Jana Schmieding Talks Rutherford Falls and the Pressure of Representing Native Comedians on Screen

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From co-creators and executive producers Mike Schur, Ed Helms and Sierra Teller Ornelas, the Peacock streaming comedy series Rutherford Falls tells the story of lifelong best friends Nathan Rutherford (Helms) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), who find themselves in an unexpected place when their small town decides it’s best to move the historical statue at its center. A constant source of traffic accidents, the statue is something of a menace, but to Nathan, it represents family, which is something that he’s ready to fight for.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Schmieding talked about her journey from staff writer to female lead on the show, what the audition process was like, the enormous pressure of representing Native people, how much she loves to work with the cast, the way that she views Reagan, and how they’ve set up the storylines to continue on for future seasons.

Collider: You have such a great story, going from being a writer on this show to being the female lead on the show. How did that journey happen? Did you have any idea that one could lead to the other?

JANA SCHMIEDING: I had no idea. I was just so pleased to be staffed, at all. Toward the end of 2019, I had spent three to four years writing pilots and trying to get staffed, and all of my writing featured a Native female lead, but it just didn’t seem to be hitting. I was also in the mental space of, “I’m not going to try to audition to get into this industry,” even though my first love is performing. I was a theater major. I love performing. I’ve performed live for over 10 years in New York City, comedy being my specialty. Even though that was my background, I definitely felt like the industry wasn’t interested in Native content. I also felt like, because of my body and the way that I looked, I wasn’t going to be cast as anything in a TV show or a movie. So, I really put my dreams of being a performer to bed and said, “Let me try to get into this industry with my brain.” I really was about to pack it up and throw in the towel because no one had staffed me and it just didn’t seem like it was going anywhere. So, when I had my staffing meeting with Sierra [Teller Ornelas] and Mike Schur and Ed Helms, I was really excited. I was like, “Oh, my God, could this be something? I can’t believe this.” To have a first staffing meeting with Mike Schur, and to also have my first staffing meeting with a Native woman, was major. It was indescribable. But it was still a couple of months until I heard that I was actually staffed. I was like, “Oh, my God, I don’t have to move home with my parents.” I was just really just overwhelmed with like, gratitude about having the job and getting to collaborate with other Native writers, learning how to write and putting together a television show under the tutelage of these three very experienced, iconic EPs.

When it got to the point where we were ready to begin casting, because I was one of the three performers who were also writers, I expected to audition for a character role, which I was so satisfied with and so happy about and excited to potentially do. But Sierra sent me the sides and she included on character role, but then she also sent me the sides for Reagan, and I was very surprised. She hadn’t told me. There was no mention of it. There was no discussion in the room. It was a complete surprise to me. It was a crazy time. I auditioned for the casting director, Allison Jones, and she really liked me. I had a great time reading with her. I auditioned in front of my own showrunners and that was extremely intimidating. Because I had done so much performance in my life, and live performance specifically, auditioning wasn’t an extreme challenge for me. When I went to screen test, I was doing scenes with Ed and that was where I felt like, “Oh, my gosh, this could really happen.” There’s something about reading with Ed, where he just makes you feel like you’re doing a good job. He’s just so easy to perform with. He’s such a congenial scene partner. I felt like we were really connecting. I had two screen tests and those were the two moments that I was like, “Oh, my God, this could actually happen for me.” Up until that point, I was like, “What a nice thing that they’re doing, letting me audition for the show”

And then, you’re on the top of the callsheet and on the poster for the show.

SCHMIEDING: It’s not only being a lead on the show, which alone is just a massive paradigm shift for me in my career and in my creative work, but to be playing a Native character is just enormously fulfilling. It’s such an honor to be in this position, after working with the people that I got to work with on this show.

Rutherford Falls - Season 1

Image via Peacock

What’s it like to know that you get to be the representation for so many people who haven’t had that representation, but who can now see you on the poster or watch you on the streaming service?

SCHMIEDING: It’s an enormous amount of pressure. I don’t prefer it. I stand on the shoulder of giants. I really do. There have been so many amazing Native comedians and comedic actors and performers in our culture that have gone overlooked. These are people that are iconic in my mind and in my experience, but not to a mainstream non-Native audience. The fact that I’m being positioned as the first is weird and absurd to me, but in terms of a mainstream representation we haven’t experienced Native people being funny on screen yet. We’re making fun of a lot of that. In the show, we’re able to make fun of the way that we’ve been represented in the past, which I love. I use the word honor a lot, but I am so honored to be entering Native people’s homes and to bring laughter to my elders and to the people in my community and to Indian country is something that I just feel very honored to do. I don’t really know how else to describe it. What a joy to have been able to merge my identity with my own creative skill and work that I put in. For people to be able to see it more widely is such a privilege and such an honor.

I love watching you with Ed Helms, but one of the things that I also really love about an ensemble comedy that’s set in a small town are all of the colorful characters that inhabit that place. What are you loving about the supporting cast and getting to play with all of those different dynamics?

SCHMIEDING: Everyone I got to work with was so much fun. Because Reagan is positioned as this middleman, she interacts with everybody and that is so fun for me because I got to do scenes with everyone. It’s so fun to do scenes with Dana Wilson who plays Mayor Chisenhall. She’s such a talent. We got to do a few scenes this season, and knock on wood, hopefully we get to do more. Also, working with Jesse Leigh, they’re such a comedic force. Becoming friends with Jesse offscreen was such a wonderful experience. Of course, working with Ed, I can’t really describe it because I’m a comedy nerd and I very much look up to Ed and revere him as this comedic icon and role model in my life. As a person and a performer, he’s so humble, he’s so gracious, and he’s so generous. That has been an immensely rewarding learning experience, to work with him, especially on my first show. I’ve learned so much from Ed, comedically. Michael Greyeyes is a Native icon and I’ve been watching him in movies for years, since I was a kid. To work with him and to make Michael laugh in scenes is the joy of my life. And there are smaller characters on the show, like Ms. Fish played by Beth Stelling, who’s an incredible stand-up. She is so funny on the show. And Geraldine Keams, who plays my ex’s mom, she’s legendary in Native circles. Every single person in this cast that I got to do scenes with, it was a joy, every time. There was never a weird or bad moment. It was just so fun and so joyful.

Reagan has this dream of turning her little cultural center in the tribal casino into a full-fledged museum. What are your hopes and dreams for her? Do you hope that she stops taking crap from people and actually gets to make her dreams come true?

SCHMIEDING: I don’t know. As a person who comes from a comedy background, part of the game, as we might say, for Reagan is that she does dive head first into her projects without checking the pulse of the community’s feelings. Being a part of a Native community, it’s really important that you do respect the wishes or listen to the concerns of the community. I do love that she’s an ambitious, intelligent person who put herself through school and has two master’s degrees. She’s smart and headstrong, and that part of Reagan is something that I really identify with. She’ll never not have hurdles. We just know that to be true. That’s the fun part about telling her story. But I hope that she has a lot of different loves in her life, different adventures and experiences, and that she garners mentorship from a lot of different people. We just wanna live a full life and experience life. The power of having Native writers and the diversity within the Native writing staff, we’re able to provide our Native characters with full and rich experiences, as opposed to relegating them to just one sector or genre. She has a love interest this season and that flourishes. That’s something that we haven’t really gotten to see yet.

Image via Peacock

When it comes to the Native elements of the show, were there things that you specifically wanted to do or wanted to make sure to avoid, just because you’ve seen it handled wrong previously, or totally ignored, or they were just stereotypes for you to break?

SCHMIEDING: Yeah. There’s a lot. All we have for Native characters in mainstream media, written by non-Natives, are stereotypical, under-nuanced stories that limit Native characters to these tropes. For Terry Thomas, Michael Greyeyes’ character, we were very wary of making sure that he has a history, he has an internal life, he has a family, and he has a daughter who talks back to him and who doesn’t agree with him. We wanted to give him an entire episode to explain why he is the way he is now and how he became such a bad-ass CEO. What we are normally used to seeing is Indian casino owners being tricky and money hungry, and stereotypical, greedy, corrupt bosses, and that’s not the case. That’s just not realistic. For Reagan, it’s very hard to imagine what stereotypes we could have pulled from because, quite honestly, we very rarely see contemporary Native women in stories on television and in film. It’s breaking a mold that isn’t there.

Do you have conversations in the writers’ room about setting things up for future seasons, or is it more about focusing on making sure these characters all have full lives?

SCHMIEDING: We wrote the characters with full lives, so that if we got more seasons, we could continue to write for them. It’s like writing any other TV show, you give the characters full lives, you give them an existence and a community where they interact with a lot of different people, and you give each character a full life, so that they can each have their own tangential stories and you have so much to pull from. We weren’t necessarily like, “We’ll save this for Season 2,” or “We’ll push this toward the end of the season, just in case we get a Season 2.”

We stuck with the storylines that thematically showed what we wanted to show, with Nathan and Reagan, which is that their history creates a bit of a narrative shift, and the ripple effects of that are seen in the town and in their friendship. Now, of course, with that in mind, if we get a Season 2, which we hope to have, we have so much rich material to pull from to continue. We still want to see Reagan actually running her museum. We want to see Nathan recover from this identity crisis. How do people deal with huge narrative shifts and philosophical shifts in their lives? So, while we weren’t planning for it, we certainly made sure that the soil was very fertile and that we planted seeds that we knew would grow into beautiful and plentiful crops. What a metaphor I just pulled out!

Rutherford Falls is available to stream at Peacock TV.

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Christina Radish
(4802 Articles Published)

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter at Collider. Having worked at Collider for over a decade (since 2009), her primary focus is on film and television interviews with talent both in front of and behind the camera. She is a theme park fanatic, which has lead to covering various land and ride openings, and a huge music fan, for which she judges life by the time before Pearl Jam and the time after. She is also a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Television Critics Association.

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