August 2013: Chicago actress Allison Tolman, unemployed and doing temp work in the mornings, stops by her agent's office to tape an audition for the new FX series "Fargo."
August 2014: Tolman is headed to the Emmys.
That's quite a 12-month span.
On Monday Tolman will be at the Nokia Theater, nominated for her role as Molly Solverson, "Fargo's" dogged police officer who unravels a nasty series of crimes in a quiet Minnesota town. Droll, resolute and deeply calm through it all, Molly is the smartest person in the room and soul of the show, which is adapted from the 1996 Coen brothers movie.
I caught up with Tolman a few days ago at a neighborhood coffee shop in North Center. It's been four months since I last saw her and in that time she's gained substantial notice, including a Critics' Choice award in June. "Oh, I can't even be cool right now," she said that night when she took the stage. "What is happening?" She beat out Julia Roberts and Kathy Bates, among others.
"My cast mates keep teasing me," she said, "like, 'Not all jobs end in Emmy nominations, just so you know.' Colin (Hanks, Tolman's co-star) called me the morning the nominations came out, and we chatted for a while and then he said, 'All right, have fun today talking to every person you've ever met.' And I was like, 'What?' And then the whole day I was hearing from people I hadn't heard from in years."
I asked if she had taken it all in yet. We were seated at a window and Tolman looked out onto Lincoln Avenue.
"To be completely honest I don't know that I've fully absorbed it yet." She paused, lost in thought. "I don't know."
Tolman, 32, came to Chicago from Dallas in 2009 and originally had her eye on Second City. " I did their conservatory program, graduated and then I moved on." It seems there wasn't much interest in casting her in Second City shows.
"I stopped auditioning for them. Like, 'I'm going to go do my own thing, bye,' so maybe if I had stuck with it, maybe I would have made it to the mainstage. But probably not. Those are not good odds. And, I was a lot older than the people who were working their way through the ranks at Second City. It just wasn't in the cards for me."
Second City executive vice president Kelly Leonard has been amusingly contrite about overlooking her talents. She was invited to join a number of well-known alumni (including Fred Willard and Jack McBrayer) on stage a few weeks ago. And earlier this summer, when Leonard was in the midst of watching "Fargo," he tweeted an apology to Tolman: "Just watched last episode. So brilliant. Anne (a Second City instructor and Leonard's wife) told me about you. I should have listened better."
Tolman tweeted back: "You have to forgive yourself Kelly. You HAVE to FORGIVE yourself."
Quick-witted and not terribly self-promotional, Tolman is an especially good follow on Twitter. Some of her energy online has been spent pushing back against the weird outrage of viewers who found her appearance ill-suited for television. The comments have been odious. "I'm not sad, y'all," she tweeted in response. "My points are A) Christ on a cracker, stop defining women by size. B) I'm AVERAGE, women on TV are TINY."
Her Twitter personality is funny and confident, so I wasn't sure how deeply she was affected by the experience. "The body stuff on Twitter, that is hard, I'm not going to lie. I'm not going to pretend. It's hurtful and I don't feel like I'm an inadequate feminist if I say that. It's difficult to keep the actual point in mind, which is: I'm not here for you. My purpose on earth is not to be (sexy) for you. You know what I mean? It's hard to make that point but at the same time, I just want people to think I'm pretty! It's hard. It's hard to keep that balance."
Filming on the show wrapped in April. Since then, Tolman has traveled back and forth to LA, where she and boyfriend Tim will be moving in the next month or two. I asked how she's been filling her days when she's not doing interviews or going to events to promote the show or meeting with producers.
"I've just been buying cocktail dresses and cooking meals, that's all I do. When I'm home in Chicago it's business as usual, except I'm buying cocktail dresses. The rest of it is just like, I don't have a car still, I walk to the grocery store. I'm actually going to the grocery store after this to buy stuff for dinner."
I asked if she's been able to enjoy lazy days at home without the guilt of being unemployed. "The freedom to just be on home vacation? It was hard for me to let myself do that. My therapist, I've been seeing her for years and she was like, 'You probably should let yourself chill out because you don't know when you'll be filming again and then you'll be working 14-hour days again, so you should probably enjoy this and not feel guilty.' So I was like, 'OK!' And I've been OK about it since then."
The thing that's so interesting about Tolman is that she seems completely unfazed by the dramatic shift in her career. She's been thrust into situations that would probably freak out most non-celebrities — the sudden intensity of interest; the pressure to be memorable and likable in interviews; showing up in the right kind of clothing that says "I'm worth looking at" without blowing what is still a working actor's budget. The network, she said, doesn't have anyone guiding her though the process; she's been left to figure it out on her own. It's worked well so far: She looks relaxed and comfortable in her skin every time I see her interviewed, and she utterly charmed Seth Meyers when she was a guest on his talk show earlier this month.
"Yeah, I think that comes from not being 22. I'm also pretty adaptable. I'm pretty able to be like, 'What do you need me to do? OK.' And then I do that thing. I don't know. I hope it doesn't seem like, 'Yeah, finally getting my due — I was born for this!'"
But seriously: How does someone who has never run this gantlet of award shows figure it out?