How Margot Robbie Learned to Skate Like Tonya Harding for 'I, Tonya'

9:00 AM 1/8/2018

by Mia Galuppo

Plus, consultants on 'Battle of the Sexes,' 'The Post' and 'Phantom Thread' reveal how they helped actors tackle tennis, journalism and dressmaking to ensure authenticity in these period films.

'I, Tonya' and 'Phantom Thread'
'I, Tonya' and 'Phantom Thread'
Left, courtesy of Neon, right, courtesy of Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Sometimes, even Oscar mainstays like Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep need help getting into character for an award-worthy performance, especially when a role requires transforming into an eccentric fashion designer or the first female publisher of The Washington Post. Luckily, consultants are available in every conceivable field to help actors and productions perfect moves from triple axels to tennis backhands and nail such period-revealing details as notebooks and buttonholes. THR spoke to several of the experts who helped bring verite to the screen in 2017 by tracking down a 1970s Linotype machine, teaching Emma Stone to volley and helping Day-Lewis design a dress for his wife.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Battle of the Sexes

    Courtesy of Melinda Sue Gordon/20th Century Fox

    We wanted to make sure everything was authentic," says tennis pro Vince Spadea, who was responsible for the choreography and coaching behind the tennis drama Battle of the Sexes. Heading into production, star Emma Stone had minimal tennis experience, so they would practice together for several hours a day, focusing on basics while also mimicking Billie Jean King's swing style. Spadea was mindful of the time period. "During that era in the '70s, they used different grips and held the racket differently." While choreographing the film's titular match, Spadea would watch footage of the actual event for hours, clocking the speed and placement of shots. During the filming of the climactic match between King and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, pictured), Spadea pulled double duty, acting as both choreographer and Carell's body double, which meant running back and forth on the court and then, between takes, checking the monitor to make sure what he had just done looked genuine. "I remember not being able to breathe very well that day," he says with a laugh.

  • I, Tonya

    Courtesy of NEON and 30WEST

    Decades ago, Sarah Kawahara was approached about working on a skating routine for Tonya Harding. "Her manager at the time had asked me to choreograph for her, but it didn't feel like the right time, so this feels like I went around full circle," says the figure skating pro, who consulted on I, Tonya. To get star Margot Robbie ready to skate at an Olympic level, Kawahara worked with the actress three to four times a week for four months. While Robbie grew up skating on hockey skates, she needed to learn five sequences on the longer blades of figure skates — plus, she needed to mimic Harding's style, which was very athletic and powerful. "She was a great student, and I told her that if she started earlier, she could have been a contender," says Kawahara, who also choreographed Will Ferrell in his comedic routines for 2007's Blades of Glory. "She needed to bring the character to life and not just learn to skate." Asked to compare her two star students, Robbie and Ferrell, Kawahara laughs: "It is kind of like comparing apples and oranges. Or maybe apples and bananas."

  • Phantom Thread

    Courtesy of Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

    In early 2016, Mark Happel got a Facebook message from his friend, Phantom Thread costume designer Mark Bridges, asking if he'd be interested in taking on an A-list actor as an intern. "About a week later, Daniel Day-Lewis and [director] Paul Thomas Anderson were sitting in my fitting room," says Happel, director of New York City Ballet's costume workshop, who was tasked with teaching the star sewing, draping and designing for his role as a dressmaker in 1950s England. "We started out very basic, things like picking up a pair of scissors," says Happel, adding that they'd work for days on seemingly mundane tasks like cross stitching and buttonholes. "Some would find it all tedious, but he seemed fascinated. He was like a sponge." Day-Lewis and Happel worked together for the better part of a year. As they moved on to advanced skills, Happel helped the star make a dress for his wife, Rebecca Miller, based on a Balenciaga design. "In the film, he paces when he is waiting for a client to come out of the fitting room, and he did that when we were doing fittings on his wife."

  • The Post

    Courtesy of Niko Tavernise/Paraount Pictures

    As a journalism professor and Washington Post alum, R.B. Brenner is a stickler for accuracy, a partiality he carried over to his work on Steven Spielberg's Pentagon Papers drama The Post, starring Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee. Brenner worked with the film's set designers to rebuild the paper's 1971 newsroom, focusing on small details like finding the right six-ply carbon paper, reporter's notebooks and Linotype machines for the set. "[The film's property master] Diana Burton would work like a reporter. She would call me and say, 'In 1971, what would be the correct Associated Press machine where photographs would be sent to newsrooms?' " recalls Brenner, who also led a three-hour crash course with supporting and background actors on the paper's hierarchy and how a story goes from reporting to page. "It matters to top-notch actors in their process that the world feels authentic," says Brenner. "When journalists see this film, they will be like, 'Wow, they really sweated the details.' "