Directed by Craig Gillespie and based on unbelievable true events, the darkly comedic I, Tonya tells the story of American figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, in a truly stand-out performance and one of the best of 2017), who went from being the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition to being a part of one of the most sensational and infamous scandals in sports history. Harding’s career as a skater was as challenging as her home life, and even though she had the talent of a top athlete, she tragically fell short of reaching her dreams.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with Margot Robbie to chat 1-on-1 about what she found so appealing about Tonya Harding, as a character, what she was most excited and most nervous about getting to do on this film, why she was never interested in telling a Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan rivalry story, and how proud she is to have the film be a part of the conversation this awards season. She also talked about her hopes to get Harley Quinn back on the big screen soon, if she’s spoken to Suicide Squad 2 director Gavin O’Connor, what she’s looking for, as an actress and as a producer, and why Quentin Tarantino appeals to her, as a filmmaker (she met with him about his film revolving around the Manson Family murders).
Collider: How did you come to this, as the lead actress and producer on the project? Did they come hand-in-hand?
MARGOT ROBBIE: No, I was reading it as a producing vehicle. We were looking for female driven content that could operate in the high-end indie space, and this obviously ticked those boxes, but it was also one of the most original scripts I’d read. I couldn’t wrap my head around the character. I was fascinated by her. And then, I found out she’s actually a real live person and I was truly fascinated. So, when I sat down with Steven [Rogers], the screenwriter, and Bryan [Unkeless], our producing partner, I went there to pitch myself to play Tonya and for our company, LuckyChap, to produce, as well. I thought I was really going to have to force them into it. I wasn’t going to leave the table until they agreed. But really, they were much more welcoming to the idea than I thought they would be. It wasn’t about, if I was acting in it, I wanted more control. It was more like, this is the kind of film that our company wants to make, but it also happened to be a character that I wanted to play.
What was it about Tonya Harding that made you so passionate about doing both of those things?
ROBBIE: I love gangster films ‘cause I love the underdog story. I love watching someone rise up, despite their circumstances. It’s always something I feel like I can get behind. And she felt like an underdog, to me. She had this scrappiness and rebelliousness that is obviously fun, but she was also, in my eyes, really misunderstood. I could see this bravado and this defiance was really just covering a lot of hurt and a lack of love. There were so many elements to her that I needed to explore. And then, of course, once I started looking at the online footage, I couldn’t believe what she’d gone through and how harshly she was punished.
It makes her a tragic figure because she was just so close to having everything she wanted.
ROBBIE: So close! She was chasing the American dream and was just about to get it, and the whole thing came tumbling down. Skating was her one safe place in the world, and that was taken away from her. I don’t care if you think she did it or not, I don’t think she deserved that punishment.
Once you signed on for this role, what were you most excited about getting to do?
ROBBIE: I was excited about interacting with all of the other characters. I’m not an isolated actor. I don’t like doing scenes when I’m on my own. I need someone with me. I need a sparring partner, or a couple sparring partners. I love ensemble work. There was just such an amazing group of people to interact with. I like reacting. I like reacting to a situation. That’s fun to me. That’s always gonna be more fun when you’re getting more from your co-stars. All of these characters were just wildly different and unique, in their own way. I just couldn’t wait to interact with them.
Did anything make you particularly nervous or scared, in doing this? Were you nervous about the ice skating?
ROBBIE: Definitely! With my producer hat on, I was terrified of the ice skating. If I got injured, I knew the whole thing would fall apart. I didn’t know how we could make it work. I had no days off, on this shooting schedule. There was no room for injury. My window was going to start filling up, and once we spent X amount of money, even with insurance coverage, we’d still lose a bunch of money, and we needed every cent we had to complete this film. So, I was paralyzed by that fear of getting injured and destroying the production, essentially. That was scary. It’s also weird to start something like figure skating in your 20s. When you’re a kid, you’re fearless. You’re not falling from as high and you don’t care about that kind of stuff. You’re not thinking about getting injured. But as an adult, it seemed very counterintuitive to get on my outside edges and to lean in towards a very hard, slippery surface. I was forcing my body to do it and all of my instincts were like, “Don’t do that! That’s a terrible idea!” It’s really hard. If you didn’t grow up doing it, it’s really difficult. I have so much respect for it. It’s such a tough sport, and they make it look so graceful and easy. You have to be tough as nails to be a figure skater, falling from those heights with no padding. The sheer strength you have to have to even complete those jumps is insane, but the resilience you have to have to fall that often and pick yourself up again, my hat’s off to them.
As a producer on the film, did you ever have any conversations about making Nancy Kerrigan an actual character?
ROBBIE: No. I never would have signed on, if this was a Tonya vs. Nancy story. I hate when films or the media pit two women against each other. I hate that! They turned it into this big rivalry, and I hate that. I never would have signed on. I never would have been interested in this film, if it was a Tonya vs. Nancy story. Not that I don’t think Nancy has a wonderful story, too. From what little I learned of her, she has her own intriguing life and story, for sure, and she was a brilliant skater, as well. But if it was Tonya vs. Nancy, I would have had no part of it. I really believe, and Steven found, that the most crucial relationships in Tonya’s life were with her mom and Jeff Gillooly, so it made sense that the script was structured, in that way.
What was it like to play that dynamic between Tonya and her mother?
ROBBIE: Allison [Janney] plays it that she loves her, in her own way, and very much in a tough love approach. I don’t think she ever got the love and affection that she craved and needed. I separate Tonya as a character from Tonya in real life, and I wanted to play the character like she was always seeking validation and always craving love that she didn’t get, as a child. She was always waiting and hoping for validation, and then when she doesn’t get it, pretending that she didn’t want it anyway. There was something very human about that dynamic.