Interview: Jana Schmieding is breaking Native American barriers on television with ‘Rutherford Falls’
Jana Schmiedling is a Lakota woman who studied theater at the University of Oregon. She moved to NYC shortly after graduating, where she taught middle and high school while performing improv at the Magnet Theater. She eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams. She started the podcast Woman of Size in 2017 and it lasted until 2019. She was eventually hired as a staff writer for Rutherford Falls, a Peacock comedy that focuses on the relationships between the characters in the titular town and the reservation is borders. She was then tapped to play one of the leads of the show, Reagan, in a breakout performance that shows she can hold her own even with Ed Helms.
Schmiedling recently hopped on Zoom with AwardsWatch to discuss her character, what she learned during filming and how it was to film those romantic scenes with Dustin Milligan.
Tyler Doster: Let me start by asking you, were you a writer first on the show? Were you an actor first? How did that come to be?
Jana Schmieding: Yeah, I was a staff writer on the show. I was very excited and honored, as my first time, my first staffing job I’ve ever had. Performing on the show was a complete surprise to me. I didn’t go into this experience expecting to audition for the show. I knew that Mike Schur shows, he likes to sometimes put his writers in small parts, or sometimes bigger parts, on the show. But I was told early on, “Okay, well, we’ll have you audition for the role of Sally, who’s one of the two bullies, kind of a more character role.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, okay. That’s exciting.” When Sierra [Teller Ornelas] was sending out the sides for Sally, she included the sides for Reagan. I was like, “Okay.” But yeah, that’s how it happened. She just kind of pushed me toward that audition. I am a performer, sort of my first love. I’ve been doing live comedy for over 15 years and performing. It was pretty natural for me.
TD: Was there anything about Reagan that drew you in and you wanted to play her?
JS: Yeah, there was so much about Reagan that I can identify with. She’s a Native woman in contemporary times. I mean, a lot of… It’s interesting. I know from my Native performer friends that Native women don’t audition for comedy. We don’t get thrown audition opportunities for comedic roles, ever. I mean, Native women largely, in this industry, have historically played the supporting role to a white man’s endeavors. Tragically, a lot of Native women characters get killed off or sort of eliminated in a show or a movie by the first act.
It’s just really bleak, a bleak scene. Because I had a part in writing for Reagan, there were five Native writers in the room, and despite there being five Native writers, there is a very diverse group of writers. Reagan was sort of an amalgamation of all of our experiences and especially the three Native women writers on our show, Sierra, Tazbah Chavez, and myself. We sort of gave her this personality that we have experienced in our lives, which is an ambitious, contemporary, intelligent Native woman, who is trying to do right by her community and often fumbling.
TD: Was there anything you learned about Reagan while playing her that you didn’t necessarily learn when you were writing her?
JS: Oh gosh, yes. There’s so much that happens on the day. There’s so much that happens in the scene work and the interaction with other actors. It was really, really fun to find those little things. The relationship between Reagan and Nathan, it was really fun to work with Ed [Helms] and kind of invent this friendship, this old friendship with him. Also, sort of Reagan’s bravery toward Terry, specifically. Terry’s like this sort of… he looms large in her life, but she’s also kind of fearless when she goes head to head with him. She teases him and sort of tries to keep him on an even plane. Those are parts that I didn’t necessarily know, when we were writing Reagan, that she would be that brave, that ballsy. That was really fun.
TD: As a writer and as an actor, what’s something that you wanted to get across about Reagan almost immediately to the audience? What’s something that you wanted the audience to understand about this character from the get-go?
JS: We wanted audiences to root for Reagan. She sort of is this middleman throughout the show between Nathan, and Terry, and her many worlds that she lives in. She almost is sort of the mediating character, and she experiences this push and pull between all of the characters, and trying to please everyone. So we really wanted to set up top that Reagan is likable and she’s kind of an underdog. I wanted people to know that she was intelligent and that she is a main character. Even in some of the press and the conversation online, it’s been really interesting to see people say, “God, I wish that we see Reagan more in the show.” But I’m on the poster. She is. There’s a very strong need to diminish a Native woman’s role in our culture. We see it in this whole process. So I really wanted her to shine and to have an important place in the world of Rutherford Falls.
TD: Reagan and Josh have my favorite relationship on the show. It’s such an organic relationship, you guys have a great little meet-cute. How was that working with Dustin Milligan?
JS: Dustin is such a dream collaborator. He is so funny, he’s so joyful, he brings such a fun and lively energy to set. He made it so easy to perform flirtation with him, because he’s just that kind of guy. He’s very, very, very light and fun. Yeah, off camera, we were able to build a friendship. I mean, the production of Rutherford Falls was happening sort of right in the middle of the pandemic. There also were so many social issues flaring up. I speak about it in past tense not purposefully, it’s still happening, but the experience of being on set with these people was really, I think, unique. Having someone like Dustin there to talk with, and process all of the things that we were experiencing in our lives, and just to have positive energy with other folks on set was so helpful for me. Also, Dustin has done rom-com scenes in his work before, so he was so helpful for me. I was highly anxious about doing that on camera, but he made it so natural and easy for me, and I really appreciate him for that.
TD: So what was it like working with the biggest Native writing staff on TV right now?
JS: Well, we are one of the biggest. The other show, Reservation Dogs, that comes out on FX in August, has an all Native writers staff. But Rutherford Falls, we had similarly many… it was a diversity of Native people writing. Not only did we come from five distinct tribal nations, but we all come from pretty different backgrounds. It was an extremely rewarding situation. I mean, I’ve never gotten the opportunity to collaborate professionally with other Native people in my life. This is the first time and I’m never going back. I had so much fun. I feel like we also, the writers’ room, we were shut down halfway through because of COVID-19, and so the Native writers and the non-Native writers, we all felt like kind of going to battle together. We’re sort of war buddies. We got through some really tough times together and we were able to keep each other buoyed with the power of laughter and jokes.
TD: Did you do any extra research or anything since Reagan works in a cultural center?
JS: We all did, yeah. We were entering into a lot of conversations in the writer’s room about monuments. Sierra Teller Ornelas, our showrunner, worked at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC for many years. So she was pulling from a lot of her experience doing that kind of work. Also, Native people are, for better or worse, because we spend a lot of our existence defending our history, and having to stand up for it in the face of erasure, we also are kind of little historians. Yeah, we were bringing a lot of different perspectives about the importance of history, and having conversations more widely as an entire room about what is the meaning of history, and how has our history, as indigenous people, been not only erased, but manipulated, and exploited at times. It was really fun to find ways to recenter our historical narratives on the show.
TD: For my last question, I just wanted to ask you, what was your favorite thing about exploring the characters as a writer?
JS: My favorite thing about writing any character ever is always finding the relationships that the character maintains and the different ways in which a character holds on to different relationships. Certainly, Reagan manages several different relationships in this show and it was a great opportunity to sort of exercise that strength of how does she react to this person? What does she think of this person? Her relationship with Bobbie Yang is sort of like a sisterhood, whereas her relationship with Nathan is very much like a brother, sister. But also, it encounters real turbulence throughout season one. We’re kind of left guessing, is it going to survive? Is there friendship going to survive? Then, her relationship with Terry is so fun and funny, they sort of have a bit of a tit for tat, but ultimately, he’s sort of like her unlikely mentor. But yeah, all of the ways in which we were able to sort of write into the story of Reagan, her past, her present, and her future, were super fun and really exciting to do as a writer.
TD: Well, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. I loved the first season, I’m so excited. I hope you guys get to come back for another.
JS: Me too. Thanks so much, Tyler.
TD: Thank you. Have a good day.
JS: You too, bye.
Season one of Rutherford Falls is currently available to stream on Peacock. Jana Schmieding is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
Photo: Colleen Hayes/Peacock