Entertainment

04.23.14

Meet ‘Fargo’ Breakout Star Allison Tolman

She was plucked from relative obscurity to star alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman in the TV adaptation. And she’s brilliant, don’t ya know.

You know that dream you have, where you own a fabulous pair of new shoes, or have an amazing job? And everything about the dream is so hyper-realistic that when you wake up it takes several seconds to remember that it wasn’t real life?

“I had such a pronounced feeling that it was a dream, that I didn’t buy those shoes,” Allison Tolman says.

The actress is gleefully recounting the day she found out that she had been cast in FX’s TV reincarnation of Fargo, which just aired its second episode Tuesday night. “There was so much celebrating that by the time I woke up the next morning I remember thinking, ‘That could have all just been a dream, I could’ve dreamt all of yesterday,’” she says. “‘I’m groggy and now I have to make an egg sandwich for my boyfriend to take to work.’ I remember having to go back to my text messages to make sure it was all real.”

It’s real.

In less than a year, Tolman has gone from unknown Chicago actress to lead in a FX series. The cable network’s bleak and funny and weird take on Fargo is best described as an approximation of the bleak and funny and weird film 1996 film by the Coen Brothers. By that measure, Tolman’s character on the series, local cop Molly Solverson, is an approximation on the film’s indelible heroine Marge Gunderson, immortalized by Frances McDormand in an Oscar-winning performance.

Ahead of Fargo’s premiere on FX, there was much excitement over the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Hobbit star Martin Freeman trying on their best Minnesowta accents for the series. And rightfully so, the actors are excellent in the show. But now that we’re two episodes in, it’s become clear that the real standout of the series is Tolman, whose warm and deceptively shrewd performance is the element necessary to thaw Fargo’s frozen tundra.

So you’ll forgive Tolman for fearing that being cast in the now-hit series was all a dream.

(Full disclosure: FX flew me to Fargo's Calgary set to watch a day filming. That's where I first met Tolman—and fell in love with her. But, as you'll see, you probably would have, too.)

Tolman was temping as a receptionist at a consulting firm for $11 an hour when she first auditioned for Molly. She and her boyfriend had moved to Chicago about five years earlier from Dallas, where Tolman was a founding member of the Second Thought Theatre, in order to study at Second City’s famed comedy program. She stopped in at her agent's office to put herself on tape for Fargo in between a work shift and going out on job interviews.

“The last thing on my mind when I put myself on tape for the show was, ‘Maybe this will go somewhere,’” she says. “I was thinking, ‘I need to get a real job so I can pay my rent next month.’”

Tolman’s tape, however, kept making it through casting cuts. “I thought, ‘That’s really nice, because I needed a boost because I can’t eat dinner tonight,’” Tolman says. But then she got the news that she was going to be flown to New York City to audition as one of the final four actresses up for the part. “When I found that out,” Tolman says, “I was like, ‘Holy shit.’”

There was serious competition for the role—Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose was in the audition room before and she passed Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt on the way out. And Tolman very nearly wasn’t there with them. Fargo executive producer Warren Littlefield, a champion of hers ever since seeing her first audition tape, gave up his ticket to New York and hotel room for the casting just so Tolman could remain in the mix.

“She got the humor of the character, and the complexity of the character,” Littlefield remembers. “I knew she had to make that cut. And to their credit, when they looked at their choices that day, they said, ‘There’s some outstanding actresses that are auditioning to play the role. Allison Tolman is the role.’”

“He’s like, ‘She’s got a lot of kids.’ Like, really? Do you think so? We know who you’re talking about.”

The experience, of course, didn’t stop—and hasn’t stopped—being surreal once she was cast as Molly.

Tolman remembers receiving her first schedule on her first day in Calgary and reading, “The driver will pick up Allison Tolman and Martin Freeman from the hotel.” “I was like, ‘Shut the fuck uuuup,’” she says. “I texted everyone and was like, ‘Just me and Martin Freeman. No big deal.”

Then there was the bowling party Billy Bob Thornton threw for the cast three or four weeks later. She and castmate Shawn Doyle were chatting with Thornton when the topic of previous marriages came up (Doyle has one, Tolman does not). Thornton said, “Yeah, a woman that I was with, we’re still close. But she’s got a lot of kids. And her boyfriend-husband, you know, whatever, they’re both in the industry.”

They stood flabbergasted. “I was like, ‘Are you fucking with us right now?’” Tolman says. “He’s like, ‘She’s got a lot of kids.’ Like, really? Do you think so? We know who you’re talking about.” (If you haven’t figure it out yet, first of all, wow, and second of all, he was talking about Angelina Jolie.)

When you’re playing your first lead role in a major network series, every day, not only the ones where you’re gabbing with Billy Bob Thornton about Angelina Jolie, is an adventure—particularly when that series is filming in the dead of winter in the chill of Canada. So not only is there the insecurity associated with being the new kid figuring things out among the cast of seasoned veterans, there’s the added joys and stressors of filming on-location.

Like, for example, the day it was so cold that traffic cones were shattering and electrical cords were breaking like twigs, forcing shooting to be canceled. (To wit, Tolman’s first line is, “Cold enough for ya, Chief?”) She says one of her biggest fears when taking the job was that, because everything was so new, she’d slow the process and irritate her co-stars. No such thing.

“It’s like she’s been doing it for about 25 years,” Martin Freeman says. “When I had my first reading with her, I thought she had the confidence—not arrogance, but confidence—of somebody 20 years older, with 20 years more experience. I don’t think I would’ve handled all this as well as she has.” Colin Hanks, who plays another local officer Molly teams up with, echoes Freeman’s assessment. “You would assume that she’s been in front of the camera for years and years,” he says.

The truth is, though, that Tolman has been performing for “years and years.”

In addition to co-founding Second Thought Theatre in Dallas with classmates from Baylor University, where she received a B.F.A. in acting, she worked steadily in theater and in commercials there. Her big move to Chicago was motivated by a hunch that “I think I could be able to do this on a larger level,” which, as we’re all learning, was a pretty good suspicion.

And, as is often the case, Tolman’s eventual profession was foretold from an early age. “My mother has stories of leaving me in the bath as small kid, like a 3-year-old, and there being mirrors on the side and her going to get a towel and coming back in and me making faces at myself, like, ‘Now I’m happy. Now I’m sad,’” she says. She was like, ‘Oh, God, this is going to be a tough one.’”

It’s actually Tolman’s mother who first introduced her to Fargo. Tolman remembers tip-toeing into her parents’ bedroom the morning after they had a parents’ date night at the movies, and her mom recounting, in detail, the entire plot of Fargo to her, years before she was even old enough to see the bloody film.

Fast-forward almost two decades, and her mother is going rogue, writing her own press releases announcing the premiere of her daughter’s network TV debut. “With her home phone number on it, too,” Tolman says. “Like, ‘If you want an interview, call this number.’” And there have been calls. “She emailed me and was like, ‘Hi, someone wants to interview you.’ I’m like, ‘Let’s pass this by my actual publicist, who I pay.’”

Now that the reviews are in, universally praising Tolman’s complex performance in the series, the spotlight on her plucked-from-obscurity narrative is shining brighter than ever. Tolman couldn’t be more gracious and flattered by the attention, though she can’t help but to find the increasingly hyperbolic coverage of her story a bit amusing.

“I had someone ask me on set the other day, ‘Is it true that you were waiting tables and never acted before when they found you?’” she says. “I was joking with [series showrunner] Noah Hawley the other day about trying to evolve the narrative over the next year until I was, like, homeless and he found me digging through his trash. That’s my rags-to-riches story.”