LOS ANGELES | “Fargo” came knocking when Allison Tolman was working a temp job for $11 an hour and wondering if she’d ever get an acting job after four years in Chicago.
“I had booked like one voiceover since 2009,” the Texas native says. “I did Second City and a lot of writing. But I was working regular day jobs and auditioning for whatever they sent my way.”
Among that stack of scripts: One for the television version of “Fargo,” the Coen Brothers’ goofy murder mystery set in Minnesota.
Tolman taped an audition, sent it to the producers and, while working at a photography studio, got a message from producer Noah Hawley.
“I thought he wanted to tell me personally that I had lost the job,” she says.
Tolman called him back and, “He asked me how I was. I said, ‘OK’ and he said, ‘I want you to remember this moment: You did it. You got the part.’ I tried to go back to work but I was useless. It was so cool, so amazing.”
Because she didn’t have a lot of film or television experience, Tolman worried that she wouldn’t be up to the challenge. “There was a six-week period where I was like, ‘Yeah, they’re going to change their minds.’ It was so far removed from anything like reality.”
Once Tolman got to Calgary, Alberta (where “Fargo” is filmed), “it was a steep learning curve.” Co-stars, however, were more than willing to help. Martin Freeman, who plays a good-natured insurance agent thrust in the middle of a murder case, was particularly kind and welcoming.
“I’m not really a celebrity fan-type person but Martin is someone I really like. He was in the British ‘Office’ and I loved that. Everyone was so patient and gracious with their time.”
Because she’s the show’s female lead – a Bemidji, Minn., police deputy determined to solve a series of murders – a lot rests on her performance.
“I made a deal with myself before I went into it,” she says. “I was going to have to be brave and ask questions. I didn’t want to do myself or anyone else a disservice because I didn’t want to say I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
That Midwestern “you betcha” accent? “It’s a little bit lighter than it was in the film,” Tolman says. But the parade of colorful characters is there in full force. Billy Bob Thornton plays a drifter who comes to town and upends the locals’ lives. He toys with the underdog, played by Freeman, and battles with everyone from a deaf contract killer to Tolman’s dad (played by Keith Carradine).
Bob Odenkirk, who plays Bemidji’s deputy police chief, has become Tolman’s mentor. “I can go to him for advice. I’ll ask, ‘Should I put my foot down about this?’ and he’s been amazing.”
While Tolman got lots of acting work in Texas (she has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Baylor University), she knew she needed to move to another market to get to the next step in an acting career. “Los Angeles didn’t feel right and New York was just too many people. Chicago struck me viscerally. Second City was there. I knew I needed to take more classes. It was the right place to be.”
Essentially, she says, “I started my career over again at 29, which was really hard.”
Then, after years of auditioning, the “Fargo” opportunity came.
“It was just the right role for me at the right time. When I read the script, I got her right away. I understood Noah’s writing. I felt like I knew what they were trying to do.”
Now, Tolman says, even if “Fargo” isn’t the blockbuster hit some predict, it’s going to change things. “I’m at a different level now,” she says with a smile. “People will see my face and know my name.”
Some shifts, however, are a little slow in coming. Rather than celebrate her big break with a shopping spree, Tolman lived off her per diem when she started filming. “My credit card was maxed out and I was still paying off the debt for being unemployed for three months. If ‘Fargo’ hadn’t come along, I don’t know what I was going to do.”