Though set in the same frigid landscape as the 1996 Coen brothers movie "Fargo," the new FX series of that name is not so much an adaptation as it is a close cousin. Like the film, the series is larded with sight gags, stubborn Midwestern manners, character quirks and black humor. And often it delivers a serious and observant look at mangled humanity.
"It's the best of America versus the worst of America," says the show's creator and executive producer, Noah Hawley, by phone from Los Angeles.
Dealing with all the show's morons, frauds and psychopaths is Molly Solverson, a police deputy tasked with unraveling a series of murders in her small Minnesota town. She's played by actress Allison Tolman, in her first major role.
The Coen brothers are not directly involved in the 10-episode series (10 p.m. Tuesdays), but their film's legacy looms large. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her role as the no-nonsense Minnesota police chief at the story's center.
To offset that memory, Hawley has created a brand-new character who is distinct, but shares many traits with McDormand's character. Sweet, cunning and contemplative in equal measure, Molly Solverson is an unassuming presence, the brown of her hair matching her brown vest and parka, her tan uniform blending into her pale skin. Tolman's performance conceals plenty behind that polite Minnesota facade.
The actress is the one unknown lead on the show, which also features Billy Bob Thornton, "Hobbit" and "Sherlock" star Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine and "Breaking Bad's" Bob Odenkirk.
Tolman got the Solverson role by submitting a taped audition, which is rare but not unheard of. After seeing roughly 100 actresses, Hawley got a look at Tolman's tape. "Here's a woman I'd never seen before who was very grounded, but she got all the nuance of the comedy," he said, "and immediately I thought, 'Well, that's her!' "
The show began shooting in Calgary, Alberta, in October and wrapped last month. Tolman returned to her home in Chicago at the end of April. Over tomato soup and tea, the 32-year-old Texas native (who moved to the Windy City in 2009) talked about the career boost the show has given her. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q After they saw your audition tape, the next step was a screen test in New York, right?
A Yeah. When you go in to do a screen test, you negotiate your contract and sign all your paperwork before you even get on a plane. So at this point I was working part time at a photography studio, making $13 an hour, and not sure if I'm going to make ends meet. And meanwhile I'm negotiating this contract for, like, insane amounts of money -- which was just hilarious and insane, to be negotiating the size of a trailer while I was counting pennies to buy Starbucks. It was so stupid!
Q There's an expression Molly often has on her face when she's communicating with these ...
Q Yes! But it's a little bit of a mask because that polite befuddlement is gone whenever Molly is with her dad (played by Keith Carradine).
A She's such a smart cookie, I think she's always putting things together in her head. A little Geiger counter is going. The only thing I can say really changed about Molly from the first time I read her is that. My natural way of playing her was, "Are you ... kidding me?!" And they stressed to me repeatedly ... to play up the nice, play up the nice -- remember, that's the way to get things done in Minnesota.
So I think that -- layered on top of my natural inclination to play it like, "Are you serious? You're a total moron!" -- that's what's happening on my face, that internal struggle. You do get to see her lose that veneer later in the season, ... and it's really heartbreaking.
Q What's next?
A I'm going out to L.A. to meet with agencies and find an agent (there). I'll spend the rest of (May) there while the show is airing, just to take meetings and be available for anything.
Hopefully, there will be a second season for "Fargo," but I don't know if I'll have a job. (The show was designed as an anthology, and Hawley said he has yet to decide whether any of the characters will return, if there is a Season 2.) If there is no second season (or) I'm not involved, I think I need to move to L.A. by ... October to start hustling to find the next thing. ... It'll be an adventure. It's not a city I love, but maybe I'll find a part of it that I really enjoy ....
Q I'm guessing you made enough money from "Fargo" that you don't have to worry about temping or picking up any more day jobs.
A I'm still working out what I made. There are taxes, and Canadian taxes, and my agent and my manager and my publicist, who all get a percentage.
But I'm more comfortable than I've ever been before. I've never had money before in my life. Never, ever. Like, my '98 Camry broke down and finally gave up the ghost. And I was, like, wait -- I can buy a new car. That's an option!