Twenty-four years following a scandal that rocked the world, Margot Robbie takes on the role of figure skater Tonya Harding in a behind-the-scenes story that will have you questioning what’s real, what’s fake, and how much we truly know about the controversial figures who become cultural lightning rods. I, Tonya opens in NY/LA December 8th and theaters everywhere January 5th. Grab your tickets HERE.
At Tuesday night's New York screening of I, Tonya, Margot Robbie arrived in a sheer, glittering floor-length dress. I almost had to do a double take to make sure that it was indeed Robbie standing in front of me, and not the big screen version of figure skater Tonya Harding. And then she offered up that wide, signature smile and Australian accent and I thought Ah, there she is.
Robbie may not be Tonya Harding, but she sure is championing the infamous figure skater as both the star and producer of this film, which reveals Harding's perspective of her involvement in an assault against fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. The film was just nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, including one for Robbie in the Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy category. But for Robbie and her production company, Lucky Chap, I, Tonya is just the beginning of bringing more women's stories to light.
"Our company has 13 films in development at the moment, and I'm starring in a few of them," Robbie said during a Q&A after the screening. "And we have a TV department right now, so I'm really busy producing female-led stories at the moment. And hopefully I'll be playing [Suicide Squad's] Harley Quinn again soon, I'm hoping next year!"
I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers joined the conversation, as well as Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Harding's former "bodyguard" Shawn Eckhardt in the movie. Rogers explained that what he hopes makes this film unique is the layered way it tells the story of one of the most scandalous moments in sports history.
"It is a really funny story, and it is a really tragic story, and it is a really crazy story," he said. "And it's a true story, depending on whose point of view you believe. I didn't want to limit it...I felt like why should any movie be just one thing? Why can't it be all that stuff?"
You can watch the full video of our panel below or read highlights to check out more on how Robbie learned to skate like Harding, her view on why women in sports are pitted against one another, what all three of the panelists are feeling about the state of Hollywood in the midst of the #MeToo movement, and more.
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Refinery29: Like the movie says, I think everyone has a different memory of what actually went down between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. What were your recollections of what happened in "the incident?"
Paul: "I knew very little. I was born in 1986, so for me it was snapshots of seeing these people being investigated and that being a story across Ricki Lake and Montell Williams and Oprah and Sally Jesse. It was part of that like loud trashy television coverage."
Margot: "I was four years old at the time, so I missed it completely, and I was in Australia. When I read the script, I didn't know any of it was true. I didn't know any of these people were real-life people, I thought it was completely fictionalized in Steven's brain!"
How did the idea for I, Tonya come to life?
Steven: "I gambled on myself and wrote the script without financing to see if people would actually want it. And if they did, then I could have some caveats. The first caveat that I had was that Allison Janney was gonna play the part that I wrote for her [as Harding's mother]. I've known Allison for 100 years, so I wanted it in writing, or it was a dealbreaker. I did this before Allison had even read the script or said that she would do it!"
Margot: "I read the script, and obviously our production company was looking for female-driven content for my production company. We spoke to a lot of brilliant, brilliant directors, but the conversation we had with Craig Gillespie, who ended up being our director, no one could articulate how they would accomplish the tone in the film the way he could, and how they'd handle the violence. They were the two biggest questions we had, and he just had such a clear vision for the project. He had no judgement of these characters."
You interviewed Tonya Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly in real life before creating the movie. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?
Steven: "I just happened to see this great documentary on ESPN about Tonya Harding called 30 for 30. There were things about it that really resonated with me about class in America and the disenfranchised and what we tell women they're supposed to be. And truth, and the perception of truth, and what we tell ourselves just to be able to live with ourselves. All of that was wrapped around this really crazy story. So I went on the Tonya Harding website to find out if the life rights were even available, and I found a number for her agent and it was a Motel 6. I just thought I'm so in! I tracked down Tonya Harding, and I tracked down Jeff Gillooly, and I'd never really even interviewed anyone before. When I did interview them, their stories were so wildly different, they just remembered everything differently. I thought, that's my in, I'll show everybody's point of view and then let the audience decide what's what."
Margot, how did you physically get prepared for the part of an Olympic ice skater? How much of what we saw was you versus a stunt double?
Margot: "Anything truly spectacular is not me. Try as I might, I could never pretend to be a professional ice skater. I did like four or five months of training, five days a week, four hours a day. It was a lot. I'd skated like a handful of times growing up, but not really because I'm from the Gold Coast in Australia. There's no ice! I can surf! But when I moved to America, I joined an ice hockey team...but it turns out ice hockey skates and figure skates are totally different, so I was face planting until I could really wrap my head around the topic. I quickly discovered that it was a brutal sport and incredibly difficult. I trained for ages and after awhile I started making progress and after awhile it became really fun, I really love it."
There' in this movie. What were some of the hardest scenes for you to film, Margot?
Margot: "Logistically, shooting those scenes, that's fine, it's a mechanical thing. Emotionally, it's different. Honestly doing those scenes with Allison or with Sebastian Stan [who plays Jeff], it really comes down to your acting partner. But what struck me, there was a documentary made about Tonya when she was 15, way before she knew the media was going to scrutinize her every move, so she was very candid and vulnerable. She was talking about her home life, and she was saying very candidly to the camera 'My mom hits me and she beats me and she's an alcoholic.' She was saying it just like that. Just desensitized to it at 15. That struck me as an important element of this abusive cycle that she went through as a child and into her marriage that she just accepted because it was so habitual. Craig had the great idea of having her break the fourth wall in those moments so you could see her emotionally disconnect from what was happening to her physically at the time, so you got the idea of how repetitive these sorts of abusive relationships can be. And I think speaking directly to the audience in those moments makes it a little easier for the audience to be like, okay I can keep watching, on some level I think she's fine, and I'm watching a movie. I think that was an important way to do it. But Craig said you can't shy away from the violence, because doing that would be an incredible disservice to anyone who has suffered violence. It was something we paid particular attention to."
Why do you guys think that the public was so quick to make Tonya the villain in this real life story, despite the roles that her ex-husband and bodyguard played?
Steven: "It was the first time there was a 24-hour news cycle and the first time that people really had to fill it. So I think people cared less about being accurate, and they just wanted content. So the easiest way to do that was to just reduce them to be just one thing. Tonya was the villain and Nancy was the princess and that's what we were fed and that's what we believed."
Margot: "I think it was easier to put Tonya as the villain because she just wasn't the image that the figure skating world wanted. I've watched every video of her skating like a thousand times over and the number of times they comment on the class of family she comes from, it should just be about the skating, but they'll be like 'Here's Tonya Harding, girl from the wrong side of the tracks!' It's just like, give her a chance! But it's about which box they decided to put each woman in. I think both were unfairly portrayed, because they portrayed Nancy Kerrigan as being from the elite, but she apparently came from a blue-collar family herself."
Paul: "I think there's really been an unfair stigma, lately men have been getting it in Hollywood and thank God people are uncovering a lot of garbage. But women, go to any checkout aisle of any grocery store, and you'll see people plastering names and accusations on women in the media that just by reading them, you know they're untrue. It's just people gravitating toward a story and things tend to snowball. In Tonya's case, like many stories, they let it evolve into this monster."
Steven: "I think the media likes to pit two women against each other, and people eat that up."
Shawn and Jeff each received 18 months in prison for their roles in the Nancy Kerrigan incident, but Tonya Harding was banned from ice skating for life. Do you each think those were fair sentences?
All three: "No."
Margot: "I just don't think she should have been banned from figure skating at all. That was her livelihood. She dropped out of school to do skating, there was nothing to fall back on. She obviously didn't come from a family that could lend her family or anything like that. I think that was so unfair. I don't care if people think she did it or not, she didn't deserve that."
You guys are telling a really important story for women in this movie. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, are you guys hopeful about Hollywood right now?
Paul: "So hopeful. I think we're done with the bullshit. I think people are ready to be vocal and stick up for each other. There were a lot of people that wanted to stick up for people, but everyone was afraid of their jobs. And now people are losing jobs. I'm thrilled that it's happening and I think you're gonna see a big turnaround, not just in how people are treated, but how films are made and seeing more female-led projects in Hollywood."
Margot: "What he said! But it's true, I think the new wave...we're a really young production company, this is our first film to make it to the big screen that we've produced. I can kind of feel that this young generation as we enter the industry, we're pointing out the things that we don't agree with and we wanna change it. It is about moving forward and finding what we're gonna fix and actually doing something about it instead of talking about it. There's been a lot of talk about it, and the chat does need to continue so it doesn't get swept under the rug. But everyone pivoted very quickly into how are we going to fix it, though, and how are we going to make sure this doesn't happen again."
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