Essays · Movies

The Story Behind ‘I, Tonya,’ The Unexpected Breakout of Awards Season

The people behind the runaway awards contender ‘I, Tonya’ talk about what brought a special cast and its special movie together.
I Tonya Behind The Scenes
By  · Published on December 5th, 2017

Recently, producer-star Margot Robbie and directed Craig Gillespie gave a Q&A at the latest TimesTalk ScreenTimes series. Co-star Sebastian Stan also joined them onstage, to the surprise and delight of the audience, following a screening of their new movie, I, Tonya. The dark comedy is about the infamous figure skater, Tonya Harding, and the 1994 “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan that came to define her life and career.

Since the story was so well-known, the director wondered if there was enough there for a movie. He was also wary of doing another biopic after Million Dollar Arm (2014) and The Finest Hours (2016). Once his agent ended the pitch with “…starring Margot Robbie” Gillespie was sold. “That is just so intriguing. The idea of Margot playing that role, I was just mesmerized by it, and I thought she does drama and she does comedy so well and does that dance so beautifully, but staying empathetic and caring about her and not playing up the comedy at the sacrifice of the character.” Another deciding factor was, after finishing reading the script, Gillespie liked it, and knew it would be a great combination with Margot. At that point, “I was begging for it.” Luckily, he also clicked with Margot and the other producers.

Robbie called Gillespie “a director we could trust implicitly.” “He always knew exactly what he wanted, but was always open to something else as well. There were no boundaries, but at the same time, we had a very safe place,” adding that having a smaller set also contributed to the safe environment. Robbie continued to speak glowingly of the experience, saying, “It was just such a good working relationship with everyone.”

Of adapting the scandal for the screen, Gillespie said, “It was a fascinating dilemma [because] there were so many disparate points of view.” When he looked at past films for inspiration, the closest he found was 1995’s To Die For by Gus Van Sant. While they share an interview format, what sets I, Tonya apart is the less linear structure, multiple conflicting accounts, and even breaking of the fourth wall. He joked the script contains “the whole kitchen sink.”

As a producer, Margot often searches for projects others could star in, in addition to ones that would suit her acting talents. “[I’m] always looking for good material, whether it’s something I could star in or not. There are some roles I read and I just know that another actress could play it better than I can.” This leads her to sometimes pass on amazing scripts she loves, to the chagrin of her team. Then, there are roles like Tonya Harding. Robbie said she knows when a part is specifically right for her when “I want it so bad. I’m also really, really scared that I can’t pull it off. But when I have that feeling- that’s the role that I should go for. When I really, really want it, and I’m scared of it as well. Then I know I have to.”

Like Robbie, Allison Janney, who plays Tonya’s mother, LaVona, came attached with the script. “Steven [Rogers], our writer, wrote the role for Allison,” said Robbie. Gillespie said a big challenge, to make it all work was to cast a Jeff Gillooly who would complement two such strong performers as Robbie and Janney. Gillespie said he could finally breathe easier, “Once Sebastian came in and blew us away in an audition.”

Stan was nervous about playing a real person for the first time. “The fact that having to mold yourself into something that already was out there and existed in a way— and he looked and spoke and acted, apparently, very specifically.”

Stan came prepared to the audition, wearing a mustache and turtleneck. During the intense scene, Stan improvised a kiss, and Robbie applauded him for his reactionary emotional responses. Said Robbie on the “wild” audition, “Jeff didn’t know how to cope with his emotions, and that’s what Sebastian showed us in that audition and the second he walked out, Craig and I [Robbie mimed exuberant “Oh, yes” celebratory fist pumps].” Scoring the part after a beloved audition gave Stan a lot of confidence for that first day on set and in “how [well] we can all work together.”

Gillespie praised his stars for doing their “homework” when it came to prep for their characters. “It’s something as a director you hope they’re going to do it, but you never know exactly what their discipline is.” This preparation included watching actual footage of their real-life counterparts, getting the accents and physicality down, and for Robbie— becoming a figure skater. Continued Gillespie, “They came in so prepared that they had that arsenal, and then they could improvise, and they were so reactive to each other, but [could] stay in character, stay in the plot.”

Stan met Gillooly in person, to get a sense of the real man as he is now, and when he was young since he’d only been in the public spotlight for such a brief moment. He described meeting his character in person as feeling like an episode of Twilight Zone. One of the first things the notorious man said to the actor who would be playing him was, “Why would you want to do this? Why would anyone want to see this?” Stan said there was “a weariness about revisiting the one highlight that came to define his life.” Added Robbie, “Sebastian made [Jeff] human,” which helped sell the love story between two central characters, however unhealthy the relationship may have been.

Robbie said her situation was different because there was so much footage of Harding through the years, including a candid documentary from when she was fifteen. “It broke my heart how open and nonchalant she seemed listing off how ‘My Mom’s an alcoholic and she hits me. She beats me.’ It struck me how emotionally desensitized she was to the abuse.”  

Up until meeting the notorious figure skater, Robbie had kept her person and the character very compartmentalized. Robbie was quick to inform her, “I’m playing a character, I’m not trying to replicate you specifically,” to which she said Harding was “incredibly understanding” of the nature of the nontraditional biopic.

Gillespie confirmed Harding was very gracious and trusting with them revisiting this time in her life. It gave him the confidence to look at her with a different lens and “do her well with this portrayal, which is what we set out to do.”

To watch the entire TimeTalks and hear what memento everyone took from the set, and about their favorite scenes, see below. I, Tonya opens December 8.

Related Topics: ,

Jenna Dorsi is a freelance writer who's appeared in many publications, including Teen Vogue and Daytime Confidential. She spends her spare time obsessed with pop culture.