2020 was strange for a myriad of reasons — but for Jesse Leigh, it was especially odd. After years of studying, training, auditioning and every other requirement to becoming an actor, Jesse finally received the call that they booked their dream role on a comedy series — one that would be spearheaded by none other than Ed Helms, Mike Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas. Shortly after receiving the call, the world shut down, and Jesse, like the rest of us, was left wondering when their dreams would end up coming to fruition.
It speaks to Jesse’s drive and true love for acting that they chose to persevere and were eventually able to film the role they describe as a dream: Rutherford Falls, a show about a small upstate New York town that borders a Native American reservation. Things begin to spiral in the community when a petition to remove the statue of the town’s founder and tensions between the personal and political arise. For a multitude of reasons, the show is boundary-breaking; the writer’s room has the largest Indigenous writing staff on American TV, with showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas vocal about the need for proper Native American representation on TV both off- and on-screen. Jesse, who plays the passionate high school student Bobbie who works as a personal assistant for Ed Helms’ character, echoes these sentiments.
Schön! spoke with Jesse about their new show, the need for authentic representation on-screen, and more.
What was the moment when you realized acting is what you wanted to do as a career?
I grew up doing community theatre where you just perform your heart out for the fun of it. On a trip to New York, I saw Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre. So, at around eleven years old I found out there were performers doing this for a living. It was shocking to me because I had associated performing with having fun. That’s when I knew I had to do it.
You grew up in Manhattan Beach and spent your childhood in plays & musicals — what is one role from your childhood that shaped you as an actor and why?
I played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! at the Hermosa Beach Community Theatre. After spending years in the ensemble, this was my first lead role in a musical. While singing my solo Consider Yourself, I did a cartwheel centre stage. I loved the thrill of entertaining people!
What is the premise of Rutherford Falls, and what initially drew you to your character Bobbie Yang?
Rutherford Falls follows Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) as he works to keep his family’s legacy alive in his small town. He is a descendant of the town’s founder, hence his last name. I play Nathan’s executive assistant. I read the pilot way back in February 2020 and immediately saw that Bobbie was extremely confident as (them)self. And I loved that the show was relevant to everyday topics without sounding preachy.
Bobbie is a non-binary teen which, unfortunately, isn’t a type of character that a lot of TV audiences are used to. As a non-binary person yourself, what did it mean to you to portray Bobbie?
Bobbie, I believe was originally gay and male-identifying. I made the character my own, which is why they are so special to me. It means everything to play a confident nonbinary character. I wasn’t confident in high school, and being Bobbie feels like a redemption to the years I “missed out” on.
Was there anything that you read, listened to, or watched to prepare you for the role of Bobbie?
Yes! I listened to a lot of Madonna. Specifically, Vogue, Into the Groove, and Express Yourself. I also watched Vogue choreography videos. Madonna and the dancers in the video are powerful, yet graceful. It is empowering to watch.
Ed Helms is a powerhouse in comedy & sitcoms. What was it like working with him? Was there anything in particular that he taught you or that you took away after working with him?
It was a masterclass in comedy every day. Ed was phenomenal at making improvised choices that aligned with his character’s objective. He is also just one of the coolest dudes — and an Aquarius, like me.
Although it’s a sitcom, the show highlights important issues that grapple with American history, like the existence of historical and Confederate statues and border relations. What was it like exploring those themes and topics in a sitcom setting?
We had five Native American writers in the Rutherford Falls writers’ room, which is huge. They were able to tell stories and jokes that are rarely on mainstream media. The Native characters in Rutherford Falls and their plot lines were written by Natives. It sounds simple, but for Hollywood, it’s new.
It’s a very inclusive show — along with the writers’ room, showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas has been incredibly vocal about the need for proper Native American representation on TV. Why do you think it is so integral that the lived experiences of minorities be told by those minorities?
The stories of Native Americans have been mistold through television, movies and school textbooks. It is time for America to listen to Native stories told by Native writers. Having a diverse writers’ room allows for stories to be told with little to no room for fabrication.
What do you hope people take away from the show after they finish watching?
I hope that viewers are left with laugh lines. That’s it. It is seriously such a funny show that seamlessly incorporates Native American culture and jokes without it having to be spoon fed. This past year has been rough, and watching an easily-bingeable show is such a treat.
This is a show that could be quite formative for a lot of viewers who are finally seeing themselves depicted properly on-screen for the first time. What was the first piece of media you remember consuming where you felt like you saw yourself, and what about it made you feel so seen?
My first identity was a performer before anything else. Strong women on television or the stage have always caught my attention. When I was younger, I was obsessed with Hilary Duff in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. After watching her perform her heart out at the Roman Colosseum, I put on a concert out of mom’s garage and invited all the neighbors.
Besides acting, what are some of your biggest passions or hobbies?
I recently adopted a four-year-old Jack Russell named Moochie. She has been my best buddy these past couple of months. I’ve been trying to teach her new tricks: so far she knows “sit” and “lay down”. We’re still working on “roll over”.
Lastly, after everything that has happened over the last year, what is a personal mantra that’s helped keep you positive?
I’ve really focused on my yoga practice this last year. Learning to sync my breath to movement has helped me to stay present. Also, just reminding myself to breathe.
Rutherford Falls is currently streaming on Peacock.
photography. Gina Gizella Manning
fashion. Laura Sophie Cox @ A-Frame Agency
creative direction. Gizella
talent. Jesse Leigh
hair. Darren Hau
make up. Dillion Pena
film. Digital Photo Printing & Studio
lighting. Lance Williams
fashion assistants. Rossana Tornel Carrillo + Angelica Rojas
words. Kelsey Barnes