Q & A: Allison Tolman on Auditioning for ‘Fargo’, Survial Jobs and Keith Carradine’s Advice
Allison Tolman is teriffic in Fargo. In the show, which has its season finale tonight, she plays Molly Solverson, an ambitious deputy who’s been searching for her boss’ killer. This is Tolman’s first TV role and she more than holds her own acting opposite Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Colin Hanks.
The show is an original adaptation of the Coen Brothers Academy Award®-winning film, Fargo. Written by Noah Hawley, the 10-episode limited series features an all-new story and follows a new case and new characters. The show also stars Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Kate Walsh, Glenn Howerton, Adam Goldberg and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
I talked to Tolman recently on a conference call where she chatted about how she got the role, her survival jobs she had before the show, the advice she got from Keith Carradine and more!
Fargo’s season finale airs tonight at 10pm on FX
Can you talk about how you got the role?
Allison Tolman: Yes. My background is in theater and a little bit of sketch, and I was in Chicago when I booked the role, just kind of working at my day job and doing auditions here and there, but not really booking anything. And I put myself on tape for Fargo, and then sort of walked out of the room and forgot about it and went about my daily life. And then a few weeks later they called me and asked me to come in and test in New York, and then five days after that they called and told me that I had the role. So, it’s kind of a quick unfolding and a really fast way for your life to change that much overnight.
When you did get the call and get offered the role, what went through your head to be able to work with such an amazing cast for your first big role on TV?
Allison Tolman: Yes, certainly it was overwhelming, and I think that when I first got the call I was probably in shock. Noah Hawley made the call and told me that I had the role. And the way he tells it I said, “Thank you” very politely, and then I had to get off the phone because I had to go back to work. So, I know inside I was definitely freaking out and losing my mind, but he said I was very calm and composed at the time. So, yes, it was intimidating, but luckily once I got there everyone was so kind and patient and welcoming I didn’t have a lot to worry about.
Your character is the one person who’s really smart, connects the dots, yet she’s not like a real extrovert about it. So, how do you approach her?
Allison Tolman: I think that’s one of the best things about Molly is that she’s just driven by this really strong sense of duty, I think that’s what drives her to do things. And it’s not personal ambition, she’s not snotty about how she’s smarter than everyone, she’s not trying to one-up anybody, she just sees what needs to be done and feels very strongly about it being accomplished. So, she falls into that role not because she wants personal gain or personal glory, but because no one else will do it. And I think that’s one of the things that’s most endearing about her.
What, in your opinion, is the art to a good interrogation?
Allison Tolman: Learning your lines well. No, I think that certainly the way that it’s written and certainly the way that we tried to play it is that I think you just have to remember to listen to everything that your scene partner, or in your case your interviewee, is telling you, not just with their words but with their body and their eyes, and pick up on things that will help lead you to what your next question should probably be. In my case hoping that that will help you crack the case.
How did you find your Minnesota voice?
Allison Tolman: Sure, yes. I think that probably my original accent that I toned down and I did for my original audition was probably a combination of what I heard from the original film of Fargo and then just what I knew from different internet clips. So, it was a little too broad, I think, a little bit too sketchy, like sketch comedy. But, throughout the process we had a good dialect coach who kept us on track on the set and helped me tone that down, and “Molly” is so understated and such an understated character that it makes sense that her accent would be much more understated as well. So, I’m hoping that, I know that a lot of people from Minnesota felt like the accents in the film sometimes were too broad, so I’m hoping that they don’t think that about the show. What do you think?
What was your role in the construction of your character? Was it all Noah Hawley, or did you get to do some improvisation building your character?
Allison Tolman: Sure. Yes, I think that a lot of that is Noah. Noah wrote a really strong character that when I read her I felt very strongly about the way that she was supposed to be interpreted. So, I think that it’s probably a pretty good split between the things that Noah wrote, the woman that Noah wrote, and then my interpretation of her. But, yes, I think that the way that she’s layered and the different facets of her that we get to see and discover as we go through the season was one of the best things about her.
You’ve had some great scenes with a lot of the cast members, like Bob Odenkirk and Colin Hanks. Is there a favorite scene of yours that kind of sticks out to you?
Allison Tolman: Yes, there is a favorite scene that I have that I got to film with Colin, and it’s in episode 8. And the really nice thing about it is that we had permission when we played it to not feel like we had to speak too quickly, that it was okay to have some silence in there, and it was okay for these two people to just exist in the same space for a little while. And that one was really special. It was really fun to play that and to not feel like—because I talk a lot in the show and I do a lot of police speak and I have to relay a lot of facts, so getting to just sit with my character, “Molly” and “Gus” to just sit together and have not as much to say was really nice as an actress to be able to play with that.
You got to work with basically pretty much almost all of the ensemble for the show, as far as I can tell. Who is the most interesting of that experience?
Allison Tolman: Oh, that’s a tough one. I guess for me as an actress and coming into television as a newbie it was really fascinating to work with Martin Freeman, because of the freedom that he has when he films. He is really unafraid to do a different thing, take after take after take each one is different, so that was really fascinating to me coming in new. And I can’t imagine having the confidence that he has to be able to just swing so wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other, which he does, and I think is what makes him so fantastic and gives the editors such a difficult job when they’re trying to figure out what take they should use. So that was really fascinating.
Playing a female officer in the Fargo TV series, were you kind of afraid of being compared to Frances McDormand?
Allison Tolman: Certainly that fear was there. And I knew going in that these characters were really different and that the character of “Molly” was really strong in her own right. But it was definitely a concern of mine, and especially as a newcomer, you know, you don’t come out the gate as a singer and try to compare with Judy Garland. So, it was scary for me to come into this role, I knew people associated with her, the comparisons were nerve-wracking. But I think that we’ve proven in the past few episodes and since we’ve started that these characters are different enough that people can draw parallels between them, but they don’t have to be pitted against each other. So, I feel a little bit of that pressure has been taken off.
You mentioned that when you found out that you got the part that you had to go back to work. What was your job? What were you working on, or what were you doing?
Allison Tolman: Yes, when I auditioned for Fargo, when I put myself on tape originally I was actually unemployed and I wasn’t working. I was sort of temping and auditioning and interviewing in the afternoons. And then in the meantime, in the time that passed, I got a job at a photography studio, a pinups photography studio in Chicago, as their post-production manager. So, I was in charge of all of the photos going out and being approved and being mailed to the right places, etc.
Did you have to give your two weeks notice, or did you just leave the next day?
Allison Tolman: No, I went in the next day and I told them I’d give them through the end of the month. I think it was about two and a half weeks.
You have so much good chemistry between yourself and Keith Carradine’s character, “Lou.” Can you talk about what it was like to work with him for such short scenes, but fill them with so much father-daughter emotion?
Allison Tolman: Sure, yes. Keith, in addition to being a really tremendous actor, is a really wonderful man. And we had a very paternal relationship throughout filming, so it was kind of interesting to go in and be able to play that on screen as well. But it’s nice for you when you’re playing a character who does do so much work, work, work, work, work to be able to play scenes where she gets to kind of come home and sit with a person who really knows her and loves her, and to see what those interactions look like. Similarly, I felt really safe whenever I played scenes with Keith. I felt very taken care of and I knew that he was proud of the work that I was doing, and it was just very much like holding a scene with a father and daughter.
I read that Dallas, TX is where you felt like you learned to be an adult, and I was curious how that came to be.
Allison Tolman: Yes, I went to Dallas as soon as I got out of college, which getting out of college is like the scariest time in anyone’s life, I think, because you suddenly have to actually leave the school system and figure out what you’re going to do. So, yes, Dallas is where I figured out how to balance a checkbook and that you had to have a job, and you couldn’t go back to your parents and say, “I need some more money for the food.” So, yes, Dallas has a really special place in my heart because I spent that time there. And in addition, that’s where I started my career and that’s kind of where I grew my resume, and it was really kind to me, theatrically and commercially. I did a lot of work there.
Do you have any advice?
Allison Tolman: Oh man. You know, just remember that no job is worth being unhappy, so if you’re at a job that you don’t like you should find a different one. And just remember that everybody’s been through it and everybody survives into their 30s, and it’s a lot easier by the time you get to that point. You’ve gotten into a good rhythm.
What you were doing before then is really an inspiration for young actors and actresses. What does that mean to you, and do you see yourself as a role model for young actors? And, what’s after this? You mentioned that you were working at the pinups studio, but what’s next? Do you go back to doing stuff like that, or did Fargo open up some new doors for you and some new opportunities?
Allison Tolman: Right. Yes, it’s fascinating. It’s a strange position to be put into, to have people looking at your life and saying that’s an inspirational story. It’s a very strange place to find yourself. I certainly didn’t think of it that way as I was living it. But I think that my advice to people who are starting out would be that there’s no shame in having the job that you have that pays the bills and then having the things that you do in the rest of the time that makes you happy. Not everybody goes whole hog and just acts and lives with seven roommates in a one bedroom apartment to kind of make ends meet. For me it was always really important that I felt like I had some stability, so I always had day jobs. I never really acted full-time. But I kept at it, because it was what I loved, and I found ways to keep doing it regardless of what I was doing with my time.
What’s the one thing that you’ll take with you that you’ve learned just as an actor, like the best piece of advice or thing that you learned?
Allison Tolman: From this process? Oh, my goodness. I guess, Keith Carradine said something really interesting to me, which is really poignant and which has been really helpful as I’m kind of proceeding and trying to figure out what’s going to happen with the next season. And he said, “You have to think of it like that the life of a television show is like the life of a dog. And it’s such a sweet thing to have a dog, but you know that at some point in time that dog’s not going to be with you anymore. But that doesn’t make that time any less sweet. You just have to enjoy it while you have it.” Which is a really nice analogy, you know, I just have to think of Fargo, and any project that comes my way in the future, like that. That it’s so sweet to work on and so sweet to get to do that thing, but eventually it’s going to end and you just have to enjoy the time that you have with it.
Do you think that the fact that besides doing the pinups photographer job you’ve also done things like phone sales and been a dog walker, do you think the fact that you’re not some mega millionaire actress and just kind of an ordinary person you know kind of the role of just somebody that’s not really glamorous, or real crazy or anything like that, do you think that that has helped keep you grounded in the role?
Allison Tolman: I think that’s not a terrible stretch. That’s probably true. And I think that probably would be true for any actor in any role. If you only live in the world of the actor and if you only live in the world of auditions, etc., then you don’t really have a whole lot to offer when it comes to playing the humans that you’re trying to audition for. So, for me it’s served me really well to have this varied background and all these different things that I’ve done. And I hope that that continues to serve me well in my career.
Molly has a very methodical approach. She takes things and looks at them and then puts them together. Every detective has a different style or a different approach, and so do actors. So, I’m kind of wondering what is your process like on the scale between Laurence Olivier’s, “It’s all just pretend,” to the more Stanislavski method approach?
Allison Tolman: That’s a good question. I would say that I tend more towards Laurence Olivier, and that I’m able to turn things off when I’m done working. I don’t have to live in that world. That’s never been a problem for me. But with that said, I think that there’s certainly value to figuring out how your character thinks and how they live and how they breathe, so that when you do have to turn that on, you’re able to do so. And it is difficult sometimes. It depends on the kind of scene you’re playing. If you’re playing a really emotional scene it is a lot harder to leave that behind and still get home that evening and be like, why am I sad? And you realize it’s because you’re pretending to be sad all day. You have to remind yourself that it’s not real and be able to shake it off.
Fame is kind of being visited upon you, and I’m just wondering whether you’re totally comfortable with that yet, or whether this is going to take some real getting used to on your part?
Allison Tolman: Yes, I’m definitely not comfortable with it yet, and it will take a lot of getting used to. And there are parts about it that are really fun. It’s fun to be able to see what everybody’s thinking about the show and what they’re saying on the internet, and have people tweeting at you and stuff like that. It’s fun. There’s a lot of really great things about it, but it certainly is odd. I’m 32, I’ve been in this business for 10 years, and I certainly had gotten past the point where fame and fortune was something that I was kind of dreaming about or anticipating, so I’m kind of having to recalibrate now that this is actually a part of my life. I had stopped thinking about that being a possibility.
You were in Second City, did you ever have any ambitions to, a lot of people on Saturday Night Live have come from there, did you ever have any thought of “Maybe that’s something I could do?”
Allison Tolman: Oh, absolutely. I think that that was a big goal of mine actually when I went to Chicago, was I wanted to learn how to do improve and I wanted to learn how to write sketches. And the goal, the dream would be to be on Saturday Night Live for me as a comedian for sure. So, yes, that was definitely a goal of mine for many years.
What was it like shooting in Calgary? And you had kind of mentioned about feeling sad at the end of the scene because it’s kind of depressing. What did you during your free time during shooting to decompress and enjoy the beautiful Calgary winters?
Allison Tolman: Sure. Yes, Calgary is beautiful, and I had a really good time there. And I think that, yes, coming from Chicago I had a little bit of training for that cold, so that was helpful. It certainly gets colder in Calgary than it does in Chicago. And it was a long winter. But, we spent quite a bit of time together off set, we all would go to dinner together, etc., go see movies or whatever, so that was kind of how we spent our time. You’re on location and everybody’s away from their families, and so you kind of bond pretty quickly, because you’re the people that you have to spend time with, which helps with those days that you do have hard scenes or you have depressing days that are long days, you can spend time with the people that you’ve met.