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Kevin Scanlon

Acting Up: Jana Schmieding

Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.

The Snapshot:

Jana Schmieding plays an ambitious small-town Native who runs a cultural center inside a casino in the comedy series, Rutherford Falls. (Premiered on Peacock April 22nd.)

The Performance: 

If you live in a small Northeast town like Rutherford Falls, it can be hard to put a real dent in your dreams. That’s part of the dilemma Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding) faces as a passionate Native woman looking to celebrate her tribe’s heritage with her fellow townspeople at the “cultural center” she runs. The only problem: the cultural center is smack dab inside the Running Thunder casino and is almost exclusively mistaken to be a gift shop by drunken gamblers. 

But does that dampen Reagan’s spirit? Well, maybe a little. She has ambitions to grow the operation beyond the casino walls and when she’s left in charge of the town’s main museum run by lifelong friend Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) in episode three, her story arc gets a bit juicier. Reagan thinks it’s going to be just another day of not much. After all, it’s a town where the main drama is the controversial placement of the town’s historical statue of founding father “Big Larry,” right in the middle of the town’s main thoroughfare – which tourists keep plowing into. 

That’s when a national reporter named Josh (Dustin Milligan aka Ted the vet from Schitt’s Creek) arrives on the scene to do a story on Rutherford Falls. Reagan’s demeanor changes instantly around a guy she calls “Centaur hot.” The idea of having a reporter in town is itself the “biggest news since Denise Richards stopped to get a tire patch at a Chevron.” Before she can even get out three words to him, her blouse gets caught in a car door, causing her to launch several cups of hot coffee his way and all over herself. Her response to this unfortunate intro: 

 “I’m Reagan. This is an unfortunately accurate first impression.”

Soon, sparks ignite and a romance blossoms between the two characters once they establish their Northwestern college connection. Throughout Jana’s quirky interactions with Josh about the old days back at school – in addition to her many repartees with seasoned comedy vet Helms – Schmieding’s gifts for delivering a funny line and making fresh choices are vastly apparent. 

Much like Parks & Rec (which was co-created by Michael Schur, one of the co-creators of Rutherford Falls), the small-town dramas of Rutherford Falls are writ large on the faces of the stressed-out characters who inhabit it. It’s a recipe that lends well to comedy – and thanks to Schmieding and her portrayal of Jana, this character lives and thrives at the center of it all.

The Career:

It’s a rare day in Hollywood when you can get hired as a writer on a show – and then end up as one of the show’s two leads! But that’s what happened with Schmieding (a Lakota Sioux Native) after she was hired by Sierra Teller Ornelas, who starred as a guest on Schmieding’s podcast in November 2019. Ornelas (Rutherford Falls’ co-creator and the first Native woman to helm a TV comedy) and Schmieding had a “great convo” that day, hitting it off in all sorts of ways. Then, after that fateful interview, Ornelas asked Schmieding if she had any writing samples. Schmieding says she did – and would soon be hired as a writer on the show. 

Then, the following ensued according to Schmieding who recapped the scribe-to-star journey: 

I got sent the sides for Reagan about two-and-a-half months into the writing room, [when] they were auditioning women for Reagan. It was a complete surprise to me because I had no intention of acting on the show, let alone playing a lead opposite Ed! But I think Sierra saw something in me and in my comedy that she connected to and pushed for me to play Reagan on the show.

It’s a story worth telling – and hearing if you’re an aspiring actor – as there’s never just one single clear-cut path to a lead role. In this case, one creative project (a podcast) lead to another (a writing gig), which lead to another (lead role on a Peacock streaming series). 

Now, as a clear breakout star of Rutherford Falls, it seems clear the future is bright for Schmieding. What’s especially impressive is Schmieding’s unique journey to Rutherford Falls – versus more typical paths starring a litany of acting degrees and lots of early work. 

For example, the Oregon-born Schmieding is a former schoolteacher who worked in New York City for 10-plus years. As mentioned, she’s also a Lakota Sioux Native who dedicates her time to “bringing Native stories to mainstream audiences.” And that’s not just a ceremonial bio description written to impress. Other than being a writer on Rutherford Falls, Schmieding has been involved with painting an accurate portrayal of the Native world on the series – including “down to the details of beading items for the costume, props and marketing departments.”

Rutherford Falls is Schmieding’s first major role, but you wouldn’t know it by how she more than holds her own opposite Helms and Milligan, two comic vets. It’s a testament in part to her background acting, writing and performing improv during her days in New York and L.A.

In addition to her work around Native visibility, Schmieding has been a vocal advocate for body justice, which she talked about regularly on her podcast “Woman of Size” from 2017-2019. It’s worth a listen and where she opined at length with guests like Ornelas about body positivity, porn, poetry and pandemics – amongst a whole lot of other topics that don’t start with “p.”

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Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.