The story behind the speech actor Michael Greyeyes has been waiting 30 years to give

A powerful speech delievered by Canadian Cree actor Michael Greyeyes in the new sitcom Rutherford Falls has fans cheering and underlines the value of having respresentaiton in the writing room.

A question about Indigenous values and capitalism creates a powerful moment of television

In the sitcom Rutherford Falls, Michael Greyeyes, centre, plays Terry Thomas, owner of the Running Thunder casino. (Peacock)

When Plains Cree actor Michael Greyeyes first received the script for the fourth episode of Rutherford Falls he was surprised to see a story focused around his character, Terry Thomas. 

In the sitcom Rutherford Falls, Thomas is the CEO of the Running Thunder Casino and part of the fictional Minishonkan community, which lives side by side with non-Indigenous residents

As Greyeyes read the script, he learned more about Terry's backstory, his family life and what led him into the casino business. Then he got to a scene in the fourth episode in which the character is challenged by a reporter played by Schitt's Creek actor Dustin Mulligan. The reporter asks Terry if he's selling out his culture by chasing the almighty dollar. 

Ed Helms, left, speaks to Greyeyes in a scene from the fourth episode of Rutherford Falls. (Colleen Hayes/Peacock)

What follows is a powerful speech from Terry about capitalism and community. The CEO talks about fighting to ensure the practices and language of his people survive and learning the hard way the nature of power in the United States. 

WATCH | The pivotal excerpt from Rutherford Falls and actor Michael Greyeyes's thoughts on it:

Actor Michael Greyeyes talks about tearing up over his speech in Rutherford Falls

2 years ago
Duration 2:34
Canadian Cree actor Michael Greyeyes spoke to CBC News about the impact of performing a speech in Rutherford Falls where his character confronts how Indigenous people are judged for their ambitions.

"Actually, I cried after I read it." Greyeyes told CBC News. 

"It was the kind of speech that I've waited 30 years in a career in film and television and theatre to say."

Rutherford Falls co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo herself, says one of the goals for the episode was exploring the complexity of Terry Thomas's motivations. She says too many dramas with native casino CEOs present them as mustache-twirling villains. The creators of Rutherford Falls wanted to show Terry as part of the community who has a powerful reason for his actions.

Navajo TV writer Sierra Teller Ornelas co-created Rutherfold Falls with Ed Helms and Michael Schur to talk about American history and the narratives people cling to. (Reginald Cunningham)

Greyeye's favourite role

During his long television and film career, Greyeyes has played a variety of roles. He played Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead with Jessica Chastain. He battled zombie hordes as Traylor in Blood Quantum. But he says his favourite by far is Terry Thomas. 

"Because he's a chameleon. He's mercurial," said Greyeyes. "I love that someone who's positioned as an antagonist in the story is written with such complexity and nuance." 

Greyeyes says one of the benefits of setting Rutherfold Falls among a community of Indigenous characters is that they're not isolated in silos. He says the writing can explore how Indigenous people relate to each other. 

"You start to see the complex relationships that I recognize from my own family … that are absent from television written by non-Indigenous people," he said.

That sense of authenticity comes from the high level of representation in the writing room. In additon to co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas, five of the 10 writers on Rutherford Falls are Indigenous.

WATCH | The Rutherford Falls trailer:

The writer who happened to be credited for the episode is Rupinder Gill, a Canadian South Asian writer who also worked on Schitt's Creek. Ornelas says Gill did an incredible job with the draft of the script. She says the nature of television writing is collaborative and many of the Indigenous writers added their own personal experiences and details to the episode. 

For example, the flashbacks of Terry as a young boy selling treats in front of a bakery were inspired by Ornelas's own experience selling Indigenous jewlery with her mother. 

'I stood up cheering'

Now with the episode already airing in the United States, Greyeyes is hearing from friends who can relate to Terry's big moment and the feeling of being judged for some preconceived notion of Indigenous behaviour. 

"It's been so liberating to read the comments from across my community, native people were like ' Brother, I was cheering, I stood up cheering and shouting at my TV when you when you said that because I felt it in my bones.' "

"It was such a gift." he said. 

A flashback from episode four of Rutherford Falls. Darius Eteeyan, playing young Terry Thomas, learns a lesson about the nature of capitalism. (Colleen Hayes/Peacock)

Rutherford Falls airs Thursdays at 8 and 8:30 p.m. ET on Showcase and Stack TV.


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.  

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