Interview: 'Fargo' star Allison Tolman discusses being the dark story's hero
CALGARY - One week ago, on the eve of the premiere of FX's "Fargo," most of the stories focused on Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, the biggest names associated with the semi-adaptation of the Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning film.
Having already seen the pilot, I knew the secret of "Fargo," which is that while Thornton and Freeman have the showy parts -- and they're both terrific -- the actual hero of the twisted story of murder, blackmail and revenge is wet-behind-the-ears local cop Molly Solverson, played by Allison Tolman.
Of course, Thornton has an Oscar and Freeman is simultaneously Watson and Bilbo Baggins, while Tolman is a total newcomer, a Texas-born, Chicago-based actress who had been concentrating on writing and sketch comedy before "Fargo" came her way.
But now, after "Fargo" delivered a solid premiere for FX last week, it seems like the right time to shine the spotlight on Tolman.
I sat down with Tolman on a sunny March day on the "Fargo" set in Calgary shortly before she settled in to shoot a prickly scene opposite co-star Bob Odenkirk, who plays a less capable member of the Bemidji PD. The balminess of the weather that day -- temperatures perked up above freezing for the first time in months -- steered the initial conversation before we discussed the strange circumstances of her landing the role, Tolman's approach to Molly's investigative capabilities and finding the proper balance of comedy and drama for that "Fargo"-flavored tone.
Click through for the full Q&A and check out the second episode of "Fargo" on Tuesday (April 22) night on FX...
HitFix: Every single person who comes in is like "It's warm out there now!"
Allison Tolman: It's beautiful. It's been super, super cold but now it's kind of gorgeous and nice to walk around in.
HitFix: Give me your favorite story from the winter and the cold. "The coldest day I ever spent..."
Allison Tolman: "The coldest day I ever spent..." Well, Keith and I filmed out on a frozen lake back in December and like I walked out of the trailer and all of my hair turned gray, just like frosted instantly and we had to brush it out. And then the next day was supposed to be our last day filming before winter break and we got to 10:30 in the morning and we had to call the day because it was so cold that plastic just kept shattering. You're like, "Let's put these extension chords over here" and they would just snap in half like twigs. And they were like, "Well, I guess we can't. There's not power, so if you don't have power you can't make a TV show." So yeah, that was a cold day. That was a cold day. But it was an adventure. It was fun. It was like negative-35 I think.
HitFix: So now, everybody's going to be sort of looking at the Martin of it all and the Billy Bob of it all, but you're the hero of this story.
Allison Tolman: Yeah, I kind of am. That's kind of weird.
HitFix: When you get the script at what point do you actually realize that sort of who the hero really is here?
Allison Tolman: I don't think I really realized it until Noah [Hawley] told me, until Noah pointed it out. Yeah, I mean I think it's pretty evident at the end of the first episode. It's not evident at the beginning of the episode that Molly is going to be the person that we sort of follow and then by the end of the first episode you're kind of like, "Oh, how interesting." But it's an interesting position to be in because I think we sort of live in the age of the beloved antihero with "Breaking Bad "and stuff like that. We're kind of following in the wake of this amazing show. So Billy Bob is such an amazing villain and Martin is this sort of a hapless antihero, who we sort of love to hate. And then there's me who is just the good guy, which is not always popular. What is right is not always popular. So yeah. I don't know, she's doing her best. She's plugging along. She's trying her best.
HitFix: I like that she's not totally be bumbling in-over-her-head sortta small-town cop, but there's a little bit of that to her. What's the line in your mind on this woman's capabilities as the story starts?
Allison Tolman: You know, I think that the interesting thing about Molly is that I think her aspirations and her talent are larger than the container that she's sort of set in. So I think that that bumbling is something that she is aware of. She reaches a certain plateau and in her experience and just her experience with the world, but then she's able to be like, "Well this is something I've never dealt with before" and then sort of attack it from a different angle and sort of grow to fit her container a little bit. Whereas I think the other law enforcement officers in the piece are not able to do that. Bob's character is not able to do that really. It's really a struggle for him to kind of wrap his brain around the type of things that they're dealing with in this story. Where as Molly one day would never be able to imagine the kind of things that happen, the next day she's accepted it and moved on and is like, "OK, what's the next thing we need to deal with." So I think that's one of her strengths.
HitFix: So, she's actually growing within this space?
Allison Tolman: Absolutely. She really does. Yeah, I mean just as a detective and as a person as well in her personal relationships she just really does, she comes a long way from the beginning to the end.
HitFix: One other thing I found sort of most interesting about the pilot is the number of different kinds of performances that are being given. What was your approach to sort of the volume you wanted Molly to have and the tone you wanted her to set?
Allison Tolman: Yeah. You know, I think that I felt like the writing for her character and the humor that comes out of psychopaths and small-town cops like being mushed together is that understated sort of and very North Dakota/Minnesotan -- that's where the humor comes from, which I think was evident when I first read the sides when I first auditioned. And I have been spending my time doing theater and sketch comedy, which is totally different. So I just had to dial it way down. And then once I was able to do that and kind of remind myself that that was where she needed to live, was in a really understated place and that was going to be what was funny, which was difficult for me. As a comedian who's used to like punching the jokes, it's hard to teach yourself that that's not the strong choice in the sense that you have to really have to dial it back. So yeah, I think that just reminding myself that on a daily basis that that's going to be what makes it funny is to make it understated.
HitFix: Do you sometimes have punchlines that you hit too hard?
Allison Tolman: It's only happened a couple times where a director has come to me between and he's like, "Nope. You got to take it back." I'm like, "Alright." But I also joke around a lot between takes to get it all out. I'm kind of a smartass between takes, which is helpful. But yeah, also Noah's writing it's so well done that in almost every instance, especially for Molly, it's clear that the funny way to do things is to underplay things. And he does not have many jokes written where you're like, "Oh but it would be really funny this way." Almost without fail it's like, "Well no, this is obviously the hilarious way to do this, is to do it this way."
HitFix: Had you've been wanting to do sort of more of a semi-dramatic, more of a sort of series semi-dramatic role I guess? Or had you been hoping to do a sitcom or something?
Allison Tolman: You know, it's so funny. This is my first show and I was kind of, honestly I did everything I could to not be cast in a show. I did everything wrong and I still ended up here, which is awesome.
HitFix: What did you do wrong?
Allison Tolman: I moved to Chicago and I did theater and then I started writing and I stop acting and I did sketch. You know, I did all of the things that if you were serious about doing television don't do. You go to L.A. and you do television and you audition and I didn't do any of those things. But this role and this series is actually really perfect for my sentiments, I think, because while I enjoy broad comedy quite a bit, I think I enjoy writing it more than I enjoy acting in it. I don't know, this was just a really sweet spot to live for someone who, you know, I was a serious actress. That's what I studied for such a long time and then I moved to Chicago and I started doing comedy as a kind of a side thing. So this was a really nice sort of marriage between the two, where there's so much drama, there's a lot of emotion that's really understated and there's also this really delicate comedy to kind of play at.
HitFix: And how have you found the pace of sort of being plunged into this hour-long TV world?
Allison Tolman: You know, that first week was like a pretty steep learning curve to be on set for the first time and kind of just learning, honestly, just like the technicality of how things worked. And now at this point, we're turning things over pretty quickly, but I don't ever, I've never felt like I have so many long days in a row that I'm like, "I can't do it, I can't handle it." It was more overwhelming in the beginning and now that I feel like I've kind of got it a few weeks under my belt, a few months now gosh under my belt I feel a little bit more prepared for it.
HitFix: And what is it like working with that guy over there [Keith Carradine is being interviewed nearby] as your father?
Allison Tolman: He's amazing. Keith is, I mean in addition to just being such a stellar actor with a really awesome repertoire, he is just the nicest man. He's such a nice guy and has also been really generous with me with his time, his talents and his expertise and the things that he knows about the business, as have Bob and Martin and everyone has been super, super kind in that way. So yeah, he's amazing.
HitFix: Well, who had been sort of the people who were sort of, the veterans who you've been able to look at?
Allison Tolman: Well, Bob Odenkirk has been really helpful, in addition to us just I think genuinely enjoying each other's friendships, he has a career that I find it really interesting because he's done a little bit of everything. And while he came at it from a different direction than I have I think that he's got a really enviable body of work and that he's produced things and he's writing things and he's got a book coming out, you know, which is something that I'm definitely interested in. Because over the years I've started pursuing other things as I've kind of meandered through my career. And some things really stuck and I really liked and I think Bob has a career where he's managed to employ a lot of those things and I think that's a good model for me.
HitFix: Well, given your desire to sort of wear other hats as well, is there something nice about the fact that this is 10-episodes and out?
Allison Tolman: Yeah, I don't know. I think that I would never want to do a show this good that drove itself into the ground, but on the other hand, I'm having so much fun and this crew is amazing and the material is so good that I would happily do it for years, you know what I mean? So yeah, I don't know, there's always, especially with a first project out the gate like this, there's a little bit of like, "What if that was a fluke and never happens again?" So then I'm like thankful that I'm like, "Well but I can write something. I mean I can do these things," so that's nice to have that kind of to fall back on in my brain and say, "Well I can always create my own material." But yeah, no, I would work on this show for a long time if I could.
HitFix: But you also have the advantage of sort of knowing that when the buzz begins to build around this that you'll be just in position to start looking for whatever that next thing is.
Allison Tolman: Right. I'm in a great position. Absolutely. I don't know the storm that's coming. I'm sure I'm not prepared for it at all. But no, I'm in a great position.
HitFix: But do you know what you think you're going to be looking for next? Are you going to want to write something for yourself?
Allison Tolman: No, I don't think I'll... I mean I'll probably start working on something right away but not with the intention of that being the next thing that I do. I'd like to act for a little while. I'd like to see what's out there and try to, you know, make an indie film and see what that feels like and, you know what I mean? Spend some time in L.A. I live in Chicago right now. So yeah, I think I'll write something in the background for a year or so...
HitFix: So, really with Chicago in this you've just been freezing for the last…
Allison Tolman: I've been cold for a long time. This is nice actually. Chicago is just awful. It's like the worst winter in 20 years in Chicago.
HitFix: That's still why people move to L.A.
Allison Tolman: I know. I understand. I get it. Put yourself in the column of people who think I should move to Los Angeles. I understand.
HitFix: Because it was 80 degreed yesterday in L.A.
Allison Tolman: Dan, come on. You're killing me.
"Fargo" airs on Tuesday nights on FX.