Allison Tolman gets big break on 'Fargo'

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Though set within the same frigid landscape as the 1996 Coen Brothers movie, the new FX series "Fargo" is not so much an adaptation as it is a close cousin. Two episodes in, it has revealed itself to be a show larded with sight gags, stubborn Midwestern manners, character quirks, black humor and oftentimes a serious and observant look at mangled humanity.

"It's the best of America versus the worst of America," is how creator and executive producer Noah Hawley described the show's crime genre last week by phone from Los Angeles.

Dealing with all those frauds, morons and psychopaths is the character of Molly Solverson, a police deputy tasked with unraveling a series of murders in her small Minnesota town. She's played by Chicago actress Allison Tolman in her first major role.

The Coen Brothers are not directly involved in the 10-episode series, which airs 9 p.m. Tuesdays, but the film's legacy looms large. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her role as the no-nonsense Minnesota police chief at the story's center.

To offset that memory, Hawley created a brand-new character who is distinct but shares many traits with her inspiration. Sweet, cunning and contemplative in equal measure, Molly Solverson at first glance looks like a Campbell Soup kid who grew up to become a police officer. She is an unassuming presence, the brown of her hair matching her brown vest and parka; her tan uniform blending into her pale skin.

It's a deceptively complicated performance, one that conceals plenty behind that polite Minnesota facade. Tolman is the one unknown lead on a show that also features Billy Bob Thornton, "Hobbit" and "Sherlock" star Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine and "Breaking Bad's" Bob Odenkirk.

"To the network's credit," Hawley says, "FX said Molly can be a discovery. We don't need to cast a name actress in the role."

Tolman got the role by submitting a taped audition, which is rare but not unheard of. (Chicagoan Lucas Neff landed his role on "Raising Hope" the same way.)

After seeing roughly a hundred actresses for the role, Hawley got a look at Tolman's tape. "And here's a woman I'd never seen before who was very grounded, but she got all the nuance of the comedy. And immediately I thought, 'Well, that's her!'"

The show began shooting in Calgary, Alberta, in October and wrapped earlier this month. Tolman has been home only a week or so, back in time to record an episode of the comedy podcast "City Life Supplement," a project she has been involved with for a few years. (The podcast goes on indefinite hiatus after next month.) Last week, over tomato soup and tea in Lincoln Park, the 32-year-old Texas native who moved to Chicago in 2009 talked about her sudden career boost and working with some of Hollywood's biggest names. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: After they saw your audition tape, the next step was a screen test in New York, right?

A: Yeah. When you go in to do a screen test, you negotiate your contract and sign all your paperwork before you even get on a plane. So at this point I was working part time at a photography studio, making $13 an hour and not sure if I'm going to make ends meet. And meanwhile I'm negotiating this contract for, like, insane amounts of money! Which was just hilarious and insane. To be negotiating the size of a trailer while I was counting pennies to buy Starbucks. It was so stupid!

Q: There's an expression Molly often has on her face when she's communicating with these ...

A: Idiots?

Q: Yes! And the look on your face, it's as if you're trying to figure out the square root of the color blue. But it's a little bit of a mask because that polite befuddlement is gone whenever Molly is with her dad (played by Keith Carradine).

A: She's such a smart cookie, I think she's always putting things together in her head. A little Geiger counter is going.

The only thing I can say really changed about Molly from the first time I read her is that. Because I think my natural way of playing her was, "Are you (expletive) kidding me?!" And they stressed to me, repeatedly in the first two episodes, to play up the nice, play up the nice. Remember, that's the way to get things done in Minnesota.

So I think that, layered on top of my natural inclination to play it like, "Are you serious? You're a total moron!" — that's what's happening on my face. That internal struggle.

You do get to see her lose that veneer later in the season. You get to see that drop, and it's really heartbreaking.

Q: There was a small Chicago contingent on "Fargo," with you, Bob Odenkirk, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (the latter two appear later in the season as FBI agents).

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