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Sierra Teller Ornelas: Rutherford Falls

Sierra Teller Ornelas
Reginald Cunningham
Provided by the artist
Sierra Teller Ornelas

Writer and producer Sierra Teller Ornelas learned some of the skills she needed to succeed in Hollywood in an unlikely place: growing up working "in the booth" at Native American art markets.

"Just being at art markets and being able to sell, and trying to quickly distill the story of your nation, your family, this piece that you're selling and explaining the importance of it, it really did help in terms of pitching," she told NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg.

In addition to her career as an accomplished television writer, Ornelas is a sixth-generation Navajo weaver. Her mother's art has been displayed all over the world, and each piece could take years to finish. To help pass the time while she worked, Ornelas's mom would send her to the video store.

"She'd say go to Blockbuster and get all the new releases, or get the first season of Soap and bring it back, and we'd watch it all night," Ornelas said, crediting her parents with shaping her taste in television. "So we were binge watching well before that was the term."

Ornelas has written for Superstore, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Selfie and Happy Endings. Now, she's co-creator of the new comedy series Rutherford Falls, along with Mike Schur and Ed Helms. The series centers on two friends: Nathan Rutherford, played by Helms, is trying to protect an inconveniently-located statue of the town's founding father, "Big Larry" Rutherford. His childhood friend Reagan Wells, played by Jana Schmieding, struggles to keep a cultural center dedicated to the area's indigenous people afloat.

Schur and Helms contacted her early in the show's development. "They had the Nathan Rutherford character, they knew they wanted it to be in a small town, they had themes they knew they wanted to explore... Then I came in, having grown up in museums because my mom is an artist and I had worked for many years at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. We started collaborating and developing for months before we even went out to pitch it, much less write it."

"There are five Native writers, including myself, on staff," Ornelas said. She said a key goal was to represent indigenous people as more than one-dimensional characters. "You get to see us be mundane, you get to see us have jobs and teenage daughters who drive us crazy, and have work relationships and romances. There are multiple native characters who can have different perspectives on a subject matter, and it's all really, really funny."

For her Ask Me Another challenge, Ornelas played a game of "Category Is!" in which she revealed why she loves "bank plants" and why many houseplant owners are "low-key shoplifters."


On Co-Creating 'Rutherford Falls' With Ed Helms And Mike Schur

"I feel like Native people in the media, especially, always get these calls from people who are like, 'we're shooting this film in an hour and there is a Native American in it, can you read it and tell me it's OK?'... You never get a call from two incredibly funny kind people who are like, 'Hey, we have half an idea — do you want to come and create something with us?'"

On Red Lobster

"Chris Rock has this bit about how you never see six Native Americans hanging out at Red Lobster. And every time I go to Red Lobster, me and my family members will make that joke."

On Shooting Rutherford Falls on the same Universal Studios backlot as Back to the Future:

"I was like, everyone in my family is going to lose their mind... It was all flux capacitor jokes and a whole thread of jiggawatt-based humor."
Heard on Maria Bamford & Richard Kind: Yogurt Is Gold, Baby.

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