Interview: ‘Rutherford Falls’ co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas on Indigenous representation in the writing room and asking “What is American History?”
After graduating college, Sierra Teller Ornelas worked for five years as a film programmer at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. She eventually left that position to pursue dreams of becoming a television writer. She accomplished that goal, having now been a writer on such shows as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Happy Endings and Superstore. Her most recent work as been as co-creator/showrunner of the new Peacock comedy, Rutherford Falls, starring Ed Helms as a man trying to reconcile his family history by attempting to save an old statue that reflects some of his history.
Teller Ornelas recently got on the phone with AwardsWatch to discuss the show’s first season, having one of the biggest Native writers rooms on television and how her museum background informed her writing on the show.
Tyler Doster: How did Rutherford Falls come to be? What were early conversations like?
Sierra Teller Ornelas: I’d previously worked with Mike on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and had developed with Ed previously. After working together on The Office, they really wanted to work together again, so they started bouncing ideas. Then they asked me to join. A lot of times Native media makers are asked near the end of the process to join a project, but this was the opposite of that. I was brought on at the beginning and was able to use not only my experiences as a Navajo woman, but also working in many museums over the years. My mom is a Master Navajo Tapestry weaver and I basically grew up in Museums. We developed the show for almost a year, all of our ideas kind of building off the others, before we pitched it. It has been a phenomenal work experience.
TD: When you started assembling the writers room, was it at the forefront of your mind to include as many Native writers as possible?
STO: I knew I wanted to hire Native writers; that it would not work to only have my voice in the room. When we first got picked up, Mike Schur asked, “How many writers do you want in your room?” and I said: Ten. And he said, “Well, 5 should be Native.” And it was really great to have that support, so we dove in and found so many amazing Native writers. Some weren’t right for the show, but we suggested them for other shows. And we went to UCB shows, drew from some great Native-led writing labs, and reached out to people via Instagram. There is this narrative that there aren’t enough Native writers, actors, etc. to create these shows and we just never found that to be true. There were always more than we needed.
TD: With so much news about controversial statues in the world, was Big Larry always going to be less controversial in nature?
STO: The movement to remove statues is very important, so we definitely didn’t ever want to be perceived as “going there” or being edgy for edgy’s sake, or in any way making light of the movement. The idea of using a statue predated the national conversation we’re now having, though many Native organizations have been pushing for removal for years. One of the central questions of the show is “What is American History? What are the stories that we cling to, and in doing so, what questions are lost?” For us, a statue was a perfect metaphor for how many see American History, frozen in time and never changing. And as Nathan learns more about his family history, we see that it’s sort of impossible to keep our histories permanent.
TD: Was Ed Helms always going to play the lead?
STO: Yes. Ed has played many iconic comedy roles, but he’s also one of the nicest and most generous performers. Having him and his comedic voice in our heads while writing the pitch, created a really great foundation for the show. He also really nails the dramatic moments. Ed, Jana, and Michael are tasked with shifting tones on the show and they all really run with it. I love Ed’s character on the show, I can’t imagine anyone else playing him.
TD: What was casting for the rest of the roles like?
STO: In the casting process, we once again faced this narrative that there isn’t enough Native talent to create a show about us, and once again, we just never found that to be true. There were always more than we needed. Also, working with folks from The Office, there was this willingness to let the writers audition. It’s how we were able to cast Jana as Reagan and Bobby Wilson as Wayne. Both are so funny, and you’d never know this was Jana’s first major role on television. She had to have real comedy chemistry with an icon like Ed Helms, a mentee relationship with Michael’s character, and then a real romance with Dustin’s character. Michael Greyeyes has had an amazing run on critically acclaimed dramas, but he immediately took to comedy. He’s so light and funny, but then can just flip it and do a monologue like he’s on an hour-long, it’s so cool. It was also so wonderful to find performers like Jesse Leigh, Dustin Milligan, Dana Wilson, Beth Stelling and Paul F. Thompkins. Everyone really brought their comedic A-game and it was so fun to watch them embody these characters.
TD: For characters like Nathan, Reagan, Terry… what did you want to the audience to understand about these characters immediately?
STO: I wanted the audience to fall in love with these characters, and then realize they all had blind spots. None of them are completely heroes or villains. Often in TV, characters can get sort of flattened, but we tried really hard to make sure each one was funny, had layers, and felt like people in your actual life.
TD: How did your museum background inform your writing on the show?
STO: Well, I really grew up in museums. As I mentioned, my mom is a Master Navajo Tapestry weaver, and she did demonstrations at like, the British Museum, and all over the country. And we always went with her. Then my first job out of college was as a film programmer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, where I really got an amazing education about many of the over 500 federally recognized tribes throughout North America. So my day to day life at that time was coming into contact with not only “museum types” like myself, but also the average non-Native person’s awareness of Native people. Often when my mom, my brother, aunties and I would do museum weaving demos, people would touch our hair, it was absurd. I would turn around and the person would look so shocked and ashamed, like they didn’t know why they did that. So I had a real front seat at the fascination with and misinformation most folks have about Indigenous peoples.
TD: How much history did you look at when creating the Minishonka nation? Is it based on a specific native tribe or a collection of tribes?
STO: When depicting the fictional Nation on the show, we wanted to be culturally consistent with Nations from the northeast. A lot of shows if they depict Native people, no matter where they’re set, it’ll be covered in southwestern art and turquoise, which we worked hard to avoid. The Native writers in the room are from all over, including the Northeast, the show is a reflection of experiences of the Native writers, producers, cast and crew who represent many different Nations from all over the US and Canada.
TD: What kind of impact do you want the show to have on audiences?
STO: Well, first I hope they think it’s really funny. And I hope they feel invested in all the characters. And I hope they watch the conversations on the show and that it resonates enough to create conversation in their own lives. And I hope, personally, that people really absorb that Native Americans exist, that we are still here, and have regular lives, and are really funny.
Season 1 of Rutherford Falls is currently available to stream on Peacock. Sierra Teller Ornelas is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.
Photo: Colleen Hayes / Peacock