It has been a dizzying ascent for Margot Robbie, from the Australian soap opera Neighbours to Hollywood, with roles in the TV series Pan Am and in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. But she truly announces herself as an actress with chops, and a chance to medal this awards season, with I, Tonya. In the Craig Gillespie-directed film, Robbie soars as the scandal-scarred US Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. She turns an historically vilified white trash tabloid figure into a defiant underdog antihero, who threw up a finger to skating judges when they ignored her superior physical skills and resisted Harding as the image of their sport.
Pushed as a child by a hard-edged mother as stingy with praise as she was generous with open-hand slaps (played hilariously by Allison Janney), Harding’s story previously belonged to the gossip hounds in the tabloids. Despite winning the 1991 US Championships when she became the first woman to successfully execute the gravity-defying triple axel, Harding’s place in sports history is one of ignominy because of her suspected complicity in the clumsy attempt by her abusive husband Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan) to hobble her elegant rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Harding received a lifetime ban by the US Figure Skating Association, after pleading guilty to a charge of hindering the prosecution in the attack on Kerrigan.
Despite the string of roles that have followed Wolf—such as her turn as Harley Quinn, the bright spot of Suicide Squad, which she will reprise in sequels—I, Tonya is the first film to rest solely on Robbie’s shoulders. She plunges into the portrayal of an unglamorous, dirt-poor and defiant woman, who sewed her own costumes and applied her own makeup (harshly) for the sport she believed in. And Robbie captures the frightful intensity—and the ultimate tragedy—of the character she plays. It’s this kind of expert understanding of character that may have prompted Quentin Tarantino to pursue Robbie for the role of Sharon Tate in his next film, and it puts her squarely into the Oscar conversation this year.
Gold may have eluded Tonya Harding on the ice, but she may have one more shot on Oscar night.
I, Tonya follows in the tradition of edgy black comedies Fargo and To Die For, with moments like the one we experienced in Fargo, which provokes laughs when Steve Buscemi is fed through a wood chipper, and only later do you wonder if there is something seriously wrong with you. Tonya Harding, her mother, her husband and his dim cohorts provide outrageously funny moments, juxtaposed by images of the skater being battered by those closest to her. Like the triple axel, there is a high degree of difficulty here.
It’s definitely dark. Allison Janney puts it well. She’s like, “It’s like laughing in church when you know that you shouldn’t, and then you’re thinking, ‘What kind of person am I to find this funny?’” It does have those moments in it.
This film effectively launches your production company LuckyChap. How did you become involved on that level?
The script by Steven Rogers hadn’t hit the Black List when it was sent to me, and Craig Gillespie wasn’t attached as director. It was available and we read it pretty quickly, around the same time as producer Bryan Unkeless. We tried to get a meeting with Steven and he said Bryan had just come aboard. That was great because we always co-produce; we’re a young company and not big enough yet to produce anything on our own. So I sat down with Steven and Bryan and pitched them why I should, A, play Tonya Harding, and B, produce as well. That conversation went amazingly and then it was about how we saw the script and the potential challenges, because there are so many.
What were the biggest?
It was so unconventional. It didn’t have a traditional structure. It was like, “What theme?” Do we need to pick a lane, or marry a couple lanes together? And who can walk that line? Very few directors can pull that off. It is a very specific tone; you’ve got the mockumentary feeling, you’ve got the very dark comedy, you’ve got real life events, you’ve got real life people. There are legal issues, already, with people who are still very much alive. You’ve got an event people remember, but have very strong feelings about. Everyone’s already made their mind up about how they feel about this person. Do you want to shift people’s minds, and in doing so, what do you want that to be? It is an indie film budget, and it is period, and includes the Olympic Games. All those things equate to being very expensive. And with something so unconventional, you’re never going to get a lot of money from financiers to do it. All that, and the ice skating sequences, and the fact she ages, starting from age 15 to age 44.
And 44 with a lot of mileage. You just turned 27?
Yes. You can hire different actresses for different ages, but people are going to emotionally invest in the person they see on screen, so you really want to pick one person to play her, as much as possible. So those were the logistical complications. But the script also deals with domestic violence. How do you handle that appropriately? In my opinion, if you are not handling it appropriately, that’s doing it a great disservice.
What do you mean by “handling”?
Sugarcoating the issue is not handling it correctly. But using it in an entertaining script can also be done badly, and that’s not appropriate, either. So, there were concerns, and areas we had to make sure got done right. But the upside was like, the sky’s the limit. It was so good. These characters are amazing; so flawed and wrong, and yet you empathize with them in a weird way, and you can see a bit of yourself in them at times. There was a real opportunity to surprise people, which to me has been the biggest compliment, when people come out and they say, “I am so surprised that I felt this. I’m so shocked that I loved it.” Everyone keeps saying, “I just didn’t think I was going to love it, and I love it.” That possibility is what I saw in that script, the upside to surprise people like that. People hadn’t seen a movie like this before, and I thought if we can pull this off, it will be truly original. And then it came down to finding the director who would handle these sensitive things correctly. That search was lengthy and I don’t know if we would have gone ahead had we not got Craig. I remember saying, “If we don’t find the right director for this, we shouldn’t make it at all.”
He directed a wholly original indie in Lars and the Real Girl. Why him?
What set him apart was, he spoke about the characters with zero judgment. Everyone else seemed to judge. You could tell when people spoke about the characters that they thought they were stupid, trashy. They thought they were funny for sure, but they were judging. Craig didn’t see them that way; he really wanted to empathize with them, to understand them. He brought a lot of technical solutions. With this script in particular, tone and achieving it was so important. Tone is so intangible that it’s a conversation that can go in circles and everyone can say, “Well I think it should be like this.” It’s very hard to articulate how you would actually execute that. He had actual solutions when we asked him. “OK, in this moment I would cut to a wide shot. I wouldn’t give a music cue to lead the audience into thinking how they should feel. I would make them feel uncomfortable right here, for this many beats, until that line happens.” He walked in with actual, tangible solutions for this very intangible conundrum we were struggling with. Also, he had worked extensively in the commercial world.
Why was that important?
One of our other big concerns was we would be shooting so much in so little time and for so small amount of money. That’s a hard thing to pull off, but he’s worked so much in the commercial space that we knew he could shoot really fast, so that he could spend the time on the really important parts. I asked what parts he deemed most important, and the way he spoke in our initial meeting was exactly what we got on set. He could shoot so much in one day and I never felt rushed as an actor. We were literally sprinting across ice skating rinks to get the next shot. But I still never felt rushed as an actor, because the moments that really mattered, we spent so much time on. The character moments, and really keying into the relationships. I never felt like a stone was left unturned in that respect. And we finished on time.
Many of us remember the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan rivalry vividly. It was a soap opera, unfolding daily. I remembered Harding as a trashy roughneck, the villain in that drama. Watching I, Tonya, I was surprised how much sympathy I felt for this girl and her struggle. What was the key to playing her as a sympathetic character, without compromising her defiance?
That’s the thing. We never wanted her to be a victim. She’s definitely a victim of everyone’s judgment. She’s a victim of abuse. But we didn’t want her to feel like a victim. We didn’t want her to feel like a villain either. We just wanted her to be a person. That way, everyone can relate to her, because at the end of the day, good or bad, we’re just people. I think what happened with all those six-second soundbites and splashy headlines—and the literal caricatures drawn of her—everyone forgot that she was a person at the end of it. Everyone passed judgment so quickly without realizing that they were playing a role in destroying her life as well. Craig was one of the first people to say, “We need to see her hitting Jeff as well.” She’s got to hit back. Literally, she’s got to hit back as well. She is a defiant person.
We shot a different ending for the film. The true ending is that she is now happily married with a lovely husband, and she has a son, who she adores more than anything in the world. We shot an ending that reflected the true end of the story. And it didn’t feel right or satisfying, and I think it came down to that she is a defiant person. What we then instead shot was a boxing sequence because she did later become a celebrity boxer and then she became an actual amateur boxer.
Why was that better?
The message we wanted at the end was, you can knock her down, but she will get up again. It doesn’t matter how many times you knock her down, she will get up again, whether it’s life, her family, her husband, her mom, the media, whoever it is kicking her, she’ll still get up. That’s why we just wanted to symbolically see her get knocked down and get up again, which was the last image of the film.
Whether it’s the trophy wife Naomi LaPaglia in The Wolf of Wall Street or Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, do you need to find qualities in characters you play that connect you to them, whether it is people you grew up with or family? What did you find most relatable about Tonya Harding?
I had the same struggle when I was playing my character in The Wolf of Wall Street because on the page she was a very irredeemable character who just seemed like a gold digger. It took me a while to understand what she was fighting for and what I could understand about her that motivates what she wants. On the page, it seemed like she just wanted money, and that’s not really something I can see being worth fighting for. Then I delved into the character and started building it up and I realized, she’s a mom. She’s got kids and her husband is a drug addict. Her kids are in danger. So she’s fighting for her kids.
That big moment at the end, which we ended up rewriting that whole sequence, came when I asked for the divorce. To me, everything she did before the kids, it was like, “F—k you. I’m going to take what I want. If life gives me lemons, I’m going to make lemonade anyway, and why not? You guys are doing it. Why can’t I? Sure I don’t have money, but I know what I do have, so I’m going to work with that.” That was a good motivating factor for a while. But when it came to the kids, I really had something to fight for. It was protecting her kids.
With Tonya, there was eventually so much I could understand about her. I’ve had scenarios with other characters where I felt, “I don’t know what I like about this character.” And then I find it. With Tonya, I focused on the fact she was an athlete and the ultimate underdog. I found that very easy to get behind. I love watching gangster films, which are essentially variations on the underdog rising to the top. There’s something there that you can really get behind. She genuinely was an athlete, an amazing skater who wasn’t getting the recognition because of all these bullshit rules that in her opinion, shouldn’t have mattered. I agree with that. The fact that she wouldn’t get the scores, even though she was the only one even trying the triple axel, just because she didn’t have a $5,000 outfit on, is bullshit.
I understand her ambition. I guess I can understand her relationship with Jeff in some respects, because Sebastian made him multifaceted. He wasn’t just a villain, a bad guy. They had fun together too. They were in love. She was constantly seeking validation and he was the first person to validate her in a certain way. Again, that whole cycle of abuse kind of clouds things, because at some point you really do want her to get away from him. And the skating judge tells her that she has to be with him.
She was forged with abuse, an iron hand and a lack of approval, a cycle that started with her mother, who handed the baton to Gillooly. There is evidence that abused children seek a version of their abuser in relationships.
I’ve read that too. One of the traits for that character—not actual Tonya but the character I was playing—was that I wanted her to always be seeking validation because she never got it. Anytime I was sitting, I wanted to be leaning forward, pretty much in the pose that I sit in when I’m waiting for my skating scores. Just always waiting for validation, from mom, from Jeff, from the world, from the media, from anyone. Just craving love.
You’ve said you didn’t know who Tonya Harding was when you read the script. How did not having that preconceived feeling about her help you?
I’m so grateful I knew nothing about it. Because when I entered this, Tonya for me was a completely clean slate. I know she wouldn’t be for most people because everyone seems to remember it. I’m so happy I didn’t know anything about the events or any of the people. I had never heard any of their names and I knew nothing about the figure skating world in general.
You didn’t watch the Winter Olympics growing up in Australia?
Not really. Not the figure skating. I’ve seen it here and there, but it’s not something I’ve followed closely.
For the rest of us, Nancy Kerrigan was the glamourous, elegant one, and the one to feel sorry for when she was attacked. Tonya was rough around the edges, and the movie shows why, as she sews her own costumes and puts on the makeup that if anything makes her look harder. I interviewed Charlize Theron when she completed Monster. Even before she won the Academy Award, it was easy to see that playing that abused serial killer was liberating for her, a chance to show she was more than beauty. She said she was at that age where so many women like her either made their bones as actors or faded as someone younger and beautiful got those roles. She knew that Monster was important for longevity. What opportunity did you see in being able to plunge yourself into an unglamorous, flawed character? The look on your face at times was so intense. After playing glamorous in Pan Am and Wolf of Wall Street, how much of an opportunity did you see in de-glamorizing yourself?
I know what you mean. It’s not the first role I’ve played where I haven’t needed to look glamorous and it’s actually not the least glamorous role I’ve played, by a long shot. I understand what you mean, but for this, I didn’t feel like, “I need to play an unglamorous role and tick that one off my list.” I felt like I’d kind of done that already I guess, but I did feel a lot of people might see this one.
This wasn’t really about the opportunity to have my Monster moment, though a lot of people have said that. They’re like, “This is your Monster moment.” I was like, “Oh, I hadn’t seen it as that. Should I be offended or flattered?” I have played unglamorous before. In Suite Francaise, I have pretty much a brown Afro, my teeth were painted yellow and my skin was all blotchy and I was wearing a smock the whole film. That wasn’t that glamorous. In Z for Zachariah, I had dark hair, and we put lots of freckles on my face and I had really bad skin at the time, which was perfect because she was a teenager with dirt under the nails, baggy unflattering clothes, all that kind of stuff.
I did Z for Zachariah right after The Wolf of Wall Street. Then, it felt more important to do it because I still wasn’t established yet and I’d done The Wolf of Wall Street and everyone had that in their mind. So the roles people were interested in me to play were older, glamorous, all that stuff. So, I was like, “OK, we need to adjust people’s idea of me because I’m actually younger than the role I was playing.” In the beginning of Wolf she’s 22 and I was 22 at the time. Then obviously I play up to when she’s got kids. So Z for Zachariah was a chance to play not glamorous at all. That was a script I chased for a year and a half, really to work with Craig Zobel. That all worked out well.
I didn’t mean to seem superficial. For me, watching Monster made me feel how much Theron was willing to commit, and there was some of that discovery with you playing Harding and making me care about her.
It is a big step for me; it’s the first time I’ve played a lead role, the lead of a film where the title is also my character’s name. I have never done that before. I was Jane in Tarzan, and I wasn’t the Wolf of Wall Street, Leo was. This was a big step career wise. This was the first time that I really had the weight of the film on my shoulders.
What value did you get out of meeting Harding while you were drilling down on the character?
There wasn’t anything specific. I didn’t meet her until a week before we started shooting. By then, I’d done all my prep, over six months, and all that skate training. I had made all of my decisions on how I was going to play her, I’d done all of my script breakdowns, my character ops, my timelines, my research. I’d worked with my acting coach and movement coach, and I’d watched her so closely. Every bit of footage there is on her, I think I’d seen it a thousand times. I listened to her for dialect and I knew exactly how I was going to play every scene, before I met her. I wanted to make sure I had made all of those decisions before I met her, because I didn’t want to meet her and then feel obliged to sugarcoat anything. When I met her, it didn’t alter the way I was going to play her. There wasn’t something I saw in her that made me change the way I was going to play anything. I’d already decided.
So why meet her, then?
I just wanted to meet her, just as a person, and just out of respect to her because I was telling her story. I just wanted to say to her, “I’m playing a character. For me there’s a clear distinction between you and the character Tonya, and I just want you to know that. So when you see the film, hopefully it’s a little easier to watch.”
What was her reaction to the film?
I was very nervous when she saw the film at Toronto, but I was nervous for anyone to see the film. This was right before Toronto. Not many people had seen it yet and I was just scared to know if people even thought it was a good film, but especially worried for her to see it. I didn’t know what kind of emotional experience that might be for her to see the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows with her life in a two-hour film.
The line where I say “suck my dick” to the judges? She found that hilarious, and said, “God I wish I had said that at the time.” I think she found it emotional to watch. She said she laughed and she cried and there’s obviously parts she doesn’t agree with, because at times we tell the story from different characters’ perspectives.
Did she disagree with the recreation of the attack on Kerrigan or with the depiction of violence in the household?
She said that was all very spot on. She felt like her mother was spot on. The relationships all rang very true with her. The scene where I’m complicit in knowing about the letters [sent to threaten Kerrigan, before she was attacked]? She doesn’t agree with that because she maintains to this day that she didn’t know anything about it at all. In Jeff’s version of events, she knew about the letters. There are times in the film when we’re seeing Jeff’s version of events and in those cases I have to play a character who knows about the letters. She doesn’t agree with that. In those moments, she said, “I didn’t know about the letters.” I’m like, “I know, but we’re not going to go over this again. We were doing Jeff’s point of view.”
She wasn’t appealing to you to change anything?
No, she understood. We made it very clear from the beginning that we weren’t making a documentary of her life. Those exist already. This is a film, you have to bear that in mind. She was great about that.
What was the purpose of all the skate training? These athletes train since childhood and it’s a little dangerous.
I needed it to look second nature to me and it wasn’t second nature to me. It was something that I really had to work at. I guess the hardest thing was being able to sell that the most comfortable place in the world for me is on the ice, when me as Margot, it’s like the least comfortable place because I’m terrified that I’m not going to be good enough and I’m terrified that I’m going to get injured and I’m going to screw up the 31-day filming schedule.
How did you overcome that?
A friend of mine is an athlete. She cycles. I asked her how people psychologically prepare for big sporting events. I was so scared of falling, getting injured and ruining the film. She helped me though all that kind of stuff, and plugging in affirmative keywords, and not negative thoughts, and envisioning what you’re going to do before you do it. All that stuff all pro-cyclists or athletes must do. That was all really helpful. Beyond that, I just trained a lot. And once you take big enough falls and realize you’re not going to break a bone every time you fall, it gets easier and it builds your confidence. The ice skating was really hard.
I saw the film at its Toronto premiere, filled with buyers. How close was it to Harding, awaiting the judges’ scores after a skating routine?
The perfect analogy. I was Tonya waiting, sitting forward with my hands clenched together, waiting for my score. I was so terrified. I’ve never been more nervous for a film to be seen ever in my life. I’d never carried the weight of a film before and one that I produced too. There was no one else to blame if this wasn’t received well. It was going to be my fault. It was probably an even better feeling then, when it was well received. It was the best feeling ever.
The audience loved it. Distributors fought over it and the deal was made with 30WEST and Neon. You were able to tell them, this is final cut, and you have to put it out before year’s end for the awards race.
The turnaround has been quick, and we didn’t have time to open up the movie and re-edit it anyway and if people wanted to do that, it wasn’t going to work. Fortunately there was a distributor who agreed with what we wanted and was able to give it.
You have a built-in opportunity to broaden in theaters in the run up to the Winter Olympics.
Which was also why we were pushing for the fourth quarter release. We’re not going to get timing this perfect ever again. Look, we knew pulling together all the marketing and distribution plans in that short amount of time is insane, but everything on this film has been that way. We debated it. Should we wait until the next round of festivals? I remember saying to everyone, “The beauty of these characters and this story, and the beauty of this film, is that it’s rough around the edges. That’s just what we are. We’re scrappy and we’re imperfect and we’re rough around the edges. And if we have eight months to put together the perfect, immaculate, polished campaign, it’s not going to be true to the film anyway. We want to do it right, but the less time we have to think about our marketing plan, the less likely we are to fuck it up by overthinking. I say we embrace the scrappiness, the fact that we’re rough around the edges, and let our marketing campaign reflect that.”
I cover San Diego Comic-Con. Most women, and a lot of men for that matter, dress up either as Wonder Woman or Harley Quinn, your character from Suicide Squad, and one you’ll play in a sequel, a spinoff film with Jared Leto’s Joker, and other possible pictures. You’ve tapped into something with that character. Why has she developed such a rabid following when she seems so crazy? I don’t mean that as an insult.
No, she is crazy. She’s crazy and she’s educated on crazy too, which makes her even more insane. I don’t know what it is and I’ve been trying to figure out, for years now, what it is about it her that resonates with people so much. I’ve been on endless fan forums to try and find an answer to that question and people seem to be really taken with how much she loves the Joker. That’s something. It seems counterintuitive because the Joker is horrible to her. He’s abusive and always is trying to kill her, but she loves him unconditionally. It’s a super destructive relationship, but people love that she loves him so much. They love her for loving him so much. Plus, she’s super smart and funny and all those wonderful qualities, but she’s a mess. I think that’s why people love her so much. She’s just a beautiful mess. I guess it’s why people like flawed characters so much. She’s super flawed and people like that.
A beautiful mess might not be such a bad description for Tonya.
Yeah, totally. But everyone’s messy. I don’t want to play a character who’s not. It’s more fun to play characters who are a bit messed up.