Film and TV

Allison Tolman: Going Far with a Starring Role in FX's Fargo Series

We've admired actress Allison Tolman since she debuted on a Dallas stage in 2004 in the comedy Anton in Show Business with Second Thought Theatre, the company she co-founded with other Baylor drama grads. Season after season, at STT and in shows at Kitchen Dog Theater and elsewhere, she kept getting better at her craft, gaining confidence, taking on bigger and funnier roles, and then, whoompf, off she went to Chicago to do some kind of comedy writing whingdingery with Second City. Soon we'll get to see Tolman on our TV machines, playing a starring role in the FX channel's 10-episode Fargo series, based on the 1996 film by the Coen brothers.

Now in production in Canada, the series will feature new characters and a new crime story. Tolman plays a rookie cop (not the film's pregnant Marge Gunderson, however) and the show also stars Private Practice's Kate Walsh, Sherlock's Martin Freeman, Bad Santa's Billy Bob Thornton and Dexter's Colin Hanks.

We hollered up to Tolman via email. She's somewhere around Vancouver, shooting outdoor scenes in 18-below-zero weather and celebrating her birthday with a 5:45 a.m. set call.

Tell us about your audition for Fargo. I taped my original audition for Fargo with my agency in Chicago, Stewart Talent. At the time I had recently quit my full-time job working client relations with a small IT firm in order to try to find something in a more creative field. I was temping in the mornings and interviewing in the afternoon. I popped by the agency in-between interviews and taped with my agent.

Several weeks later, and after a few phone calls along the way letting me know my tape was still "in circulation," my agent called to tell me I needed to be ready to go to New York the following weekend to do a screen test along with three other actresses. A bizarre development and my first step toward the mouth of the rabbit hole.

In New York I auditioned in the friendliest room of people I could have hoped for: writer and producer Noah Hawley, director-producer Adam Bernstein, casting director Rachel Tenner and her lovely crew. I was scheduled to rehearse with them on Saturday and then film my test on Sunday. But we taped my entire session that Saturday and at the end of my hour, Adam and Noah looked at each other and said "You know what, we've got it." They didn't want me to come back in the next day to film additional takes.

So I said okey doke, shook hands all around, and left to find the nearest bar to consume a very large beer. Seriously, no one has ever found anything as quickly as I found that pub.

How many times did you watch the film of Fargo to prep for that audition? I didn't watch it! I still haven't watched it, actually, since the first time I saw it years ago. In addition to being worried I was going to psyche myself into doing a Francis McDormand impression for Francis McDormand's husband, I was told from the beginning that the accents in the show are going to be a bit lighter than the film. I needed to keep my "Oh, ya's" in check, and those things are contagious. The entire crew is currently speaking like Minnesotans on set.

So when they said "we've got it," that meant they wanted you. And now you're in Canada in a big ol' TV series with big stars. Hey, did you know Billy Bob Thornton has a phobia about antiques? Do you have any phobias? Really? How awful. I should remove the Chippendale chairs I had shipped up for my trailer immediately. I'm kidding! He is going to have to deal with it. I'm kidding again! I can't afford those chairs because I haven't been paid yet.

Anyway, I don't have any phobias per se, but both tight and vast spaces tend to make me nervous after a prolonged time. For example, the idea of watching Gravity from the center of a full movie theater row gives me double the heart palpitations.

What's your best memory of being onstage in a Dallas theater? Finishing the opening high kick line in Debbie Does Dallas on opening night at Kitchen Dog was quite a rush. But every show I acted in with Second Thought amounted to more than just being onstage. Each production was a labor of love for the team, as it is with many, many theaters. So every night was this insane culmination of work and sweat and worry and joy. We had an absolute blast.

You'll be working in Canada for a few months, right? Name three ways Canada is like Texas. 1. The weather is pretty much basically exactly the same with very few exceptions.

2. There is a pretty legit cowboy contingent up here. The Calgary Stampede is a huge rodeo show that happens each year. The Teamsters who run our trailer circus are as delightful a bunch of good ol' boys as I've ever met, and our vehicles guy has the most beautiful handlebar mustache. I'm a fan.

3. The people are hella nice. Like crazy nice. They are like Texas nice, except they don't sometimes say "bless her heart" when they mean "That woman is dumb as a sack of bras."

What's your acting "type"? I'm hoping I can evade a type and go for roles based on what I consider plausible and what I consider good. Plus, if I ever really, really want to do a romantic comedy but no one will cast me as anything but the third funny friend because I'm not Jessica Alba, then I'll write my own movie and Jessica Alba can be the third funny friend. BOOM.

What's the best advice you ever got about acting? When I first started with the Kim Dawson Agency and was auditioning for commercials on a regular basis, [Dallas actress] Kristin McCollum told me how important it was to forget about auditions the moment you left the casting office. In theater we know a scheduled season months in advance. We read the plays, vie for roles, prepare as best we can, plan our schedules in case we land a certain show -- there is so much time to make yourself bloody insane with plays. In broadcast you don't know you're going to be called up until you're called up. And there are a LOT of auditions to be had. If you think and worry and plan and hope and fret about each one, you'll make yourself miserable. So you prepare in the time you have. You do your best work. Then you leave and figure out what's for lunch.

What advice would you give to the 22-year-old Allison Tolman if you could time-travel back? I'd tell her to write. I didn't really start writing until I got to Chicago and went through the Conservatory at Second City, then hooked up with [former Dallas playwright] Matt Lyle and The City Life Supplement podcast. I was terrified of writing when I was younger and I'd like to have had a head start on those habits.

Also, I'd tell young Allison she should have stuck with Alias when she almost caught up to the current season on DVDs that one time. Everyone loved that show and it's too late to go back and catch up now because you have also to watch The Wire and Breaking Bad and those take precedence. You blew it. You blew your chance to watch all of Alias.

What's a bigger acting nightmare, being on a terrible sitcom (think According to Jim or Wings) that runs for seven seasons? Or being on a great series that runs only one season? I think I'd much rather do a great show that only runs one season. Of course, I'm in the middle of filming a great show and I have no idea how many seasons it will have, so I may be biased. Can I choose great show, seven seasons, please?

What was your favorite TV show when you were growing up? Honestly, I remember watching Wings pretty clearly. I also remember enjoying a lot of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Mystery Science Theatre 3000. I think I was trying to figure out what funny was.

See also: No People Like Show People Allison Tolman, Best Actress 2005

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner