The stars of the Oscar-tipped Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya, share their thoughts on costumes, complex characters, and the Time's Up movement.
"The haters always say. 'Tonya, tell the truth!' There’s no such thing as truth. I mean it’s b******t! Everyone has their own truth.”
So muses a 40-something Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) to camera at the start of the five-time Academy Award-nominated I, Tonya.
Telling the story of the Olympic ice skater who faced public disgrace—and a lifelong ban from the sport—when it emerged her estranged husband had conspired to bludgeon the legs of long-term rival Nancy Kerrigan, it’s a black comedy that refuses to come down clearly on any one character’s version of events.
The decision to pitch the story—which so shocked America when it hit headlines in 1994—as a black comedy was a bold one and, as star and producer Margot Robbie explains, a liberating one for the cast.
Margot Robbie and Allison Janney celebrate I, Tonya's success at the 23rd Annual Critics' Choice Awards
“[As actors] we tend to draw things in and not want to exaggerate, but real life happens to be a lot more insane than what we do in films most of the time… it’s liberating to know you can go real big and still tell the truth of the situation.”
Co-star Allison Janney, who plays Tonya Harding’s eccentric, abusive mother LaVona, adds, “I find that when things tend to be funny, whether it’s a comedy or a drama, the stakes are very high.”
“The humour comes out of the juxtaposition of these different viewpoints smashed up next to one another. It’s shocking to see LaVona throw a knife at Tonya and then cut to her saying, ‘What family doesn’t have their ups and downs,’ and just minimalizing this unbelievable, terrifying abuse.”
"There’s a lot of class divide in America right now and you can feel that in the film"
Adds screenwriter Steve Rogers, who wrote the part of LaVona specifically for Janney, “I thought this story was really funny and crazy, and tragic and I didn’t have to choose just one. That’s life, life’s never really just one thing. It’s everything at one time, and it’s messy, and I wanted the script to reflect that.”
“I find the most interesting people are full of contradictions,” Robbie agrees. “I feel like I get more out of [a film] as an actor to play conflicted characters, and I think an audience gets more out of it too. It’s not only more entertaining, it’s more thought-provoking. I always strive to entertain but to entertain in a meaningful way. If someone walks away and then thinks about something a few days later then I’ve done my job.”
Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding
For ice skating fans mourning the close of the Winter Olympics, I, Tonya is a treasure trove of replica outfits and routines. It’s incredible how close the costume designers got to the original outfits worn by Tonya, as well as recreating the larger-than-life characters that shaped her real story.
Janney, who’s topped for an Academy Award for her performance, explains how this attention to detail helped her get into character.
"It made me feel confident in my choices as an actress and like I didn’t care what anybody thought"
“I love the costume designer to tell me what my part is, and I love the makeup artist to tell me what my part is. I look for clues everywhere. I always think before I start every job that I don’t know how to do it. The challenge with this one was making LaVona real and understanding her pain and what she lost in life. Those things rooted me in who she was.”
“My look was incredibly liberating. When I saw [it] I felt like I had stepped out of a Diane Arbus photo or something. I didn’t feel as horrified as I thought I would seeing myself look old. It made me feel confident in my choices as an actress and like I didn’t care what anybody thought. I’d earned the right to say, ‘I’m going to sit here and I’m going to tell my story and you’re going to listen to it.’ I loved it.”
Allison Janney as LaVona Harding
Margot agrees that a physical transformation “helps so much with every character. I need to not look or sound like myself in order not to feel like myself and be able to act like someone else. Because I’m Australian, I always act in a different accent. I never sound like myself which makes it so much easier to remove myself and make sure that my own reactions and life experiences aren’t dictating the way I’m playing a character. That’s important to me.”
Equally important to Robbie is a sense of being in control of her career and choices, especially in light of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements that have rocked Hollywood in recent months.
"I don’t think someone would have just given me this role if I hadn’t gone out after it and I wasn’t really prepared to wait"
“Being a producer on this film and having my own production company I do feel that I’m shaping my career in the way that I want it to be shaped, and I’m not just waiting and hoping. I don’t think someone would have just given me this role if I hadn’t gone out after it and I wasn’t really prepared to wait 10,15 years until something like this came along. My production company’s purpose isn’t to have starring vehicles for me, but for any actress. We want female-driven content and female storytellers telling those stories is even better. I feel empowered by getting to be more in control of my fate.”
Allison Janney, Steven Rogers, Tonya Harding, Bryan Unkeless, Margot Robbie and Ricky Russert attend the after party for the I, Tonya premiere
In this moment of flux, as the role and power of men in Hollywood come under scrutiny like never before, I, Tonya has a lot to say.
“There’s a lot of class divide in America right now and you can feel that in the film. We also speak about truth, people’s perception of truth—you see a lot of disenfranchised characters, women who are abused. We ask who we believe and who we don’t believe. These are things we discussed at length but at the time we didn’t realise, sadly, what a topical film it would be,” Robbie explains.
“When Steven [Rogers] wrote the script, Trump wasn’t president. When we filmed it the Me Too and Time’s Up movements hadn’t begun. They’re things we recognised as issues that society needs to discuss, we just didn’t realise they’d be discussing it so loudly when the film came out.”
I, Tonya is in cinemas from February 23, 2018