Allison Janney on ‘I, Tonya’ and the Possibility of ‘The West Wing’ Returning
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.
Once you signed on for this role, what were you most excited about getting to do and what were you most nervous about?
JANNEY: The thing I was most excited about was the fact that I was actually going to be in one of Steven’s movies. He’s written other movies with parts for me in them, and I’ve never been cast in them. This is actually the first movie, and he made sure I was cast in it ‘cause he wrote the scripts on spec and one of his main stipulations was, “Allison Janney has to play LaVona Harding.” Fortunately for me and for Steven, Margot [Robbie] loved that idea, and (director) Craig Gillespie, who came on later, loved it. So, what was exciting was the fact that I was actually going to be in one of Steven’s movies and work with one of my dear friends, and I loved the script so much. I felt like this was the perfect part for me, and then I thought, “Oh, shit, I’ve gotta play this part! How am I gonna play this woman?!” There was so much that I laughed at, on the page, and saw the humor in, but then I thought, “I’m gonna have to play this woman. I have to find how I’m gonna do it. I can’t judge this woman. I can’t disagree with her. I have to feel that she is justified in everything that she does, and understand what her intentions are and what her humanity is. That was my challenge, but that’s what I like to do with any character. The first thing I look for is their humanity. This is probably the darkest character I’ve ever played, so it was a little more challenging, but once I found it, I could totally get behind her side of the story. From LaVona’s point of view, she gave everything to her daughter. From every job, any penny she made went to her daughter and her skating costumes. Being a figure skater myself and knowing what it took for my parents to get up at five in the morning to drive me to the rink before school, and then drive me to practice after school, it’s a huge commitment for any family. It’s a huge commitment of time and money, for the family of any type of athlete, and it was not easy for them. Tonya did not fit into the world of figure skating’s idea of what a figure skater should look like and act like. Tonya was absolutely not part of that and she did not fit in. I think LaVona is someone who didn’t fit in, her whole life, and she was damned if she was gonna go through this again with her daughter. She was like, “My daughter is gonna succeed, in spite of you all, and I’m gonna make sure of it. You’re not gonna like me for it, but it’s gonna happen, and you’ll thank me later.” I think she’s probably still waiting for her thank you from Tonya, but I don’t think she’ ever gonna get it, from what I hear.
Were you ever disappointed that you were making a movie about figuring skating, but you weren’t able to get out on the ice yourself?
JANNEY: I wish LaVona had been a skater, but she wasn’t. That was not the story to be told. It wasn’t that LaVona had wanted to be a skater and was going to make her daughter do it. I don’t think LaVona knew how to skate. But there was a scene, at one point, where I got to figure skate. I think Steven put it in for me because he knew how excited I was about getting back on the ice. I remembered why I liked it so much. It’s a beautiful feeling to be out on the ice, breathing in the cold air and hearing the blades hit the ice. It’s kind of romantic.
Was there a process for finding LaVona’s look and deciding how you wanted to carry yourself, especially with your bird co-star?
JANNEY: When I first read it on the page and I hadn’t seen any research on LaVona, I was so curious about Steven’s choice for why she was wearing a fur coat with a bird on her shoulder. It was such a specific look that I wondered what inspired Steven to have LaVona look this way. So, he sent me this documentary that a Yale film student had made about Tonya, when Tonya was 15 years old. She interviewed LaVona, and LaVona is in a fur coat with that bird on her shoulder and the glasses. It’s all there. They put it at the end of the movie, which I love, so that people can see that it wasn’t just an arbitrary choice to have all of these weird things on her. It was just marvelous, to me, to get to have that research and that it actually happened. It was fascinating, watching her in that interview. I just watched it over and over and over again, looking for clues into who she was. I saw a woman who was very resentful and in denial, and as not going to ever admit that she cared about not getting thanked. I saw all of that in those interviews, and that helped me a lot to find her, when I was getting ready to play her.
While promoting Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin said that he’d been thinking about possible ideas for a reboot of The West Wing, with Sterling K. Brown as the President,. He also said that he hasn’t yet figured out how to organically bring you, Bradley Whitford or some of the other main cast into the mix, but if he were to come up with something, would you be game to return to that show and character?
JANNEY: Yes, of course! Are you kidding me?! That was one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done. Those are some of my favorite people on this planet, that I got to work with on that show. I would jump at the chance to do that. Maybe as a limited series. I don’t know what we could do, but I’m in. If Aaron is in, I’m in. I’ll just wait until he writes it, but I’m in.
Well, my fingers are crossed that it will happen because I think it’s something that we really need right now.
JANNEY: I think so, too. I hope he really does do it. There’s never been a better time than right now.
I, Tonya is now playing in select theaters, and opens nationwide throughout January 2018.