David Leyes
November 01, 2021
In The Mix

Fall Line

As he crosses TV genres for Rutherford Falls, an actor revels in comedy and social commentary.

Mike Flaherty

Peacock's new series Rutherford Falls manages both to reflect on American history and to make some itself.

Set in a fictitious upstate New York burg, the show centers on a conflict between the town's eponymous founding family and its business, represented by Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), and the area's sizable indigenous community, the Minneshonka.

"It's quite a beautiful way that our show creators have dealt with a lot of complex social issues," says costar Michael Greyeyes, who takes pride in his heritage as a Nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. He plays Terry Thomas, the manager of the local casino, who proves to be more than a match for Nathan. "Terry is a truth teller," Greyeyes says. "He's successful, he's hungry and he's completely unapologetic for any of it.... In a way, he's like a tribal leader, but without the constraints of being a community representative."

By outsmarting everyone around him, though, Terry winds up an ingenious advocate for the Minneshonka. In that sense, he embodies a mythic Native archetype, the trickster. "The trickster's purpose in our storytelling is to remind us of our — of humanity's — foibles and weakness and folly," Greyeyes says, "and Terry is absolutely a manipulator in the best sense of the word."

However things turn out for the Minneshonka, Rutherford Falls has already effected change behind the camera. Native Americans comprise much of the cast and writing staff, and showrunner–cocreator Sierra Teller Ornelas (Superstore, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is herself of Navajo and Mexican heritage. Greyeyes observes, "This production has shifted the paradigm dramatically."

The role of Terry marks a shift for him, too, as it's his first series-regular gig in a nearly 30-year career. After years of favorable notices, Greyeyes has seen a sharp upward trend in the past five years, with his stirring work in season three of HBO's True Detective marking a high point. "That was undoubtedly a major event," he says.

Rutherford Falls marks another signpost — his first comedy. "I've played a lot of broken men, and one of the joys of playing Terry is that he's not broken," he says. "I realized that within comedy I was relying on indigenous joy, indigenous success, as opposed to the history of trauma. It was completely invigorating."

Far from being a difficult adjustment, Greyeyes says, bringing the funny has proven a gift: "It's sort of like when people buy a dog — you didn't know there was a hole in your heart till that pet appeared and filled it."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2021

For more on Native American contributions to the television industry, click HERE

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