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Native excellence with comedic revelation Jana Schmieding of ‘Rutherford Falls’

April 29, 2021
5 min read time

Jana Schmieding stars in and serves as a staff writer on the revolutionary new series, Rutherford Falls. Helmed by co-creators Sierra Teller Ornelas, Mike Schur, and Ed Helms, the new comedy is the very first Native sitcom. Schmieding stars as Reagan Wells with Helms as Nathan Rutherford, a pair of lifelong friends, and the show explores what happens when the past collides with the present in their small town in ways that cannot be ignored.

This is both Schmieding’s first staff writing position and first starring role. After years of preparedness and persistence, opportunity knocked — and she was ready. 

I was so ready that I was almost about to give up. That's how ready I was.

The path that brought her to this moment was a long one. Schmieding was straddling two simultaneous hustles in New York City: Public school teacher in the Bronx by day, and comedian by night. After 10 years of doing improv, sketch and solo comedy, writing for herself and hiring friends as directors, when she decided to take the leap and move to Los Angeles to pursue TV writing.

“The balance between my career grind and my creative grind had started to shift and suddenly my skill level in comedy and my desire to keep pursuing it became greater than my desire to be in the classroom.”

In L.A., Schmieding began building a creative community, continued doing live comedy, started a podcast, and educated herself on scriptwriting. 

“I started, essentially, self-teaching myself how to write pilots. I didn't go to school for TV writing, I didn't know what I was doing. I read Save the Cat and a lot of articles like, “How Do You Structure a Pilot?” I was really, truly, DIY-ing it in a big way.”

She submitted her pilots to every diversity fellowship and competition and was mostly met with rejection.

“All of my pilots had a Native female protagonist — I was writing for myself. I would Instagram all of my rejections to all of these festivals just to remind myself, ‘This is part of it, it's totally fine. I'm doing what I want to be doing. I'm submitting, but I'm showing that my work isn't being, being valued.’ I mean, I had so many posts that were just like, ‘Thank you so much for your...attempt, but it's going to be a no.’”

The support she needed, Schmieding found in the Native writing community.

“We as writers, we’re not only out there trying to share opportunities with each other, but we're also collectively validating each other's existence. It's a really important community to have because if we're existing in any other space where Natives aren't present, it's very easy to just feel absolutely invisible because our history isn't recognized, our current existence isn't recognized. There's this line of thinking, we as writers often make fun of, which is, we are trapped in time. We're trapped in this leather-and-feathers Western segment of entertainment, and we're not seen as people who exist now, today. So it's really easy to internalize that as an individual when you're not seeing yourself in any popular media, in any mainstream media. It's very easy to actually live that erasure. We think about the generations behind us at all times and everything we do, part of our identity as Native people, is to constantly be building for our future generations.”

Jana was armed with an arsenal of writing samples when an important door was opened for her: a half-hour pilot set in the world of politics, an Adam Ruins Everything-type web series pilot about fat justice and fat bodies, a half-hour sketch comedy pilot, and a one-hour dark crime drama pilot. Through the interconnectedness of her comedy community, she met both Native writer Sierra Teller Ornelas, co-creator and executive producer of Rutherford Falls, along with her current manager at 3 Arts.

“I was introduced to [Sierra Ornelas] via email, and I asked if she wanted to be on my podcast. The same week — it all happened in one week — I interviewed Sierra for my podcast and I was connected to my manager at 3 Arts. Then I signed with my manager at 3 Arts. Essentially, through the network of comedy friends and women of color, pulling each other up, I met Sierra — she asked for my samples the same day I had interviewed her.”

This kismet meeting led to Schmieding being staffed on Rutherford Falls. The writers’ room experience was everything she wished it would be.

“I was learning how to write for TV From Mike Schur and Sierra who has, for the last 10 years, been writing on TV shows, so she knows the job from back to front and has done it all. I mean, she was amazing to learn from. And I also got to share a room with four other Native writers. I've never gotten to collaborate with that many Native people in all of my professional life.”

Although performing is her first love, Schmieding had no idea that she was being considered for a role on the show, much less the lead.

“I have been performing for a long time, especially in comedy. I've been doing a lot of improv comedy, and I never thought that any of that stuff would be helpful in my career. I really packed it up. I really put it away, the dream of being a performer. Nobody's looking for [me] to be on their show, you know?”

When Sierra asked her to audition for the lead role of Reagan, Jana did not even have a full reel or many examples of her acting, but she also didn't let that dissuade her. She screen-tested with Ed Helms twice and landed the role.

“Even though it sounds like I was unprepared, I will say that I was ready. I had been working toward this without consciously knowing it. I've been working toward these things for many, many years and everything, all of the different creative hustles that I participated in — directing sketch comedy and being a part of several different collaborative comedy groups — all of these things actually informed my work that I was doing on the show, both in the writing and the performing aspect. There's that adage, that when opportunity strikes, just be ready. I fully feel that. I actually believe that if this were to happen to me, you know, five, 10 years ago, I actually would not have shown up in the same way for myself. The fact that it happened when it did, I was so ready that I was almost about to give up. That's how ready I was. You know, I was on the other side of ready. I was like, ‘This isn't actually working out. I'm ready. They're not.’” 

And she is ready. Schmieding is a true star, one who lights up the screen, and whom you cannot take your eyes off of. There’s so much responsibility that comes with creating and starring in the first Native sitcom, but Schmieding takes it all in stride and makes it look easy. She knows how important her work is and how much representation matters.

“I think the white lens really wants to see our pain and our trauma. They're conditioned to see us as people who are traumatized and in pain. And I don't want to say that that's not important because it is something that we live with. But we also live with joy. And we also have families and we have laughter and we have community and we go to college. It's really important that people, Native and non-Native, see us — see Native excellence onscreen and see Native people existing in contemporary situations. It's very important that we are humanized and that we’re seen as a whole nuanced community. And I think that that is just starting to happen. Native joy is a crucial element in this movement toward liberation and sovereignty. It's important that we also are experiencing joy and laughter along with our pain and our trauma. But those two things can exist at once, and they do, in all of our lives — and that is absolutely what Rutherford Falls is going to be.” 

Rutherford Falls is now available to stream on Peacock. Listen to Jana’s podcast, Woman of Size, or find her on Instagram and Twitter

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