"It's extra-satisfying on a creative level," says Margot Robbie as we sit down at her publicist's Hollywood office to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast and begin discussing what it's like to both produce and star in a movie. That's precisely what the 27-year-old Australian did with I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie's terrific new dramedy about the controversial figure skater Tonya Harding, whom Robbie portrays — between the ages of 15 and 44, on and off the ice — in the performance of a lifetime. The new distributor Neon acquired the film shortly after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere in September and will begin rolling it out Dec. 8.
In addition to serving as a terrific showcase for Robbie, I, Tonya also announces the arrival of LuckyChap Entertainment, the production company that the actress, Tom Ackerley (the AD she married in 2016), Sophia Kerr (her best friend and assistant) and Josey McNamara (Ackerley's friend) formed in 2014, shortly after Robbie rocketed to stardom in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. Three years later, she says, "We have a slate full of feature films [including the forthcoming Terminal and Dreamland, in which she also stars] and a TV department which we started earlier this year which has a bunch of projects, as well. It's really flourishing, and it's all happened a lot quicker than we'd expected."
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below, following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Kim Masters, a THR editor-at-large, about the barrage of sexual abuse accusations that are rocking Hollywood.
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Robbie was born and raised on Australia's Gold Coast. After high school, she moved to Melbourne in pursuit of an acting career and, at 17, talked her way on to the soap opera Neighbors, which she describes as "the biggest TV show that I'd grown up with." Her ultimate dream, however, was to become a star in Hollywood, which is where she headed five days after the end of her third year on the series. There, she auditioned for an ABC reboot of Charlie's Angels, didn't get it, but was invited to try out for another Alphabet Network show, Pan Am, and landed a leading part. The plug was pulled on the series after just 14 episodes, but Robbie had already signed with CAA and was getting other offers, so she was hardly disappointed: "For me, the show being canceled, from a selfish point of view, worked perfectly."
Robbie then set her sights on the big screen. She was cast in small supporting parts in Richard Curtis' About Time (2013) and Saul Dibb's Suite Francaise (2014), both of which were in the can by the time she landed the biggest role of her career: "The Duchess of Bay Ridge," fiery love interest turned wife of Leonardo DiCaprio's eponymous character, in The Wolf of Wall Street. Even before that film's release and success (including a best picture Oscar nomination) turned her into one of the hottest stars in the business, Robbie was cast opposite Will Smith in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's Focus (2015), which wound up being her first bona fide leading part. "The last day of shooting on Focus was the night of the New York premiere of Wolf," she recalls of that heady period.
After the release of Wolf, in which Robbie played a character described in the script as "the hottest blonde ever" and appeared nude, she was increasingly described in the media as a "bombshell" as well as other similar terms that focused on her looks. A bit resentful of this reduction and, like Ackerley, Kerr and McNamara, anxious to have more control over the future direction of her career, she and they teamed to form LuckyChap. She still had fun with some others' perception of her — most memorably in a cameo in Adam McKay's 2015 film The Big Short, in which she sipped on champagne in a bathtub while explaining subprime mortgages, and in a sketch on Saturday Night Live when she hosted the show's 42nd season premiere in 2016. But now, Robbie wouldn't have to wait for others to bring her projects that enabled her to show other sides of herself; she could go after them herself.
Throughout 2016, Robbie's career continued to build momentum, as she appeared in no fewer than three films distributed by major studios. She played a key supporting part as a war correspondent in the comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which reunited her with Ficarra and Requa; and she was the female lead in two summer blockbusters — David Yates' action-adventure The Legend of Tarzan, as Jane, the love interest of Tarzan, and David Ayer's comic-book adaptation Suicide Squad, as Harley Quinn, a sexy super-villain. (Of Quinn, a favorite of DC Comics fanboys, Robbie says, "She is so much fun to play, and the fact that I get to keep playing her [in a spinoff film] — hopefully, fingers-crossed [a script is currently being developed] — is just even better.") But nothing — not even Fey's sage advice — fully prepared Robbie for the challenge of making I, Tonya.
The infamous Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident took place in early 1994, when Robbie was just three. "When I read the script, I thought it was fiction," she confesses. "But it was one of the best scripts I'd ever read." LuckyChap acquired Harding's life rights; whittled down a list of 150 possible directors to Gillespie, whose idea for the tone of the film Robbie liked; and filled out the rest of the cast with veteran pros like Allison Janney and Julianne Nicholson, as well as up-and-comer Sebastian Stan. Then, having procured a modest budget — one particularly small for a period piece with some 260 different scenes that allowed for just 31 shooting days — Robbie put on her acting cap.
Having already read and watched everything she could find about Harding and having met with the woman herself, Robbie went to work, feeding off of the pressure of the project. "I genuinely forgot where I was," she says of filming one of the most intense of her numerous fight scenes with Stan (who plays Harding's love interest and abuser), which she now describes as "one of the best moments of my life." Meanwhile, scenes on the ice were achieved through a blend of Robbie's own skating, which improved through months of training, with VFX, which do a remarkably convincing job of making the actress look like an Olympian who can pull of a triple axel.
"It's not conventional," Robbie says of the film. "It's hard to liken it to other things." However, she says of Harding, "She was really happy with the end-result." And so, too, was Robbie, who after this film — like Harding after the Kerrigan incident — will never again be looked at in quite the same way.