Since earning an Emmy nomination for her breakout role as Deputy Molly Solverson on the first season of Noah Hawley’s FX anthology series, Fargo, Allison Tolman has taken pains not to pigeonhole herself. But there is a common thread to her roles; she plays an "everywoman" just trying to live her life until she gets dropped into extraordinary circumstances.
When Tolman hears that description, she laughs with sudden recognition that, yes, certain roles appeal to her more than others. "I guess I'm not offered a lot of superheroes," she tells ET. "I tend to be drawn to the roles where women are the heroes of their own story, and most of those women are real women. They are just trying to get through the day and hold down a job. I think that that's enough of a challenge."
In the film Barracuda, which opens in limited release on Friday, Oct. 6, she plays one of those women. Merle is the daughter of a famous country singer who is cruising along with a normal life until her half-sister, Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), appears on her doorstep. Sinaloa is the product of an affair their father had on tour in the U.K., and she's a singer-songwriter with a bit of a crazy streak. While Merle's life is going OK, with a good job and a fiancé, the longer Sinaloa stays around, the more Merle questions what her own life should be.
"Sinaloa is the catalyst that puts everything into effect, in really awful ways but I think in really good ways, too," says Tolman. "I think that Merle's changed forever after this time that she spent with her. But I was attracted to the idea of playing someone who [has] chaos swirling around her and she's just at the center of it trying to hold strong."
Tolman was also attracted to the way the movie depicts her home state of Texas and the music scene in Austin. "I think Texas is rivaled only by Florida as a state with a bad reputation," she says. "But I also don't know any state that has the sort of state pride that Texas has. I think Texas ended up being stereotyped in film for the most part. I think that this film certainly makes Austin seem really attractive, and it shows how beautiful that city is, but I don't think Austin was having any trouble in that department, anyway."
Barracuda is also representative of the types of roles Tolman has taken since Fargo, either small guest roles on TV shows or supporting roles in independent movies, like Addicted to Fresno and the upcoming Killing Gunther. The camaraderie among the cast and crew on small-scale productions is something she enjoys, which makes sense, considering she helped start a theater company in Texas and worked with Second City in Chicago.
"While working on [Barracuda], I just thought this would be so much fun to do with my friends that I did theater with for so many years; ‘Let's get down in the dirt and make a project.’ I really enjoy that type of work, and I've been lucky enough to have some of my best friends be people that I've made art with for years and years,” she says.
In that spirit, Tolman became very close with her co-stars, particularly Reid, during production. "We're kindred souls. As a person and as an actress she's very open and very available even in ways that I am not. She just has this sort of wonder in everything,” she says, adding that she played Reid’s guide through Texas. “I blew her mind. That's her approach to life in general. That's just a very winning characteristic in a person and a really comfortable characteristic in an acting partner.”
Much like her film roles, Tolman makes sure she chooses TV projects she’ll enjoy, which is why ABC’s short-lived Downward Dog, in which she played the owner of a philosophizing dog, was her first series commitment following Fargo.
Tolman knew she had something good with Dog, but wasn't sure ABC was the right place for it -- it was a show with an indie feel that didn’t necessarily jive with a major network. "That was a major consideration for me when I took the part. This just didn't seem like a network show,” she says. “But ABC was saying, 'We want our own Netflix show. We want our own weird little indie comedy.' They were purposefully trying to step out of their comfort zone, they were trying to think out of the box a little bit." But when programming chief Paul Lee left ABC, the show was canceled. "I'm thankful that we have one really pure season of the show," she says.
For now, Tolman’s back in meetings, trying to find that next special project. "I'm thankful that I've been working for long enough now that I have things staggered, so when I'm not working I have things coming out and I can be like, 'Oh, that's right. I am a working actress,' even when I'm not working."