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Sierra Teller Ornelas: Rutherford Falls

Apr 30, 2021

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Our special guest is here. She's been a writer on "Superstore," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Selfie" and "Happy Endings," and she's the co-creator and head writer on the new Mike Schur Peacock series "Rutherford Falls." It's about two friends, one who runs a fancy museum about the town's founders, and the other runs a struggling cultural center dedicated to the area's Indigenous people. Sierra Teller Ornelas, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

SIERRA TELLER ORNELAS: Thank you so much for having me. Before I start, (speaking Navajo). My name is Sierra Teller Ornelas. I'm a member of the Navajo Nation. I am Edge Water born for the Mexican people. Thank you so much.

EISENBERG: Thank you. So, you know, I've heard you say this as a part of your introduction as part of other interviews.


EISENBERG: Can you just tell us why you do that?

ORNELAS: 'Cause my mom would kill me if I didn't, first of all.


ORNELAS: Traditionally, Navajo people introduce themselves first by saying their clans. All Navajo people have four clans that are descendant of different lines in their families, starting with the matrilineal lines first. And then each clan - traditionally, you believe that it kind of explains not only certain specifics about your personality, but also, you'll know if you're related. And so it's just what we do.

EISENBERG: Yeah. So you're a sixth-generation Navajo weaver. Your mother is a renowned weaver, and her work has been displayed all over the world.

ORNELAS: All over the world, yeah. She's a master Navajo weaver.

EISENBERG: And you've been selling jewelry and your family's woven tapestries at different markets and fairs since you were a child.

ORNELAS: Yes, I grew up in the booth.

EISENBERG: You grew up in the booth, but you decided to go into television writing.

ORNELAS: Yeah, yeah. I really - it's kind of silly, though, because I think so much of my mom's career really shaped and formed my taste in television and then also just the work that I do. So she, you know, would weave, you know - one of her pieces, every inch is 100 wefts per inch. So she goes back-and-forth 100 times every inch. And she's spent, you know, up to two years working on projects. And so she would have us - you know, she'd give us, like, money and say, go to Blockbuster, get all the new releases, or, like, get the first season of "Soap," you know, and bring it back, and then we would watch it all night. So we were, like, binge-watching well before that was a term.


ORNELAS: And she really loved television. And my dad had a love of comedy. He wanted to be a stand-up. And so they always kind of made each other laugh and were really into letting us watch way too much television.

And then just being at art markets and kind of being able to sell and kind of try to quickly distill the story of your nation, your family, this piece that you're selling and explain the importance of it, it really did help in terms of, like, pitching or staffing season really felt very synonymous with Indian market culture and having to - like, you know, one weekend, and you've put sort of all of your time and effort into this thing, and it kind of dictates the rest of your year. So weirdly, while I don't weave as a profession, I still weave, and I still plan to teach my son how to weave. But, yeah, weirdly, she kind of primed me, her and my dad, for this life.

EISENBERG: That's very cool. So you - and you have obviously been extremely successful in the television writing world. You've worked on "Happy Endings," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Superstore." But how did you get involved in this new show, "Rutherford Falls?"

ORNELAS: Well, I got this call from Mike Schur and Ed Helms. I'd previously developed a project with Ed Helms' company and him, and then I'd also worked on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" with Mike. And I just really enjoyed both of them as people and enjoyed working with them.

They had this idea that - they basically had kind of half the idea. They had the Nathan Rutherford character. They knew they wanted to be in a small town. They knew themes they kind of wanted to explore. And then I came in kind of having grown up in museums because my mom is an artist and I'd worked for many years at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and so I had all these ideas. And we kind of just started collaborating and really developing, and - really for months before we even went out and pitched it, much less wrote it. It was just, like, this really organic - I feel like Native people in media especially always get these calls from people like, we're shooting this film in an hour, and there's a Native American in it. Can you read it and tell me it's OK?


ORNELAS: You know, and it's just a nightmare, and you're always like, no. And so you never get a call from two incredibly funny, kind people who are like, hey, we have half an idea; do you want to, like, create something with us? And so that's really what it's been. And it sort of set the tone as we brought new people in, constantly have just kind of improved and made the show better.

EISENBERG: And so half of the writers on the "Rutherford Falls" writing staff are of Indigenous heritage.

ORNELAS: There are five Native writers, including myself, on staff. You know, Tazbah Chavez, who's one of the Native writers on our show, says, like, we always know that we're funny. Like, we knew that, you know? It's just making sure everyone else finds out that we're very funny people. Chris Rock has this bit about how, like, you never see, you know, six Native Americans hanging out at Red Lobster. And every time I go to Red Lobster, one of - me or my family members will make that joke 'cause we're like, oh, look; we're six Natives at Red Lobster.

And so that was sort of a guiding force of the show, was that you get to see us be mundane. You get to see us have jobs and have teenage daughters that drive us crazy and have work relationships and romances and that there are multiple Native characters who can have different perspectives on a subject matter and that it's all really, really funny.

EISENBERG: Yeah. So also just one other thing, a tiny point about - when the "Rutherford Falls" trailer was released, it was pointed out in one of the articles that the set looked like it was borrowed from the 1980s "Back To The Future" franchise.

ORNELAS: It was, indeed. Yes...


COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: Yes, we filmed on the Universal backlot. It's so funny because...

EISENBERG: That's hilarious.

ORNELAS: ...We - due to COVID restrictions, we had planned to go to the East Coast to film certain exteriors. But because of COVID, we just - there was no way we could do it this season. And so we ended up using the Universal backlot, which everyone, you know, I think was a little bit like, will this feel like a compromise? And I was like, everyone in my family is going to lose their mind to know that, like...

COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: ...My show is - I was, like, taking a million pictures and sending it to my mom. So I was super stoked.

EISENBERG: And what did your mom and your family think when you sent them the photos?

ORNELAS: Oh, I mean, it was all flux capacitor jokes and just a whole thread of...

COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: ...Gigawatt-based humor, so yeah.

EISENBERG: OK, Sierra, would you like to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

ORNELAS: I would love it.

EISENBERG: So before the show, we asked you what would you like to play a game about? And you gave back a bunch of topics to choose from, including houseplants, "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee," Nora Ephron, "Saturday Night Live."

ORNELAS: Just the most random collection of mishegoss (ph). But, yeah...

COULTON: It's perfect.

ORNELAS: ...Those are the things I'm into.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's perfect. So we've combined all of these things in a game called Category Is.


EISENBERG: Jonathan and I will start listing things, and as soon as you can figure out what they have in common, you just shout out the answer.


EISENBERG: "Lucky Numbers," "Bewitched," "Mixed Nuts."

ORNELAS: Oh, these are all movies directed by Nora Ephron.

EISENBERG: Yes, that is correct.

ORNELAS: "Mixed Nuts" is a secret gem. "Mixed Nuts" is a good one.

EISENBERG: So, you know, it was going to get progressively more obvious - "Julie & Julia," "You've Got Mail," "Sleepless In Seattle." But "Mixed Nuts" - I was like, that sounds familiar, but I've never seen it. And it's a - I got to see this now - a dark Christmas tale starring Steve Martin.

ORNELAS: Steve Martin and Adam Sandler. It's, like, one of the first movies he was in.


ORNELAS: He has, like, a cameo. Madeline Kahn gets stuck in an elevator. It's very silly. I don't know if it's aged well, but...

COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: I can't speak to comedies...

EISENBERG: But I tried.

ORNELAS: ...From 20 years ago, but...


ORNELAS: ...I remember loving it as a teen.

EISENBERG: Is there one that is your favorite?

ORNELAS: "You've Got Mail" is my favorite Nora Ephron movie. It's a perfect movie. It was also my - my grandmother loved that movie. So that was, like, our jam.

EISENBERG: Oh, really?

ORNELAS: Yeah, got that in.

EISENBERG: I mean, Nora Ephron is a amazing writer to make email romantic (laughter).

ORNELAS: A hundred percent.

COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: Oh, the best.

EISENBERG: To me, it is, like, the - something I always want to end. So - but I should take another look at that movie and remember that good things come from email.

ORNELAS: Oh, yeah.

COULTON: (Laughter) All right, here's another one. Spider, snake, rubber.

ORNELAS: Types of plants.

COULTON: Yeah, that's right. These are all houseplants.

ORNELAS: (Laughter).

COULTON: Yeah, well done. We were going to go on with umbrella, ZZ. I've never heard of ZZ.

ORNELAS: I love a ZZ. They're...


ORNELAS: ...Hard to kill. They're hard to kill.

COULTON: They're hard to kill. That's my kind of plant.

ORNELAS: As long as you've got good drainage, they're your friend.

EISENBERG: You know what it is, Jonathan. You've seen them everywhere. They look like - they have waxy little leaves on a long branch, kind of.


ORNELAS: Go into a bank, usually they got those in there.

EISENBERG: That's the No. 1.

COULTON: (Laughter) It's a good bank plant.

ORNELAS: Very low light - yeah, yeah.

COULTON: Classic bank plant, yeah.

EISENBERG: Classic - that should be a category of plants to buy. Like...

ORNELAS: That's sort of my deal. If it's a plant in a bank, it means you can't kill it. And so it's...


ORNELAS: ...Probably in my home.

COULTON: Do you have a lot of houseplants yourself?

ORNELAS: I do have a lot of houseplants. I feel like it was a big thing during the pandemic to kind of, like, buy a lot of plants. But you can propagate them, which is fun, and you take little clips and put them in water. And it's - yeah, it's a way to feel in control.


EISENBERG: Totally. Absolutely. I come from a long line of houseplant people and gardening people, and let me tell you, it is - they are all control freaks.

ORNELAS: Oh, yeah.

EISENBERG: Like, it really feeds into that.

ORNELAS: It's a form of meditation for sure.

EISENBERG: And I have done a little bit of, like, escaping the city to go into the country and get, like, a Airbnb. And there's been a few times where I've contacted the host, and I was like, hi, yeah, that houseplant you have in the other room - do you mind if I take a cutting?


EISENBERG: And they're always like...

ORNELAS: You're so nice. Most houseplant people are, like, low-key shoplifters. I have...


COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: ...A lot of friends in my life that, like - a lot of snips in your pocket, you never say anything. So that's - you're a good person.


EISENBERG: Well, I was, like, afraid that I would go to snip something and just take a massive amount of it, and they would come back and be like, what happened to you, Audrey?


EISENBERG: All right, here's your next one. Drew Barrymore in 2007, Scarlett Johansson in 2017.

ORNELAS: People who have hosted "SNL"?

EISENBERG: Yes. Can you - it's like, there is a specific - I'll give you the point for that, 100%.

ORNELAS: Is it, like, either the Christmas episodes or the premieres?

EISENBERG: It's a number of times that they have...

ORNELAS: Oh, the Five-Timers Club.

EISENBERG: Yes, the Five-Timers Club. That's right. Drew Barrymore, Scarlett Johansson, Tina Fey in 2015, and then Candice Bergen, but that was in 1990. She was...

ORNELAS: Of course, yes.

EISENBERG: Melissa McCarthy in 2017, and Alec Baldwin in 1994.

ORNELAS: Yeah. Also - wait - Justin Timberlake, Tom Hanks - who else? - Steve Martin. They're beyond, though. They're beyond the Five-Timers Club.


ORNELAS: But there was that famous sketch a million years ago...


ORNELAS: ...About the Five-Timers Club. And I saw it as a kid, and I was like, this is the coolest thing ever...

COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: ...To be in the Five-Timers Club. That there was, like, a place where you could, like, wear a robe and hang out with Steve Martin...


ORNELAS: ...Just sounded like the greatest thing ever.

COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: And then they started, like, repeating hosts a lot. So I feel like, the last 10 years, to be a Five-Timers is not as impressive as, like, it was back in the day, but still.

EISENBERG: All right. How about this - sandy, clay, peaty.

ORNELAS: Oh, types of soil.

EISENBERG: Yeah. All right. Yeah. What's your houseplant mix? What do use for your houseplant mix?

COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: You've got to do a mix. You've got to do a mix. I like doing a little bit of cactus soil, a little bit of potting soil, and then some of that, like, that - oh, what's it called? Peat...


ORNELAS: Yeah, the pumice, the peat pumice, and kind of mix it in.

EISENBERG: I like it. I like it. Do you use any fertilizer?

ORNELAS: I do. I make - I compost. So put a little sprinkle of that in.

EISENBERG: Oh, excellent.

ORNELAS: A little dab will do you. Yeah.


EISENBERG: That's excellent. Yeah. Right. And the other two I was going to say were going to be loamy and chalky.

ORNELAS: Oh, there you go.

EISENBERG: It's a great collection - sandy, clay, peaty, silty, loamy and chalky.

ORNELAS: It's like an LA preschool.



COULTON: You know my sons - my twin sons, Chalky and Peaty.


EISENBERG: Loamy. Poor Loamy.

COULTON: (Laughter).

ORNELAS: Poor Loamy.


EISENBERG: You did amazing. You know your stuff.

ORNELAS: Awesome. Thank you so much. This was so lovely.

EISENBERG: All 10 episodes of "Rutherford Falls" are streaming now on Peacock. Sierra Teller Ornelas, thank you so much for joining us.

ORNELAS: Thank you so much for having me. This was so fun.


EISENBERG: That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with Juan Escalante and senior writers Eric Feinstein and Karen Lurie, with additional material by Kara Weinberger (ph). ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber (ph) and Rommel Wood. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neal (ph), and our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner, WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.