Faking It: This Is How I, Tonya Nailed That Triple Axel

Welcome to Faking It, our monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.

Growing up in Canada, there was no getting around it: Every week, I laced up my white (for the first two or three lessons, at least) skates, and hit the ice. For girls, figure skating was the trendy after-school activity. For boys, it was hockey. In either case, if you didn't want to be a social pariah in late 1990s Montreal, you learned how to look semi-decent while gliding around on a frozen surface.

Full disclosure: I was pretty terrible. Unlike some of my peers, who went on to skate competitively through middle and high school, I quit after-school skating soon after elementary. I still love it as a once-a-year winter activity, but had no desire to accidentally slice my thigh open after falling on my blade as a finale to an axel jump, as one of my best friends did when we were 11.

I was three weeks shy of 4 years old when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man who struck her knee with a steel baton. I don't actually remember her lying on the floor of a Detroit arena, screaming "Why?!" I've heard about it, of course — who hasn't? But as a result, watching I, Tonya, the new black comedy about the events in Tonya Harding's life up to and after "the incident," felt like pulling the curtain back on an event I was really discovering for the first time.

One thing that felt familiar though, was the skating; not just the actual moves, but the sheer effort, time, and commitment that goes into becoming a professional skater. In 1994, Tonya Harding was one of the best in the world. And so, I wondered, how does an Australian actress like Margot Robbie, who produced I, Tonya and plays the titular role, manage to make us believe that she's got that level of skill on skates?

To find out, I spoke to Sarah Kawahara, the former Canadian figure skater, Emmy-winning choreographer and skating coordinator who trained Robbie for the film.

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 hits theaters everywhere January 5th. Grab your tickets HERE

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Photo: Courtesy of Neon Films.
Skater Girl

Real talk: the big stunts you see onscreen aren't actually performed by Margot Robbie. The actress had two professional skater doubles, Anna Malkova, from California, and Heidi Munger, from Boston, to cover the really difficult jumps and technical skills.

But lest you go thinking she got off easy, Robbie did train for weeks before shooting began. Before taking on the role of Tonya Harding, Robbie had never strapped on figure skates, only hockey skates. If you, like me, are now wondering what the difference is between hockey skates and figure skates, here it is: hockey blades are flat, with just one edge — they're basically meant for the user to get around the ice quickly, and go about their business. Figure skates, on the other hand, have two edges, in addition to a toe pick and a rocker under the ball of the foot.

"It’s a much more refined articulation of your foot in order to do tricks, to take off into a jump, to do spins — it’s more complex as far as technical skating is concerned," Kawahara explained.

After meeting with Robbie to decide on a training plan, Kawahara got to work. She taught the 27-year-old to skate from scratch, and had her on the ice three to four times a week. When Robbie went home to Australia for Christmas vacation, shortly before filming was set to begin, Kawahara set her up with a coach there so she could keep practicing.

All in all, Robbie had to nail down five routines. Kawahara also worked with the doubles, and then lined them all up on the ice so that the footage could be intercut smoothly during editing.

"It was really exciting when I got to see the final cut and all the work that we had done together made the screen," Kawahara said. "So often, it ends up on the cutting room floor."
Photo: Courtesy of Neon Films.
Training Like Tonya

Not only did Robbie have to learn to skate, she had to learn to skate like Tonya Harding.

"She really had to learn, not only to skate on figure skates, but also Tonya’s body language — Tonya was a very athletic, powerful skater – and her stroke, her manner," Kawahara said. "This is a woman who had trained all her life to skate, so it’s hard to just capture that in four months’ time. It was important to really focus on the style of stroke, to get her to be able to turn front to back without looking awkward, and come to a stop gracefully without looking like a beginner. Just to have that overall confidence of someone who has skated all their life."

Director Craig Gillespie wanted Robbie to be able to skate at least the first minute of Harding's 1994 program, so that he could use three-quarter or full-body shots of the actress. Kawahara, who has worked on films like Blades of Glory or Go Figure, was surprised at how quickly Robbie was able to master the skill. "Margot’s got great visualization talent, and I was amazed that she could double her training by using that technique. I kind of wish skaters in our skating world would apply that more often too; if you use that visualization talent that she has it can take your learning curve down a little bit," she said.

What's more, the actress seemed to truly enjoy the sport. Kawahara recalls that they were filming a scene where Tonya is training with coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), and had to do a move that required a deep edge. To do that, you have to have the confidence to go really fast, crossing your feet in front of you at an angle.

"The first time that she ever really tasted doing her forward crossovers, she looked over at me and said, 'I’m going so fast!'"Kawahara said. "I was like, 'It’s all good — don’t panic!” It was cute to see her delight, because it sneaks up on you. If you do it right, it’s so innate within the power of your muscles."
"The Incident"

In order to get the choreography and body language right, Kawahara, Robbie and the two doubles studied original footage of Harding from 1985 through 1994. The skater was known for her unconventional dance moves, which often put her at odds with the very traditional judges, who believed that skating should be a demure sport reserved for prim and proper young ladies.

For one routine, Robbie, Malkova, and Munger had to do the robot on skates, and perfect a high kick, which is harder than it sounds. "Your foot can slip out from underneath you very easily, so I trained them on the floor without skates, then on the floor with skates, then beside the board holding on, on the ice, and then in the middle of the ice," Kawahara said. "It’s a scary step to be able to do it in sequence. But also turning from front to back, and doing the head rolls, and the sharp arm movements, that all had to be learned and trained into [Robbie's] body."

"It was really for me, a reenactement of [Harding's] choreography and her style," Kawahara said. "I adapted some of the moves to fit Margot’s body, but overall, I tried to stay as true to the original as possible."

Kawahara was around and choreographing for other professional skaters like Oksana Baiul and Nancy Kerrigan herself when the whole Tonya Harding scandal blew up. Before the notorious "incident" she was actually asked to choreograph for Harding, but refused because the timing wasn't right. Still, Kawahara said she never really took that close a look at the skater's style until now, and she found the experience "enlightening."

"As a technical skater she was really quite good, and very powerful, and jumps were really high, and her spins were really fast, and she was always centered," she said. "It was interesting to bring a new generation to look and examine her as a skater. The doubles were really amazed at the caliber of her work. I must say that it made me even more sad that her life took the turn that it did, and she made some bad choices and it ruined her career."
Nailing That Triple Axel

Harding's crowning achievement came in 1991, when she became the first woman ever to receive a 6.0 score for a triple axel at the U.S. Championships. She did it again later that year at the World Championships, becoming the first American woman ever to land the near-impossible jump.

Named after Norwegian skater Axel Paulson, who invented the jump in 1882, an axel-type jump is the most difficult to master of the six performed in figure skating, A triple axel jump requires a forward take off, and not one, not two, but three and a half rotations in the air before landing gracefully back on the ice. To this day, only a handful of women in the world can achieve this feat of aerodynamics, which actually presented a problem for Kawahara, who had to find someone to recreate it for the screen.

This was challenging for a number of reasons. First off, the movie starting filming in January, the time in which most American professional skaters are competing in U.S. Nationals. Second, Kawahara had to make sure that the doubles she found would match Margot Robbie's body type, and height. (Robbie is 5'6, while Harding was actually only 5'2.) And finally, the chosen skaters would have to be able to complete incredibly difficult maneuvers and jumps on a daily basis.

Neither Munger nor Markova could do the triple axel, however, which meant that Kawahara had to get creative. She first tried to fake it using wire work, but the action was too floaty. Kawahara says she briefly considered using a male double for that particular jump (men who can land a triple axel are much more commonplace — they've even moved on to quads), but it was too difficult to find a man who would line up physically with Robbie.

In the end, the jump was done through editing and camera tricks. The doubles did "a zillion double axels, shot a zillion different ways," according to Kawahara. Using different cameras to get shots of their feet and the various rotations and positions, the filmmakers were then able to piece it all together for the final product that you see in the video clip from the movie, above.
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