Even the people who make your favorite pop culture have their own favorite pop culture. In Surprise Top Five, we ask them to list, off the cuff, their five favorites in a particular field of interest. They get no advance warning.
Allison Tolman’s IMDB page pre-Fargo has exactly three entries on it, the most notable is playing a nurse in one episode of Prison Break. The actress was more active in the world of theater, particularly in Chicago’s comedy scene, where she often performed with Second City. Last year, however, she was cast as the female lead in FX’s miniseries version of Fargo, which debuted last month. As Deputy Molly Solverson, Tolman has become the human heart of what could be a desperately dark show, one that pushes quirky small-town crimes to the brink of despair. Molly is a woman who’s just trying to solve an impossible crime, one who’s always right behind the terrible men doing terrible things in other corners of the show. She’s a riff on the film’s Marge Gunderson, but never a direct copy, and much of that is due to Tolman’s enormously expressive performance. The A.V. Club recently talked to Tolman about live theater, the differences between acting on TV and acting on stage, and that terrifying blizzard that closed out episode six.
Allison Tolman’s Surprise Top Five: Stage Musicals
1. Spring Awakening
The A.V. Club: What is it about Spring Awakening that really speaks to you?
Allison Tolman: I think it does this really awesome, brilliant blending of an archaic story with this modern punk rock music by Duncan Sheik. Have you seen it?
AVC: I have.
AT: I did a 20-minute selection of scenes from the play Spring Awakening in college, well before the musical came around, so when the musical was becoming a hot thing, and I was reading interviews with Duncan Sheik about how he came to do the music, I think it’s interesting. I feel like they say musicals are that people break into song when they can no longer contain their emotions, and I thought it was interesting to use that method, which can sometimes feel a little cheesy, but the emotion that they’re conveying in this show is this youthful yearning and sexual awakening. That’s when they have to break into song, which I think is really fascinating. Then on top of it, I think the music is really beautiful.
We so picked something I nerd out about. [Laughs.] I’m a musical nerd.
2. The Secret Garden
AVC: What would be your runner-up? What’s your No. 2?
AT: I don’t think I can do these in order, but these are musicals that have been particularly important to me. The Secret Garden was the first musical that I fell in love with when I was a kid. My mom took me to see it, and it was the first one that I owned the soundtrack to and listened to over and over again. It had a girl in it, so there was a role in it that I felt, as a kid, I could be like, “That is my dream role.” The Secret Garden was important to me as a kid.
AVC: Where did you grow up that you were seeing stage productions?
AT: In Houston. We went to Theatre Under The Stars. It’s a big, open amphitheater that does a summer series, and my family was pretty good. We would go out and see shows on a fairly regular basis. Secret Garden, I think we actually saw downtown, but we saw enough musicals. We’d pack a picnic and go sit on the grass outside. That’s how I saw The Will Rogers Follies for the first time and 42nd Street and stuff like that. That was definitely the beginning of my love of musicals. That and Disney movies as well as a kid, because old Disney movies really did feel like musicals. I felt like the characters actually opened their mouths and sang, unlike a lot of the modern Disney movies.
AVC: You have a lot of stage experience yourself. Did the desire to perform present itself when you were seeing those shows as a kid?
AT: Certainly, that goes further back than I can pinpoint. I guess my interest in performance has evolved and changed many times over the years. When I went through this, obviously, really important stage as a kid where musicals were the thing that lit that fire for me, and then as I got older it was dramatic work, and I really wanted to do dramatic work. And then I moved to Chicago, because I became really interested in comedy. Then a few years later, I became really interested in writing. I think when you have a heart for the theater and for acting, like I do, your interests kind of evolve as the years go by.
AVC: Did you ever get the chance to be in Secret Garden?
AT: [Laughs.] No. I did not. But I actually just—like who knows what happened to my old copy of it that was on tape or whatever—but just the other day, I downloaded the whole album and have been listening to it again, and man, it is evocative. I remember being a kid and closing myself in my room and listening to this soundtrack over and over again. But no, I never got to do it. I never pursued voice hard enough. I’ve done musicals here and there, but I was never dedicated to really being one of these fantastic, operatic kind of singers that you have to be in some of these musicals.
3. The Drowsy Chaperone
AT: I love The Drowsy Chaperone. I saw it in New York, years ago, I think with the original cast. Yeah, because Sutton Foster was in it. I love The Drowsy Chaperone because I feel like it is the perfect musical: It is tongue-in-cheek, and it is aware of the fact that it’s a musical, so people that don’t like musicals can enjoy it because it’s making fun of itself. But at the same time, it’s [got] sort of big, huge, show-stopping numbers and ballads. So it has all of the components to an old-school Rodgers & Hammerstein style, but at the same time, it’s making fun of itself. Very aware of itself. I love The Drowsy Chaperone. That’s one of my favorites.
AVC: You mentioned that you write, and The Drowsy Chaperone is a very writerly musical in that it’s always calling attention to the plot devices. Does that meta storytelling appeal to you?
AT: I think it does. I think that’s a product of how cynical we’ve become as viewers, which is fine. I think our viewership evolved as we watched more television and we consume more media, but now, we have these mockumentary movies and fake documentary-style television, like The Office, which really changes the way we can tell jokes and the way that we can examine characters. We feel like we’re there. We feel like we’re calling attention to the style of the piece. So I think stuff like The Drowsy Chaperone—and Urinetown is the same way—where it’s very aware of itself. I think it’s fun, and I think it’s a smart way to evolve along with viewers and try to keep that audience, because God knows musicals are something that could very well go the way of the dodo bird. [Laughs.] We have to, people who are writing these things, have to really fight to keep them relevant, and I think that’s a smarter way to do it, to evolve with the way your audience participates in their media, rather than write musicals based on Spider-Man or whatever. I think a smarter way to do it is to keep the same subject matter, but to approach it in a different way.
AVC: Have you watched the Canadian TV series Slings And Arrows, from some of the same people who made The Drowsy Chaperone?
AT: I have watched Slings And Arrows! There was a whole group of us in Dallas when I lived there who were nerding out about Slings And Arrows and watching it on Netflix and tossing it around at the same time, somebody had the DVD set. That’s a great show.
AVC: Fargo mixes the tones of comedy and drama very well. Do you find yourself leaning toward one or the other in scenes?
AT: I feel like the nice thing about Molly is that she reacts to most situations in the same way. She’s so even-keeled and kind of understated, so it takes a lot of pressure off me as an actor to have to worry about how she would play a moment, because she almost always plays moments very matter-of-factly. And then, because Noah [Hawley], our writer, is so brilliant, given the situation, it plays as comedic, or it plays as dramatic. But I think she approaches things in very much the same way. So much so that if I have punchlines, sometimes, we would cut them when we were on set because they wouldn’t work. It just didn’t work for her to be purposefully jokey, you know? That’s just not her style.
4. Grey Gardens
AT: Talking about The Drowsy Chaperone makes me remember that I might have seen two shows in a day. It was definitely the same weekend that I saw Drowsy Chaperone. I went and saw Grey Gardens as well. Are you familiar with Grey Gardens?
AT: Beautiful score. Just so gorgeous. And the thing I really liked about Grey Gardens that I thought was so brilliant is that it really did feel to me, especially the first act, felt so proscenium and so old-school and very traditional in its storytelling technique. Then as these two women go further down the tubes, and you get into the second act, I felt like they started to break that mold a little bit. The types of songs that they were playing, the types of storytelling that they were doing, really sort of mixed things up. I thought that was brilliant and a nice juxtaposition to The Drowsy Chaperone, which is so aware of itself. Of course, Christine Ebersole was in it and she’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s really amazing.
AVC: Do you tend to gravitate toward shows with great scores or toward the shows with groundbreaking direction or storytelling?
AT: I think the scores are really what hook me, because there are musicals that I know every single word of and I’ve never seen, because I would check the two-CD disc set out from the library when I was a kid and listen to them like I was watching a movie. I’d read along with the notes in the CD. I’ve never seen Miss Saigon, and I can sing every word of Miss Saigon. It wasn’t available to us in Houston, and I didn’t start going to see shows in New York until I was in college. And it was expensive. You can’t see all of the theater you want to see. So there’s quite a few musicals that I’m really familiar with that I’ve not seen still.
AVC: What’s your favorite that you’ve heard but never seen if it’s not Miss Saigon?
AT: I would say probably The Last Five Years, which I’ve never seen, but I think, in addition to being a beautiful score, is also fascinating storytelling that just gets me every single time I hear it. The final song just rips me apart. At this point, I don’t know, I may not even want to see it, because it’s so fully formed in my head, just listening to the music for all these years.
AVC: Christine Ebersole was in Grey Gardens, and she’s had a very successful career in film and TV as well. You’ve crossed over into TV. What’s the biggest difference between acting on stage and acting on camera for you?
AT: I think the hard part for me to adjust to was the lack of rehearsal process. For stage actors, rehearsal is really where the work happens. That’s where you actually do things, and it was difficult for me to adjust to the fact that the playing you do in rehearsals for stage acting is the playing that you do in different takes in television. That was difficult to get used to. But the good news is that you always get more takes, so you can afford to play around a little bit. It’s not out there forever until they choose one they want to use.
AVC: Stage actors tend to have great physicality when they’re on TV or film, and that’s true for you, too. You have so many scenes where you end with just a little physical gesture that perfectly indicates what Molly’s state of mind is. How much of that is scripted, and how much is just you doing this?
AT: I think that’s just me. It’s interesting to watch the show and have it be so well-received, because there were definitely times when I was working, where I thought, “Am I doing too much? Because I feel like a stage actor with a camera on me right now.” [Laughs.] I just felt like I was doing too many things. Especially with my face. I tend to have a really expressive face, which is very much me in real life as well, so it would be difficult for me to turn that off anyway. But I’m glad that it seems to be reading well, and people seem to be responding to it, because there were definitely times where I thought, is this over the top and is this going to read properly, or am I going to look like I’m mugging for camera?
5. Urinetown: The Musical
AT: Let me see… I think I’m going to have to say Urinetown. I feel like I’m doing a lot of new ones. Eh, Urinetown is pretty good. Yeah, Urinetown.
I was in New York on a trip with some people from Baylor, from my college, and my buddy Steve Walters and I said we were not going to see Aida, and we instead went to go see this little show called Urinetown that nobody had seen yet, that hadn’t won its Tony, that was still kind of just coming up. So we trekked over to see Urinetown, while the rest of our classmates went to see the tried-and-true Aida and had no idea what to expect and had such a fun afternoon at the theater, just laughing. What I liked about that, as someone who was just starting to be interested in generating my own material, was I thought, “Man, you can make a musical out of anything.” [Laughs.] No matter how absurd your concept, if you sell it, you can really make something. I think that’s a prime example of the silliest idea that is just this fully formed musical. It’s brilliant, and it’s so, so funny.
AVC: You mention the split between Aida and Urinetown. You tend toward the smaller, more personal shows, as opposed to the big, really bombastic ones. Is that in general the rule for you?
AT: I think I definitely enjoy the more commercial ones as well. I enjoy all of the musicals. I wish it were a habit I could afford. I think it’s fun sometimes to take a chance on something smaller, because you never know what you’re going to get. For us, at the time, without a whole lot of press about Urinetown, just that name was kind of what drew us to it. That was the draw for us, breaking off the beaten path and seeing something different. I’m certainly not a purist, but I do love the old stuff as well. I just really like the medium, and the musicals that I’ve been able to be in in my life have been some of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had. I just think it’s so much fun to do, and it’s so much fun to watch.
AVC: What was the most fun you’ve had being in a musical?
AT: Oh man, that’s probably a tie between, in Dallas, I did Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical. Are you familiar with that one?
AVC: [Laughs.] No, I’ve never heard of it.
AT: [Laughs.] So it’s based on that porn, but instead of sex scenes, they break into song and dance, which was just so stupid and so funny. It was this tight little hour-and-15-minute show, and we did five or six shows a week. I just felt like a rock star every night, I was in the best shape of my life. We were doing 25 high kicks a night. And I had an absolute blast. And then a couple years later, I did The Full Monty, which was just such an exuberant show. Getting to do that final number, “Let It Go,” in Full Monty for a summer was really a gift.
AVC: Speaking of things like Urinetown where people prejudge based on the title, there was a lot of prejudgment of Fargo when it came up because people were saying, “They’re going to make a TV show out of the movie?” very skeptically. Are you still running into some of that?
AT: I think it’s subsided as people are actually watching it. I still see the occasional tweet that says, “Why would they do this?” and when I see those, I think, “I don’t think they’ve watched it.” Because they’re so different. There’s a nice through-line, but they really are different projects. I think Noah Hawley did a really smart thing, which is he went back to this beloved film and examined it and saw what made it special and then took those elements and expanded on them and let it breathe for 10 hours and did a 10-part miniseries to see what happens. I think that it stands on its own. I hope that it does. It seems to be doing all right thus far. I was interested to see what happened in the episode last week. Did you see last week’s episode? I don’t want to ruin anything.
AVC: I’ve seen up through episode six.
AT: Okay, great. You’ve seen more than I have! Lucky you! I was interested to see what happened in the Internet world when this direct crossover happened between the film and the show with the money and the ice scraper. Because I know when I read that, my heart just dropped into my stomach, I thought that was so cool. But I thought if we make anybody angry, this is going to be the time where we make people really angry, when we make this direct connection. But I think everybody seems to be pleased with it.
AVC: On your Twitter feed, you’re very open and living your life normally. Have you felt like you had to curtail anything now that you’ve become more of a public person?
AT: I think I’m still kind of learning how to do that. I feel like social media for me as a comedian is a really fun way to kind of toss things out there and to see pretty quickly how they hit, not only to be able to get laughs, or get likes in this instance, but also to see what things resonate with people, so you can lock that away for later and say, “Well, that might be a good sketch,” or “That might be a good idea for something,” you know? So that’s very much my style of humor, sort of very open and self-deprecating, which could either be charming or really irritating for someone who’s in the public eye.
I’m still kind of learning. I’m definitely moving through the Twitterverse with more caution than I was a few weeks ago. We’ll see how it pans out. It’s odd to be able to interact with people on this large of a scale. It’s strange, and it can be scary at times because people can be really cruel. When I was working in an office, there were not a lot of people around to be very cruel to me, but now that I’m in a television show, there are people who feel like they know you, and that they can then say whatever, which is scary. I can only imagine for people who are really, really famous, they must just never log in. I wouldn’t. Because people say some mean things on the Internet from the safety of their computers.
AVC: Episode six has the big blizzard scene in it in which Molly is shot. What was that like to film, and, come on, Molly can’t be dead, right?
AT: [Laughs.] I’ll see you next week! Or will I? [Laughs.] No, she’s not dead. She’s wounded. She’s not doing so hot when we come back in episode seven. But no, that would be a sad, terrible way for her to die. I can’t wait to see how Twitter explodes at the end of that week.
It was fun to film. We filmed it in a couple different parts. The wide shots filmed on the actual street, so you could kind of see the surrounding area, and then, much later actually, we filmed more of the coverage, which was kind of in a courtyard, and which they could then use to do the CGI and really make it super snowy and make these whiteout conditions. The first day we shot out in the snow it was super, super cold, and I had to hold my gun, which was super, super cold, and you can’t wear gloves when you operate a gun, obviously. [Laughs.] That was a rough day. The snow that we used is basically made out of starch, so it sticks to your shoes and sticks to everything, and you can inhale it and then you cough. So I’m sure if people watch closely they’ll see that I’ve just inhaled a large snowflake and am trying not to choke as I say my lines.
AVC: As a native Texan, have you adjusted to all of that cold and snow?
AT: I think so. I think the time I spent in Chicago prepped me to spend six months in Calgary. But you never really get all the way used to it. You sort of leave your body when you’re that cold, and look down on yourself and think, “Wow, this is really interesting. It’s really cold.” It’s one extreme or the other. I think I’d rather be really cold than really hot, and I grew up in Houston where it’s hot and humid, so it’s just different kinds of misery for different extremes.