Carlson was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. When Carlson was 13, her family (consisting of her parents, three siblings and her) moved for a year to Amman, Jordan, where her parents had been hired to teach at the American Community School. After returning to the United States, Carlson attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. While in college, Carlson was active in the school’s theatre department, appearing in Fifth of July, Noises Off, A Lie of the Mind, and School for Scandal. Carlson graduated cum laude.