There's an alternate universe in which Allison Tolman is a sketch comedy star along the lines of Amy Schumer or Kate McKinnon. There's another alternate universe in which she's a podcast icon in the tradition of Paul F. Tompkins. And there's still another, unlucky alternate universe in which Allison Tolman isn't famous at all — because she didn't have the right skills in the right place at the right time.
But a little more than two years ago, Tolman found herself in that perfect convergence of talent and luck and preparation. She'd been living in Chicago trying to make it as a theater actor, occasionally reading for commercials, and rarely getting results. Her agent called and asked her to audition for a TV adaptation of the Coen Brothers film Fargo. She went in for an audition, but quickly moved on to other things.
It wasn't the first time she had auditioned for a role she assumed to be above her skill set or level of fame. She once wrote and delivered a short bit about gay marriage for a shot at a correspondent gig on The Daily Show. She never heard back.
"That was something that was like, if this happened, that would be a really big deal," said Tolman in an interview with The Week. "It was fun. I got to write something, I got to record it, and know that, even if it was just on an intern's desk, it was at Comedy Central somewhere."
There was no reason, in Tolman's mind, why Fargo would turn out any differently. But to her surprise, Tolman's audition led to a screen test, and then the job. At that time, the only other actor attached to the project was Billy Bob Thornton. Creator Noah Hawley would text her each time he added a new cast member — "Don't tell anyone, but we got Martin Freeman." And then Tolman would text her family: "You won't believe this!"
Suddenly Tolman was on the set of a TV show set for the first time since a miniscule guest spot on a 2006 episode of Prison Break. Surrounded by a small army of more famous actors, some newcomers would probably have felt intimidated — but Tolman says she was too foolish.
"In retrospect, it was really stupid that I wasn't more nervous, and I didn't feel more pressure, and I wasn't more terrified," she says. "But I remember thinking, this is going to be really scary, and it's going to be a lot of information, and you're just going to have to be brave and ask questions, because you have no idea what you're doing. And that's something I still try to remind myself... Thankfully, I just sort of Forrest Gumped my way through it."
She needn't have worried. When it premiered in April 2014, Fargo overcame widespread skepticism and attracted rave reviews from critics — many of whom singled out Tolman's performance as the show's beating heart. She's one of the reasons Fargo was brought back for a second season, which premieres on Monday.
Once Fargo premiered, Tolman flew to Los Angeles to book an agent and take some meetings. People she'd never met recognized her on the street. At first, she thought her fame was exclusive to the entertainment industry. When she went home to Chicago and people recognized her there, too, she could no longer overlook the truth — she was becoming a star.
Tolman still doesn't see it quite that way, and her post-Fargo output reflects that. She's grateful for the onslaught of offers, but hasn't accepted all of them, and is still waiting for her next great television role. So far, she's mainly stuck to guest spots and supporting roles. "If this ride ended tomorrow, I would want to feel like I did as much with it as I possibly could," she says.
But beyond modesty, there's a strategy behind stepping back from the spotlight while she ponders her next big move. Without the credentials of a veteran actor, Tolman is still relatively new to the day-to-day process of working on a set. The more shows she works and the more experience she gains, the better prepared she'll be for her next meaty role, she says.
One of her more memorable post-Fargo roles was on the second season premiere of Comedy Central's Review with Forrest MacNeil, which stars comedian Andy Daly. In a well-reviewed episode entitled "Brawl, Blackmail, Gloryhole," Tolman plays a nurse who, within the scope of a single episode, falls in love with Forrest and then falls victim to Forrest's attempt at blackmail.
Other post-Fargo roles emerged out of Tolman's personal preferences. She loves The Mindy Project, so when Mindy Kaling tweeted praise at her, she responded graciously and was offered a guest spot. She loves horror movies, so she asked her agent to find some for her. The result: her small role in Joel Edgerton's directorial debut The Gift, and fourth billing on the big-budget horror thriller Krampus, out this December.
She says she has learned something from each experience. From The Gift, she confirmed her reluctance to pursue directing, despite her respect for fellow actor Edgerton's multitasking. From Krampus, she gained experience with special effects and big-studio filmmaking.
But for all the variety of her recent roles, the future is still unclear. Tolman says casting directors seem to want to put her in only one box at a time: comedy or drama, actor or writer, nice or mean. But Tolman wants to do it all.
She thinks her inexperience and her size both play a role in the kinds of parts she's offered. She's a size 12, average by "normal person standards," but on the high end for famous actors. No one has ever openly discriminated against her because of her size, but she's eager to smash misconceptions all the same. "Average-looking women tend to play more wholesome characters who tend to have their shit together. Which, again, is a misrepresentation," she says. "All sorts of people make bad choices and questionable decisions in the real world. And those are the characters that are really fun to play."
Even as she searches for her next big TV roles, she has her eye on a writing career at some point. Whether it runs parallel to acting or eclipses it is unclear. But Tolman doesn't want her academic background in theater and sketch writing to go to waste. "I need to find some good software, I need to lock myself for a few hours in my office every day, and I need to learn to write television shows," she says.
Tolman's ultimate goal is to keep people guessing. She'll sign on to a television show when the role is right. She'll start writing her own work when she has the platform to do it the way she wants. And in the meantime, she'll keep working. "I want to vary my resume and my experiences as much as I can," she says. "And I don't want to ever be pigeonholed. I don't want to pigeonhole myself. I'm difficult in that way, I guess."