When Margot Robbie read the script for I, Tonya, a biopic of the notorious ice skater Tonya Harding, she assumed the story was complete fiction. “I thought the writer was so quirky and crazy to come up with this stuff,” she told me, still looking a bit astonished by the strange twists in Harding’s life. (In 1994, the skater was famously implicated in a plot to take down her nemesis Nancy Kerrigan after a man attacked Kerrigan with a baton.) We were on location for the W shoot in Snug Harbor, a bucolic Staten Island enclave founded in the early 1800s as a haven for old sailors. There was something appealingly run-down and shabby about the setting, but Robbie, who is 27, is a glow-y girl: With blond hair and an engaging manner, she can’t help but shine.
Which is why it is so remarkable that Robbie was able to completely disappear into Harding’s decidedly darker persona. A self-described redneck from Oregon, Harding was the antithesis of the traditional superstar figure skater. She was rough and flashy, and her skating was powerful and athletic rather than graceful and balletic. Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, were ultimately charged with criminal conspiracy to commit assault. While Kerrigan recovered from her injuries in time to compete in the ’94 Olympics, the incident propelled Harding to tabloid infamy and effectively ended her skating career.
“I was 4 years old and living in Australia at the time,” Robbie said. “The news did reach Australia, but I didn’t know about it.”
Riveted by the script, Robbie immediately agreed to star in and produce the film—despite that fact that she had never figure skated in her life. “I did four months of training, five days a week, four hours a day,” she recalled. “On Christmas Eve, I was at the rink. And now I actually really miss it. I kept my ice skates—but I said goodbye to a whole world of pain that I didn’t realize came along with figure skating.”
Not only did Robbie have to be believable on the ice, she also had to take on the even more difficult challenge of assuming Harding’s accent and physique. “Once I put on the wig, which altered my hairline, and bleached my eyebrows, I started to see Tonya,” Robbie said. “The hardest part was losing my natural laugh. It needed to be Tonya’s laugh. I couldn’t do a triple axel like Tonya, but I was able to master her laugh.”
Robbie paused. “That was interesting to me, and explains something about the insidious nature of domestic violence: The audience forgave him so quickly. So how could you blame Tonya for going back to him?”
Before filming began, Robbie and her director, Craig Gillespie, flew to Portland, Oregon, to meet Harding in person. “I wanted there to be a clear distinction between the ‘real’ Tonya and the one I would be playing,” Robbie explained, adding that she had already made up her mind as to how she would approach the character. “I didn’t want to sugarcoat her,” she said. I asked Robbie whether or not she believes Harding was innocent. “In the beginning, I wasn’t really sure. There were things that didn’t add up. Facts were muddled.” She smiled. “But the more I became Tonya, the more I saw things from her point of view. I’m on her side 100 percent. I don’t think she did anything but be different from what the world wanted. There are cool misfits, and then there is Tonya. She didn’t fit in. And I love that.”