Hollywood Flashback: Tonya Harding Made Her Movie Debut in 1996

Breakaway BTS Tonya Harding - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Lara Regan

While the tarnished ice skater had no acting experience — lines had to be read to her off-camera — "she had no trouble with the fight scenes," recalls the director of 'Breakaway,' a low-budget action film.

On June 22, 1994, the decade's top media/crime icons, Tonya Harding and O.J. Simpson, were together on The Hollywood Reporter's front page. He was at the bottom, where THR headlined that 95 million viewers watched the murder suspect's low-speed police chase (but noted that this wouldn't count in the weekly ratings because it came without commercials). At the top was exclusive news that the figure skater with the most tarnished reputation in the history of her sport — and now the subject of the dramedy I, Tonya, for which Margot Robbie is nominated for a Golden Globe — would appear in the low-budget action film Breakaway.

The casting scoop ignited a media firestorm, with even David Letterman mentioning it in his monologue. Harding, then 23, was to play a "feisty waitress" who finds $1 million in mob money and runs off to Tahiti. "First it was going to be shot on Super 8," says producer Eric Gardner, then 33. "Then we figured out how we could make it in 16mm. And when we got Tonya, we went to 35mm. It was like we went from a home movie to Lawrence of Arabia."

The final budget was $300,000, with Harding to be paid $10,000 for two days' work. But after signing the contract, she backed out. Gardner then spent "the most intense two days" of his life in Portland, Oregon, where he got the skater to relent. "I have never begged so many people for help," says Gardner, who went on to a career as a Bravo TV showrunner.

Once the production had Harding, however, there was the small problem of her lack of acting experience. "I would stand off-camera and read her lines, and she would repeat them," recalls director Sean Dash. "But she had no trouble with the fight scenes." Breakaway ended up with a tiny theatrical release in 1996 before going to video.

"Signing Tonya got us the kind of publicity you couldn't buy," says Dash, now a Discovery Channel showrunner. "The fact that we couldn't make money with that kind of press is what got me out of the B-movie business." 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.