“I didn’t set out to do it at all,” I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers said at Deadline’s The Contenders event Saturday in Los Angeles. “Then I saw this great documentary on 30 for 30 about Tonya Harding.”
Neon’s I, Tonya explores the reality of Olympic figure skater Harding’s life, and the differing accounts of what happened when her U.S. rival Nancy Kerrigan was attacked and injured. With Margot Robbie in the title role, Rogers set out to show a side of Harding that nobody knew.
“It was fascinating to really get Tonya’s backstory,” director Craig Gillespie told Deadline’s moderator Pete Hammond. Using the contradictory accounts from Rogers’ interviews with Tonya and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, the film cleverly presents several viewpoints. “We found in the edit [that] we made that deliberately less clear, so the audience had to concentrate to work out what version we were telling at that moment,” Gillespie said.
Robbie said she decided how she would approach the role before she actually met Harding because she wanted “just to meet her as a person, I didn’t want it to feel like research.” Harding was “incredibly kind,” Robbie said. “She was like, ‘How are you learning to skate? Do you want me to help you train?’”
One of the things that really helped Robbie present Harding without prejudice was that she didn’t know about the Kerrigan incident before seeing the script. “It was actually better that way, to approach it with fresh eyes,” she said. “The reality is she had a very hard life.”
In playing Harding’s mother – a role Rogers wrote with her in mind – Allison Janney did not have a lot of source material, since the real-life woman could not be located. “Steven tried,” Janney said, “and Tonya did not know where she was. She thought she was last seen living in a trailer behind a pawn shop or something like that. We didn’t know at the time if she was alive or dead, so it was pretty much Tonya’s experience of her mother and artistic license.”
One thing Janney especially enjoyed about the role was acting with a live bird perched on her shoulder. “I’ve worked with a lot of barnyard animals but never a bird,” she said. “Someone told me the way to smoke a cigarette and look cool is to never look at the cigarette, so I thought, ‘I’m never going to look at this bird.’” Working together wasn’t always easy, however. “It was poking at my ear,” Janney said. But the role was “enormous fun. I just thought, ‘bring it.’”
For Sebastian Stan, playing Gillooly was “a little surreal.” Basing a lot of his information on Rogers’ original exploratory interviews with the real man, Stan said: “To be honest, I just wanted to meet him because I couldn’t find a picture of him smiling. I wanted to see his face light up.”
As for how Harding herself has received the film, Rogers said, “She said she laughed and she cried, and there were things she didn’t like, but she’s emailed me twice just to thank me, so I think she’s happy.”