Interviews

Cherokee Actress Sheri Foster on Her ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Storyline

Image from ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ courtesy of Netflix

There’s a tiny patch of land embedded in one side of a Los Angeles high school where a spring still flows with fresh water. Over 2,000 years ago, Tongva people drank from it and built villages nearby; a mere 200 years ago, Christian explorers were inspired to name it after “the tears of Santa Monica,” unwittingly also naming the freeway and entire city that would someday materialize.

For the last couple weeks, this bit of land — fenced off from an adjacent athletic field, landmarked by the state Parks department, and carefully tended by a Native American non-profit organization — has served as the backdrop for an outdoor theater production called Urban Rez, a cluster of highly interactive experiences which confront members of the audience with various issues faced by America’s original inhabitants as they struggle to claim an identity and preserve their heritage.

Visitors will meet many interesting people in this makeshift encampment: a trans Native woman who promotes sex education and rejects the “Two-Spirit” label, a comedian who dispenses “Guilt Reduction” certificates. Loudest among them is a woman named Wanda, who swears she is of Native ancestry, albeit “none that she can prove.” In her eagerness to claim identify with others on the Rez, Wanda perpetuates nearly every clueless stereotype about American Indians, practically unable to utter a sentence without dropping conspicuous references to powwows and fry-bread.

Wanda is a focal point for another reason: the actress who plays her, Sheri Foster, happens to have a key role in one of this season’s most controversial TV storylines. On “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” she plays Fern White, whose rebellious teenager recoils from reservation life in favor of white culture — to the point where, in a farcical twist, she reinvents herself as a white Manhattan socialite, and thus is played by “30 Rock” alum Jane Krakowski.

Krakowski’s character and Wanda bear an eerie resemblance, occupying opposite poles in a conversation about appropriation and the flexibility of racial identity. Both are played for cringey laughs as well as pathos, both are the product of Native Americans’ imagination (yes, the “Kimmy Schmidt” crew contains some writers who share that heritage). And yet, many viewers — as well as opinionated non-viewers — have handled this part of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s comedy like toxic waste, questioning the showrunners’ intentions as well as their execution of a storyline and role some feel should have gone to a Native American actress — if its existence could be considered justifiable in the first place. It appears Fey has been grazed by the double-edged sword of her own perceived status as Famous White Lady, despite having written in Bossypants about her Greek upbringing and the need to whitewash her “ethnic” identity in order to get a leg up in showbiz — a journey echoed and taken to giddy extremes by numerous characters in “Kimmy Schmidt.”

What none of these critics seem to have done is initiate a dialogue with the artists of American Indian descent who actually crafted and executed this subplot. Despite two seasons’ worth of controversy, we at Signature were unable to find a single interview on the subject with anyone in the writing room except Fey or Carlock. Nor, for that matter, with Foster or Gil Birmingham, whose performances in the show crackle with knowing references to life on the reservation, from interactions with clueless white people to inter-generational struggles (due to 47-year-old Krakowski nonsensically playing her teenaged self in flashbacks, many of these hit two birds with one stone).

We spoke with Foster between performances of Urban Rez, curious to hear about her experience with the “Kimmy Schmidt” blowback and the gradual blossoming of a wider community of American Indian artists and storytellers.

SIGNATURE: Let’s start at beginning. Can you tell us about your background and early acting influences?

SHERI FOSTER: Well I’m originally from Texas, and I used to spend summers in Oklahoma at my grandma’s. I’m American Indian, Cherokee. I grew up in a small town, and my grandma would take us to powwows and dance when we were little. I went to school and college and everything, and then I moved out to Los Angeles because I wanted to be an actor. When I came out here I didn’t know anyone, and as a footnote, I lived out of my car. But the big deal with my parents was that I had to call home every Sunday, which I did. And so then I just started meeting people, and I started studying. My first acting coach was Roy London; Geena Davis studied with him, and she thanked him when she won an Academy Award. I remember hearing that and thinking “Oh my god!”

There’s an Indian community in LA, and I hooked up with Bob Hicks, who was going to the American Film Institute as a director fellow, and we saw each other on the street and both said “You’re Indian!” “You’re Indian!” and we became the best of friends for thirty years, and he just passed away. So I produced some of his things at the AFI, because I wanted to know what it would be like to be on the other side of the camera, and that was very informative since I didn’t go to film school. From there I just did films and plays around town, and studied more (right now I study with Charles Carroll), and I do American Indian theater, and just keep rocking.

When I first came here there wasn’t a lot of theater for American Indians, so I auditioned for everything. If they said it was “blonde hair/blue eyes,” I would go. I would do whatever it took just to have that audition experience.

Then there began to be a community here, and I started meeting more and more actors. After “Dances With Wolves” a lot of Native people started to move to Los Angeles. Now there are writers and producers, and I was one of the founding trustees of an organization called First Americans in the Arts. It was headed by Bob Hicks, and it was kind of like a Golden Globes for Indian people. It happened every February — we kept up with the schedule of award season — and it was so fantastic because Indians from all over the country would come. And they were wearing either their tux or Sunday finest, or their regalia. It was such an exciting time.

I think that started in 1996? I was Treasurer, but after seven years I decided to resign so some of the young ones could come in and carry it. It fizzled after about twelve years, and I started thinking we ought to get that up again, because it was just so exciting.

SIG: Was there a particular moment when you finally felt you’d made it, and knew you were going to have a real career as an actress?

SF: I never doubted it. I think it’s just a thing you have inside, because I’ve been at it for so long. But I think it was back in Texas when I was in a film directed by Hal Ashby, and he was so incredibly kind. It was with Robert Blake and Barbara Harris, and I played a choir director at an Indian church, and he had me sing. It was then, working with him — he was such a great, kind man, and he inspired me. That’s when I said “Okay, I’m doing this for real.”

SIG: So fast-forwarding a bit, how did you end up on Kimmy Schmidt?

SF: Well you know, I keep auditioning, and I got cast! Right now everyone’s doing self-tapes, so I did a self-tape with Charles, my acting coach, and sent it in. Next thing you know, my agent called and said they were interested, and called again to say “You got it!” That’s how it started.

These people, the “Kimmy Schmidt” people? They’re the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. They really respect Indian culture, and I can’t say enough goodness about them.

SIG: Are there parts of your character on the show you strongly relate to? Or even parts of Krakowski’s character?

SF: All of that. Jane’s character, as you know, wants to move away: she lives in a small town, and wants to move to the big city. I think every small-town person thinks about that — probably even more now, because of the internet.

Back when I was a young one, we used to have to drive to San Antonio if we wanted to see a movie that just came out. I loved my childhood, because we had to hunt and fish, and create our own entertainment. I’ll tell you what we did, even though it was really kind of hateful, but you create your own reality when you come from a small town — there’s nothing to do. We would have bottle-rocket fights in the middle of the night, all over the little town. We’d have egg fights; we would go hunting at night when you’re not supposed to, just because you’re not supposed to. Stuff like that.

That’s what I relate to in Jane’s character. As for dyeing my hair blonde, I’ve always wondered: what if I was blonde and blue-eyed, would that make a difference? I actually had a dream once that I did it and didn’t like it, so I never did it after that. But I know there are other Indian girls who have gone blonde, and that’s fine! That’s a personal choice.

Then we have my character, Fern. There’s a lot of me in Fern, in wanting to teach Jackie Lynn (she changes it to Jacqueline to sound more white). You want to teach your children respect, and to do the right thing; you want to teach them your spirituality and traditions. That’s part of me, part of Sheri.

SIG: This isn’t your first notable onscreen mother/daughter pairing, is it? You played J-Lo’s mom in Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn.”

SF: Yes, and there again, all in flashbacks! Oliver was terrific to work with. He actually asked if, after I finished “Crazy Horse” for TNT, I’d come back and commit suicide. And I said, “For my art, and you, of course!” So he wrote this part, which wasn’t in the script. I was doing a play at the time, and I was in rehearsals when the AD started calling me. He’d really done it! Nick Nolte played my husband, and was so terrific. Maybe that’s why I still do this, because all my experiences have been so loving and creative and generous.

I remember Oliver came up and asked my opinion because I had to sing some Native songs; I had one that I liked, but he had one that he liked and said “I want you to sing this one.” But he still kept writing more and more for me, and called me back to shoot this early morning scene, and said: “Now you can sing Chillywilly Wah.” So I got to do that too, it was great. That day as we left, I was standing on this rock, and he said, “Sheri Foster!” I looked up — it was right as the sun was coming up, because that golden time is when we shot — and he said, “Thank you, you’re creative, you’re easy to work with, and you did a great job.” And I just said “Thank you.” And that was that, my time with Oliver.

SIG: So as for this “Kimmy Schmidt” storyline, and all the reaction it’s getting…

SF: You mean in terms of the Native community being up in arms because they cast Jane instead of a Native person?

SIG: Well it’s funny you mention that, because although there’s far from a consensus about the storyline anywhere, the critiques I’ve seen from Native Americans seems far more thoughtful and generally more positive.

SF: I know, right?

SIG: What do you think they’re seeing that other well-meaning viewers aren’t?

SF: I don’t think the others are seeing. When that hit on Facebook, I tried to answer everybody, saying “Please, If you’d seen it…” But I think none of them actually watched it, maybe because someone else had already made a judgment, whoever that person was.

Here’s what I’ve always said: they totally respect us, they totally respect our ways. They never make fun of us. It’s a satirical comedy, that’s the funny part, you know? And if you want something different, then why don’t you produce your own thing — and I’ll work for you, too! They’re hiring Native people, for crying out loud.

SIG: Have you been pursued for opportunities to talk about the show? I looked around for interviews with you and Gil Birmingham and was disappointed to see that, despite all this discomfort, no one had seemed to seek you out directly,

SF: Never — no one’s ever asked. You’re the first person who’s ever asked me about it. All of this came from people who were reviewing it, and I wonder if they ever even thought about that. Because if anyone had ever thought to, and heard how respectful all the writing and filming was…I mean, what are they even talking about?

SIG: The brunt of people’s reactions have fallen on Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski. What would you like to tell people who are struggling to accept this storyline, or who doubt Fey’s awareness or intentions in presenting it?

SF: Please, just watch it. In scene after scene, you have this daughter who is going off the wall — there’s a scene this season that’s at a ceremony, and she comes in and starts misbehaving, and I say, “You just don’t belong here, you’ve got to go. You can’t go to the sweat lodge.” It’s saying: this is not good. They’re not writing a story that’s mocking our ways — our kid is doing that, for sure, but as parents our characters are there to say that’s totally unacceptable.

SIG: If this was a drama, or even a more straitlaced comedy set in the “real” world, it could easily be seen as taking a role away from a Native American actress. In this case, it seems like an essential part of the joke about white culture’s love/hate relationship with Native culture.

SF: That’s the thing, it kind of goes with the gig. Let me tell you — everyone says they’re Native American, right? My character in our play Urban Rez is exactly this kind of wannabe. I have a line about how there’s a rumor my great-grandmother Wanda was half-Native. You get those everywhere.

SIG: I spoke to black cartoonist Jerry Craft recently about “Highlander syndrome” — the perception that there can be only one prominent minority person occupying a certain niche at any given time. He said this has the unfortunate side-effect of making artists more competitive and less supportive of each other. How does that resonate with your experience?

SF: Not at all. Not at all. The thing about us is, we have a community here. I remember years ago when there started to be jobs — parts for Native American or Indian people — and we didn’t really care about that. We just hoped one of us got it, that an actual Native person got it. There has never, ever been that sort of attitude, ever. When I got “Kimmy Schmidt,” obviously other women had auditioned, but I received nothing but congratulations from the community and other Indian actresses. So, that’s not us. We just try to help each other — I just got this film called “Mohawk,” and while reading the script I called another actress and said, “Hey, there’s a part in here, have your agent call and maybe you could read for it.” You know?

SIG: Who are some other Native artists whose voices you wish were being heard more?

SF: I think Bob Hicks, that AFI Fellow I mentioned earlier. He wrote this script, all in the Creek language, about the Dawes Commission. Because it’s history, and now we’re getting writers, and there’s all these stories to tell about what Indians went through when the government started making rules for them to be on their own land. He wrote the play, and then he made a short and put it in for the Academy Awards; he opened it at the Smithsonian, and then the next day he passed away. So if there’s any one voice that wasn’t really heard in the larger scope of the United States, it was his. I was lucky enough to go and direct his play last November — again, in Creek, not in English — and it was pretty amazing.

We had Maria Tallchief, and Will Sampson also did a lot for the community — he’s passed, too. He started a thing called the American Indian registry, which was a place for Indians when they first came to town. Not just actors, but everybody. You see, the community is so small and it’s not just about acting. You’ll see this guy who wants to be a stunt person, and another who wants to write…and we just help each other do whatever it is they want to do.

SIG: It seems people fail to account for this kind of diversity in expression even within a minority. The Washington Post pointed this out: “Whether it’s Fey and Carlock hiring Native American writers, or Lee Daniels — who some viewers see a promoter of certain images of black pathology — producing a smash hit like the hip-hop drama ‘Empire,’ someone’s gender or skin color doesn’t guarantee what kind of story they’ll write, what kinds of characters they’ll create and what kind of jokes they’ll tell.”

SF: This writer really got the Indian humor in “Kimmy Schmidt.” They really did. I’ve got to tell you, Tina was directing Jane in a scene, and I learned so much from that, and just hearing Tina’s words. And I’m using a little bit of that in the character I’m playing now, in Urban Rez. I soak up everything when I’m working with these wonderful people.

SIG: Did you feel welcome to offer any input, or were you just going along with whatever came down the line?

SF: I just did what I did. And I never got a note, so I guess they liked what I did! If they don’t like it they’ll give you a note — and you’ll pretty much take the note, because look who these people are. Tina directed me and actually once gave me a note on something, and I was just so excited that she gave me a note.

SIG: Yes, I suppose that means she was really paying attention! From how the season ended, I can only imagine you’ll be back for a yet another season.

SF: Oh, I pray. But you never know, you just do your best and hope for the best. That’s all we can do, any of us.