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Downward Dog star on why she signed up for a talking dog show

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Craig Sjodin/ABC

ABC comedy Downward Dog stars Allison Tolman as Nan, the owner of a self-involved, often disgruntled, but loyal dog named Martin. Far from the cutesy comedy the description “talking dog” might evoke, the show feels grounded and deals with human emotion in a very real way — and yes, this human emotion is narrated through voiceovers from a dog. Ahead of the premiere episode, EW chatted with Tolman about the show’s indie feel and tone, the struggles facing people in their early thirties, and taking dog treats to work.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m not really a dog person, so I was nervous about a show with a talking dog as its lead. How did you react when you were sent a script for a show that is narrated by a dog?

ALLISON TOLMAN: Well, I’m so glad to hear that a non-dog person still likes the show. It sounds like you were giving it more benefit of the doubt going into it than I was when I first heard about the project, to be perfectly honest. I got a list of different things to look at from my agents, and one of things on the list was the talking dog show, and I was like, ‘”Oh, boy. Yikes.” But then I read the script, and it was clearly smart and funny. I was still somewhat confused about why this smart, funny show had a talking dog in it, but then I watched the shorts it’s based on, and I immediately understood the appeal. Tone is really important in this show — maybe the most important element. Once I’d watched the shorts and I had an idea of this highly-naturalistic, indie, subtle style, I thought this is really interesting to me, and that’s why I decided to speak with the guys and proceed.

Right, and it’s not like it’s silly or gimmicky — Nan’s dog Martin isn’t doing human things, he’s just narrating like a human…

Yeah, exactly. Samm (Hodges, the show’s writer and co-creator) always says it’s not like we have a dog that likes to skateboard — which is what you think of when you think of a talking dog show. Samm is our head writer, but he’s also the voice of Martin. He’s not a voice actor, he’s just a regular person, which is also key in selling the show. That was essential for me, too, that it wasn’t this over-the-top dog like, “I love bones!” and it wasn’t one of those cartoon-y dog voices. It’s a very human character without doing human activities.

It seems like your character, Nan, is on a journey of self-discovery. She’s trying to grow up a little bit and get her life together.

Yes. I think that Nan is how I get — and how I know a lot of my friends get — where you get out of college and then you get a handle on being an adult and then you’re at this point in your early thirties where you’re like, “Oh, wait, now I just have to do this FOREVER?! I have to just pay bills and feed myself and shower and have a dog forever? Who arranged this terrible system?” She’s at that point when you get your feet underneath you as an adult, and then you’re like, “Wait a second, this is no fun.”

Nan’s issues are very real — the end of a relationship, feeling overlooked at work, etc. — and, thematically, Nan’s story lines up with a lot of what Martin’s going through on a smaller scale. By using Martin’s narration and perspective, the show’s able to deal with issues like vanity, insecurity, and loneliness without being too on-the-nose about it.

Yeah, I thought they did such a good job of that, too. When I went back and watched the season and got to see it as a whole, I thought they did a really good job of making each episode about an issue and not so you’re watching this weirdly narrowing story between a dog and a human; that would just get tedious. The whole concept of the show is that we’re exploring these very human challenges through the eyes of this dog, through the lens of this dog. The way this dog looks at his life and wonders, “Do I matter in the grand scheme of things? What does it all mean?” These are all very human thoughts. He really thinks about things on a much deeper level than we hear from Nan because he’s the narrator. In a lot of ways, he’s a much deeper character than she is, but we know she’s going through these similar things and thinking these similar thoughts.

How is being on set with a dog every day? Is it true what they say: Never work with kids or animals?

It just makes for a much more technical day at work. For the most part, we’re not asking me him to do extraordinary things; he acts like a dog. There isn’t really massive tricks that he needed to learn, so he really he just had to be flexible. The hardest part for me was that I had to be somewhere emotionally in a scene, and then they wanted him to come up and lick a tear off my check, or whatever, and I would have to get in the space and stay there while they taught the dog (Ned, a rescue dog) what to do, which wasn’t the easiest thing. But he’s such a good boy, and our trainers are amazing. They really become scene partners in a lot of ways. In all those scenes with just the dog, they’re like my acting partners. We’re working together, trying to figure out what we need to get out of the scene. Mostly it’s just figuring out to keep treats in my pocket at the end of the day, so when Ned’s bored and doesn’t want to be there, I can keep his attention. It’s a long day for a dog, but he goes back to his car and sits in his crate in between takes. He’s got a pretty good life.

Watching the show, some moments I’m laughing out loud, and then a minute later I want to cry. How would you characterize this show? Or if you had to compare to another, which would it be?

Tonally it has more in common with some of these new dramedy-style shows like Transparent that are on different platforms, that are serious but also funny. It’s not a laugh-a-minute kind of show; the humor comes a lot of the time from its sweetness or its melancholy.

It walks that line really well.

Thank you. I hope this leads to you getting a dog someday — that would be the ultimate goal of the show!

Downward Dog premieres Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

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