Jana Schmieding On Native Comedy, Nuanced Characters, And Teen Werewolf Groupies

Jun 1, 2021

The streaming network Peacock show, Rutherford Falls takes a comical look at history and culture inside a fictional New York town, and its iconic “Big Larry” statue…a monument to early white colonization. Jana Schmieding plays Reagan Wells, a member of the Minishonka Nation who’s friends with Nathan Rutherford, a white descendant of the town founder.

Their friendship is tested when Big Larry’s legacy is scrutinized, and the Minishonka make historical moves of their own.

Schmieding is also a writer for a series, and she has Oregon roots-- she grew up in Canby and is a U of O Duck. KLCC’s Brian Bull talked to her about writing Native comedy and if it lands with non-Indians.

Longtime chums Reagan Wells (left, played by Jana Schmieding) and Nathan Rutherford (right, played by Ed Helms) review history fair contest entries during an episode of Peacock's Rutherford Falls show.
Credit Colleen Hayes / Peacock

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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, 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’s 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’s affected us.  But we’re able to look from an outsider’s perspective in on our culture, and really, 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.

Casino workers Wayne (Bobby Wilson, left) and Sally (Julia Jones) dunk regularly on Reagan Wells and her efforts to launch a bigger, better cultural center for the Minishonka.
Credit Colleen Hayes / Peacock

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? 

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 we can be Jacobs!  And we’ve seen that happen in Hollywood, that happens 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.  So I was curious to know if it was important 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, 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.  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 are setting up for this show. 

For an extended interview – and to learn Schmieding’s favorite childhood restaurant in Eugene – click here.

Copyright 2021, KLCC.