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 press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down for this 1-on-1 chat with actress Allison Janney (who deserves all of the possible accolades she can get for her portrayal of Tonya Harding’s mother, LaVona) about why this project was so special to her, the kind of mother LaVona was, what she was most excited and most nervous about, in playing this role, finding LaVona’s outrageous look, and her own affinity for figure skating. She also talked about how she’d be game and ready to go, if show creator Aaron Sorkin ever got a revival of The West Wing going.
Collider: First of all, congrats on such a great movie and such a terrific performance in it!
ALLISON JANNEY: Thank you! It was a real departure for me, but such a great script. And what makes all of this stuff that’s going on around the movie is that my dear friend, Steven Rogers, wrote this movie and wrote this part for me. All of this talk about how people are enjoying it and loving the performances is very special to me.
How was this presented to you? Did you know that this role was written for you?
JANNEY: He’d just done a Christmas movie and he was trying to decide what he wanted to write next. He told me that he was thinking of writing a movie about Tonya Harding. I was fascinated because I used to be a figure skater. I remember this story very well, and I know the world of figure skating. It was my first dream. Before I even wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a figure skater. I thought, “God, that was such a crazy incident that happened! I would love to know more about that.” At first, I thought he was just writing about that incident and that it was just going to focus on that. I was so surprised, and pleasantly surprised, that it was more a story about Tonya’s life and how she became who she was. Her childhood and her upbringing very much informed her choices, as a young adult. She’s a very complicated, tragic hero, who accomplished so many amazing thing. She did the triple axel and was an amazing performer and champion, brought down by her own doings, somewhat, and the whole cast of characters around her, who were just a lot of interesting, to say the least, and tragic figures.
How did you view LaVona and the kind of mother she was for Tonya?
JANNEY: Her mother was a very angry woman, who was very resentful and angry at the world. She really feels that she’s gotten a raw and rotten deal out of life. She’s angry and she’s loaded for bear, and she’s gonna get what she deserves, finally. Her daughter is her way out. Her mothering methods are not any that I think should be mirrored or copied by anyone. I hear, actually, that she is alive, which we didn’t know when we were making this movie. Tonya didn’t know if her mother was alive or dead, nor did she care, which I found heartbreaking and fascinating. Tonya has a loving husband and a child that she loves, and it seems that she’s turned her life around. She came from hard circumstances, to say the least, and I have newfound empathy and appreciation for her, as a human being. I think she was very vilified in the press when this incident happened because of the different players involved. Yes, she’s probably complicit, but whether she’s guilty or not, I don’t know.
Because we’ll never really know what happened and how responsible Tonya Harding actually was, it seems like it’s more about what you want to believe.
JANNEY: In this time, right now, when truth has been questioned so much by our President, and there’s his fake news that he puts out on Twitter, what’s real and what’s not real is such a huge theme in our lives. Every day, something happens that’s disheartening, terrifying and scary. So, this notion of the truth, and how we all tell ourselves the truth that we want to believe and that helps us live with ourselves and our decisions in life, Steven was so smart, in the way that he wrote this from everybody’s different perspective. I think that’s where some of the dark humor comes from, with each character’s story juxtaposed against the others and how wildly contradictory they are. It’s shocking.