Allison Tolman shaping up as ‘Fargo’s’ breakout star

Allison Tolman in the garden of Chateau Marmont.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Billy Bob Thornton may bring the star power to FX’s revisioning of “Fargo,” but Allison Tolman has viewers saying, “Oh, jeez, she’s pretty darn good!” The 32-year-old newcomer plays Molly Solverson, an ambitious Bemidji, Minn., police deputy working hard to uncover the source behind a string of deaths in the sleepy town.

Some of your costars pre-”Fargo” work is typical — movie roles, other TV roles. As the newcomer in this group of known actors, your pre-”Fargo” story is way more compelling.

Yeah, I worked for three years in a small IT firm in Chicago, I managed our client base, so I translated into human speak for our technicians. But our company was sold and the atmosphere and the culture really changed, so I quit without having anything else lined up. I was auditioning in the afternoons while I was temping in the mornings, just trying to get a little bit of money. I was making $11 an hour, which isn’t much to live on in Chicago. Then I put myself on tape for “Fargo.”


A couple of weeks after making the tape, I got this job at a photography studio called Vavoom Pinups [in Chicago] — they do 1940s and 1950s-style pinup photography. I discovered them because I bought myself a package for my 30th birthday and I went and did it and it changed my life. It was so much fun. Especially for someone of my size, to go somewhere where that was sort of beneficial and really celebrated, was awesome. So I was at Vavoom Pinups when I booked “Fargo.”

I hope you got in one last shoot at Vavoom Pinups!

I didn’t. I haven’t gone back in yet. I need to. The photographer keeps saying I need to come in. And I want to. I want to come in with my little “Fargo” hat and my Sorel boots on. And maybe I could get Billy Bob, Martin [Freeman] and Colin [Hanks} to get in on it. That would be amazing.

You grew up in Houston. What led you to Chicago? Usually actors head for New York or L.A. Had you thought about those destinations at all?

I went to New York for the first time when I was in college for a school trip and, uh, it did not appeal to me. It was too much hustle and bustle. And I have since now found a New York where if I lived there now, I know where I would want to live. And Los Angeles, I felt that for the type of actress that I was — again, being a size 12 and not a size 2 or 4 — I felt like it was not going to be a healthy place for me to start out. I’m really glad now that at 22 I had the wherewithal to know that I would be unhappy in LA.

When I first got out of school, I went on a children’s theater tour and I went around the country a little bit that fall and it was the first time I went to Chicago. We spend a couple of days in Chicago and I was really struck viscerally by the city. It just felt like a city where I would like to spend some time. I moved out there in 2009 to do Second City.


Be honest. How long into shooting did you last before you felt compelled to corner Colin and say, “I really love your dad in …”

I never did. I never fangirl’d out. I really didn’t. I have a funny story about that, though. And I’m totally stealing Colin’s story. We were at a bar one night, and he was in the bathroom — at a urinal — and a drunk guy came up next to him and goes, “Hey, you’re that guy.” And Colin’s like, “Yeah.” And the guy is like, “Hey, did you like ‘Cast Away’?” And Colin was like, “Um, I’m going to the bathroom right now, but yeah, I did like it.” And the guy goes, “Really?” But I have managed to keep myself in check.

There’s this brewing romance between your character Molly and Gus [Colin Hanks]—

Yeah, they have a really sweet chemistry that I feel is a little unusual to see on-screen. People are really rooting for them. Episode 3 is really the first time that we meet, and the Internet like, lost its mind. Have you heard of the term “shipping”? I’m just discovering this.


I just learned it from someone on Twitter. And then Colin texted me and was like, “What is shipping?” I was like, “This is amazing. We have a couple name called ‘Golly.’” He was like, “What are you talking about?” I told him to read up on it.


It’s a show that is very heavy on the male side. You’re one of the few female characters, and a central one. Does it feel like a boys club on set?

No. Um, maybe. But I feel like I’m prepared and have a lot of experience infiltrating the boys club, so I don’t feel intimidated by that. I worked in IT, which is all boys, and I was the queen of the boys. That’s what I did. I was the one who knew where the paper towels were, which was very important. And I organized happy hours and things like that. So it was a pretty comfortable role for me to fill. And then the women who did come in for the show were really awesome. It was such a love project for so many people. It was a happy group.

The accent — what’s the trick to it?

I’ve done some version of that Minnesota accent — that Midwestern accent — in sketch comedy for years. It’s the quickest way to symbolize you’re a mom.

For me and accent work, I think once you’ve figured out where that energy is, where the sound is in your throat or your mouth, it’s a whole lot easier to do. I still haven’t shaken it. I say, “Oh, yah” all the time. My boyfriend is always like, ‘What are you doing? Is that here to stay?” I haven’t shaken it, yeah.

Aside from blips on “Prison Break,” you haven’t done much high-profile work until this. And yet I often get asked by folks what else you’ve been in because they feel like they’ve seen you before. Do you get that a lot? Do you understand it?


I understand it. Honestly, I think it goes back to what we were talking about. We’re so inundated with one body type, which exists in a healthy natural state. But it’s so what we’re used to seeing in the media, that when we see something different, it jars us. I feel like it’s only in recent years where we’re starting to see different body types in different roles. Christina Hendricks is like the sex pot, and it’s part of her power. So I think maybe that’s what it is. She seems like a real person. That’s not to say the actresses who are a size zero aren’t real people, but we see so much of it on TV that it’s not even real anymore. It’s like cutouts, so it’s really striking when you see someone on screen who might look like your sister or your girlfriend or your neighbor.