'I, Tonya' Writer, Margot Robbie on Tonya Harding's Reaction to Biopic
The team behind the film collectively said filmgoers will walk away with a newfound understanding of the most notorious Olympic figure skater.
When it came to bringing a Tonya Harding biopic to life, the team behind I, Tonya wanted to confront complicity. In fact, there is a moment in the film when Margot Robbie, as Harding, speaks directly to the audience about their role in giving the character she plays the title of the most notorious person in figure skating history.
"I feel like we were fed such a limited version of the story and it was a time when the media sort of reduced Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly to a punchline," the movie's writer, Steven Rogers, told The Hollywood Reporter. "I just wanted to portray them as human, show a more nuanced version of what happened — because we didn't give them that — and maybe make people reevaluate what they thought they knew."
Rogers, writer of films Stepmom, Hope Floats and P.S. I Love You, was inspired to tell Harding's story more than 20 years after the infamous attack on Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan after seeing ESPN's 30 for 30 take on the Harding-Kerrigan saga, The Price of Gold.
"There were things in the story that interested me about truth and the perception of truth, and what we tell ourselves in order to live with ourselves," Rogers said at the film's New York City premiere, hosted by Calvin Klein and the film's distributors Neon and 30West at Village East Cinema. After seeing the doc, Rogers visited Harding's official website and dialed the number for her agent to see if her life rights were even available. "I called the number and it was to a Motel 6." He added, "I thought, 'I’m in. I don’t know where this is going to take me, but I'm in.'"
The next step was tracking down Harding, which he did, and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who was behind the attack and served 18 months in jail for his role. Harding received probation, a fine and was banned from the Olympics, making her eighth-place finish at the 1994 Lillehammer, Norway games her last. In the film, Gillooly is played by Sebastian Stan. "I tracked down Tonya, I tracked down Jeff and somehow got them to agree to let me interview them," said Rogers.
The movie features Robbie, also a producer on the film, and Stan recreating those chats with Rogers in character, along with documented interviews given by Harding's mom LaVona Golden, recreated by Allison Janney. The story traces Harding from an abusive, blue-collared childhood all the way up until the incident and its aftermath.
"Their stories were so conflicting," Rogers says of Harding and Gillooly's accounts all these years later. The two have not spoken since right after the 1994 attack. "They didn’t remember anything the same. And I just thought, well that’s my in. I’ll put everybody’s point of view up there and let the audience decide what happened. Everybody remembers this differently; memory is an interesting thing."
Robbie, an Australian actress, studied Harding's Portland, Oregon dialect and trained for five months on the ice so she could learn to skate for the film's stunts before she met Harding face-to-face — the well documented skating scenes, including Harding's famous triple axel, and moments surrounding the attack were authentically recreated onscreen. After months of prepping her character, Robbie and director Craig Gillespie flew to Portland to meet their star before they were about to start filming.
"She was really sweet. We spoke a lot and it’s just nice to hear where she is at in her life now," Robbie told THR of her and Harding's conversations, which included training tips. Adding, "How much she loves her son; it was comforting to see that she found her happy ending in that way."
Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, United States of Tara) was awed while witnessing Robbie's transformation. "Tonya is such a public figure so we are inherently familiar with her mannerisms and the way she talks, the pacing, the diction," he told THR. "There was one point when we were doing a scene and her dialect coach said, just bring your octave down a little bit. [Robbie] said, 'My pitch is different if I’m 15, or 21 or 46.' She was doing different accents for different ages and then she had to be spontaneous and improvise, with whatever Sebastian and Paul [Walter Hauser, who plays Harding's bodyguard and conspirator Shawn Eckhardt] would throw at her. They all stayed in character."
Gillooly, who changed his name to Jeff Stone after the headline-making incident and his subsequent 1995 prison release, was harder to track down when it came time for Stan to research his role. The actor ended up spending one night with his character, studying his physical traits during a three-hour dinner.
"I wanted to talk to him because there’s nothing on him as an older guy in his 50s," Stan told THR. "There was nothing on him that I could even find as a younger guy in his 20s. Just brief little things here and there in his middle age. So I was looking at it more from a physical standpoint and what I could take from him to incorporate into the movie, more than the incident or what had happened."
Despite the level of infamy attached to Harding's story, the stars, writer and director all agreed that filmgoers will walk away with newfound clarity into what actually happened.
"We just assumed that it was something to do with Tonya and Jeff, they were the co-conspirators and masterminded this whole thing because that’s basically the headline that was in the media," said Gillespie. "We were fed this rivalry between Nancy and Tonya, and it was so much more complicated and gray."
Hauser knew little about the event before filming. "For all I knew, Tonya Harding was the one who beat up Nancy Kerrigan," he told THR. "This really clears everything up in a big way."
He also didn't know about Harding's abusive background, something that is well documented in her relationships with both Jeff and LaVona in the film (Harding and her mother are estranged). "It explains why it’s so difficult for someone to cope with all that stardom, because they didn’t come from a really stable environment." he says. Stan adds, "These were people that were extremely ill-equipped to deal with the kind of fan attention and notoriety that they received. They were living off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while she was extremely successful."
Which is why he hopes people walk away from the film with some compassion, specifically for Harding. A thought that Robbie echoes.
"What we’ve heard people say so far is that they were surprised, that they didn’t expect to care," she said. "It’s nice to know that you can make people find something to relate to, empathize a little bit with someone they thought they already knew, someone they had already passed judgment on. It’s nice to show these people in a new light."
Rogers showed Harding the film a week before it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in early September (Stone has yet to see the film). "She said she laughed, she said she cried, she said she loved Margot and Allison, and she said there are things she didn’t like about it," Rogers said of Harding. "But she emailed me twice to thank me."
I, Tonya is in select New York and Los Angeles theaters Dec. 8 and gets a wide release in January.