agent at age 10.  Her brothers, Crispin and Clark, are also professional actors, while Cassidy and Clark perform together in a band called the Real D’Coy.  “I joke that I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” Freeman laughs.  “But I’m grateful to be well-rounded.”

A gorgeous day under the open skies of Montana.

Growing up, the school year was always hectic, but summer provided a respite from the fast-paced lifestyle.  Freeman’s parents, who had fallen in love with Montana, purchased a ranch just north of Yellowstone early in their careers.  There, they ran cattle, indulged their love of dogs and horses, cooked, read, talked, and spent time together fishing, hiking, and horseback riding amidst spectacular mountain scenery.

Lou Diamond Phillips and Cassidy Freeman in Longmire.

My parents bought our ranch before I was even born, so I’ve known Montana as long as I’ve been alive,” Freeman says.  “My time there growing up was when my family got to spend time together, without school or work or agenda.  We all lived very busy lives in Chicago, and Montana was when we clocked out and checked in.”

Ian Somerhalder and Cassidy Freeman in The Vampire Diaries.

Animals and nature went hand in hand during her childhood, Freeman says.  “Every dog and cat we had were both city pets and ranch pets.  They had to be, just like us, able to adapt.  But I know they felt so free on that ranch, like I did.  I spent one summer in a tractor, haying, and my dog Marley spent every day with me, at my feet on that tractor.  Our cats, Fric and Frak, would stay out all night and we would wake up to a handful of mice they’d hunted in the night, lined up on the mat outside the front door.  Since I was old enough to reach the footrests, my brothers taught me how to drive an ATV.  I used to ride it all the way down to where the road became county road, always wondering how long it would take me to drive the 14 miles to town, but never doing it.  Too many adventures awaited in the opposite direction, toward the wilderness.”

Tom Welling and Cassidy Freeman in Smallville.

Horses, of course, were the preferred mode of travel.  “I rode a horse before I could walk,” Freeman says.  “I remember as a child riding a huge gray Quarter Horse named Chester.  Then, when I was 8, my parents bought four Paso Fino horses that Buck Brannaman came to help us train, before he was “Buck Brannaman.”  I had broken my foot at camp and had a cast on my leg up to my knee.  My mom was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to ride, let alone train, my young, slightly skittish, Paso named Jamoca.  My mother and I stood in front of Buck as she explained to him why I might be challenged during our weeklong clinic at the ranch, primarily, I’m sure, concerned for my safety.  After she finished, he asked, ‘Is this the girl you’re speaking about,’ playfully bringing attention to the fact that I’d been standing there the whole time.  ‘Yes,’ she said.  He then turned to me and said, ‘Cassidy, do you want to train Jamoca?’  I said yes.  He said, ‘Are you scared?’  I said nope.  He said, ‘Great, let’s get started.’ ”

Animals and nature are still integral to Freeman’s life, and she spends time in Montana whenever possible.  It was Freeman’s inspiring and much-loved mother, a Midwesterner who earned a college scholarship at a fancy Eastern school, then followed it up with law school, who was most passionate about ranching (she became a self-taught expert on bovine genetics).  After her too-early death five years ago, though, it is Freeman’s father who carries on the ranching and provides a Rocky Mountain home for Freeman and her siblings.

Cassidy is all smiles with her horse.

Along with her frequent Montana visits, Longmire’s four-months-on/eight-months-off filming schedule has allowed Freeman time to pursue other interests.  Among her recent projects is Cortez, a full-length feature film in which she both acted in and produced.  Although the producer role was a bit out of her comfort zone, she believed in the project and leapt at the chance to work with good friends.  “It felt like a big job,” she recalls, “but it felt like a job I was ready for.”  The film premiered at Slamdance earlier this year and won awards at both the Ashland and Atlanta film festivals.  She says, “It’s a great film.  I’m incredibly proud of it.  It was the first time I didn’t have to ask for permission.  The freedom of getting to do it yourself is so uniquely rewarding.”

Freedom, creative and otherwise, is a persistent theme in the actress’ life as she envisions her future.  “It’s not lost on me that my last name is literally ‘Free Man,’ ” she says. “Freedom—like many things in life I’ve learned more about the longer I’ve lived.  I think we’re born free, and somehow, through socialization and expectation and this need to define ourselves, we lose our sense of freedom.  Or maybe the permission to be free.  Freedom isn’t a clearly defined word or idea; it’s so specific and personal. I wish someone had asked me to define it for myself earlier in life. It’s a fluid definition that changes as we change; it’s something we have to stay current with, and connected to.  The first question is, do you want to be free?  And then, what is freedom to you?  And then, how are you living that definition?

Picture perfect view.

At the moment, that definition is becoming clearer.  Freeman stands poised on the edge of her next big step, with the encouragement and support of family, the confidence that comes from having a strong body of work, the sense of home she has found in LA, and the enduring spiritual sustenance she gets from Montana.

“I feel an incredible amount of freedom making a living doing what I love,” she reflects.  “I feel freedom in my close relationships, to be honest and vulnerable.  I feel a sense of professional freedom now that my next chapter is a blank canvas.  And I’ve always felt free in Montana: to get dirty, to be with nature, gladly disconnected from more frantic-paced life influenced by technology.”

There, she says, “I don’t need to be anyone but myself.  I’m not playing a role or wondering if I’ll be accepted or chosen.  And I’m so grateful for that.”