‘Emergence’s’ Allison Tolman: How the ‘Fargo’ Breakout Conquered TV Stardom on Her Own Terms
Five years after her star-is-born moment in “Fargo,” the “Emergence” star tells us how she fought typecasting, body-shaming, and sexism to become a leading lady on her own terms.
Everyone loves a TV show with a spooky kid. Facts are facts.
A plane mysteriously crashes on a Long Island beach and found hiding behind a sand dune next to the wreckage is—you guessed it—our central S.K. (spooky kid). She doesn’t have a mark on her. Nor does she have any memory of who she is or how she got there. The local police chief, Jo, played by series lead Allison Tolman, takes the girl in, concerned.
Those concerns grow during a phenomenal car crash set piece. After the girl is abducted by shady men posing as government investigators, she appears to have flipped the car telepathically, and emerges from the wreckage, once again, sans a single injury. By the time she starts to make metal dance with her mind, forget it.
“Who doesn’t love a spooky kid?” Tolman says, peer-recommending my unflappable theory when we meet in a New York hotel room on the evening of a fan screening of her new show.
The breakout star of the first season of Fargo is echoing her character’s maternal, get-things-done energy as we talk. Her boyfriend is in the room working on his laptop, while her young co-star, Robert Bailey Jr., hangs out while waiting for the event to start. By the time our conversation is over, Scrubs star Donald Faison, who plays Jo’s ex-husband, stops by with a stylist, as do Tolman’s parents, in town to screen the premiere for the first time. Guacamole and tuna tartare are offered to all.
Tolman knows the comparison that will be at the top of everyone’s minds when they learn the plot of Emergence. “Stranger Things is the obvious comparison, just because it’s the spooky little girl show of the moment,” she says. But when she thinks of Stranger Things, she thinks of ’80s nostalgia. When she thinks of Emergence, she thinks of a grounded family drama shrouded in the mystery of a conspiracy thriller.
The New York Times likened it to E.T., which, more nostalgia aside, is a pretty accurate description.
Emergence marks Tolman’s first leading role in a drama series since her Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated performance as Molly Solverson in Fargo in 2014, a role she was plucked out of obscurity in Chicago to play.
Both characters, Fargo’s Molly and Emergence’s Jo, are police officers. But she likes that, unlike Molly, Jo doesn’t have anything to prove. She also likes that Jo isn’t the kind of woman we’re conditioned to expect when we’re watching a female police chief on TV.
“I find that a lot of those shows, the heroines drink like a man and, like, her dad never loved her,” she says. “There’s all this dark past, as if that’s what's needed to justify a woman in this position in a dangerous field. I think you could just be a normal woman and choose to work in a dangerous field.”
Tolman and her partner, who has a job he can do remotely, put their cat in a car and drove across the country to New Jersey, where the series shoots. (In a bit of kismet, Faison and Tolman’s husband were already golf buddies before the Scrubs alum was cast on the show.)
While so often an actor speaks in interviews about a lack of control, going where the wind takes them in their careers, Tolman is frank about how discerning she’s been in what projects she’s been a part of since Fargo ended.
“Because I broke so late—I was in my thirties when Fargo happened—it took a lot of pressure off of me,” she says. She figured, why go backwards after a project like that and take a bad role? “What’s the worst that happens? I go back to working in an office? I was just doing that a year ago. So no harm, no foul.”
She jokes that, because of the circumstances of Fargo—actors like Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman were the marquee names, but her character, loosely based on Frances McDormand’s role in the movie, was the actual star—she tricked Hollywood into thinking she could lead a series. She’s nothing if not self-aware: of her previous industry experience, of her age, of her skills, of her looks and how they’re viewed in Hollywood. More: of her ambitions.
“I was like, if I’m not careful, I’m going to be relegated to the type of roles I would normally have been relegated to, like the funny aunt and the best friend,” she says. “But I somehow circumvented that with Fargo and I’ve been really lucky to not slip back into that.”
It’s been five years since the FX series premiered, and she’s still asked about the show and her “story,” as she puts it, ad nauseam in interviews. (Hey, we’re self-aware, too; that includes this interview.) She’s worked steadily since, on shows like Downward Dog, Good Girls, I’m Sorry, and Castle Rock, and in movies like Krampus, The Sisters Brothers, and The House.
But there’s something about the particular circumstances of her out-of-nowhere debut, and the fact that, bucking every Hollywood stereotype and superficial tendency, she’s the lead of one of the splashiest broadcast drama series premiering this fall.
Everyone loves it when “a star is born.” With Tolman, we want to make sure that star is still doing OK.
When Tolman landed her role on Fargo, she was temping as a receptionist at a consulting firm in Chicago for $11 an hour. She and her boyfriend had moved there from their home in Dallas about five years prior. The day she put herself on tape at her agent’s office for Molly, she was between a work shift and going to a job interview. That anything would come from it seemed implausible.
But she kept surviving casting rounds. Fargo executive producer Warren Littlefield gave up his ticket to New York and hotel room for the casting sessions so that Tolman could remain in the mix. Tolman saw Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose and Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt at the auditions.
When all was said and done, Tolman won the role. Soon she was on set in a frozen tundra outside Calgary (stepping in for Minnesota), making small talk with Billy Bob Thornton. The surreality of it all was almost constant. During one conversation about past relationships, Thornton mentioned an ex-wife of his who now has a lot of kids and, at that time, a partner who was also in the industry—as if everyone wasn’t losing their minds that he was referring to Angelina Jolie.
Then there’s a Top Five proud-parent story ever: Tolman’s mother used to write her own press releases announcing the premiere of her daughter’s TV debut, complete with her own home phone number on it.
When her mother arrives in the hotel room near the end of our interview, she laughs about it. “I didn’t know! I thought it was helpful!” She’ll still occasionally reach out to her daughter to let her know that someone from their local newspaper would like to talk to her. “I’m like, great, I’ll pass it on to my publicist, who I pay,” Tolman laughs.
There was awards attention and media profiles and, generally, just a warmth radiating towards her, this 32-year-old actress thrust into stardom on such a prestigious show.
“I was older when I broke and Molly was such a warm and endearing character, I think it just makes a good story,” Tolman says. “One that you want to keep tabs on. That’s the thing that I hear more and more often from people that I interact with online. It’s just like, ‘I'm just so happy whenever I see you on my television.’ People that I barely know say, ‘I know this sounds weird, I’m just so proud of you.’”
She laughs and shrugs one shoulder kind of sheepishly. She clicked as Molly in Fargo because of her palpable intellect, but also because of a kind of shrewd skepticism. There’s a niceness about her, but also a lingering suspicion that there’s a ferocity not to be underestimated. Consider it a strong sense of self.
After Fargo ended, she did the thing young actors are told never to do. She said no to things. Lots of things. As she mentioned before, the crazy aunts and kooky friends and bored housewives. She doesn’t remember what most of those projects were, but she does remember why she said no.
“I don’t love scripts that immediately define a character by her weight,” she says. “I tend to put those scripts down and not pick them up again. It just is icky, and I find it kind of distasteful. I feel like we managed to make all of Fargo without ever talking about the fact that I’m a size 12 or 14, and I feel like why should we go backwards now?”
In June 2014, near the end of Fargo’s run, Tolman made headlines when she defended herself on Twitter against online trolls and critics who were fat-shaming her.
“For fuck’s sake, internet—I’m not fat, I’ve just been wearing this GIANT EFFING COAT FOR 8 WEEKS ON YOUR TELEVISION,” she tweeted, along with a photo of the parka she wore on the show. “I’m not sad, y’all,” she continued. My points are: A- Christ on a cracker, stop defining women by size. B- I’m AVERAGE- women on TV are TINY. #realtalk.”
Her decision to respond to critics generated support while also igniting debate, once again, about the ridiculous standards of beauty Hollywood perpetuates, not to mention the toxic internet culture that fans those flames.
“It wasn’t a surprise, and it’s not a surprise now,” Tolman says when I ask her about the ordeal. “It’s a surprise in that it’s surprising that people continue to talk about other people that way. But I wasn’t surprised that was something that people picked out about me. Because people pick on women’s bodies all the time no matter what.”
Besides, she says, she’s not naive. “I certainly was aware just from my life and my work up until that point that most actresses on television are smaller than I am. And that just the very nature of the way TV works would make me look much bigger than I actually am in real life.”
In the days leading up to the premiere of Emergence and the blitz of press that goes along with it—not the mention the insistence on being vulnerable that entails—she’s been thinking about these things a lot.
“Sort of trying to remind myself that I am not the image that is put forth on screen,” she says. “And that people can think and say whatever they want to, but I know who I am and I’m much more than my physical being. And I’m certainly much more than my physical being as interpreted on a two-dimensional television screen.”
“It’s never going to be enough,” she continues. “I could diet every day and it wouldn’t matter. People are always going to have something to say. So what’s the point of worrying about it?”
Driving home the point, our next topic of conversation is all the stunts she’s now doing as the lead of Emergence, a show that promises a set piece as explosive as the premiere’s car crash in every episode. Allison Tolman is basically now an action hero.
As her partner, co-stars, and parents mill about the hotel room and it’s nearly time for her to leave for the screening, I ask her what she has been most proud of in these last few years. She brings the conversation back to Emergence, shrewdly, but what she says makes great sense, especially when you get to know her.
When she booked the role, she made a studious effort to ask her friends in the business and, especially, the crew members she used to work with on Fargo what makes a good No. 1 on the call sheet. What does a person need to do to lead a happy, functioning set?
It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. We continue talking about it in fits and starts, as it takes an inordinate amount of time to say goodbye to everyone who has gathered in the room. The work was done, and everyone was happy. Whatever it was that she was told goes into being a network TV leading lady, she’s learned it in spades.