Why Allison Tolman Wound Up Talking to Dogs After 'Fargo'

The Emmy-nominated actress talks about her struggle to make it in Hollywood and why she chose 'Downward Dog' as her next TV project.
ABC/Bob D’Amico

Ever since Allison Tolman signed on to star in the ABC comedy Downward Dog, she’s felt a little like the head cheerleader who brings the captain of the chess club as her date to the prom. Rightly or wrongly, people were going to question her decision-making skills.

“First, I had to explain that no, this isn’t a show about yoga,” Tolman tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh. “And then I was sure that people were going to think how the mighty have tumbled. They’d say, ‘She was in Fargo. She took a year off to find her next project. And she chose this talking dog show.’ Which I’ll be the first to admit sounds pretty silly.”

She’s right. This story of a single woman (Tolman) and her loving dog Martin, who frequently shares his innermost thoughts to camera Big Brother confession room-style, does sound more like a series that belongs on the Disney Channel than network primetime. However, despite the ridiculousness of the premise, Downward Dog already has been taken seriously enough that last month it became the first network half-hour series to debut at the Sundance Film Festival.

Maybe her character doesn’t quite offer her the same sort of meaty scenes she had playing Molly Solverson in Fargo, which earned her an Emmy nomination. However, Tolman is convinced that Downward Dog, set to premiere this summer, was the right career move. 

“I’ve always known how good it is and I’m only more convinced as I’ve worked on it,” she says. “I think it’s exactly the show we set out to make and I’m so thrilled with it. But it is hard to explain and hard to defend. So I’ve started just saying to people who ask about it, ‘As a pet owner, you know how you feel about your pet? And how other people without pets just don’t understand those feelings? Well, that’s how I feel about this show!'"

Ironically, two particular skeptics who had to be convinced of Downward Dog’s potential ended up as executive producers on the show. John Hoberg admits he and Kat Likkel first met with series creators Samm Hodges and Michael Killen “because we couldn’t wait to see what a cluster-f– it was. Then we showed up, watched the pilot and figured out it's so much more than a talking dog show."

It’s a reaction that Hodges, who also provides the voice for Martin, had gotten used to from the moment ABC decided to turn his web series about the dog into a primetime show.

“People wanted to watch it to mock it,” he admits. “There was negative reaction from the moment the network show was announced. People were saying it was the worst idea, that it’s the death of television. But even though they said that, people were really surprised when they saw it."

A lot of the credit for turning opinions around, according to Hodges, goes to Tolman. He’d wanted to work with her ever since his wife convinced him to watch Fargo, largely because he was struck by how genuine she seemed. That would be invaluable for an actor sharing the screen with a dog.

“She has a grounded quality that comes from a very real place," adds Likkel. "That’s what Samm and Michael really wanted because their idea of their show is so out there, you need somebody who seems real."

That "reality" has been Tolman’s calling card throughout her career. She knows she’s “shaped different from a lot of the women you see on TV. I mean, you see women more than a size 8 and it’s really striking. With Fargo, people saw a real woman and that idea appealed to them." Which she’s hoping also will be the case with Downward Dog.

"People come up to me all the time and mention Fargo but what’s most special is when I hear from young girls who were inspired seeing Molly on TV,” she explains. “I've been really lucky to score two TV roles where I can be myself and how I look is never mentioned. Which, by the way, is what happens in my real life. I can be myself and how I look is never mentioned."

Her "real" appeal wasn’t always an advantage. As a young woman from Texas trying to make it in Chicago, where she studied at Second City, Tolman struggled through lots of office day jobs while looking for any chance to perform. She managed to book the occasional commercial – she shot two ads for Wal-Mart, neither of which ever aired – but she started to feel like "nothing is going to happen for me, but I am also never going to give it up."

Her tenacity landed her in Hollywood, where she was able to get microscopic roles like "Nurse" in a Prison Break episode or "Mom" in Barney & Friends. Then, along came Fargo and now ... she’s working with a dog. Which, as she acknowledges, may not be everyone's choice for a career path.

"They say don’t work with dogs or kids," explains Tolman, laughing again. "But now that I’m shooting a show with a dog, I can say it’s actually fine. It’s a little challenging when you’re working with a creature that’s not complicit in what you’re doing. At 10:45 at night, our dog is, like, ‘Guys! Let’s just go home! We’re all clearly tired. Why are we walking in this same 6 feet of space over and over again? I need to sleep 16 hours a day and I’m not ashamed of that.'"

With fellow actors, it's easy to anticipate what they'll do because, after all, it’s in the script. With Martin? Not so much. There have been times where a scene required Tolman to show some emotion and "the dog is supposed to jump up and sit on a table and lick my face. I have to get to a certain place as an actress and then just stay there until he is ready to give it a try." The inevitable retakes aren't because the dog isn’t well trained. It’s just that, says Tolman, "animals are more of the one-and-done approach. Our guy is probably thinking, 'How many times do I have to do this dumb thing?'"

Don’t get her wrong. She's not putting puppies down and wants "to meet and pet every dog I pass." It's just that, even though she grew up with dogs and once even worked at a veterinarian’s office cleaning out kennels, her life is much more feline-friendly now. She confesses that she has a cat named Annie and has been known to Skype home to have her boyfriend turn the camera on her.

“I'll admit it, my boyfriend and I like to talk for her all the time,” explains Tolman. “We use a crotchety old lady voice when we figure she’s saying, 'I'm hungry! Feed me!' And whenever she is being a spoiled brat, which is a lot of the time, we give her a Valley Girl voice. Strangers' dogs certainly seem happier to see me than Annie ever has. I can come into my house and she's, like, 'Hey,' and that’s it. I like how dogs are much more, 'Like me! Give attention to me!' And they usually get it!"

Now, she’s hoping that Downward Dog will attract similar attention, which she likes to think is because the show is “ultimately a love story about a woman and her dog. It’s also like one of those Office-style confessional shows," she says. "Except that in this one, it's a dog that talks to the camera. It’s something I can’t explain. You just have to experience the show and then you’ll know."

Downward Dog premieres this summer on ABC.