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Interview: Allison Tolman of FX’s Hit Series ‘Fargo’

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If you have not yet become watched become addicted to FX‘s hot new series Fargo, you are missing a fabulous, complex, darkly funny and suspenseful roller coaster ride filled with murder, mayhem and (lots of) snow, but also subtlety, symbolism, and (more) snow. Starring well-known film/TV actors Martin Freeman (Sherlock, The Hobbit) and always-riveting Billy Bob Thornton, the series also stars a new talent on the television scene, Allison Tolman. Playing an ambitious police deputy in the fictional Minnesota town of Bemidji, Tolman is a product of Chicago’s Second City, holding her own with the big-name stars with whom she shares the screen.

Fargo Allison TolmanTolman took time out of her hectic schedule to meet with entertainment journalists for a conference call, right on the heels of this week’s episode, in which Deputy Molly Halverson has been shot. The scene ends with Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) kneeling at her side, and we’re left to wonder whether Molly has made it out of the shootout alive. Naturally, Molly’s status was a big question during the interview session. “But,” she quipped, acknowledging that “everyone’s upset,” many of her fans have been savvy enough to check the Fargo IMDb page.” IMDb shows that she appears in all 10 episodes. (Phew!) However, Tolman added, “A lot can happen between now and episode 10.”

A newbie on the television scene, Tolman said that when she was offered the role, “It was overwhelming. I was in shock. Freaking out inside, but calm on the outside.” She noted that “everyone was very welcoming” on the Fargo set.

She has especially enjoyed working with Martin Freeman, whom she described incredibly confident  in his performance, offering something different (sometimes wildly different) to the director on each take. “He swings extremely from take to take, and very different” each time, giving the director the difficult choice of which take to use.

The Minnesotan characters in the series have a distinctive regional accent, just as they had in the Joel and Ethan Coen movie upon which the series is based. For her audition, Tolman relied on watching the movie and clips of Minnesotans speaking. But she felt accents in the film may have been a bit too broad, and she worked with a dialect coach (as did all the actors) to “help tone it down,” especially considering that Molly is a quieter, sedate character, and a broad accent just wouldn’t quite fit.

Of course there have been the inevitable comparisons with Frances McDormand whose Marge Gunderson in the original film is practically iconic. Tolman noted, “Molly strong in her own right, but of course she had concerns as a newbie about being compared to McDormand. “I think we’ve proven that these characters are different and don’t have to be pitted against each other,” she explained. And she is absolutely spot on. The two characters could not be more different, despite sharing a regional relationship (as well as the same dogged determination).

As an actor trained in improvisation (Second City is famous for it, and with all the Saturday Night Live folk that have come from the improv troupe, her dream is to do SNL), Tolman explained that her character’s development has been “a good split between the character written by creator Noah Hawley” and Allison’s interpretation of her. The words, she noted are scripted by Hawley, but much interpretation is body language, delivery and much more.

Molly is the most driven character in the series in many ways; she wants to catch the murderer of her boss, the chief of the Bemidji police, killed in the first episode. “Molly is driven by this sense of duty,” the actress said. “She wants the role because no one else will do it.” While she is pursuing all leads, including the milquetoast Lester Nygaard (Freeman), her new boss, Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) has been quite an obstacle, insisting that the quiet unassuming Lester (who has in him a bit of Walter Mitty, I think) is the least likely suspect. But Molly remains insistent, even going against her own moral compass to go around the law, breaking into Lester’s house and “Questioning him while he’s on sedation. Molly feels really strongly about the rules, and sometimes your boss is wrong,” and you have to something or it doesn’t get done, and the crime isn’t solved.

Eventually, Oswalt has to listen to her. And with four episodes to go in Fargo’s debut season, “their interactions become more poignant as time goes on,” Tolman noted.  “There is a really interesting evolution between them as they become colleagues.” Especially considering  “he’s such a buffoon at the beginning.”

Molly’s father is played by Keith Carradine, whom the actress called “a wonderful man. I felt safe when we played our scenes, and I really felt taken care of.” Molly’s relationship with her dad has at times been contentious (especially early in the series). Like any dad (and a former cop himself), he wants his daughter to have a home, husband and family of her own. Despite any mild familial tensions between them, Tolman said that Molly listens to and follows his advice. “There is a shorthand bet them that really helps. He gives his advice, whether she takes it or not. She has a mind of her own.”

Events unfolding in this week’s episode will change the dynamics moving forward. “The budding relationship between gus and molly impacted by [this week’s episode].” But also, Molly is “used to going “go, go, go.” And now she can’t. She is, explained Tolman, derailed from the process of catching the murderer.

When asked about her favorite scene so far, Tolman mentioned a scene with Colin Hanks in episode eight (airing June 3). She explained that her character is generally quite gregarious, and in this episode, there are many quiet moments. “We had permission to have silences. Just exist in the same space. It was a lot of fun to play that sort of quiet.”

Although so far Tolman’s character has not shared the screen with uber-baddie Lorne Malvo (Thornton), there are interesting parallels between the two characters, and the actress believes those parallels are intentional. They are “on opposing sides of the spectrum: one is the best the world has to offer, and the other the worst. But both are methodical.”

At this point Fargo has yet to be renewed for a second installment. As an anthology series, a second season will have some of the characters returning and others not. Right now, the network and creators are discussing the possibility of a season two, but she has no idea of which actors will be carried over, nor when the plot will take place. This season takes place in 2006, so a second season might take place in 2015 or 2000…or whenever.

Quoting her co-star Carradine, Tolman said, “The life a TV show is like the life of a dog. Enjoy it while you have it.” Eventually it’s going to end.” As a viewer, I certainly hope it doesn’t end with only one season. I’m hooked. Fargo has sharp writing, great performances: a quirky, strange black comedy/crime series. Brilliant.

Fargo airs Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m. on FX. You can catch up via OnDemand through your local cable outlet.

 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • mjr

    Actually Bemidji is a real city in Minnesota, not a fictional one.

  • bliffle

    Indeed, Bemidji is a prominent town in northern Minnesota, just a couple hours up hiway 69 (the hiway that’s the best, to paraphrase Bobby Troup) from Minneapolis and a prominent center in primo hunting and fishing country, a sportsmans paradise. Also famous as “the nations icebox” during the winter, which doesn’t even slow down the avid fishermen eager to pull some giant perch on a hook or a Northern on a spear thru a hole in the yard-thick ice of Mille Lacs lake.

    The legend goes that when Bud Grant, coach of the poorly paid Vikings team, had a player who was eager to jump to another team for a couple million dollars (it’s just money) would tell the guy “why don’t we go up to Bemidji this weekend for some hunting and fishing and talk about it”. Legendary negotiating.