How Newcomer Allison Tolman Landed a Key Role in FX's 'Fargo'

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  • Billy Bob Thornton
    Billy Bob Thornton
    American actor, filmmaker, singer, songwriter, and musician

The cast of FX's "Fargo" is filled with recognizable faces: Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk. But hold on a second: Who's that playing the lead detective?

You shouldn't feel bad if you don't recognize Allison Tolman, a newcomer with a sparse résumé who managed to land a plum role alongside an all-star cast. She played a nurse in a 2006 episode of "Prison Break," and… yep, that's about all you might have seen her in. (By comparison, her co-star Joey King has 35 acting credits to her name — and she's 14 years old.)

[Related: Billy Bob Thornton on His 'Fargo' Character's 'Sick Sense of Humor']

But now Tolman is playing dogged Minnesota detective Molly Solverson — a sort of younger, hungrier version of the original "Fargo's" Marge Gunderson — and so far, she's more than holding her own while sharing a screen with movie stars. Tolman was as surprised as anyone to find herself being cast in such company. "You know, it was just kind of magic," she told Yahoo TV on "Fargo's" Calgary set, before adding, "Black magic." (We're pretty sure she was kidding.)

A Texas native, Tolman was doing "lots and lots of theater" and a few commercials in Dallas when she decided to move to Chicago to pursue comedy. She went through the training program at Chicago's vaunted Second City, mostly for comedy writing. "I had an agent, and I was still auditioning for whatever commercial they wanted me to do," she remembers. "But I had booked one job in Chicago in, like, three and a half years."

Meanwhile, she was living the typical actor's life: temping in the mornings "for 11 dollars an hour," and using the afternoons to audition and look for a full-time job. (She's worked as a veterinary receptionist, children's theater teacher, personal assistant, vocal coach, and dog walker.) Then her agents asked her to drop in and make an audition tape for "Fargo" — and she wasn't thrilled at first: "It was just one of those things where they said, 'We want you to read for this,' and I said, 'OK, sure… how am I going to pay my rent?'"

So she made the tape, walked out, and didn't think much of it. Then "a couple weeks later, my agent in Chicago called me and said, 'I just wanted to let you know that your tape is still circulating.' And I was like, 'Oh, that's so nice! Thank you for telling me that, because my life is in shambles right now. I don't have a job. I don't know what I'm doing. So it's good to hear something positive. I'm not a failure!'"

[Related: Martin Freeman on Trading 'Sherlock' for 'Fargo' (and a Minnesota Accent)]

But the good news didn't stop there: "A couple weeks later, he called me again and said, 'Your tape is still circulating, and we also have an audition for you.' And I was like, 'This is great! I'm on their minds, because of this random audition I did. And I just know I'm gonna book a commercial because of this tape.' And I still never really thought beyond that."

A couple weeks after that, Tolman's agent called her "and said, 'OK, seriously? Your tape is still circulating.' So then they cleared my schedule and I went to New York and auditioned in a super-friendly room for [showrunner] Noah [Hawley] and [pilot director] Adam Bernstein. And five days later, they called me and told me I had the role." To this day, she still marvels at how quickly it all happened: "Comparatively, such an insane[ly] short time for your life to change that much."

It all happened so fast, in fact, that Tolman didn't have time to go back and watch the original "Fargo" again before making that fateful tape. She says she didn't watch it when they started filming, either, but "about a month into filming, I watched it again. I thought that I had enough of Molly in my head to where I wasn't going to watch Marge and be like, 'I'm gonna do that! That looks good!' I thought it was a safe distance by then."

[Related: FX's 'Fargo' Cast Names Their Favorite Moments From the 'Fargo' Film]

Like Marge Gunderson (the role that won Frances McDormand an Oscar), Molly is a humble, unassuming cop who gets in way over her head when sinister criminals infiltrate her tranquil town. But as Tolman points out, Molly isn't just a Marge clone. "Molly is in such a different position than Marge, because she's trying to prove herself for this whole series, and Marge never has to do that. And that's what makes Marge so lovable. She's just like, 'Well, this is what needs to be done. I'm gonna go solve this murder now!' [Laughs.] But I don't know that that would be interesting to watch for ten hours. So Molly really does struggle. She really does go uphill."

Part of Molly's uphill battle is trying to investigate her chief's murder as a deputy in the male-dominated Bemidji police department, where "she's surrounded by morons," Tolman says. "You really get to watch her fight to be heard in her department. And you see her kind of learn to be a detective. She's never had to solve a crime, so she's learning to put things together… but she's a natural at it."

She's not really a natural at social interaction, though. Tolman teases that viewers will also see Molly "learn to relate to humans a little bit better. I always feel like Molly is so singularly minded about her job that she's like, 'I'm sorry, what? Do you have feelings?' [Laughs.] So you get to watch her develop relationships. She gets to know [Colin Hanks' character] Gus more, and their friendship is really cool."

One more really cool thing: all the inside jokes and Easter eggs for fans of the original "Fargo" that are woven into the show. "There are so many really awesome nods and homages that contribute to the story, but don't take it over and make the TV show look like it's trying to be the movie," Tolman says, promising that "the parallels continue through the entire series and get more and more overt and awesome. If you're a true fan of the film, you'll watch the show and be like, 'Ooooh! That joke was for me!'"

"Fargo" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.