An Extended Interview With 'Rutherford Falls' Writer And Star, Jana Schmieding
The following is an edited and condensed interview between KLCC's Brian Bull and Rutherford Falls writer and actor, Jana Schmieding, on May 26, 2021.
Schmieding: (performing sound check, self ID); My name is Jana Schmieding, I am Mniconjou and Sicangu Lakota enrolled in the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux Tribe, and I played Reagan Wells, and was a staff writer on Peacock show, Rutherford Falls.
Bull: So Jana, you are a teacher-turned-actor, who grew up in Canby, Oregon. Did growing up in that small community shape your comedic acting and writing talents at all?
Schmieding: Sure, yes! Absolutely! Something that I really valued about growing up in Canby was – at least when I grew up there and went to school there – there was like a thriving music and theater program, at all levels. So I was able to study music. I played the cello through elementary school and middle school, and was a choir nerd in high school, and I was an athlete for many years and then I quit athletics, to be ah, like….to join the theater crew (laughs) and so I was doing musicals, so those were the early beginnings of me making real decisions about following sort of my passions and my interests in the arts, and the performing arts, specifically.
Bull: And you’re also a “Duck” having graduated from the University of Oregon in 2005, I believe? (Schmieding: That’s right). What kind of hangouts and activities would we find you doing during your college years?
Schmieding: Oh man, gosh. Well, I was also a theater person. I was a theater arts major in college, so I was always doing plays. Main stage and arena, I did my own plays at the Pocket Theater, the Pocket Playhouse which is sorta the small independent theater at the University that students can use. In the summers I was doing Mad Duckling Children’s Theater. And that was a true joy, such a comedic joy. I was also a member of the Absolute Improve Troupe which is an independent improv comedy troupe out of the theater department. Besides that I loved my local watering hole, was a big fan of Rennie’s over Taylor’s.
I partially grew up in Eugene, so I was always on the bike trails. Riding down past Alton Baker Park, and along the river there, and up by Skinner’s Butte, and so I loved the bike trails in Eugene so much. So yeah. And then my grandparents lived in North Eugene, so I would often bike over to them. And one of our favorite spots as a family is Twin Dragon over in North Eugene. Sorry, there’s a garbage truck behind me. But it’ll leave (TRUCK SQUEALS) We go to Twin Dragon and get their potstickers and they’re amazing! (laughs) I miss them all the time. (laughs)
Bull: Now moving to the development and creation of the program you’re getting a lot of renown for, Rutherford Falls on Peacock. Two major events happened during the filming of that series. There was the COVID-19 pandemic came to the States and the Black Lives Matter movement, which really hit its peak following George Floyd’s death. Did these two upheavals affect the writing and production of your show?
Schmieding: Yes, the murder of George Floyd was incredibly heartbreaking, in a way that Native people, especially the Native writers on our show, are in solidarity with Black people and our Black colleagues and our Black friends. It’s just one of those situations that is so…(sighs)….I don’t want to use the word ‘distracting’, because that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. But it’s just really hard to function in a world and focus on comedy during those times. It feels like the battle for justice for Black and Indigenous people as well in our country is a very specifian endeavor, and that paired with the injustices that were happening systemically through the pandemic, it was just a very challenging time.
A lot of us were encountering illness within our families. And affected the way that we were able to cast the show. And we were very conscious, Sierra Teller Ornelas -our showrunner and co-creator and co EP of the show- was very conscious about not bringing native folks from their reservations onto our set in an effort to maintain any exposure. We just wanted to make sure that our set was so safe and comfortable for people. And we just didn’t take as many liberties on that end as we maybe could had there not been a pandemic.
But as a team we really pulled together. And we supported each other. And our writers room was broke in halfway through because of the pandemic. And so we were in-person as a writer’s room for the first half of the writing process, and then the second half we went to Zoom. And it was just really wonderful to have other Native people and people of color as a group of colleagues going through these things together, and supporting each other, and just being in solidarity during this very, very challenging time. So I felt very fortunate that I had the people in my life at that time that I did, and still do.
Bull: It was interesting to see the reckoning of history as we saw various statues being torn down and defaced, largely of Confederate figures but also Columbus and many others that were Indian fighters, that of course, hearkens back to Canby as well (Schmieding: Sure does), it ties in so perfectly to the very opening of Rutherford Falls, where we see Big Larry in his bronze glory (Schmieding: Yeah!) sitting there in the middle of the street…so it must’ve been a very natural segue to go from the issues of the day into that opening episode.
Schmieding:Yeah, as you might know, the story of monuments in Indian Country has in many ways in the same way Confederate monuments in the American South or wherever in the country…it’s been an issue for decades. And we have been grappling with these issues in our own communities for a long time. And I think only now are they getting more national press in the last couple of years. And largely because of the reshaping of historical narratives and the retelling of historical narratives, and the centering that…Black folks and Indigenous folks are taking about our histories. And yeah, we weren’t afraid to really go there with the show, but also it’s a comedy show.
So there’s ways to to make the monument issue in Rutherford Falls, we made it more metaphoric, using this idea, this concept of a statue, of a monument, as something that is solid and immoveable. This idea that this is the truth and it’s immoveable, or is it? Is it moveable? Is it destructible? And…(laughs) and instead of actually taking it literally and pulling the statue down in the season, we wanted to use it more as a plot device. It sits as this metaphor for what this town is experiencing as a whole.
Bull: Writing Native comedy for a major TV series, do you feel your jokes always hit the target, especially with non-Indians?
Schmieding: (Laughs) I’ll say this. I think some of the jokes are a little insider baseball, and I think that’s okay (laughs) I think it’s actually fine, and it’s fine with us. We were really conscious in the writer’s room, of like ‘Is this going to be over non-Native peoples heads?’, like…is this a more universal joke or universal experience, and I think people are responding to it in a way that is like, “Ooh, this is a sharp truth telling, here!”(Laughs) It’s a witty way of exploring different truths. And I think that the job of comedy is to punch up! We poke fun at the culture of power. And I think native people are really adept cultural critics. We live outside of whiteness, and we can see from our points of view. History, in the way that history has affected us. But we’re able to look from an outsider’s perspective in on our culture, and make really sharp deductions and jokes about settler culture. And to not hold back in case people might not understand. And of course things got cut that were maybe too “insider,” but really the native jokes on the show were an amalgamation of five native writers all from different tribal nations and walks of life, and so we knew at least the jokes would be universal for Indian Country.
Bull: When you were growing up and developing your comedic talents, did you have any particular influences, any favorite comedians or writers or people that kinda really influenced you?
Schmieding: Oh yeah. (laughs) yes, I am…gosh, there’s so many. I was really raised in my younger years by a lot of non-white stand-ups. I was a huge fan of Margaret Cho early on in my comedy career, and just as a young woman. The standup Monique, I’ve always been a huge fan of Monique. As a performer and a standup, Whoopi Goldberg. These are all people that I grew up with. But I was also raised in the 90s and so I was a 90s Saturday Night Live person. Huge Chris Farley fan, I miss him desperately. Uh…(laughs) You know, Chris Rock, I mean, just… I have such a…my taste and my aesthetic has evolved, and it’s ebbed and flowed, it’s gone into some really weird areas. More recently in New York City I became a huge fan of Tim and Eric sketch comedy. And right now I’m really into Eric Andre, so I really like the weird wacky guys too, and gals, I love Maria Bamford. So yeah, there’s so many influences that I draw on for the development of my aesthetic. And it has gone to some weird places too. But yeah, I’m such a fan of comedy, period. So I feel like I’m in my element, in any like, genre of comedy, I can like find, that I’m like, “Oh, those are my people.”
Bull: And if nothing else, I know Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network is still a thing.
Schmieding: Love Adult Swim. Love Adult Swim. (laughs)
Bull: The Minishonka Tribe figures heavily into the storyline, but is also fictional. Was that an immediate decision on part of the show’s writers and producers? To not use an existing tribe, but to fashion one.
Schmieding: The decision to make the Minishonka a fictitious tribe was based upon our show runner Sierra Teller Orlena’s experience working at National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. for many ears. She observed people that would come in and ask about when the movie ‘Twilight’ came out. She tells the story about how people would come in and ask about, “How can we contact the Quileute Nation”, or “Where is that?’ and how can we… basically believing there is some lore, or mythos that takes place in the Pacific Northwest that can turn you into a werewolf, just this magical [BLEEP] that they wanted to pursue.
And so it’s truly like what Sierra says, with a flick of the pen you can change a nation’s existence forever. Imagine those girls then going to the Quileute nation, and searching around, or rummaging around for this whatever (Bull: Where’s Team Jacob?) Yes, Team Jacob! Like, tell us how to be Jacobs! And we’ve seen that happen in Hollywood a lot to our various tribal nations.
And on the other side of that decision is the fact that the Rutherford history is also fictitious. So if we’re posing a fictional town and a fictional history within that town, then it’s only fair to give this nation the grace of being fictitious as well. So yeah…those were kind of the decision making processes that went into the Minishonka folks.
Bull: The character of Nathan Rutherford could be portrayed so easily as a total boob….a privileged white figurehead of local renown and historical authority, but the writing and Ed Helm’s performance brings out a lot of nuance and sympathy in the character, when it’d be so easy to make him less than sympathetic. Was it important to you and the writers to bring that complexity out when other shows might be content to make him a villain, and a two-dimensional one at that?
Schmieding: Absolutely, thank you for saying that, Brian. It was very important to us that we were creating a world in which no one is perfect, no one is good or bad, and there’s gray area in all of us. And there are, you know, Episode 5, the “History Fair” episode, they get into this whole argument, about can we separate the art from the artist? It all goes back to that, we’re all blowing it, (laughs) but also we’re nailing it. So it’s just this idea where each character contains multitudes.
And I’ve heard a lot of feedback also about the character of Terry, people thinking in the first three episodes, “Oh, Terry’s going to be the villain. He’s going to be the one who foils all of Nathan’s amazing plans.” Well, it turns out that Terry also has a back story. And an inner world and an inner life, and a family. And he’s in this very capitalistic endeavor to take care of his family and his community. And at the end of the day, that’s what he wants the most.
And so of course we’re going to give that same grace to Nathan. There’s nothing helpful in our culture right now especially, about just vilifying someone based on their identity and based on their ignorance. There’s no way to move forward from there. So we gave Nathan the nuances of being a really supportive wonderful friend, and being a loving man. And having true passion for his history and for his family. And so I think that’s going to continue through the writing. That’s the world that we’re setting up for this show.
Bull: Going to your character, Jana, I was rewatching episode 10 last night. And for me at least, I think one of Reagan Well’s best moments comes when she has to defend herself being director of the cultural center against a group of detractors in a Facebook live conference, I believe she’s confronting nearly a thousand critics. And in that spiel she asserts every native person to some degree is fraught with doubt…doubt about their authenticity, our identities, our worth…are we genuine?
(CLIP OF RUTHERFORD FALLS WITH MICHAEL GREYEYES AS TERRY, JANA SCHMIEDING AS REAGAN, AND JESSE LEIGH AS BOBBI.)
Terry: MinishonkaDiva_RaeAnn wants you to address the rumors that you’re snagging a snoopy white nerd.
Reagan: (sighs) We broke up, RaeAnn. But who the hell are you to judge when your daughter-in-law buys sage from Urban Outfitters. Okay? And Saber_Span? Everyone knows that you stole money from your auntie to buy that four-wheeler.
Terry: Let’s take a break.
Bobbi: No, I see hearts and smilies. She’s stopping the bleeding. Keep going. Drag them to the bottom of the bucket, you beautiful bitchy crab!
Reagan: Jackie George, you bought your traditional outfit, you didn’t make it. And Marc Francis? You told everyone you were going to Standing Rock, but we all know you went to Disney World! And Cameron Jones…you’re a vegan. (pause) And all of that is okay. Except for the sage thing, that’s messed up.
Bull: And when you did that scene, both in the writing and acting aspect, were you channeling the “imposter syndrome” that a lot of native people suffer?
Schmieding: One hundred percent. So many experiences on this show for me were very meta in a weird way that I’d be experiencing these fears and these feelings on this show, as with Reagan doing this for the cultural center. So for me, I’m definitely bringing my own experience, my own fears about this show. Is Indian Country going to like our show? Are natives going to feel seen, are they going to hate it? Are we blowing it? (laughs) Are these jokes gonna hit? All of these things, and of course, me as a performer, like, will you accept me, as the person coming into your home and on your TV screens? Will you see me, and accept me as your Reagan Wells? That’s a huge something that I carry to this day. So yeah, I was definitely feeling all of those feelings, and of course, the story of the crabs in a bucket episode, is for sure again, coming from our experiences as native writers…feeling that pressure, being in public and pursuing our career dreams and all of the things we want to do with our lives and our ambitions. And being afraid that our community won’t accept us. And so yeah, that’s for sure that’s…Reagan’s and eventually she just has to stand up for herself and say, this is ridiculous! (laughs)
Bull: You bought your sage at Urban Outfitters!
Schmieding: Yeah, c’mon! (laughs)
Bull: That was just a brilliant moment.
Schmieding: Thank you.
Bull: Were there any specific tropes or clichés the Native writers were aiming to avoid in the writing?
Schmieding: Yes, we were aiming to avoid all of the tropes. All of the stereotypes that native people have been portrayed as. And the anecdote to tropes and stereotypes is nuanced, rich characters that have full inner lives, and backstories, and families. And that the world has community members that interact and they have a history together. And all of those things are the way in which we defeat some of these more harmful tropes, especially around Terry Thomas, the CEO of the Casino. We were very aware of how Indian Casino bosses are portrayed in most Hollywood depictions. And so we really wanted to give Terry a sensitive side. We needed to see Terry’s life, and see why he is the way he is now. So that was very conscious. Also it’s really hard when you have that many native writers in a room, it’s really hard to write stereotypes, earnestly. (laughs) It’s you’re just dealing with people at that point, you’re writing characters as people.
Bull: One of the most compelling moments comes in Episode 4, where casino owner Terry Thomas talks off the record to public radio reporter Josh Carter about capitalism and benefiting the Seven Generations. It’s such a classic “drop the mic” moment that I’d never have expected to see in television history. I’d love to know any nuggets or insights on how that speech was approached.
Schmieding: You know, it’s one of Mike Schur’s favorite scenes. He loves the character of Terry, I mean…we all love the character of Terry Thomas, but he really loves the character of Terry, and Michael Greyeyes playing Terry. And we know that Michael Greyeyes is such a talented actor, he’s a classically trained actor and just very skilled. And so we wanted to give him this opportunity to say words like you said, that as a native performer, he’s never been able to say, and so many of us feel like we’ve never been able to say this in our lives. And so yeah, I’ve heard Mike Schur saying, a lot of times, “I just want to write as many monologues for Terry Thomas as I can for this show.” Because he’s just in love with those moments. It’s just so wonderful that Terry gets to give us these moments of catharsis as native viewers, in this powerful way that has a comedic button at this end. And of course, Michael Greyeyes just delivers.
(RUTHERFORD FALLS CLIP BETWEEN MICHAEL GREYEYES AS TERRY THOMAS, AND DUSTIN MILLIGAN AS JOSH CARTER)
Thomas: Growing up, I didn’t get to learn a lot of my traditional ways, but I did get to learn the great American pastime. Which is power. Power, Josh, is a zero-sum game . If you have more of it, I have less, and then you can treat me however you want. If we want to insure this tribe has a successful life, one that can maintain our traditions, art, and culture…well, it takes power. And unfortunately, power comes from money. The casino is a means to an end. It’s the industry of its time. 400 years ago, it was fur trading. 50 years ago it was manufacturing. And long after I’m dead there will be Minishonka figuring how to master the next endeavor. Because that’s what we do, Josh, those of us who fight this battle. We do whatever we have to. I’ve had to learn to play this game through bare knuckle necessity, and while it might not make for a feel good story, I won’t rest until my nation gets every single thing that was taken from them.
Schmieding: I’ve heard a couple interviews where Michael has said, that he left that day doing that scene feeling pretty bummed about it. Because he felt like he didn’t do a great job. I don’t want to quote him, because he can speak for himself. But to think that he was feeling a little bit low about that monologue and just seeing how it actually came out, was just (laughs) truly mind-blowing. Yeah, it’s such a good monologue. Mmm.
Bull: I’ll cut to the immediate question I think that’s on everyone’s mind, Jana. What’s the word for a season 2 for Rutherford Falls?
Schmieding: Well, I don’t know anything about a Season 2, I wish I did. Usually, I’ve heard that a streaming service usually takes roughly 60 days after the drop of a show to analyze the viewer data. And I’m pretty sure 60 days falls somewhere in June which means, (laughs) that’s what I’m crossing my fingers for! But as far as a season 2 on the writers’ end, we are ready, we are excited. The viewing experience, especially across Indian Country, and the feedback from Indian Country about the show has been overwhelming. People are on Twitter and on Facebook, demanding a season 2. And sharing with their friends, and that’s the most that I can ask. And that’s like more than I can ask! So I’m hopeful, but no idea yet.
Bull: And who gave you writers the insider intel on National Public Radio culture? I worked there for stints and internships, was an editorial assistant here and there. And yeah, you guys nailed it, so I want to know how you got that insider perspective.
Schmieding: I don’t know if we did get that insider perspective, Brian, but you know what, maybe in Season 2 we should write a Native NPR reporter character (laughs) and really get the insider deets! (laughs)
Bull: You’ve got my contact information!
Bull: Looking beyond Rutherford Falls, are there any roles that are dream roles that you’d like to find yourself playing some day?
Schmieding: Umh, yeah I’d love to be able to be in a lot of other native-driven shows. I would love to drabble in drama, I have plans to write some feature films. At my core I’m a writer. So I still want to produce my own content. But y’know coming up, when Reservation Dogs drops this fall, we have another native show run by Sterlin Harjo, also 1491, dropping in the fall on FX, and I’ve a very small part in that. And we’re knocking on wood and we’re all crossing our fingers, that Ava DuVernay’s production company ARRAY, can sell Sovereignwhich is sorta a Queen Sugar Native drama that is co-created by Bird Runningwater, Sydney Freeland, and Shaz Bennet. I think if audiences just continue to demand native content, the talent is here. We are ready to make it. We just need that, we need the funding, we need the audience to really pipe up. We got Rick Santorum canned from CNN, I feel like we can push to get more Native content on TV. We have a voice! (laughs)
Bull: The same network that called us “something else,” I recall….
Schmieding: Something else! Yes! That’ll be my next movie, “Something Else.” (laughs)
Bull: Last question, Jana: how do we improve on representation of Indigenous people in popular culture?
Schmieding: We elevate native story tellers. We let people tell their stories, we give them the funding they need to tell them. We elevate people like Sierra Teller Ornelas to producer positions and executive producer positions because people like her and Sterlin Harjo, reach back and hire native writers. So there’s a constant influx of new talent on the writing end. And when you have Native narrators, that’s when magic is made. You need Native storytellers telling the stories of these characters.
Bull: Jana Schmieding, that takes care of my questions, I really appreciate your time and your insights. Anything else you’d like to add while we’ve a couple minutes?
Bull: Well, Jana, I’ll let you get on with your day. But again, just really great talking to you. And I’ll be watching. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Schmieding: Thank you so much Brian.
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