“I, Tonya,” the Craig Gillespie-directed biopic about Tonya Harding, the figure skater banned from competition for life for her connection to a 1994 attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, has brought its stars — Margot Robbie, who plays an unsinkable Harding, and Allison Janney, as her sharp-tongued mother, LaVona — Oscar nominations, critical acclaim and, not surprisingly, a newfound love for the Winter Olympics. “We’re watching men’s half-pipe,” reports Robbie, jet-lagged and talking via speakerphone while sitting alongside Janney in a London hotel room. “We’re just mesmerized.”
The pair were in town to attend the BAFTAs, where they were both nominees. Before heading off to a party, they took time out to talk about the film’s more nuanced examination of Harding’s life (domestic violence, the skating world’s contempt for her working-class roots), Janney’s annoying parakeet costar and the reaction Robbie, an “I, Tonya” producer, had during her initial reading of Steven Rogers’ script.
“It’s so easy to dismiss these characters and their feelings. But by the end of it, I was devastated, angry and frustrated for them. I’d laugh out loud at something, then immediately feel disgusted with myself that I found it funny,” says Robbie. “To be able to let those feelings creep up on you, instead of being told to feel them? That’s a real art form.”
Parsing what’s true or false is a daily struggle of late. How much do you believe your characters?
Robbie: I knew we’d never know exactly how it went down. Twenty years later, everyone had completely different recollections of the same thing. Truth and reality had parted ways. My character’s truth was not necessarily the reality of the situation. But her version of the truth was far more interesting to me than the facts.
Janney: What made it so fun was the juxtaposition of everyone’s truth. You see LaVona throw a knife at her daughter, then cut to me saying, “What family doesn’t have their ups and downs?” Her truth was that she was a good mother, she gave her daughter an opportunity, and her daughter screwed it up by picking the [wrong] man. Where the reality is? I don’t know.
Talk about one of the villains of the film: The classist United States Figure Skating Assn.
Robbie: Real-life Tonya has been very vocal in past interviews about her feeling that she never had a chance with them to begin with. I really wanted the character to be constantly seeking validation from people who wouldn’t give it to her — her mom, her husband, the skating association. The more they rejected her, the more it mattered to her that they accept her.
For all her ghastly parenting, Tonya’s tippling, four-times married mother has a few tiny glimmers of humanity.
Janney: Steven peppered them in there, thankfully, because otherwise she’d be too much to take. There’s a scene in the diner, the one where Tonya, needing her mother, comes to her and you get a glimpse of what [LaVona’s] childhood must have been like. You see a woman disappointed by life and who was probably abused, because abuse tends to be cyclical. She’s filled with resentment and anger, who doesn’t know how to love or be loved. That was a very redemptive moment for me.
Margot, you met with Tonya in Portland just before production began. What were you hoping to learn?
Robbie: I didn’t go there with a list of questions or holes in my backstory that I needed to fill in. I wanted to meet just out of respect for her. There’s an added feeling of responsibility and obligation when you tell a real life person’s story. But I also wanted her to know that I was going to be playing a character in a film. The most helpful thing was watching her talk about her son, which she was very quick to do. She loves her son and has found a peace in her life with her family.
Allison, walk us through the scenes where LaVona, hooked up to an oxygen tank, addresses the camera while a scene-stealing parakeet is perched on her shoulder.
Janney: It was all done in one afternoon. The bird was fascinated with that breathing tube, and he started pecking at it. I knew I couldn’t stop. We didn’t have another day to [film those scenes]. So I just kept talking. He kind of fueled me with his constant pecking. It was so much fun to do: What I was imagining was that I was speaking to God or whoever is going to determine whether [LaVona] goes to heaven or hell. My side of it was, “Well, I gave that girl everything.”
Robbie: Not necessarily. The way I played the character, and this isn’t based on fact, but just a personal decision, was that she probably heard [her ex-husband] Jeff and [his friend] Shawn coming up with schemes all the time, crazy things, and she never took any of that seriously, because it never came to fruition.
Allison, you didn’t meet Tonya until the L.A. premiere, correct?
Janney: She came up to me at the after-party and said, “You nailed my mother.” Steven told me that was the only thing [Tonya and Jeff] agreed on, how LaVona was. I felt happy to have her approval and also very, very sad. So I gave her a hug and said, “Thank you for saying that and sorry for having to go through everything you went through.”
Margot, you and Tonya keep in touch. Have you noticed a difference since the film was released?
Robbie: The first time I met her, it felt like she wasn’t past it at all. Sebastian [Stan, who plays Harding’s ex-husband] met Jeff, so I said to him, “The one thing that upset me more than anything was that it’s not a forgotten time in her life, that it still seems very fresh. Was it like that with Jeff?”
And Sebastian said, “No. Not at all.” He said that he felt like Jeff had completely moved on and that it was a long-lost chapter in his life. I found that heartbreaking — he got to move on and she didn’t. And now when I speak to her, I feel like she’s leaving it behind her. I wouldn’t speak on her behalf, but it feels like she’s found some closure.