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July 12, 2021
Online Originals

Bring the Funny

Rutherford Falls star combines comedy with cultural awareness

Dinah Eng

Jana Schmieding was nearly ready to give up on her dreams of being an actor and writer in television. Then she met Sierra Teller Ornelas.

Teller Ornelas, co-creator, executive producer and showrunner of Peacock's Rutherford Falls, was a guest on Schmieding's podcast, Woman of Size, when the two hit it off. Schmieding, who is Lakota Sioux Native, says no one had shown interest in her talents until Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo and Mexican American, asked to read some writing samples.

"Native women characters in Hollywood, created by non-Natives, are props for white protagonists," Schmieding says. "Native women don't get hired in comedy roles."

But after Teller Ornelas read Schmieding's work, she was hired for the writing staff of Rutherford Falls, which explores the friendship between lifelong friends Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), the descendant of Rutherford Falls' founder, and Reagan Wells (Schmieding), whose dream is to build a museum to honor her people, the fictional Minishonka Nation.

In the writers' room, which included five Native writers, Schmieding was pitching jokes for the Reagan character when Teller Ornelas urged her to audition for what Schmieding thought would be a minor role in the show.

"The night before the audition, I got some of the sides for Sally, a supporting character who's a bully on the show, and for Reagan, which was totally unexpected," Schmieding says. "Screen testing with Ed was a joy. I thought my performing days were over, so it was delightful to be cast as Reagan. I know how to write for her, and it was easy for the other writers, too, because they all know me."

Schmieding says she drew on years of stand-up comedy that she'd done in New York, before moving to Los Angeles for her audition. The comedienne had been a high school humanities and special education teacher in the Bronx by day who rushed every evening to Manhattan to take classes, do improv comedy, rehearse for a show, or direct others in small productions.

"I was asked to direct and coach groups by my peers, which told me I'd done the work of elevating myself and finding my comedic voice enough to give others guidance," says Schmieding, who decided to move to Los Angeles.

Planning ahead, she accrued savings for two years before making the leap in 2016. But after arriving in Hollywood, her dreams of breaking into the television industry slowly disintegrated.

"I sent out writing samples to no avail," she recalls. "I was rejected by every diversity writing program. At the end of 2019, I was ready to throw in the towel and move back in with my parents in Oregon.'

Then came Rutherford Falls. "It shouldn't be revolutionary to write jokes for a Native character, but it feels like it is on Rutherford Falls because there's never been an Indigenous comedy lead," she says.

She notes that while Northern Exposure had an Alaskan Native female character, there's not a plethora of starring roles for Native women.

"Here and there, there's been Indigenous filmmakers," Schmieding says, but non-Native creatives only seem to focus on the painful stories of Native people. "I see it stemming from a colonial mentality. They need to subjugate Native people to retain their white superiority. In most shows, if Native women are cast in a part, we don't survive the entire series."

Schmieding says she identifies with her character Reagan's constant sweaty nervousness, the longing to please people in her community, and her desire to be accepted.

Getting a positive, enthusiastic response to the show, especially from the Native community, she says, has been overwhelming.

The writer-actor has also worked to ensure that costumes and jewelry shown on the series are authentic, connecting the costume department with Native designers. Schmieding, who is also a bead artist, says Native bead work is in high demand.

"Acquiring one-of-a-kind pieces is hard," she says. "Sometimes you have to enter a raffle, or a bead artist will create a collection and announce that the bead work drop will be on Etsy on Thursday. You then have to be the first to hit the PayPal link to get something."

While her character Reagan is portrayed as a whole human being, with a love life and cultural authenticity, Schmieding says such characterizations, especially for women of size, are rare.

She notes that when you don't see women of shape and size on TV, you think there's no place for you.

"It has affected my confidence in going out for opportunities," Schmieding says. "Costuming is a problem. Camera work may not be flattering. The breakdowns for these roles are sometimes heartless. I didn't want to play someone's funny, fat friend."

The way society views women of size is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed, she notes, in areas ranging from health care to employment. "Women of size are struggling to access basic human decency from people," she adds.

Schmieding says she hopes that audiences who watch Rutherford Falls feel joy, laugh, and learn something about Native culture from the show. For example, she says Indigenous people are not a monolith, as there are more than 500 tribes with their own languages.

"In a time when there are heart-breaking stories happening in Indigenous communities -- like pipelines going through Indian land and water being endangered -- I hope non-Natives can make space for us and our culture, and enjoy our stories as much as we do," she says.

"Native people have the talent to succeed in Hollywood. We're ready to show ourselves as whole people with love lives, history, community and family, and not just props to a white superior narrative."


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