Interview with ‘Fargo’ Star Allison Tolman

Allison Tolman Fargo Interview
Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson in 'Fargo' (Photo Credit: Chris Large/Copyright 2014, FX Networks)

FX assembled an incredible ensemble cast for the dramatic series Fargo, with Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Oliver Platt, and Bob Odenkirk receiving most of the attention prior to the show’s premiere on April 15, 2014. And while all four have received high praise for their performances and awards buzz grows with each episode, it’s newcomer Allison Tolman who’s emerging as the breakout star among this talented cast. Tolman stars as a Bemidji, Minnesota deputy who takes the lead in the investigation into the murder of her friend and boss, Sheriff Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle).

In support of the critically acclaimed series, Tolman participated in a conference call to discuss all things Fargo following the airing of the May 20th episode. The Q&A below covers events in the series through that episode and if you’re not caught up, you may want to hold off reading any further until you watch episode six of season one.

Allison Tolman Fargo Interview

Can you talk about how you got the role?

Allison Tolman: “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. 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.”

After you were offered the part, what did you think about being able to work with such an amazing cast on your first big role on TV?

Allison Tolman: “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.”

She’s the one person who actually connects all the dots. She’s smart, but she’s not seeking glory. How did 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.”

How does she feel to be a true detective in the dynamic of a dog-eat-dog world?

Allison Tolman: “I think that the good thing that Molly has going for her is that she’s a natural detective, her brain works that way. If she had remained untested and never had this case come her way, she might never have found that out about herself. But because this has come her way and this has landed in her lap, she’s getting to find out just how good she is at this sort of analytical detective work. And I think that it’s a really dog-eat-dog world, it’s a brutal, brutal world that this show takes place in, but she’s so pragmatic that I think she’s able to adjust and remain emotionally detached from the things that are going on and just proceed with getting things done.”

What, in your opinion, is the art to a good interrogation?

Allison Tolman: [Laughing] “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 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.”

The May 20, 2014 episode (“Buridan’s Ass”) was loaded with twists, including a huge one involving your character. What can you tell us about Molly’s fate?

Allison Tolman: “Well, I know everyone’s quite upset about what happened but the more savvy fans of mine are getting on my IMDB page and checking to see how many episodes I’m in. So, that has given them some comfort, I think, during this dark time. So, yes, people don’t need to be too worried, although of course nothing is sacred in the world of Fargo, so a lot can happen between now and episode 10.”

Without giving too much away, could you talk a little how the twist at the end of the May 20th episode is going to affect your character going forward?

Allison Tolman: “Yes, I think that for sure the budding relationship that we saw between Gus and Molly is derailed a little bit by recent developments. And then in addition, it’s a major setback for her. She’s used to just go, go, go and being unable to do that is going to make things difficult for her, because, again, she’s really ambitious. And secondly, while she’s not working other people are working on things, so definitely that episode has sort of derailed us from the track that we were on.”

How did you find your Minnesota voice?

Allison Tolman: “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. 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.”

Molly has all these buried layers. 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: “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.”

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 [Hanks] and it’s in episode eight. 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.”

Who’s been the most interesting to watch?

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. 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. That was really fascinating.”

Allison Tolman Fargo Interview
Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson and Bob Odenkirk as Bill Oswalt in 'Fargo' (Photo Credit: Chris Large/Copyright 2014, FX Networks)

Can you talk about your scenes working with Bob Odenkirk?

Allison Tolman: “Sure, yes. We had great fun. We spent some time together off set as well, so we had a nice rapport before we went into those scenes and had to disagree so much, which was good. But, yes, I think the dynamic between Bill Oswalt and Molly Solverson is really a fun one to play with, and I could tell while we were doing it that we were doing some funny stuff. And as the season progresses, their interactions become more and more poignant. It’s really fun to watch that evolution take place.”

Molly was being groomed to take over for the chief, but then he passed away and the job went to Bob Odenkirk’s character. How do you view that relationship’s evolution?

Allison Tolman: “There’s a really interesting evolution between the two of them, and you kind of get to watch them throughout the series begin to become colleagues and begin to respect each other for their different reasons, which is nice, because in the beginning he’s just such a buffoon. He’s just really so wrong about everything. But, I think that does go back to in the beginning when he first becomes chief. She still feels really strongly that he’s the chief and you get in line behind him and you do what he says, and those are the rules. But as she quickly learns that if she follows behind him that things are going to be done incorrectly, and more importantly that her friend and mentor’s murder is not going to be solved, she starts to think that maybe she should step around him. So, over the 10 episode arc the relationship between the two of them goes to some really, really beautiful places and I’m excited for people to see it.”

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. 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.”

The chemistry is terrific between you and Keith Carradine. 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: “Keith, in addition to being a really tremendous actor, is a really wonderful man. 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.”

We know that there was some tension, especially toward the beginning of the series, between Molly and her father. What’s behind that tension?

Allison Tolman: “I think that she listens to her father’s advice and she seeks it out. She doesn’t come right out and say, ‘Dad, tell me what you think about this.’ But she knows when she goes and sits down at his counter and gets some coffee that he’s going to tell her some story or other that is going to help her try to figure out what she’s supposed to do. So, I think there’s shorthand there between the two of them that’s really nice, that really reads.

As far as that tension goes, I think that she goes and seeks his opinion and he gives it, and he knows full well that she’s going to do whatever she wants to do anyway. But that’s the dance that they do, is that she goes and asks him what he thinks, and he tells her, and she says, ‘Okay, thanks,’ and then she goes and does her own thing.”

Is there any word yet about whether a second season will happen?

Allison Tolman: “I have not heard any word yet. I know that they’re discussing it, and discussing if they do have a second season, or a second installment in the anthology, which actors might make it through to another season, what time it will be placed in, etc., etc. So, even among the people that know what’s going on, there’s so many different theories and there’s so many different options that I’m just kind of sitting tight until they let me know exactly what’s actually happening.”

Despite Lorne Malvo [played by Billy Bob Thornton] and Molly being on opposite sides of the law, they almost seem like nearest to each other in the way that they think, or at least she seems to be able to think along his wavelength unlike many of the other characters. What do you think about those parallels and are they intentional?

Allison Tolman: “I think that they certainly are intentional. I think that Noah would say as well that these two are on opposing ends of the spectrum: one represents the best that we have to offer and one represents the worst that we have to offer. But I think that, yes, absolutely there’s no mistake as well that they’re both sort of methodical and pragmatic creatures, which is interesting to watch them sort of plod along in these different directions with these similar tactics.”

Did you do any research into playing a cop before you started?

Allison Tolman: “Yes. Our still photographer on set was a policeman in Canada for 20 years, so when I first got into town I spent some time with him learning how to handle a weapon, learning how to search a room, and just kind of learning those basic sort of police observational skills that they employ when they’re on duty and throughout their lives. And then in addition, he was on set with us every day so if I ever felt like I had a cop question or I needed to know how something would be done properly, he was there to let me know.”

Molly’s been the moral compass of the series and then suddenly she steps outside the law and breaks into Lester’s house. Do you believe she crossed a line? Was it acceptable behavior? It seems out of character for her, given her strong sense of right and wrong.

Allison Tolman: “Yes, I agree. You know, it’s funny. When I was playing them and when I was reading them I certainly forgot that she was doing these things that were kind of compromised, like breaking into his house, which is it breaking and entering if his key is there? I don’t know. And questioning him while he’s under sedation, which is probably also not totally moral. But as I was playing them I was instantly on her side and instantly defensive of her, obviously. But it is interesting because she feels really strongly about the rules and about the police work and doing things properly, but she also feels like that sometimes the rules are wrong and sometimes your boss is wrong. And sometimes you have to do your own thing because otherwise it’s not going to get done. So, I don’t know if that’s something that would be drawn out of her if she weren’t faced with stakes as high, but I think it certainly is behooving her in this situation to break the rules a little bit.”

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Fargo airs on FX on Tuesday nights at 10pm ET/PT.

-By Rebecca Murray

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