From co-creators Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas (Agent Carter, Reaper), the ABC drama series Emergence follows small town police chief Jo Evans (Allison Tolman), who takes in a young child that she finds near the site of a mysterious plane crash. The girl, who they decide to call Piper (Alexa Swinton), has no memory of what’s happened, but begins to put everyone around her in danger, including Jo’s father (Clancy Brown), her ex (Donald Faison) and their teenage daughter (Ashley Aufderheide), as the questions about her identity and the connection to a larger conspiracy arise.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Allison Tolman talked about why she was drawn to this pilot script, how much she was told about the larger mystery ahead of time, wanting to make sure that Jo would be very different from her Fargo character Molly, making the transition from their original home at NBC to their new home at ABC, what makes Jo such a relatable character, the unique dynamic between Jo and Alex (Faison), working with Alexa Swinton, and just how surprised she thinks audiences will be, when they start to get answers. She also talked about the special place that Downward Dog will always hold in her heart, and why having heartbreak over the cancellation of a TV series can be good for an actor to experience.
Collider: I loved this pilot, and I’m excited to see more of the show. When you first read this script and were introduced to what this whole mystery would be, what was your reaction? Did you immediately want to know all of the answers?
ALLISON TOLMAN: I read the pilot script, and it reads as well as it watches. It’s such a great read. There are so many moody moments. It really evokes that kind of spooky eeriness. The major set piece of the pilot is this big car wreck that happens, and it read beautifully. It was so successful and such an exciting read. I was like, “This is really, really good, and if they can keep this up, at this timbre, this is gonna be such a great show.” Then, I met with (show creators) Michele [Fazekas] and Tara [Butters], and they were like, “Do you wanna know things, or do you not wanna know things?” And I was like, “Oh, I wanna know everything!” So, they told me everything that they could tell me about the overall arc of the story, and what the conspiracy is that we’re looking at, and the secrets that are gonna unfold, over the course of the first season, and then a possible second season and a possible third season. So, I got in really deep, really fast, luckily.
TOLMAN: Yeah, that is really reassuring. You sign on for a pilot based on one script and maybe one meeting with writers. As actors, that’s it. That’s the end of your control over a situation, saying that, yes, you wanna be involved in a project. And then, you sign on for a certain number of years, and who knows where that character is gonna go or where that story is gonna go, and who knows what that show is gonna turn into. So, being able to talk to creators who have really very clearly thought out what kind of show they wanna make, what kind of arc they wanna have, and who their characters are gonna be, is really reassuring, when you’re making a commitment like that.
Because you also played a small town police chief in Fargo, and it’s a role that is so identified with you, were there ways that you wanted to make sure this character would be different, if you were going to take that on again?
TOLMAN: Yeah. I started reading and immediately said to my boyfriend, who was sitting next to me on the couch, “Oh, god, she’s a small town sheriff. She’s a police chief. Oh, dear!” The differences between Jo and Molly are really evident to me. They’re just very different women at very different points in their careers, and we’re joining them at different points in their journeys, but it was a concern of mine. When we first met, I said to Michelle and Tara, “I don’t know what your plan is for Jo, but if we move forward with this, I would love to talk about her not being in a police uniform, all the time. And if she is in a police uniform, I would love for us to talk about it not being tan.” That’s what I wore for all of Fargo. The two shows are so different, but the comparisons are obviously gonna be drawn because I haven’t done that much work and a huge, major role of mine was Molly in Fargo, who was another law enforcement officer. So, I just wanted to make sure we were separating the two as much as we could, visually, so that people don’t always associate them with each other.
This show also made a bit of an unusual move, from NBC to ABC, when NBC passed on the project. When NBC decided not to pick up the series, did you think that was it, as far as the series continuing?
TOLMAN: It all happened rather quickly. We didn’t get a phone call, that NBC was passing on the show, so much as it was just that time was running out and it was the end of the Friday before Upfronts. We hadn’t gotten the phone call that we had been passed on, but we hadn’t gotten the call that it had picked up yet, either. So, we were sitting in this weird limbo space, when we got the phone call saying, “It’s not official yet, but it looks like NBC is going to pass. But we have a white knight riding in, and ABC is gonna scoop us up.” It was a tumultuous two-hour period, while all of the phone calls were going on, and really through the weekend, until we got to the ABC Upfronts. And then, Donald [Faison] and I were like, “Okay, this is real. This is really happening. We’ve been rescued by this network.” We felt so lucky.
Sometimes, when a show gets cancelled, it’ll go to another network, but usually that doesn’t happen before it actually gets picked up and airs even a single episode.
TOLMAN: It was definitely unusual. We were in a good spot because ABC Studios produced the pilot. They were already involved creatively, so they had access to it and were involved with it, from the beginning, luckily, ‘cause they’d had a chance to see it and fall in love with it. I think that we just didn’t fit into what NBC’s line-up ended up being, but we felt nothing but love and support from NBC, even after they passed on us. They were equally thrilled that the pilot got to land somewhere ‘cause they liked the show, they just didn’t end up having a spot for it. I don’t understand it because I’m not on that end of it, but there are all of these other things that they take into consideration, like what the lead-in is, what they already have in that same genre, and how many seasons they have left in that plan. There are all of these things that go into it, beyond just how good a show is. Good shows get cut, before they see the light of day, all the time, or they’re gone after one season, or they just don’t get the life that they deserve. There are a lot of numbers and quantifiers that go into it, that are beyond the quality of the show
There are a lot of layers to this, with the family dynamic, the small town, whether there’s something supernatural or possibly alien going on, and whatever else might come up, along the way. What were the aspects of the story that appealed to you?
TOLMAN: I think it’s two-fold. As a viewer, I really like to watch these supernatural/sci-fi style thrillers. That’s what I like to watch, what I like to read, and what I like to go see in theaters. I like that genre. And then, as an actress, the fact that it’s grounded in this family drama and based around this very real woman is very appealing. It seems like a comfortable place to spend some time, in that character. I just really like Jo. I liked her, the second that I read her. I think she’s got a good sense of humor, I think she’s got good balance to her life, as a mother and a police officer, and I just enjoyed her, as a person.
What have you grown to appreciate about her, the more you’ve gotten to know her? Are there layers that you didn’t necessarily realize about her, on day one?
TOLMAN: The thing that I’m learning more about, as we’re getting deeper into this mystery that we’re continuing, is that Jo was this great detective and investigator, and all of these skills were there inside of her, but were untested and something that she’s never had to use. She’s never had to play in a league quite as big as the one that she’s being asked to play in, in this story. So, I like the fact that was all there. She has this confidence in her abilities and in herself, and it’s just never been tested. But when she’s called upon to rise to the occasion, she’s more than ready to do.
This character really is so relatable because she just seems like a woman who’s trying to do right by her family, her work and her town, and people seem to trust her, whether it’s her ex, her co-workers, or a stranger in town. What do you enjoy about playing a character who is just a really good, caring person?
TOLMAN: I have been really lucky to play a lot of characters who I think are warm and likable. Maybe not so much Mary Pat in Good Girls, but other characters that I’ve been able to play have that quality. What I like about Jo is that, in addition to her being this likable character, in the way that other characters relate to her and the audiences relate to her, is that she has a confidence about her that I don’t think we saw in Molly, for example, in Fargo. There’s something about Jo that’s very established and very comfortable with herself, and that has been a lot of fun. It’s just a more mature take on that role. I’m not a mother myself, but I’ve played mothers before. Jo has a daughter who’s 14, so she’s a mature woman. She’s not still finding herself, in the way that a girl would be, and that’s really a lot of fun to play. She’s smart, she’s savvy and she’s sexy, and I just really enjoy that.
I love the family dynamic between Jo and her teenaged daughter, and the two of them living with Jo’s father. How awesome is it to have Clancy Brown as the family patriarch?
TOLMAN: Oh, he’s awesome. He’s great. He’s great in the role, and he’s also great, as himself, to have on set. He’s a joy.
The dynamic between your character and Donald Faison’s character is interesting because they’re a recently divorced couple who really doesn’t seem to know how to not be married to each other. Do you personally root for them to get back together, or do you think they’re a couple that’s just better when they’re not a couple?
TOLMAN: I don’t know. That’s dangerous ground, in real life. You see divorced couples that get along so great, and you’re like, “Why did you guys split up?” It’s probably for a reason. You don’t know what goes on in a marriage, and we’re only getting an inkling of what went on in Alex and Jo’s marriage. They both seem like smart people, so I’m sure they split up for a reason, but I agree with you that they are awfully nice together and they’re charming together. There’s obviously still a lot of love there, and they’re still figuring out how to not be married. They haven’t really quite gotten the hang of it yet.
Do you think there will ever be a moment when Jo will regret having taken this child into her home and her life, or do you think she would still do everything the same way, even if she know where it would all lead?
TOLMAN: Jo is a really logical woman. Even as it becomes clear, throughout the season, that that taking Piper (Alexa Swinton) in has created some danger for her and for her family, I think she’s practical enough to say, “Okay, but what were the options, at the time? I did the best that I could with the options that were given to me, at the time, and with this situation that we were in.” She doesn’t really look backwards and with regret. She’s pretty good at compartmentalizing and being like, “Okay, here’s where we are now. How do we move forward?” That’s how we’re gonna keep driving the story forward, throughout the season, as well.
It seems as though Piper is just running on instinct and doing things because she knows that she should or feels like she should, but doesn’t necessarily know why. Is that going to begin to create some tension, when things happen that Jo doesn’t necessarily understand?
TOLMAN: Yeah, absolutely. The big question for the season is, why doesn’t Piper remember who she is? Who is this kid? As different characters start to learn more about her, throughout the season, that mystery just continues to build, including for Piper, herself. She’s learning a lot. She’s regaining memories and she’s figuring out things out, throughout the season.
Clearly, one of the things that’s crucial to a show like this working is the bond between your character and this young girl who doesn’t know anything about who she is. What’s it been like to work with and form that bond with Alexa Swinton? How has she been, as a scene partner, and were you ever worried that like you wouldn’t find the right kid?
TOLMAN: No. I was in this role, at beginning, so I was able to be there for chemistry reads with the girls that we read for Piper, and Alexa was a real stand-out, from the start. When they proceeded with casting her, I thought that was a smart and obvious choice. And then, once we got to work together, that was only confirmed for me. She’s a good kid, she’s smart, and she’s a really hard worker, so she’s actually a great scene partner. She really listens to you, she looks at you, and she’s engaged with you, even when she’s not on camera, which are things that, a lot of times, seasoned adult actors don’t provide their scene partners with. So, for a kid actor, she’s got an unbelievably heavy load to carry in this show, with some really complex work that she’s having to do, and she’s handling it beautifully.
Since you clearly know more about what’s going on in the show than the audience will, how much do you think it’ll surprise viewers, as they get more and more hooked on this show and they care about these characters, to learn what some of this mystery is all about? Do you think it will be surprising?
TOLMAN: I certainly hope so. It was surprising to us, as a cast, not just where the story goes, but how rapidly they’re unfolding this world. Michele and Tara are not gonna tease the audience, and then not let it pay off. They’re not in the business of just teasing the audience without that pay-off. So, I think that the audience is gonna be really pleasantly surprised with how deep things go, and how quickly they go there
In the last few years, especially, you’ve worked in various genres and played a wide variety of characters, but is there a type of project, or a real-life character, or a character from some sort of source material, that you’d love the chance to get to play?
TOLMAN: Yeah. I’m a reader, so I’m always reading books and then looking into see if the rights are already spoken for, to see if I can scoop them up and start making things into series and movies, myself. I haven’t hit on anything yet that isn’t already spoken for, but I’m waiting to stumble across an obscure historical figure that I read about somewhere, that no one has gotten the rights to yet, and then I can try to develop that into a movie or a series. I think it would be really fun to play someone who actually existed. I haven’t really had a chance to do that, and I think that would be a lot of fun.
People really loved the work that you did on Fargo, and I was a big fan of that, but at the same time, Downward Dog was one of those magical shows that was gone way too soon. Will that show always hold a special place in your heart?
TOLMAN: Yeah, I think so. I loved that show. My biggest wish for that show would be that some streaming service would pick it up, just so that people can see it. None of us are holding out hope that there’ll be more. We know that ship has sailed and that it’s done. I’m actually quite proud of it. I think it’s the perfect little season, and the perfect full story. We couldn’t have asked for any better, as far as the quality of the content goes. I wish that someone would stream it, so we could share it with more people ‘cause I do think it was a really special show. It was also my first real TV heartbreak, and it was important to have that, to move forward with other pilots and pilot seasons. Even with Emergence, waiting to see if the show was gonna get picked up, and now shooting the first season, I’m glad that I have Downward Dog under my belt, so I know what it’s like to love a show and to pour yourself into it, and to publicize it and live tweet every episode, and to build this fan base. To have that go away was heartbreaking and fleeting and lovely, and I feel like that’s a necessary experience for an actor. I think it’s good to have that.
Emergence airs on Tuesday nights on ABC.