VANITY FAIR – For millions of people, Nancy Kerrigan being attacked in January 1994 was a defining cultural moment and one of the most high-profile scandals in the history of American sports. But for Margot Robbie, the Australian actress who plays Tonya Harding in the upcoming Craig Gillespie-directed indie, I, Tonya, the controversy was totally foreign.
“I think I was about four years old when the incident took place,” the 27-year-old actress told Vanity Fair’s Krista Smith on Friday, hours before the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. “I was in Australia and totally unaware of the whole incident and the crazy controversy.”
“To be honest, when I read the script, I didn’t know who Tonya Harding was, and I didn’t realize it was a true story,” Robbie went on. (Steven Rogers wrote the screenplay.) “I thought it was entirely fictionalized and our writer Steve was so creative to come up with the quirky characters and absurd incidents.”
Robbie signed on to both star in and produce the project, diving down an Internet rabbit hole of research to study every YouTube video of Harding she could find. Robbie also underwent an elaborate makeover. The film’s hair and makeup team transformed the actress multiple times so she could convincingly portray Harding at a variety of ages, from 15 to 44. To round out the preparation, Robbie trained for four months with choreographer Sarah Kawahara—who, ironically, once worked with Kerrigan—hoping to elevate her leisure-skating skills so that she could realistically approximate the two-time Olympian.
“I played ice hockey at one point, but this was a whole new world of pain,” Robbie said, adding that she suffered a herniated disk in her neck while preparing for the role. One unforgettable moment during filming made Robbie realize just how talented Harding was—and how sad it was that her athletic talents were overshadowed by the attack on Kerrigan, which was partially masterminded by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.
“I don’t think I ever really appreciated [her talent] until we were figuring out how we were going to shoot the triple axel in the film,” Robbie said. The film’s director and producers assumed they could just hire a skate double to complete the stunt—even though Harding was the first American woman to perform a triple axel in competition. (After all, hadn’t the sport progressed significantly in the 23 years since the incident?) Then they were told that only six women in history had completed that complicated jump in competition—and none could double for Harding. (The filmmakers ultimately had to use visual effects to complete the scene.)
Gillespie has said that he hopes to humanize Harding with the film, showing that the figure skater, who had a tumultuous relationship with her mother, had lived a story much more tragic and complicated than what the media portrayed in its narrative.
Harding was aware of the film from the start, since Rogers had commissioned her life rights and interviewed both Harding and Gillooly before writing the script. After finishing the film, Gillespie, Rogers, and Robbie screened the movie for Harding, who was moved to both tears and laughter.
“I think it is a lot for someone to have the most traumatic events of their life encompassed in a two-hour film,” Robbie said. “I feel like you have to be very brave to let someone do that. I don’t know if I could do that, and she handled it incredibly.”
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but I had spent so many hours watching her every interview and every bit of skating,” Robbie said of her meeting with Harding. “I feel like I had done nothing but watch and listen to Tonya for the last year—so it was really weird to see that person literally in front of me. It was a bizarre experience. She was so kind. I was taken aback by how worried she was about me, weirdly. After all the things she has been through, she just kept asking if I was O.K.” (source)