Jana Schmieding was ready to give up on Hollywood right before she landed a writing/acting role on Michael Schur’s sitcom “Rutherford Falls” opposite Ed Helms.
“I had been submitting my writing to all these festivals and script competitions to try to get my work seen,” Schmieding, 39, told The Post. “I lost hope in 2018 and I was about to wrap it up and move home with my parents — feeling really frustrated that I would never have a job as a TV writer.
“But then I met Sierra Teller Ornelas who is Navajo Mexican-American; she’s the [‘Rutherford Falls’] showrunner and she pulled me in to a meeting with her and Ed Helms and Mike Schur.
“So it really took a Native woman to see me and pull me up.”
The sitcom, co-created by Schur, Helms, and Ornelas — and premiering Thursday (April 22) on Peacock — follows inhabitants of a fictional Native American reservation and its neighboring town in upstate New York, Rutherford Falls. Nathan Rutherford (Helms) is the blowhard descendant of the town’s founders who lands in hot water over an issue with moving a statue of his ancestor, while his childhood friend Reagan Wells (Schmieding) is trying to get the local tribe’s cultural center off the ground. It’s an uphill battle, since it’s a room located in a casino and its main visitors are drunk guests who think it’s merely a place to charge their phones.
Other characters include Reagan’s scheming boss Terry Tarbell (Michael Greyeyes), who Reagan finds intimidating; Nathan’s assistant Bobbie Yang (Jesse Leigh); and town mayor Deidre Chisenhall (Dana L. Wilson), who’s short on patience for Nathan’s antics.
“Being able to act with Ed Helms, who is absolutely a comedy icon that has become a comedy mentor — I almost don’t have words to describe how exciting that has been for me,” said Schmieding, who is Lakota and enrolled in the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux Tribe. “And I also got to work closely with Michael Greyeyes, who is a Native performing mentor and a Native icon. I feel like I got to touch all different parts of the creative process in this project.”
The series is among the first Native American sitcoms, although there are several other Native TV shows in the pipeline — including FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” co-created by Taika Waititi, in which Schmieding has a small role.
“In this industry, a lot of times Native people are relegated to period pieces,” said Schmieding. “We are really seen as a people who existed in the past and were eradicated — so we have a lot of roles that are mystical and magical and metaphoric instead of actual. I think [‘Rutherford Falls’] is a great opportunity for non-Native people to see Native folks existing in contemporary times, because that is our reality. We do exist in contemporary times. The sitcom language that we’re speaking is a great entryway into more specific Native narratives to be shared.”
The series features one of the largest Indigineous writing staffs on American television, with the writers room consisting of Indigenous people (five out of 10), including Schmieding.
“I’ve never collaborated with this many Native people on anything, so the fact that it was a creative job and that it has four other native writers involved, and Native performers and designers involved in the production — this has been a dream collaboration. It’s been the highlight of my life so far.
“We have really struggled to have a voice in this industry, so it’s been really exciting to be part of that. I believe that it’s important that we have laughter along with our pain and that we are telling jokes to each other and laughing at the jokes that we wrote for ourselves.
“It’s important to me that we are not the butt of the joke anymore. We are the creators of the jokes.”