Incident Report: Margot Robbie, Craig Gillespie and Sebastian Stan Talk 'I, Tonya'

Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie star as Jeff Gillooly and Tonya Harding in I, Tonya
VVS Films

“She’s an incredible athlete and I think that’s one of the tragedies of this whole situation,” says Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, Z for Zachariah), speaking about her I, Tonya character at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year. “‘The Incident’ totally overshadowed her athletic abilities and what a phenomenal achievement it was to do the triple axel.”

Robbie’s character is ex-figure skater Tonya Harding, who at age 21, became the first woman to land a triple axel in the short program and again with a double toe loop. “The Incident,” of course, refers to Harding’s other claim to fame: allegedly conspiring to oust rival Nancy Kerrigan by taking out her kneecap with a baton. Robbie explains that “The Incident” damaged Harding’s career so much that when screenwriter Steven Rogers contacted the skater to purchase her life rights, the number for her representation was a Motel 6. Talk about rock bottom, but what a juicy note of inspiration for a film.
L-R: Paul Walter Hauser, Craig Gillespie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, McKenna Grace, Margot Robbie Julianne Nicholson and Caitlin Carver at the TIFF World Premiere of I, Tonya
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images/TIFF
Robbie gives the performance of the year playing Harding in this fearlessly funny true crime mockumentary that is sympathetic to the ex-skater’s downfall without letting her off the hook. Throughout the film, Harding struggles to hold herself accountable for her actions. (One could easily make a drinking game out of how often Harding says, “It wasn’t my fault.”) The film is part David O. Russell and part Christopher Guest as Harding and company tell their inconsistent versions of events in manic dramatizations and documentary-style interviews. These interviews draw upon wildly contradictory conversations Rogers conducted with Harding following their Motel 6 rendezvous and then with her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan.

Matching Harding’s athleticism was the first challenge for Robbie, who also plays producer on the film, when trying to recreate the skater’s on-ice feats. The Australian-born star says she brought some skating experience to the film after briefly playing hockey when she moved to the USA. When it comes to the more complex moves, however, I, Tonya required a team of pros, stunt doubles, and visual effects to match Harding’s talent. “The tricky thing was, if people are at a certain level, they’re not allowed to work on a film because there are all these rules with the association,” Robbie explains, “so it was hard to find girls who could double me and would be in our film without risking injury before their competitions.”
Tonya Harding after landing the triple axel in I, Tonya
VVS Films
Robbie recalls that the hardest part of the logistical nightmare of assembling skating doubles was finding someone who could land Harding’s famed triple axel. “It turned out almost no women can do a triple axel,” Robbie adds. “Only like five women in the world have done it since Tonya did it in competition, so that had to be computer generated and done with tricky cuts.”

Director Craig Gillespie adds that the skating scenes posed an extra challenge for their modest operation. Despite a heavy amount of screen time devoted to stylized sequences on the rink, only three weeks of I, Tonya’s shoot were on the ice. “You get those rinks for a finite amount of time,” he explains adding that one day alone featured thirty set-ups of Harding on the ice and in her locker room. “We had all these scenes in one day and we broke it down,” he explains, “and it ended up being that we lit and shot a shot every 20 minutes.”

Robbie notes that Harding was eager to play skating coach when the two met for character research. “She was less concerned about herself and more concerned about me,” Robbie explains. “She offered to train me and told me all the things she did while training.”

The star adds that Harding was easygoing about having this difficult chapter of her life interpreted and dramatized by strangers. “I felt like I had a responsibility to sit and look at her face to face and say that ‘I’m going to play a character based on all these things that happened to you. It’s a character. I’m not trying to replicate you,’” Robbie explains. “It’s like what I said to Nadine when I met her for Wolf of Wall Street.”

Stan says his interpretation of Gillooly mirrors the film’s mix of fact and fiction. “Meeting him was really helpful because I was able to see where he was at later in his life,” explains Stan, “at least how he looked or behaved; what his mindset was like.” The actor drew upon the ample YouTube footage of Gillooly to fill in the gaps.
Sebastian Stan, Margot Robbie, and Julianne Nicholson in I, Tonya
VVS Films
Robbie says she also used the wealth of available footage to create her take on Tonya, particularly the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The Price of Gold about Harding and “The Incident.” “Any time I create a character, I try to imagine their childhood and all the poignant events that happened to them as a child that, I believe, effects the person they became later in life,” says Robbie. “Without that documentary, I would have invented all those things, but to see how she shifted over the years was so helpful.”

Gillespie agrees that Harding’s backstory sharpens I, Tonya’s blades. “Everyone has these preconceived ideas,” he explains. “She’s the punchline, she’s the villain, and my goal is that you actually feel bad for her by the end of the film and you empathize with her because nobody just lands in this moment. They’re a victim of their upbringing and their environment.”
Allison Janney stars in I, Tonya
VVS Films

The darkly funny film features jarring scenes of violence as Harding goes blow for blow with Gillooly and, from her childhood onwards, her mother LaVona, played by Allison Janney. I, Tonya features unflinching domestic violence that punctuates roaring laughter from the audience with audible gasps. One scene, for example, sees Harding berate Gillooly for not buying her favourite Dove-brand ice cream bars while grocery shopping. He responds by smacking her in the face with a head of lettuce. It’s funny, but with a devastating sting.

Gillespie adds that the team tested I, Tonya with and without the Dove Bar/lettuce scene, but responded best when it hit hardest. “That shot was the one where we were like, ‘Did we go too far?’ The first three takes he punched her, and I was like ‘It’s just too much,’ then I was like, ‘Try it with the lettuce in your hands. The produce.’ It puts it in this bizarre space and makes it feel less premediated in way because he was in the middle of something else.”

For Robbie, taking and giving Tonya’s punches lets the film explore her story within the larger context of abuse that doesn’t make the headlines. “It gives audiences an opportunity to reassess how quickly they judge people and vilify people in the media without knowing the circumstances,” she observes. “To forgive Jeff, you understand the cycle of their abusive relationship. You understand why she went back. You can see an audience forgive him so quickly and understand why she did too.”
Sebastian Stan in I, Tonya
VVS Films
Some scenes see Harding take a blow, and perhaps return one, and then turn to the camera to challenge the events that just transpired. Robbie says that she and her fellow producers debated Gillespie’s idea to break the fourth wall, but ultimately found it was the best way to address the violence truthfully and respectfully without overwhelming audiences. “We were really worried how to handle that,” says Robbie. “When you see her turn to the camera and talk nonchalantly, seeing her be removed from the situation helped audiences be removed from the situation enough to cope with it.”

“The one thing that I kept coming back to in terms of her being abused was that it was normal,” explains Gillespie. “I came up with this idea of breaking the fourth wall because I felt like when she’s in these incredibly intense scenes and it’s too much for the audience, she can turn to us and be fine with it. You see that it just doesn’t bother her and it just puts us more into her head space.”

The actors and director agree that the scenes are a product of trust, careful choreography, and letting one another blow off steam when filming became too intense. “A lot of that was on Craig,” says Stan. “He really knew how to do that very fine dance between when it was getting too serious and when it was being too funny, and dialing everything back.”
Stan’s performance helps Gillooly be both the default foil of the film and a sympathetic, amiable doofus in his (alleged) orchestration of Harding’s downfall. “A lot of men would come in and do this incredibly macho brutal thing,” observes Gillespie. “The way I tried to explain it was that he’s like a six-year-old with these impulses that he can’t control. It’s never premeditated and he feels immediately awful about it. It doesn’t condone it in any way. It just gives you a way into the character.”

Gillespie adds that I, Tonya required finding redemption in LaVona, a foul-mouth monster mommy, who hurls everything at her daughter from insults to steak knives. “With Allison, that character has so many incredibly tough heinous scenes,” says the director. “Allison would always be talking about it and I would come back and say, ‘Look, she got up every morning at five in the morning and drove her to practice.’ As much as LaVona had her despicable qualities, it must have meant something because she did this for a decade.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone else straddling LaVona’s dry sense of humour and meanness. Robbie and Gillespie note that Rogers wrote I, Tonya with Janney in mind for the part. “If a writer comes in with a rule of engagement, like, ‘I’ve already cast one of the roles,’ as a producer, that can be kind of terrifying,” admits Robbie. “But the fact that it was Allison Janney, we were like, there’s nobody better and she absolutely nailed it.” Janney’s wickedness results in a scene-stealing performance that had TIFF-goers shouting “Best Supporting Actress” during Q&As.

LaVona might be one of the better examples for why the mockumentary style interviews make the film click. Interview scenes with LaVona draw upon the 30 for 30 documentary and feature the older, frailer mother giving her version of “The Incident” at the family home. (I, Tonya ends with a shot of LaVona from the documentary that lets audiences see just how good Janney is.) Janney sits tethered to an oxygen tank as years of smoking (and karma) afflict LaVona while Pete, a little green parrot, her only friend and family, pecks away on her shoulder. Pete is a scene-stealer, but also a bit of a diva.

“I’m in the bedroom doing this sex montage,” laughs Gillespie, “and my AD [assistant director] comes in because we were going to shoot with Allison for two or three hours doing the interviews with this parrot I hadn’t met.” (The director pauses to catch his breath from laughter.) “My AD comes in and says, ‘The woman who owns the parrot will not let Allison smoke during the scene.’ And I’m like, ‘She’s been smoking around three-year-olds and ten-year-olds but she can’t smoke around a parrot?’” Fortunately, Gillespie adds that Janney found the oxygen tank as a compromise. The image of the ailing mother trashtalking her daughter with nothing but a parrot for companionship oddly humanizes LaVona. Comedy and tragedy sit side by side with PETA’s approval.
Margot Robbie with fans on the TIFF red carpt
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images/TIFF
The relationship between Harding and her mother, just like her kiss-with-a-fist romance with Gillooly, and alleged rivalry with Kerrigan, hope to offer more than audiences remember from the tabloids. “Everybody knows ‘The Incident’ and that was actually an improvised line when Margot goes, ‘And now what you all came for: The Incident,’” explains Gillespie. “It was never about this rivalry between them. It was all created by the press.”

Robbie agrees that the mix of interview scenes and dramatic interpretations let them be objective while spinning a familiar drama like a triple axel. “It was never about turning her into a hero or a victim. The whole point of our script is that there are so many versions of the truth,” says Robbie. “They really were distilled down to these two archetypes that just aren’t accurate. No one is that two-dimensional.”

I, Tonya opens in Toronto on December 22 and expands in January.

Read the TIFF review of I, Tonya here.

Read more with Sebastian Stan at BeatRoute.