Allison Tolman had one thought when her agents first told her about Downward Dog.
“Are we really that hard up?”
Since breaking out as Detective Molly Solverson in the inaugural season of Fargo, Tolman had been looking for another TV series. “I didn’t come across anything that was really interesting to me,” she says. “A long time passed with me just turning down scripts.”
The idea of being in a show about a talking dog sounded “so dumb.” So she put off reading the pilot. When she finally did, to her surprise, she loved it. “Immediately I thought, ‘This is the type of thing that’s interesting to me. It’s different. It’s sweet and funny and sad and poignant.”
In the series, which premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. on ABC, Tolman stars as Nan, a thirtysomething woman working in the marketing department of a clothing company. The catch is that Nan’s beloved dog, Martin (voiced by co-creator and executive producer Samm Hodges), tells us exactly how he feels about Nan’s life from his unique perspective.
There’s that old Hollywood axiom about never working with animals. Tolman, whose cat gets a lot of love from her Twitter account, said she loved working with the dog on the series, but there were some pitfalls she never anticipated. “Primarily that it is really lonely to shoot a show where you’re just with a dog a lot of the time,” she says. “Within the world of the show, he doesn’t actually talk to me. It’s a lot of long days on set where I didn’t say any lines to a person.”
Tolman’s career-changing moment with Fargo came later than it does for many. She was living in Chicago working at a tech company by day (“It never seemed like a failure to me to have another job”), performing with Second City at night and skirting out to go on the occasional audition. “I was very much past the point where I had any pie in the sky dreams of becoming a television star or being anywhere near where I am now,” she says. “I just wanted to quit my day job so I could write and maybe do some more sketch performing and start doing commercials. I was just at a very different point professionally than I think most people are when they get a break like that.”
She describes getting cast in Fargo as a “fairy tale.” After putting herself on tape for the role, she didn’t give it too much thought. “I have learned you don’t bank on things you auditioned for,” she says. Then, she got the call to come to New York to test for the part. “I flew to New York on a Friday, tested on a Saturday, flew home on a Sunday and they called me the following Thursday and told me that I had the role.” Within the course of one week, her entire life changed. “I hope to God that I never ever forget what that felt like,” she says. “Just what an unbelievable strike of lighting brought me to this point.”
Even though she had worked for years to get where she finally was, she had no trouble saying “no” to projects that weren’t right for her once Fargo ended. “Why go back?” she thought. “I’m at this point now, why should I go backwards? My philosophy from the beginning is that I want to live my professional life that if all of this went away tomorrow, I can look back and say I’m really proud of the things I did and I really built a body of work that I feel like I can stand behind.”
Her biggest piece of advice for actors trying to break into the business is to get a day job in a field where they aren’t used to working with actors and then make yourself indispensable. “And be like, ‘No this is normal. I’m only going to work four days a week and I’m going to leave for auditions. You’re the only person who knows where the toilet paper is and then they can’t argue with you when you say you have to leave for an hour. You need to find a small company that’s not owned by a big company but owned by a person because only a person is going to try to understand this lifestyle and support you. My boss came to all my shows.”
The series is absolutely charming and one thing that’s quietly remarkable is that Tolman, like most of the women in America, is not a size 0. “I’m already quite a bit larger than most actresses and probably almost all ingénues who have love interests and their own shows,” she says. Nan’s size is never discussed. Nan doesn’t lament her weight and isn’t constantly looking for the next fad diet. “It’s clearly a theme that the writers are playing with because of Nan’s work, but they never directly relate it to my character, which I think is fascinating and really smart.”
Tolman, who will next be seen in The House opposite Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell, is a little nostalgic for the blissful naïveté that comes with the first time of doing anything. “I can remember message boards for Fargo before it came out and people had very low opinion of it and I can remember thinking, ‘Oh just you wait. We’re going to prove you wrong.’” She recently came across critical Internet comments about Downward Dog. “I wish that I had the same blind dumb confidence I had three years ago,” she says. “I don’t have that anymore. I’m so anxious. I know that the show is good. I know that it’s the show we set out to make, but I’m not in the place of that blind innocence that I was when we set out to make Fargo. I’m not as carefree as I was.”
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .