Arts & Culture News

From Dallas to Downward Dog: Actress Allison Tolman Looks Back at Her Journey to Sitcoms

Actress Allison Tolman stars in ABC's new sitcom Downward Dog, where she plays Nan, a single woman with a demanding job and a talking pet dog.
Photo by Craig Sjodin/ABC
Actress Allison Tolman stars in ABC's new sitcom Downward Dog, where she plays Nan, a single woman with a demanding job and a talking pet dog.
Sugarland native Allison Tolman didn't plan on turning Dallas into her first professional home as an actress.

"It kind of became the plan," Tolman says with a laugh.

The 2004 Baylor University graduate had just gone on a national tour with a children's theater company as her first job out of school. She says she knew she'd have to move to a big city to become a full-time actress but she didn't feel ready to leave her home state just yet. Moving to Dallas seemed like the right compromise.

"I was really lucky," she says. "I really feel like Dallas theater was the best theater scene I've ever been a part of. It never got to the point in Chicago where I felt like it was my home in the same way it did in Dallas. So I think there's something special about Dallas. I don't know if it's the skies or the people or what, but I've never been part of an artistic community quite like the one in Dallas."

Five years later, she moved to Chicago, where casting agents gave her a huge breakthrough role as the dedicated and dogged cop Molly on the first season of FX's Fargo. The show, a TV spinoff of the Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning film of the same name, also starred notable actors David Carradine, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton and Bob Odenkirk.

Later this month, Tolman will take another step up in her career with her first lead role on a major network sitcom. Downward Dog will air on ABC.

"There will definitely be strides for the rest of my career but nothing will ever feel like that; coming from nothing and going to that Fargo phenomenon," Tolman says. "But definitely where I'm at now, I feel like this is very much a major, major step: having my own show, a network show."

Tolman first answered the call of her acting bug in Dallas-area theaters like WaterTower Theatre, Kitchen Dog Theatre and Second Thought Theatre. She founded the latter with some fellow Baylor graduates and made her Dallas stage debut there in 2004.

"It ended up definitely being the right choice," Tolman says of her decision to move to Dallas. "From there, I ended up finding an agent and learned how to be on a set and be a part of Second Thought, and Second Thought really made me the artist that I am. It was definitely the best move I could possibly have made."

Five years later, Tolman moved to Chicago and was working her way into its theater scene when the call came in for Fargo. That performance garnered her both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations.

Soon she had offers to work in big budget movies like the Christmas horror-comedy Krampus and the upcoming Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell comedy The House; guest roles on hit shows such as The Mindy Project, Review and Drunk History; and even a memorable voice-over role on the sixth season of FX's Archer, as Pam Poovey's cruel sister Edie.

"While we were shooting [Fargo], I was thinking this might actually be quite good, and I thought I could not count on lightning striking me twice in Chicago," Tolman says. "So I figured I should go to California for a little while and ride this wave while I can, while the show is out, and fortunately, my boyfriend was more than willing to move somewhere where it's a little warmer."

Tolman first read the script for Downward Dog's pilot while filming The House. It was in a pile of script offers and Tolman says she wasn't sold on the concept at first.

"I remember being like 'oof' and turning to Amy [Poehler] and telling her, 'I just got a script with a talking dog in it' and she was like 'oof,'" Tolman says. "Then I read the script and it was really funny and sort of clever and smarter in a way that I wouldn't expect for a show with a talking dog to be, which was only more confusing."

Downward Dog is based on a series of short web films created by Michael Killen and Samm Hodges, in which a dog talks about his relationship with his owner as if he's an interview subject in a documentary. Tolman plays Nan, an ambitious single woman who works at a retail advertising agency for a crass boss (Barry Rothbart) obsessed with achieving "Kayne Tweet" level success.

She falls in and out of love with a shiftless but likable, long-haired stoner played by Lucas Neff. She also lives with a quirky mutt named Martin, played by a real shelter dog named Ned, who looks at and talks about Nan as if she's a cross between a benevolent god and a platonic life partner.

"Nan's a lot closer to me than Molly from Fargo and anytime you are playing a regular person who's not too specific of a character, the actor who you cast in that role really helps shape who that is," Tolman says. "Samm, our head writer, knew me, certainly, between the pilot and the rest of the series. He knew my voice, my delivery, my sense of humor and how I speak. I think he started writing lines in my voice, which I think is really helpful. I think actors really want to play a character who's really far from themselves, and sometimes it's fun to play someone who's really close to myself."

Tolman's newest TV role gives her a chance to do a comedy that also requires some dramatic skills, just like Fargo, but with different proportions of each.

"On comedy sets that are full of improvisers, those sets are a blast and it's just a party every single day," she says. "Comedy sets can be really special in that way. The energy is really different. I would say Downward Dog wasn't exactly like that because we were striving for very human moments in a way that comedians are not trying to or not typically tied down to."

It's taken two years to get the pilot to a full series on ABC. Tolman says the wait wasn't nearly as long for Fargo, which aired its first episode just two weeks after they finished filming.

"There was less time to ruminate on things and be like, 'Are people going to like it?' and 'Will they like it?'" Tolman says. "I've been in that place for months and months and I really can't wait for people to see it."

She's had other projects in that time to keep her busy and help block out those ruminations, like Why We're Killing Gunther, the directorial debut of Taran Killam, best known for his work on Saturday Night Live. That film also starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cobie Smulders.

Tolman says she also tries to focus her thoughts on gratitude for her career.

"I'm thankful," she says. "I just try to be thankful for every day that this is what I get to do now for my work. I think that's such a miracle."

Downward Dog premieres 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, on ABC.