shadows features Liberated by the look
Chatting about I, Tonya with Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie...

the press conference
Chatting about Tonya: Steven Rogers, Margot Robbie, Allison Janney and Craig Gillespie in London
I, Tonya
Above: Robbie as Harding with Sebastian Stan as Gillooly.
Below: Janney as Lavona. janney

B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
I, Tonya The award-winning biopic I, Tonya chronicles the notorious life of figure skater Tonya Harding, who is best known for the attack on her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan just before the 1994 Winter Olympics. The film recognises the messiness of the real story by portraying conflicting perspectives in ways that are often blackly hilarious, so it's sparking conversations about some very big issues.

For your first project as a producer, you've chosen something that's almost eerily timely.
Margot Robbie:
There are a lot of themes echoing, like classism. There is a very clear divide in America right now, and you can feel that in the film. You see a lot of disenfranchised characters. And truth, people's perception of truth, who we believe and don't believe. And of course women who are abused. These are things we discussed at length and didn't realise at the time how relevant and topical, sadly, they would become by the time the movie came out. When Steven wrote the script, Trump wasn't president. When we filmed this, the #MeToo and Time's Up movement hadn't begun. We recognised these as issues society needed to discuss, but we didn't realise they'd be discussing them so loudly when the film came out.

Why did you want to tell Tonya's story?
Steven Rogers:
I just happened to watch this documentary about her, and there was some stuff in it about truth, the perception of truth and how we justify our actions and tell ourselves what we need to tell ourselves, in order to be able to live with ourselves. That interested me, and I just felt like it was framed in a whole lot of crazy. So I went onto the Tonya Harding website to find out if her life-rights were available. I called the number for her agent and it was a Motel 6. I just thought, "OK, I'm so in! I don't know if this will be a movie, but it is definitely a good story." So I tracked down Tonya Harding, and also Jeff Gillooly, and they remembered everything completely differently. And that gave me the idea to put everybody's version of the truth up there and let the audience decide what was what.

Craig Gillespie: I'd never read a script like this. It was so original in its structure and in the extremes of comedy and drama, empathy and violence. And I loved that challenge! And I was lucky enough that Margot and Allison were already attached, which made my life very easy.

It’s liberating as an actor to know you can go real big and it’s still the truth.

The characters feel quite extreme, but also realistic.
We tend to draw it in, not wanting to exaggerate something when we're portraying it on screen. So I think if we had told Allison to put on a fur coat and have a bowl haircut and a bird on her shoulder, maybe she would have thought we were pushing it. But when you've got the actual footage of Lavona wearing exactly that and saying those exact things, it is kind of liberating as an actor to know you can go real big and it's still the truth of the situation.

Allison Janney: I had to ground her in reality, just flesh her out so she wasn't just a monster. I didn't get to speak with the real woman, but I approached her as any other role as an actress. You have to make it make sense to you and make her choices make sense to you. Why would she behave like this? Why would she do this or that? Which was really fun to do. And the humour comes out of the juxtaposition, those different viewpoints mashed up next to each other. It's just shocking to see Lavona throw a knife at Tonya and you cut to her saying, "What family doesn't have their ups and downs?" Just minimalising this unbelievable, terrifying abuse.

Robbie: It's a weird thing playing a real-life person who's alive and going to see the film! Because I knew I was going to be intimidated by that prospect, I kept the character of Tonya and the real-life Tonya very separate in my mind for as long as I possibly could. And for that reason, I didn't meet the real Tonya in person until right before we started shooting. I needed that to feel like I could let this character do her own thing on-set, not hold back. Otherwise I think I would be trying to gloss over character flaws and trying to enhance the good things. I wouldn't have been able to be as authentic.

How much did the costumes and makeup help?
Well definitely my look was incredibly liberating! Lavona's old-age makeup took three hours, and then that incredible wig and costume, that fur coat. And then auditioning three birds, and picking that bird! And when I saw the final look, I felt like I had stepped out of a Diane Arbus photograph or something. It was just extraordinary, and I felt so empowered. I didn't feel as horrified as I thought to see myself look so old. It made me confident in my choices as an actress, like I didn't care what anybody thought. I'd earned the right to sit here, I'm going to tell you my story, and you're going to listen to me! I loved it!

I had to flesh her
out so she wasn’t
just a monster.

How did Tonya feel about putting her story on the big screen?
When I interviewed Tonya she asked me flat-out - because she does pretty much everything flat-out - she said, "Do I have a say in any of this?" And I said no, because I wanted to interpret it and make a movie. I said, "I'm going to use everyone's point of view, but I am going to tell your point of view." And I think she really just wanted to be heard, because I don't think she felt like she was before. That mattered to her.

Gillespie: Margot and I got to meet Tonya two weeks before we started shooting, and I was amazed by how trusting she was with what was going on, because it's been 25 years of living under this label of being this villain. I felt comfortable looking her in the eye and telling her that we were really trying to portray her version of it. There would also be Jeff's version, but I thought we could honour that, and in doing that we could make a much more complex story.

Robbie: I think it's a complicated thing to sum up how she feels about the film. I imagine if we put ourselves in her shoes, to see the best and worst parts of your life depicted on-screen by other people, it would be a bizarre experience. She said she laughed and she cried, and she didn't agree with the parts told from Jeff's point of view, which we were expecting. But overall I think that she is pleased that a more nuanced version of her story is now out there in the world.

You've stepped into the producer role, are you thinking about directing?
Yes, but not for a couple of years. It's not a right I've earned yet, but I would love to do it one day.



© 2018 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall