How ‘Emergence’ Turns Allison Tolman Into Ripley and Sarah Connor

ABC’s new mystery thriller Emergence stars Allison Tolman as Jo, a policewoman who discovers a young girl, Piper (Alexa Swinton). Piper doesn’t appear to be a normal missing girl. She has a tracking chip embedded in her and answers to questions only raise more questions. Jo’s protection of Piper recalls other maternal sci-fi heroes like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in Terminator 2.

Allison Tolman at the Emergence premiere
Allison Tolman at the Emergence prmeire | Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for PEOPLE

Tolman spoke with the Television Critics Association in August about Emergence and what appealed to her about the character of Jo. She acknowledged the parallels to sci-fi’s classic heroines too. Emergence premiers tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC.

‘Emergence’ met Allison Tolman’s criteria for a role

Even after her success and acclaim on Fargo, Allison Tolman reads many scripts where the female characters aren’t fully developed. Emergence avoided those pitfalls.

Allison Tolman in Emergence
Allison Tolman in Emergence | Eric Liebowitz via Getty Images

“I need to play female characters that are identified by more than their relationship with the men around them,” Tolman said. “So not just someone’s wife or someone’s teacher or someone’s whatever. It’s really important to me that they be fully formed characters on their own.”

It was also important that Jo’s character was at the forefront, not her looks. 

“I don’t love shows that talk a lot about physical characteristics of their female characters,” Tolman said. “I’m not a fan of that. So I’ll put scripts down pretty quickly if they say that someone’s overweight. I’m like nah, why?”

The difference between ‘Emergence’ and ‘Aliens’

Allison Tolman recognizes the sci-fi trope of action heroines becoming maternal. She points out one key difference between Ripley and Jo.

“There’s a sci-fi gimmick where there’s a heroine who has to take care of a child, she’s kind of a little reluctant about it, but she learns to love,” Tolman said. “That’s not Jo. Jo is a mom. She already has this sort of maternal instinct, and that, accompanied by her sense of duty, I think, as an officer of the law, is what puts her in this position where she immediately takes this kid in who has nobody. She doesn’t really see an alternative. She is a warm person, and she is a mother.”

Allison Tolman to the Television Critics Association, 8/5/19

‘Emergence’ is in a genre that Allison Tolman loves

Allison Tolman does like these sorts of mysterious sci-fi stories so Emergence is in her wheelhouse.

Allison Tolman and Zabyrna Guevara
Allison Tolman and Zabryna Guevara in Emergence | Giovanni Rufino via Getty Images

“I love horror and any sort of suspense,” Tolman said. “I would consider both [Aliens and Terminator 2] to be in the thriller category, just a sci-fi thriller. So this is the type of show that I like to watch and the kind of thing that I like to consume. So it has worked out really well that it’s the type of show that would offer me the role that I could be on.”

The safety and technology of ‘Emergence’ becomes a concern for Jo

Joe has a daughter, so bringing a stranger into her home poses some risks, let alone if Piper is more than human.

“I think as this universe continues and answers to the questions of who Piper is are harder and harder to find, it does become a concern,” Tolman said. “It does become a concern of whether or not this is the best thing for her family and what is she jeopardizing her home and her town and in what ways is she doing that?”

Then there’s that chip they pull out of Piper.

“There seems to be some advanced technology I would say involved with the chip,” Tolman teased. 

Allison Tolman has answers to ‘Emergence’

Emergence creators Michelle Fazekas and Tara Butters promise to answer questions very quickly. Allison Tolman already knows the first season.

“Like Michelle and Tara said, those answers are going to come quick, much quicker than I anticipated,” Tolman said. “I thought this would be a season long arc where we find out X, Y, Z and they said, ‘Oh no, we’ll get there by four or five.’ I was like, ‘And then where will we go?’ So they really have it all planned out and they’re not going to tease us too much.”

Those answers help Tolman work.

Allison Tolman
Allison Tolman | Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

“I feel like I need to be the judge of what information I need to play this person now. I can’t find out later that this is what was going on in her head. That would bug me. I would be nervous as an actress, I would be nervous that a writer’s sense of what I need to know to play a character is not the same thing as what my sense is of what I need to play a character. So that would be hard for me.”