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How 'I, Tonya' screenwriter Steven Rogers reinvented himself by rehabilitating Tonya Harding

How 'I, Tonya' screenwriter Steven Rogers reinvented himself by rehabilitating Tonya Harding
Screenwriter Steven Rogers, behind the Tonya Harding story, "I Tonya," is photographed at his home. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

When you think of classic stories of redemption, disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding is not a name that comes to mind.

Although Harding was not directly involved in a 1994 attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan before the Winter Olympics, the ensuing scandal led to Harding pleading guilty in hindering the prosecution of the attackers and receiving a lifetime ban from the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. She has rarely been heard from since.

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But that transition from worldwide fame to relative obscurity is one of several reasons screenwriter Steven Rogers found Harding's story so compelling. A go-to scribe for Hollywood rom-coms (including "Hope Floats" and "Kate & Leopold"), Rogers was looking for a career reinvention. After watching Nanette Burstein's ESPN documentary about the skating saga "The Price of Gold" with his niece, he resolved to track down Harding and tell her story in a spec script.

"I went on the Tonya Harding website to see who her agent was, to see if life rights were even available," Rogers said. "I called the number for her agent and it was a Motel 6."

Margot Robbie plays infamous figure skater Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya," while Sebastian Stan plays Harding's nearly-as-infamous ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. The Times spoke with the actors at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "I, Tonya" made its world premiere, about bringing the real-life couple's highly unconventional love story to the screen.

Eventually Rogers tracked down Harding in Sisters, Ore. "I had never interviewed anyone before," he said. "I went up the first time just to see if we liked each other. She picked me up in her truck and there was no outside door handle, she had to open it for me [from the inside]. I knew I was on to something."

Harding proved to be remarkably forthcoming in both that initial meeting and a subsequent two-day interview. Rogers ultimately interviewed her estranged ex, Jeff Gillooly, as well. "Their stories were so wildly different, they didn't remember anything the same," he said.

From that conflict, a film was born. "I, Tonya," starring Margot Robbie as Harding and Sebastian Stan as Gillooly, emerged as one of the hottest tickets at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. It was acquired for distribution by upstart Neon and will open Dec. 8 with awards season aspirations.

That's fresh territory for Rogers. "It's all new to me," he said of the reaction to the film so far. "I never do press. It wasn't until Toronto where it [premiered] in such a big theater, I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, this is just surreal, that I actually did this.' I've surprised myself."

This story is part of The Times' Holiday movie preview. See our complete coverage here.

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