An ingenue turns indie producer with the figure skating biopic 'I, Tonya' as she opens up about the downside of starring in 'Suicide Squad' ("Now you have to be able to afford security") and maps out a plan for career longevity: "I don't want to burn hard and fast and then disappear."
Before Margot Robbie set out for Hollywood, an agent in her native Australia advised her to prepare to answer a question she'd inevitably be asked when she arrived.
"What do you want out of your career?"
Robbie, then 20 and starring in a local soap opera, took the advice seriously. She began scribbling pages and pages of notes before ultimately whittling her answer down to just three words: "Quality, versatility and longevity." Nail the first two, she thought, and the third will follow.
Not a half decade later, Robbie had exploded into Hollywood with her breakthrough performance as the fiery wife of Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort in the 2013 box-office smash The Wolf of Wall Street. She'd taken what could have been a forgettable role — described in Terence Winter's script as the "hottest blonde ever" — and made something memorable out of it. She was promptly deluged with offers to play the "hot wife" or "hot girlfriend" of other A-list actors. Flattered as Robbie was by the sudden attention, such inessential characters didn't fit into her career plan, and she turned nearly all of them down. "You could read a script and almost pull them out and nothing else would be affected," she says now, between sips of tea on her back patio in Los Angeles. "Like if you pulled out that card, the card castle wouldn't come tumbling down, and that's not that exciting to me."
Instead, Robbie began fastidiously patching together a résumé that mixed big-budget studio pictures with smaller art house fare. She lined up roles as a con woman, a war correspondent and a Bible-thumping farm girl. Before long, the industry had anointed her the next female movie star, handing her major franchises, some of which worked (Suicide Squad) and some of which didn't (The Legend of Tarzan). Again, Robbie was at once flattered and wary. "I don't want to burn hard and fast and then disappear," she explains. To have the kind of staying power that she was after, she knew she'd need to move beyond simply fielding offers and start driving her own narratives.
I, Tonya, the darkly comedic tale of figure skater Tonya Harding's rise and fall surrounding the infamous 1994 attack on her then-chief rival Nancy Kerrigan, is Robbie's first such foray, developed under her LuckyChap Entertainment banner, which she founded in 2014 with her husband of one year, Tom Ackerley, and a couple of their closest friends. The company already has a second film in the can and a portfolio of at least a dozen more projects in development. But in recent weeks, nearly all of Robbie's attention has been squarely on I, Tonya, in which the 27-year-old stars as the infamous former athlete. Since the film began rolling out in theaters in early December — where it cut through an especially crowded field with a strong $66,039 per-screen opening weekend — Robbie and her onscreen mom, Allison Janney, have both scored Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations as well as serious Oscar buzz.
While audiences still are catching up to Robbie's ambitions, I, Tonya's director, Craig Gillespie, marvels at her drive, praising her ability to simultaneously star, produce, assume an accent and learn to figure skate as she did to play Harding. And her 58-year-old co-star, Janney, who steals several scenes as a stage mother from hell, jokes that she was still doing "off-off-off-off-Broadway" when she was Robbie's age. "I just kept thinking of Katharine Hepburn when I looked at her," says Janney. "Katharine put together The Philadelphia Story because she wasn't getting the parts that she wanted, and that's what Margot did. She was going to be typecast as this beautiful young thing, and she wanted to find interesting roles for herself and for other women, so she took the bull by the horns and she formed this company."
Indeed, launching LuckyChap was Robbie's way of ensuring that she has a hand in both the creative process of individual projects and the larger mission of righting the industry's gender imbalance. That she has started down this path at such a young age, however, feels in no way remarkable to her. "I've spent the past 10 years of my life on sets, and after a while, it's like, 'I want to have a say when I read a script that I really love, like I, Tonya. I don't want it to just be up to chance that it goes in the direction that I believe it should go," she says, as her pint-size rescue dog, Boo Radley, investigates the pair of Puma sneakers that the dressed-down star has kicked to the side on this unseasonably warm December morning. "Sometimes I don't want to leave it up to someone else, and that's not to say I want to be in charge of all the decisions because I don't know enough to be in charge of all the decisions, but I do want to be a part of the conversation."
Raised the third child of four by her single physiotherapist mother on Australia's Gold Coast, Robbie started thinking big for herself at an early age.
She had plenty of friends at school whose families were considerably better off, which, she believes, "was the best scenario to breed ambition." It gave her a close-up look at the doors financial success can open, just as her own upbringing illustrated how a lack of means can keep them closed. "Breaking a plate or spilling the milk was a big deal at our house. It was like, 'Well, now we don't have milk for the week,' and it put a lot of strain on everyone," she says. "Whereas if you broke a plate at a friend's house, it was like, 'Don't worry, we'll buy a new one.' It was happy and calm, and I was like, 'Oh, I want to make sure I have that.'"
So Robbie began laying the groundwork, showing entrepreneurial instincts that could occasionally prove disruptive to the household. She sheepishly admits to selling her younger brother's toys on the side of the road or charging family members first to watch her magic shows and then demanding more if they wanted to see how she'd done the tricks. By 14, she was already earning a paycheck tending a bar. ("Not at all legal," she laughs now.) A series of odd jobs followed, often more than one at a time: a house cleaner, a surf shop clerk, a sandwich maker at Subway. "Margot's always just been a hustler," says her childhood friend and current assistant Sophia Kerr, another LuckyChap founder.
At 17, Robbie had relocated to Melbourne and, after barraging the casting director with calls, landed a part as a bisexual teen on the popular Australian soap Neighbours. By her second season, she was already thinking out loud about what was next. "I want to go to L.A.," she told a student magazine, "and be a massive actor over there." In the meantime, she saved her money and worked closely with a dialect coach on her American accent. After her third year on the show, her plan was to come to the U.S. and secure stateside talent reps ahead of pilot season. It went off without a hitch. She touched down in L.A. in late 2010, signed with Management 360 and, almost immediately, landed a part on ABC's then-promising period drama Pan Am. The latter ultimately failed to take off with viewers, but it opened the door to other opportunities, including her role in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.
By then, "quality, versatility and longevity" had become Robbie's career mantra and, post-Wolf, she uttered it often as she began, as she puts it, "chasing the roles that people didn't want to give me." Among them: that 19-year-old farm girl in the 2015 indie Z for Zachariah. Robbie had been passed over for the part because she lacked the box-office value needed to get an indie film financed. But just before shooting was set to begin, Amanda Seyfried dropped out, and Robbie, with Wolf about to hit theaters, made a second approach. Still, the financiers were nervous. She assured them that as soon as Wolf opened, her name would carry weight and that, in any case, she was far more like the farm girl than she was Wolf's promiscuous wife. "I knew I needed to adjust people's perception of me right then," she says, "because otherwise I was just going to be given [this one kind of thing]."
Robbie was similarly relentless in lining up other roles: that con artist opposite Will Smith in the 2015 thriller Focus, the war correspondent beside Tina Fey in the 2016 dramedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and, soon, a smallpox-addled Queen Elizabeth I, alongside Saoirse Ronan, in the upcoming Focus Features historical drama Mary Queen of Scots. Robbie sought out the part of Harding with her producer hat on, reaching out to writer Steven Rogers on behalf of LuckyChap. She was just 3 at the time of the 1994 scandal, so she initially had mistaken the screenplay — the result of lengthy interviews with both Harding and her once-abusive ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly — as a work of fiction. "It was a character that definitely scared me," she says of the allure, both as a producer and star. "And I couldn't understand why she was doing and saying the things she was doing and saying, but I wanted to — and any time that happens in a script, that's a character I really want to play." That the part also would require her to transform into a hardscrabble athlete who lacked the physique and polish of the sport's other stars made it that much more compelling. Robbie, who had some experience in the rink playing ice hockey, began a grueling training schedule that had her on the ice five days a week. (Stunt doubles performed every jump save the triple axel, which was the work of CGI.)
The warts-and-all tenacity with which Robbie portrays Harding may surprise moviegoers who know her from either her sultry Calvin Klein ads or the 2016 blockbuster Suicide Squad, in which she played the scantily clad supervillain Harley Quinn. Though the DC Comics ensemble film was scorched by critics, it earned nearly $750 million at the worldwide box office, and Robbie's character proved the breakout, with Rolling Stone suggesting her performance "is the one thing this DC Universe disaster has going for it." The film's writer-director, David Ayer, continues to wax rhapsodic about Robbie's commitment to the role, recounting the stunts she'd willingly do herself and the way in which she, with Smith, became the glue of the star-studded cast. "She never, ever complains, not even at 4 a.m. when you're dumping freezing cold water from the Great Lakes on her and she's wearing the Harley Quinn costume, soaked to the bone and shivering," he says. "You call 'action,' and she stops shivering and lights up this smile, and then 'cut,' and she's back to shivering. I've never seen anybody with that level of physical and emotional discipline." At least two Harley-centric projects are in development at Warner Bros.
The celebrity status that has come with joining the DC universe, however, is something Robbie is still figuring out. She's given a lot of thought to the pitfalls of fame in the past few years and wonders aloud whether perhaps someone at the talent agencies or elsewhere in the process should tell an actor before he or she signs on to a project like Suicide Squad, "You're about to be in a comic book film; now here's the worst-case scenario of how big and scary it can get." Robbie, who has had to contend with stalkers and death threats, is now forced to spend a great deal of time and resources on personal security. "There's just all this stuff you learn along the way, like, when you get those death threats, it's [smart] to have a security team do a background check on whoever sent them to see if there is any past history of violence because you'll need to know whether you need security to go to certain events," she explains. "And every time you do a background check, it's going to cost $2,000, so take that into consideration when you're getting yourself into this."
Robbie grows more impassioned as she continues. "And it's like, 'OK, that's a different kind of career.' Because then you need to always do a job that can financially support that lifestyle; you can't just do indie films for the rest of your life because that film back there changed everything and now you have to be able to afford security." She pauses to gather her thoughts, and then she adds, "I just wish someone had explained a lot of those things to me early on. I wouldn't have resented the position I found myself in because I would've known what I was getting myself into."
A few days later, on the morning of Dec. 11, Robbie and her husband were joined by their LuckyChap partners, Josey McNamara and Kerr, and a few others at their unpretentious home. News of the Golden Globe nominations had begun flooding in: Robbie's and Janney's names were read first, then I, Tonya's, all scoring key nominations at a pivotal point during a wide-open awards season. The group, still in their pajamas, uncorked a bottle of Dom Perignon left over from Robbie and Ackerley's wedding and began pouring champagne.
Robbie had met Ackerley only four and a half years earlier, when he and McNamara were assistant directors on the European set of Suite Francaise. Robbie had a supporting role in the period film, and together the new friends decided they would launch a company one day, which turned out to be the following year. That three years later their first film would be celebrated with a trio of Golden Globe nominations was a lot to take in. "We know this isn't the way it usually happens," says Kerr with a chuckle. "Which is why we keep saying, 'Is it all downhill from here?'"
Downhill or not, the company already has secured first-look deals with Warner Bros.' film and TV units, with potential series lined up at both Hulu and NBC. And that second film — Terminal, a noir thriller shot before I, Tonya — is slated for release Jan. 19. From there, the goal is to keep telling female stories and to give shots to first- and second-time directors. Robbie has needed to star in the initial batch of film projects to ensure they got off the ground, but she insists she'll continue acting in other people's movies, too, identifying Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson as filmmakers with whom she's desperate to work. (At press time, Robbie was rumored to be attached to Tarantino's Manson Family murders film, of which she would only say, with a big smile: "Nothing's official … but I would kill to work with him.")
She's similarly eager to collaborate with other actresses, and openly gushes about a few role models, including Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie, with whom she recently bonded backstage at an awards show. "I probably came across as someone who was just sweating and breathing loudly," says Robbie, who in addition to acting and producing harbors aspirations to write and, like Jolie, direct. It's worth noting that Robbie's inner circle doesn't include a lot of Blanchetts and Jolies. Instead, her core friend group is heavy on below-the-line workers — assistant directors like her husband, stuntpeople and prop masters. Says Kerr, who's been with Robbie on every set since The Legend of Tarzan, "Margot doesn't flock to the other A-listers because, to be honest, I don't even think she sees herself as that."
It was from her inner circle that Robbie sourced ideas and inspiration for a speech that she was asked to give at Elle's Women in Hollywood event in mid-October, just days after the first wave of Harvey Weinstein allegations were made public. Formatted as a letter, the speech began "Dear Hollywood" and concluded, "Sincerely yours, the girls club." In between were such lines as, "Being a woman in Hollywood means you will probably have to fight through degrading situations and will be offered chauvinistic roles by men who think that that's all anybody wants to see us play." Now, two months later, Robbie is less inclined to engage on the subject, still reeling from a recent press conference where she says she was asked, point blank, if she'd ever been molested. "I was shocked by the indifference to which this man asked, like it was such a casual question," she says, "and that's part of the problem, too." Had the reporter posed it more sensitively, she may have responded this way: "No one's ever abused their power with me within this industry, but I am a woman in the world and I have seen and dealt with this a million times in the world."
Whether Robbie is up for it or not, she is likely to be given many more opportunities to address the topic of abuse in the coming weeks. It is, after all, a major theme in I, Tonya, which she is now in almost perpetual motion flogging. At the film's Los Angeles premiere in early December, Robbie did so with Harding herself standing by her side. The two had met only briefly over lunch before shooting began, and watching the film together for the first time with an audience was something both women describe as surreal. The following day, during a quieter moment between the star and the woman whom she had spent months portraying, Robbie acknowledged that she'd "found it emotionally traumatic to put [herself] in the mind-set of someone who's in an abusive relationship."
For Harding, who was banned from the sport in 1994 — and, save for a brief, embarrassing stint as a professional boxer, has barely been heard from again — I, Tonya offers the kind of closure she's long craved. And though the film allows each of its characters to tell his or her own version of the infamous incident, Robbie's tour de force performance has the potential to restore Harding's humanity in the public eye, which is a great gift to the former skater — and the best indication yet that Margot Robbie will be around for a good, long while. "Quality, versatility and longevity," she smiles, reciting her mantra one final time.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.