It’s hard not to love Allison Tolman, from her breakout performance as Officer Molly Solverson in Fargo to her guest star stints on shows including Good Girls and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to her headlining of the gone-too-soon comedy Downward Dog (which Tolman described as “too pure for this world”), she brings a delightful grace and grounded presence to every role she plays.
Now the Sugarland, Texas native stars as police chief Jo Evans in the new ABC drama Emergence. In the pilot, a mysterious plane crash leads Jo to Piper (Alexa Swinton), a young girl with curious powers and no memory of her life before the crash. Soon Piper is living with Jo, Jo’s daughter Mia (Ashley Aufderheide) and Jo’s father, Ed (Clancy Brown) while her ex-husband Alex (Donald Faison) remains wary of the danger Piper is bringing to the family.
Paste recently had the chance to talk with Tolman about her new series, keeping track of the show’s secrets and what viewers can expect as the first season unfolds.
Paste: Let’s start with the most basic question. How did this part come about for you?
Allison Tolman: I was looking for another series. I had done a pilot for Hulu that didn’t go. I was looking for another show on television. When my team sent me a network drama, I was like, “What are you doing? That is not my sweet spot. There’s no way that’s where I’m going to find my home in a network drama. No one wants me to be in the lead of their network drama.” And they were like, “Just read it. Trust us. This is right up your alley.”
So I sat down to read it and it’s so well written. It’s so evocative, immediately spooky and moody and funny. I was like, “Oh shit. This is right up my alley. This is the type of show that I like.” I just didn’t think it’s the spot where I would land. I couldn’t be more surprised that’s where I ended up.
Paste: One thing that also struck me is that this is kind of a new genre for you.
Tolman:It’s the kind of genre I like to watch. My team knows that I love horror. They know that I love thrillers and stuff like that so they always send me those film scripts but those TV scripts don’t always come my way so it was kind of a perfect storm. While I haven’t done a lot of those roles it’s what I like to view.
Emergence is steeped in a lot of mystery. How much did you want to know about the season’s arc before you started?
Tolman: I want to know everything and [executive producers] Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters told me everything. They told me the entire season arc in our first meeting.
So I could ruin it if I wanted to, but I won’t. But everyone is different. Donald Faison didn’t want to know anything. He wants to go script by script and learn it in real time. But I wanted to know everything. Not because I need to know where my character is going. I am just curious and wanted to know what the plan was and to know that they had sort of an end in sight. That’s reassuring as an actor. Nothing is promised when you take a pilot. You don’t know where the character is going to go, where the story is going to go, what they are going to write for you and you’re signed on no matter what. All you can do is read the script, meet the creators and hear what they have to say and then sort of take a leap of faith. That was so easy to do with Michele and Tara. They have such a clear idea of where they are headed and how they are going to pace it out and what the world is they are going to build.
Paste: Does it make it harder for you to play? Knowing what’s coming next?
Tolman: No, it’s making press harder and I have to sort of check myself before I do interviews. There’s a lot of secret to keep straight.
Paste: Okay so we know what you can’t tell me. What can you say about what viewers will see as these first 13 episodes unfold?
Tolman: My favorite type of twist is a reframing where you think you’re watching one thing and then the story steps back and you’re actually watching something different. Reframes the entire story and puts everything you’ve watched before in new context. That’s my favorite type of chill to get, favorite type of stomach-dropping feeling and this show is going to deliver that exact feeling of “oh my gosh this is so much bigger than I thought it was.” I can’t wait for everyone to have that moment.
Paste: What also struck me about the show is that there’s real humor to it even amid all these very tense moments.
Tolman: All we are going for in this world, we are creating a groundedness—which is a hard line to walk when you are talking about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. You have to think how would a normal person deal with this information and one of the ways that normal people deal with insane information is through humor and through deflection.
I think part of that humor is it’s not just jokes and bits. It’s a sense of heart and returning to this tender center in the midst of all this chaos, and that’s something we are able to deliver in droves because we have this fantastic story that’s based around this family that with all their differences and with all their foibles; they love each other. That’s something we are prepared to deliver on over and over again.
Paste: We meet Jo at the beginning of her story with Piper but then we are dropped into Jo’s life. How much did you think about her backstory? Why she’s divorced, how she became police chief, etc?
Tolman: Donald and I sat down and created timelines for us. How long ago do we think this happened, why do we think this happened and not specifics but we need to have an idea as actors who instigated this, why did it happen, is there a lack of trust?
The same with my storyline with my mother leaving and being raised by my father. Clancy Brown and I kind of needed to make sure we were on the same page about what that was like for our characters. She’s a strong, smart woman who was raised by a man. That’s a huge part of why she is the way she is and why she operates the way she does. She didn’t have that maternal influence in her life. I think she was raised really well. I really like Jo but there’s no way that doesn’t affect who you are as a person and as a parent.
Paste: Here you are headlining another ABC series. How is this experience different than when you launched Downward Dog?
Tolman: My expectations are certainly more tempered I think than they have been in the past. For me, I’ve never had a show go for a second season, so if we got a second season that would be the greatest success that I had. I’m just like, we don’t need to go for six seasons and a movie. I don’t need to buy a house next year, but I would love to have a job for two years running, that would be great. But I do, in a healthy way, feel like I’m, “Okay let’s wait and see.” I know we’re making a good show.
The difference between this and Downward Dog is the publicity support we’ve had from the network. They’ve been so giving with their support. We were in the best possible position to premiere that we could possibly be and everybody knew that this show was happening.
Paste: We talked a little bit about this when I spoke with you for Downward Dog. Even in 2019, it’s not often that we see a woman who isn’t a size 0 as the lead of a series. It means a lot to me and I think about what it will mean to younger girls and women. How much do you think about that?
Tolman: It felt like such an honor in Downward Dog and it feels the same in this situation. The audience is going to be bigger. More people are going to have their eyes on it. It’s a bigger show of faith for ABC to put me in this role to allow me to lead a network drama in the fall is a big deal. What bigger vote of confidence could you have from your network. It doesn’t matter that you don’t look like the other network drama leads out there we are willing to put our money behind this. We’re willing to put our vote of confidence behind this. That’s not a small thing and I don’t take it lightly. I don’t have anything to do with it other than just be aware of it.
It’s not easy to be a woman with a temporal form and be on television and be in the public eye. It’s just never easy and gearing up for that, gearing up for the show to be on the air to know that I’m going to be subjected to that ridicule again is exhausting. But all I can do is keep doing the work that I’m doing and keep trying to turn out the best show that I can. I know what my contribution to viewers is. I can’t worry about the other stuff because then it would make me crazy and I would not be able to work.
Knowing that I can be a touchstone for adolescent girls and young women—“oh look she looks like me. I feel better about myself and I’m not alone.” That is such an honor but that also comes along with all this negative stuff so it’s kind of mixed bag.
Paste:I’m hoping the next time we talk this isn’t even a topic.
Tolman: Hopefully this is the future and this will be the norm, and who knows, I hope that I’m at the forefront of that movement. And I hope that this is something we aren’t talking about in five years. But if we are, bring it up. Let’s keep talking about it. I’m certainly not blind to that fact that I’m part of that movement and I’m honored to be part of it.
Emergence airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.
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).