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Rutherford Falls Jana Schmieding on spreading Native joy, getting Ruffalo’d

Jana Schmieding (Photo: Kevin Scanlon)
Jana Schmieding (Photo: Kevin Scanlon)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Like Parks And Recreation and other comedies from the “Mike Schur universe” before it, Rutherford Falls is the story of a community. However, the warm and witty series breaks new ground not just by telling the story of a marginalized community, but in how it tells their story, with Native talent both on screen and behind the scenes. For breakout star Jana Schmieding, who is Lakota Sioux, the whole experience has been nothing short of “meta,” as Rutherford Falls has assembled its own community of Indigenous artists in order to create the world of the show and, specifically, the fictional Minishonka people at its heart. First as a writer, and then through playing Reagan Wells, the series’ hopeful lead, Schmieding has watched a diverse group of Native talent—from actors to costume designers to musicians—come together to make Rutherford Falls a reality. With the first season now available to stream on Peacock, The A.V. Club spoke with Schmieding about sharing the comedy and its unique brand of Native joy with the world. The star also discusses how the “backfire effect” inspired the arc of the series, reveals the wrap gift she received from her co-star Michael Greyeyes, and explains how it feels to get “Ruffalo’d.”

The A.V. Club: Congrats on Rutherford Falls’ premiere! What’s it like to finally have the show out in the world for people to see?

Jana Schmieding: You know, it’s been so wonderful. We started writing this show in January of 2020, and, of course, halfway through our writing process, COVID-19 happened. So we had half of a room in person, and then half on Zoom, and then we took a big break. We were supposed to start production the week after we got cut off for COVID, so then we kind of took a big gap to wait—we were waiting for production to decide if and when we would actually move forward with [filming]. But we started production in September, so we spent September through December shooting the show, and then [there was] another little wait period for it to come out.

This entire time I’ve felt like I’ve just been sitting on this glorious secret. [Laughs.] And now that it’s been unveiled to the world, it’s incredible; it’s just been so much fun and so exciting. I love the process of making comedy, so that is just as enjoyable to me as the [final] product, but, in this case, the product is so special. Specifically to Native people, it’s so special, and it’s been exciting to see how Native people are responding and reacting.

AVC: Have you been surprised by the responses?

JS: So much. You know, the fact that Native people are laughing at our jokes, and can identify with the jokes—to bring Native joy into people’s homes is such a privilege and an honor. And, beyond that, there’s also a lot of feedback from people that are Native [who are] just feeling seen. There’s a lot that’s like, “Wow, I just can’t believe how seen I feel, how much I see myself in this story,” and that is so meaningful.

AVC: Rutherford Falls is a character-driven comedy, but it has a real structure to its ten episodes as the Minishonka community works to reclaim their story. How did the writers’ room crack open the larger arc of the season?

JS: The origin of the idea really came from Mike Schur and Ed Helms, who are collaborators from The Office, and they had been talking about creating a show—or developing something—about American history, sort of like why people cling to certain histories, and what have you. It eventually became this conversation about how the Native Indigenous piece of that puzzle is so important and crucial, so they brought in Sierra Teller Ornelas to co-E.P. and develop this idea with them. She’s written on Superstore and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, so she sort of existed in the “Schur-verse,” if you will, and she brought so much to the story. So [Ornelas] did an amazing job of putting together a writing team, an incredibly diverse writing team—five of the writers are Native, including her, and even within the Native writing staff on our show, there’s an incredible diversity among us.

So we brought so much of our own experiences to the story, but we were really excited about playing with this idea of “the backfire effect.” It’s kind of this psychological phenomenon where, when people are challenged on their firmly held beliefs or philosophies about the world, rather than allow their thinking to evolve and change, more often than not, people will dig their heels in, or double down on their belief. I think that we are seeing that in our culture right now; in response to progressive change, we’re seeing this really harsh double-down on, essentially, a white supremacist narrative about the founding of our country.

And then, of course, there was the idea about the the statue, which was developed by Mike and Ed and Sierra. As you’ve seen, it’s not necessarily about Big Larry—the story isn’t about a statue removal—but it does serve as a really apt metaphor for a firmly held belief. It’s a statue, a stone figure that exists and represents our history, so to take it down is very challenging. So then also there’s the idea that those kinds of monuments for Native people—that kind of historical value—isn’t given to Indigenous people in our culture; it has really been erased.

So, with those themes in our sails, we brought in our own experiences with existing in white spaces, trying to reclaim our narratives, trying to really carve space out for each other, and even how we’re functioning just within our family dynamics and within our communities. We were really able to weave this tale of many Native people existing in community with each other, and playing off the question of, “How does everyone respond to the shifting and reshaping of historical narratives?”

AVC: You said the term “Schur-verse,” and this show is definitely in conversation with his other work, particularly Parks And Recreation, which had the running gag about the murals that depicted Pawnee’s shameful history of mistreatment toward the Native people.

JS: There was never any discussion in the room about that episode of Parks And Recreation; we were just creating something completely brand new and fresh, and something that actually centered our experiences as Native people. But yeah, I think you’ll find a lot of those connections in Mike [Schur]’s other shows just because he is a writer and a creator who likes to say something with his work. He’s a very curious person and interested in our culture—I think a lot of his work really does the work of a good television, which is to hold a mirror up to our culture and say, “What are we doing? What’s going on?” It doesn’t answer any questions, but it serves to ask a lot.

AVC: Much like the town Rutherford Falls, the Minishonka tribe is fictional and made up for the show. How did the creative team work together to create a Native community that felt authentic?

JS: You know, it’s a question that we often get as Native content creators, like, “How did you make it authentic?” Well, we are [Laughs.], we are authentic. We are living, breathing human beings, struggling through, trying to be good professionals, and be good community members. Every aspect of the show, the writers had a touch on, and that’s down to the design elements.

Sierra had a really interesting conversation with the the director of the first two episodes—his name is Lawrence Sher, and he was the [director of photography] for all of The Hangover movies and for The Joker, so he’s a really amazing DP. He and Sierra had this conversation about the lighting of the show and how he wanted to give Nathan’s world—his basement workshop, the historical museum—a very rich, warm lighting palette, like a sepia, old-timey feel. And then the Native people exist in a more of a bluish, neon realm to bring us into the future, to bring us into the present.

So there was a lot of thought that went into those design elements as well. We reached out to Native artists and designers to be a part of the costuming, and to be a part of the set design and the props, all of that stuff. And the co-composers are a First Nations music group called The Halluci Nation—formerly A Tribe Called Red—so we have Indigenous people on the composition side. All of these things were facilitated by Sierra and by the Native writers, and I think there’s just so much to say about Native participation—the show is about a Native community and a wider community, but there is a huge Native community had a hand in making this, too. So it’s very meta experience. [Laughs.]

AVC: That reminds me of something your co-star Michael Greyeyes said in an interview: how, for the first time on set of Rutherford Falls, he didn’t feel he also needed to act as a cultural advisor.

JS: Right! [He wasn’t] consulting!

AVC: And that gives him this space to just focus on acting, and be absolutely hilarious as Terry Thomas.

JS: [Watching him] was a master class in acting on camera. Michael is a person I would definitely [consider as] Native Hollywood royalty, and he’s also a college professor! He’s been in this game for so long and he has intellectualized it a lot. So, being off camera with him, and talking to him about the process, about what we were doing, and just debriefing the scenes with him... Just the two of us being like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe is happening!” [Laughs.]

But also, you know, we would get into these really deep conversations about the history of our people on film and TV. In the beginning of the production, I was kind of doing my own little independent research project on the history and cultural meaning of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows. A lot of my ancestors were a part of those old Wild West shows, and I was fascinated with how our people have sort of had to reenact our identity for the white gaze. Being in this early reservation system, the only way to leave the reservation was to get a pass from the cavalry officer to go on these tours. Like, leaving your own homelands—which had become a prison—and then tour the world by portraying yourself and your traditional ways—it was very fascinating to me. So, I was talking about this with Michael, and he was like, “Oh yeah, I have a master’s thesis about that” [Laughs.] And on the last day of shooting, the last day of production, I was in my trailer and I saw a big manuscript on my table; it was his master’s thesis. So working with him has, on so many different levels, been so rewarding and fascinating to me.

AVC: Are you as big of a fan of free swag as Reagan is?

JS: Yes, oh my god, totally. [Laughs.] Like five to ten years ago, absolutely, but I feel like, over the course of the pandemic, I’ve become such an anti-hoarder because my apartment can only hold so much stuff. [Laughs.] Like, no, I can’t do that anymore! But I used to be a teacher, and I would go to teaching conferences—you better believe I went home with more chip clips than a person needs in their life. Like, how many stress balls do you need? [Laughs.]

AVC: Throughout the series, we learn why Reagan and Nathan [Ed Helms] are such good friends, but what’s the story of how they first met?

JS: Well, they’re childhood best friends, so they went to school together—I don’t know if that’s actually explained in the show, now that I think about it. But, of course, there’s room to explore their past history. We don’t know if we have a season two yet, but we’ve got a ton of ideas moving forward and a ton of different pitches already—like, we’re already texting each other stuff like that. [Laughs.] But ultimately there’s so much to pull from when you write a TV show about characters—you can really just go anywhere with it; you can mine a lifetime’s worth of fun, weird moments. And certainly Nathan and Reagan go way back, so there’s tons of them.

AVC: Like the flashback to 2009, when they’re prepping for Reagan’s wedding; the hairstyling is so great. 

JS: Oh, the wig! [Laughs.] That night of shooting was so much fun—we both just looked at each other and died laughing. And the music, of course, the whole thing really comes together.

AVC: There are quite a few make-out scenes between Reagan and Josh [Dustin Milligan], and it’s not often we see two glasses-wearing people kissing on television! So I’m grateful for the representation, but did the glasses get in the way? Because it does happen!

JS: That is a question that I have not gotten yet! [Laughs] No, fortunately there was no “clink, clunk, clink!”—there was none of that happening. Just two huge nerds making out! [Laughs.]

AVC: Mark Ruffalo gets a shout-out in episode five, “History Fair”—how did he become Rutherford Falls’ example of allyship? And what was your reaction when he followed you on social media?

JS: Yes he did [follow me]—yes he did! [Laughs.] Ruffalo is a huge ally, you know? A well-known Native ally. And his affiliation to Native people is primarily in the environmental justice space. So I was always like, “Oh my gosh, I just need a Mark Ruffalo follow.” Like, “That’s really going to validate my experience!” [Laughs.] But I was also thinking it’s never going to happen because I’m not like a deep, deep activist you know? But then he followed me on day two of the show coming out, and I got Ruffalo’d! [Laughs.] So I hope he watches it!