‘Downward Dog’ Creators on Casting a Shelter Canine Alongside ‘Grounded’ Allison Tolman

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Ned and Allison Tolman in ABC’s ‘Downward Dog’ (Credit: Bob D’Amico/ABC)

Looking for something both you and your dog can watch together? Starting May 17, viewers and their canine companions can curl up on the couch for Downward Dog, ABC’s new slice-of-life comedy about a newly single woman, Nan (Fargo‘s Allison Tolman) and her chatty pup, Martin (former shelter dog Ned, in his first-ever acting gig). It’s an adaptation of a short web series from Samm Hodges — who provides Martin’s speaking voice — and Michael Killen, who are the creative forces behind the TV show as well. We spoke with the duo about the process of directing a four-legged actor, and why it was so important to them to put a shelter dog front and center in a network series.

You’re juggling two very different perspectives throughout the series. When you were writing each episode, whose storyline would you start with: Nan or Martin’s?
Samm Hodges: Well, the original web series was almost completely from Martin’s perspective. We realized that what the web series didn’t capitalize on at all was the fact that this dog has complete access to the most intimate moments of this girl’s life. One of the things Michael and I talked a lot about is that, as humans, we’re the most isolated than we’ve ever been throughout history. We’re getting married later and later, kids are more of an optional thing. So [we thought of Nan] as a woman who was trying very hard to be strong, and to do the things she thought she was supposed to do, but having a lot of crises in her personal life that her dog could be part of. There’s humor in those moments.

Michael Killen: What’s nice, too, is that her world really isn’t that special. It’s not like we chose a dog that belongs to a superhero or the President of the United States. Nan is generally a regular person who has work problems and friend problems. But when you add Martin to the mix, he sees that his version of that world is definitely overdramatized.

Hodges: We would share a lot of stories from our own personal lives in the writers’ room, and when we would start to look at themes, one we saw a lot was loyalty. In one episode, Nan does a disloyal thing in a good way, maybe, and Martin has his own emotional day. So we’d put a lot of story arcs on the board and mix and match to find thematic overlap. A lot of it was finding stories where Martin could mess up Nan’s life; those would work the best. If you watch the pilot, I think you do kind of wonder if the show has enough [story] to sustain it. Now, at the end of the first season, we have so many ideas that we want to do. It’s amazing how many stories there are to tell when you have characters that want the same things, but don’t speak the same language.

Was there any trepidation about working with a canine actor?
Killen: I come from a background of dealing with animals, which was one of the key pieces to us putting the web series together — our incredible comfort with knowing exactly what would and wouldn’t work when you have an animal on set. How to manage that, how to script it, to schedule it, and do every single aspect of it. In this case, we’re not asking the animals to do anything super-amazing in concept and in script. You don’t have to toil over something that an animal wouldn’t do. [In some scenes] Martin’s biggest action is to jump off a couch and eat a bowl of food. A lot of dogs could pull that off.

Hodges: I think that Michael does have a gift with animals — it’s kind of a very subtle thing. He had a certain way of thinking about animals that makes them seem very, very natural, and very present. Usually because they want food, I think! It’s really simple. We never pushed the animals beyond where they wanted to go. Sometimes I’d be looking at footage of the dog and he wouldn’t do what we thought he would do, and we’d have to figure out how to write around that. But I think that worked to our advantage in the end.

Ned is the primary canine actor, but were there other dogs that played Martin?
Killen: We had a stuffed dog that Ned really hated. Stuffy was its name, and it had to be removed from set before we brought Ned in, because he would attack Stuffy… The big thing that led us to Ned is that he was a shelter dog. The easy choice would have been to get a pedigree dog that could get right out of the litter. You could get triplets and work the specific breed. It meant so much to us to have a dog that was mixed breed, of an anonymous background and definitely a shelter dog. We had to live with the consequences of that, and we’re very patient with Ned.

Watch the original Downward Dog web series below:

That’s something dog lovers should appreciate about the show. The idea of adopting rescue and shelter dogs has become much more popular in recent years.
Hodges: As a writer, you’re looking for the blindspots that we have in society, and we talked a lot about how we treat dogs. We consume them like they are products. In the pilot, there’s a scene in an animal shelter that we shot in a real shelter, and being in that shelter was really, really crazy. You walk in this room and there’s all these beautiful animals inside. There’s something really, really wrong in our country with how we treat animals. We want to bring attention to that and say, “Hey, we’re doing something really f**ked up with these creatures that we supposedly love.”

Killen: Ned lived in Mississippi first, and then went to Chicago for a year and a half, and wasn’t adoptable. Samm and I fell in love with his eyes. We couldn’t stop thinking about them, because they’re very human. He wasn’t trained at all, and was a little shy in the pilot. Our trainers, by giving him confidence, got him to the state where he was just wonderful. By the time we shot the rest of the series, he was much bolder in the way he went about it. And now he’s just a wonderful, relaxed dog, and very happy with his life choices.

Obviously, much of the success of the show hinges on who would be cast as Nan. How did you settle on Allison Tolman?
Hodges: Michael and I knew that a show that has a talking animal in the lead [alongside] the human lead, [actors] are going to want to make it into this goofy competitive thing. We knew that our only chance of making this feel authentic was to make our human character really grounded. If you watch Allison’s performance, she finds humor between the lines. It’s not about landing good jokes. And because she’s so grounded, it allows Martin to be, well, a talking dog.

Tolman in ‘Downward Dog’ (Photo: ABC)

What do you hope viewers take away from Downward Dog?
Hodges: I want people to feel like they matter. Martin is a character that’s always very concerned if he matters or not, and I think that if you show this really narcissistic, flawed dog and his narcissistic, flawed owner, then people will feel kind of accepted as well.

Killen: One thing we accomplished in the web series was entering the world of a dog/owner relationship, but by the end you really get to feel how important this being is to her life. I think we take that into the TV series as well. [Pets] have become significant relationships in our lives. We want to provide proper perspective, not a crazy, goofy perspective. These relationships are, to us, real relationships.

Hodges: Both Nan and Martin really struggle to love themselves; that’s both of their existential crises. I just want people to be nice to themselves. We’re so self-critical as a society. A lot of what Michael and I talked about is that the heart of the show is just how much happier we can be if we just try to be ourselves.

Downward Dog premieres Wednesday, May 17 at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.

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