Rutherford Falls’ Reagan’s Backstory, Friendship with Nathan, and Love Triangle, Explained
In Elle.com’s recurring feature Character Study, we ask the creators behind our favorite shows to go deep about what went into creating their memorable characters: the original idea behind them, how they were tailored to the actor and elements of them we might not see on the screen.
At the heart of Rutherford Falls, an earnest yet insightful sitcom about the ways a small town is transformed after citizens begin to reexamine its history, is Reagan Wells. A member of the Minishonka Nation and the curator of a cultural center devoted to her tribe, Reagan, played by Jana Schmieding, is passionate and determined with a sparkling wit. Her longtime best friend Nathan, played by series co-creator Ed Helms, is similarly devoted to his heritage as a descendant of the town’s founding family, but his reaction to the question of moving a statue of his forefather raises the larger issue of how his ancestors’ relationship to the Minishonka Nation should be reevaluated today and incites a shift in their friendship.
The first season of the Peacock show saw Reagan begin to assert herself in her friendships, expand her career and her relationship with her community and open herself up to love. Now that the second season is now streaming, co-creator and executive producer Sierra Teller Ornelas spoke to ELLE.com about creating a character that reminded her of the women she’s known, where she sees Reagan years from now, and why she thinks of her as “Lisa Simpson, but a little beaten down.”
When the character of Reagan was conceived, what were the first qualities that stood out to you?
I really grew up with a lot of strong Native women in my family: my aunties and my mom and stuff. I wanted to find a way to encapsulate the kind of women who raised me and who I looked up to as a kid and that I eventually became. A lot of times on television, Native women, it’s the Pocahontas trope. In a drama, often the women don’t make it to the second act. It’s actually pretty gruesome for Native women on television and Native women in comedy are almost nonexistent. So I really wanted to feel that she was a real person and that she was a person that reminded me of someone I was related to.
Did you tweak the character at all when Jana was cast?
No, actually we wrote the role. Every showrunner I’ve worked for, one of the characters is basically them. When you realize that you’re like, “Oh, you can pitch [story ideas] by just knowing what this person’s like.”
I had worked for many years in museums. I had always really felt like I had these really great friendships with white guys who saw me for who I was a person. There were always like systemic conflicts between us and I was kind of a sweaty, dopey, awkward Navajo girl. I always wanted to tell a story from someone who had that kind of underdog kind of mentality in a comedy and I knew that that person would have to be very physically funny and be able to turn a joke.
We were just looking for someone who was lightning in a bottle. It was really hard to find because I find that a lot of Native women actresses who were incredibly talented, so many of the people we saw are now in Scorsese movies or on leading TV shows, but finding someone who had really hard comedy chops and the ability to pivot into these emotional scenes and talk about things that were affecting her emotionally, like repatriation and that sort of thing, it was a really hard needle to thread.
When we had Jana [who had previously come on board as a writer] read for Reagan, the jokes I wrote came alive. The situations we had created just really started to pop. We were like, “Holy moly. She’s it.”
How do think Reagan and Nathan first became friends and what do you think it is that’s kept them close well into adulthood?
We have a backstory for them that we wrote that we never actually expressed. They met in very early childhood [and] she went to the same school that he did. He sort of saw their friendship as the long legacy of the friendship between the Rutherfords and the Minishonka and that she was like, “Nathan has an Nintendo. He’s fun to be around.” But that they both had a really nerdy appreciation for history.
While their histories were very different, there are very few teacher’s pet kind of kids who love museum field trips and I think that they were both those people. I think that they kind of latched onto each other and it was, we would say they’re like two nerds against the world.
In episode nine, Nathan gives her the space to say, like, “Hey, I don’t know if I want to get married,” and he doesn’t tell her what to do. He does support her and champion her in a way that you see that give and take and why she considers him her ride or die.
To me, that’s how they became friends, I think at the beginning of season one, it’s a little atrophied. We always said, if Nathan had just moved that statue 10 feet to the right, none of these crazy things would’ve happened. But Josh would never have come to town and opened up her heart, opened up her mind.
I think the reason why we start the season when we do is because you start to see the fracturing of this friendship that had happened. The grooves of it are very deep.
We talked a little bit about the early characteristics for her, but what do you see as her really defining qualities?
I think she’s someone who really cares. She cares that the work she does is meaningful. She cares about her community. She cares deeply about Nathan. I think she cares about leaving a mark on this world that her work and that what she did championed her people and all Indigenous people.
What was she was like as a kid?
I think she probably loved her elders, was close to her grandma. I have a lot of friends who were really close to their grandparents and were like old people in training. I remember I started drinking coffee when I was like nine. I feel like she’s a little bit of that, little bit of an early grownup. Silly. Clumsy.
She and Nathan vibe off of each other. Where one of them had an idea, the other one would build on it and they get really excited to do it. They talk a lot about group Halloween costumes and group school projects that they did. I think she’s someone who’s game to try, which in a small town is not always the case for everyone because it’s pretty hard. We always called her Lisa Simpson, but a little beaten down. There’s an optimism to her, but she’s very aware of the reality of her life and I think she was probably really funny. Jana’s really funny and the story she tells of when she was a little girl, I’m like, “Oh we were kind of similar.” Those jokey kids who loved John Candy movies and SNL.
Years before the series begins, Reagan calls off her wedding to fiancé Ray and enrolls at Northwestern University. What do you think made her make that decision?
I think she had a very specific idea of what success looked like at that age. At the time it meant going to a large Ivy League institution or semi-Ivy League institution. Academic success equaled value to her at the time. And I think now, as she’s sort of connected with Terry and really ingratiated herself into the community, she’s really becoming successful on a completely different scale. That’s actually much more deepening for her experience. When applying, you see this a lot in a lot of Native communities, someone wants to go off to college and they really want to come back home and bring that knowledge and the things that they learned back to benefit their community in some way.
I really feel like she wanted to be someone who left and came back because she needed to know what it was like, as much as she loved Ray. I think, too, the way we paint Ray, he wasn’t the perfect man at the time. He sought out a lot of self-improvement after they broke up. The Ray we know today is not the Ray that she was dating. We had a long run of jokes of like, “hates chapter books, only eats spaghetti.” We had a long run of all the reasons why Ray today is different than Ray a long time ago. It’s a little bit of what Nathan tells her like, “If there’s a voice in you saying you got to go, you got to chase that. You can’t just stay. You got to explore what that is and if it’s wrong, you can always come back.”
But I think there was the idea of that rebel spirit of, I need to go see what’s out there or else I’ll always wonder. She’s still kind of a dreamer, even if she’s forced to be a realist.
How do you think she’s grown since the beginning of the show?
I think she’s grown a lot. I think even in the season premiere, calling out Nathan immediately when he starts kind of going off the deep end, she’s immediately like “read the room.” Like, “don’t do that, do this.” She seems to be coming to her realizations faster. I think when you see in the season premiere, that the heritage museum has become a cultural center for a time. She really put all of her visions and dreams and goals for what she wanted that space to be into the museum. She didn’t cut any corners, she didn’t pull any punches. I think she comes in with a little bit more confidence this year and she also doesn’t suffer fools as much.
But at the same time, it’s very goofy with Nathan. They still have their movie nights. She’s open to romance. I think there was a little bit of convincing her in season one to put herself out there and I think she’s a little bit quicker to do that, for sure.
We’ve seen a bit of her family throughout the episodes. Are elements to that dynamic that we don’t see on screen? What were she and her brother like as kids?
I think there are folks [in a family] who have to work twice as hard to get half as far. And then there are darlings of the family that doesn’t matter what they do wrong, they’ll always be beloved. I think that’s sort of the push and pull she has with her brother.
We’re constantly having Reagan establish herself as thinking she’s one way and then realizing, “Oh, the world is not surrounding me. I need to actually think about other people’s perspectives.” To me, I think her family really coveted her brother, their son, and kind of always assumed Reagan would just be okay because she’s so self-sufficient, because she’s so independent. I think she was ignored a little bit in terms of the things she needed. It’s also another reason why I think she bonded with Nathan. Because I think Nathan was very in tune with what she needed and when she wasn’t always a happy person.
In a general sense, what do you want for Reagan over the years? Where would you like her to be in, say, 20 years?
Jana and I talk a lot about how Native women often are the glue of our communities. We do a lot of the work and we don’t get a lot of the credit or the glory. I think we struggle sometimes to take up space and to experience our wins. To go after what we want, to be a little selfish.
Watching Reagan really take up space and, because it’s a comedy, having a hilariously terrible [time], but also having her keep doing it anyway because that’s what’s right for the character and right for her is really going to be fun.
I think we’ve set up a really lovely love triangle for her. She has a lot of options and that’s something I don’t think you get to see women of color and women of size on television have. Watching her navigate that and fail and get back up and keep going and succeed is going to be really exciting. I love watching her sweat and then persevere because Jana does that so beautifully.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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