Tonya Harding will always be synonymous with figure skating, but she's also forever tied to the 1984 assault on skater Nancy Kerrigan. It is difficult to bring up one without referencing the other, as the attack became one of the biggest-ever sports scandals, and changed the course of Harding's life.
Harding's life and career are brought into new focus in I, Tonya. No matter how the world feels about Harding's place in history and specifically the attack on Kerrigan, there's no argument about one aspect: Margot Robbie gives an extraordinary performance as the controversial athlete.
Robbie is one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood. The 27-year-old Australian quickly made her name starring in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street, The Legend of Tarzan, and Suicide Squad. Each role offered new challenges in terms of preparation, but Tonya Harding is like no other role Robbie has tackled. Portraying an Olympic athlete is one thing, but I, Tonya is not your typical rags to riches story.
In order to convincingly become a figure skater onscreen, Robbie had to complete a rigorous training regimen. Robbie spent much of her time preparing for the role on the ice with trainer Sarah Kawahara. Director Craig Gillespie felt it was important for Robbie to be Harding as much as possible without depending fully on stunt doubles. Turns out, Robbie isn't just a natural in front of the camera; she was right at home on the ice. Gillespie spoke to People about Robbie's work ethic and how it played out for the film:
She started skating 3 or 4 times a week for five months and she was incredibly diligent about it. The amount of stuff that she could do was amazing. For that end sequence when she comes out on the ice, those 30 or 40 seconds with all those turns and spins, that’s all Margot. She managed to be in it so much more than I expected.
Robbie was able to learn about 30 seconds from four of Harding's unconventional routines. The actress's dedication and confidence impressed Gillespie and Kawahara. Robbie did not perform the famous triple axel – Harding's signature move, which is incredibly difficult to perform – but she did master the casual movement of a skater, and the high kick. At one point, Robbie suffered a herniated disc in her neck, but powered through the pain. According to Kawahara, Robbie could have had a successful career as a skater if she started at a young age.
Besides the physical demands for the film, Robbie did not hold back in the dramatic representation of Harding. Much of the film is shot in a mockumentary style and features the cast seen through the decades of Harding's life. The actors had to not only convey the attitudes of their real-life counterparts, but also their physical appearance, which required a degree of transformation. To fully immerse herself in the role, Robbie didn't want to just look like Harding, she wanted to fully transform into the woman. Robbie explained the process:
Our makeup artist only used makeup that she bought really cheap from a strip mall, only makeup that Tonya could have worn. And the hair was dyed with only cheap hair dye, and she permed it time and time again. For me it wasn’t about replicating the looks, it was embodying the spirit of Tonya.
All this work isn't about making Harding the target of a joke, but to tell her story from a new perspective. The story that shows Harding's tough upbringing and alleged abuse by mother LaVona and husband Jeff Gillooly, brilliantly played by Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan, respectively.
I, Tonya was not created to claim innocence for Harding's connection to "the incident," as the characters refer to the attack on Kerrigan, but it does provide more insight into her life. Robbie, who also co-produced the film, took the time to meet with Harding to discuss the role so it could be presented in an appropriate manner. Now all the work is paying off as the film is continuing to generate critical acclaim for Robbie's performance, and major award buzz.
Fans can expect more of the same intense dedication in Robbie's upcoming roles. She will once again be portraying Harley Quinn in multiple DCEU films and will transform herself into Queen Elizabeth I for Mary Queen of Scots, premiering this November.
I, Tonya is now playing in theaters nationwide.