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How Allison Janney channeled her inner critic for 'I, Tonya'

Allison Janney stars as LaVona Golden, Tonya Harding's mom, in
Allison Janney stars as LaVona Golden, Tonya Harding's mom, in "I, Tonya."
Photo courtesy of Neon
Allison Janney stars as LaVona Golden, Tonya Harding's mom, in
Allison Janney accepts the Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role award for "I, Tonya" at the 2018 Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Allison Janney stars as LaVona Golden, Tonya Harding's mom, in
"I, Tonya" cast members Sebastian Stan, Margot Robbie (center) and Allison Janney at the Los Angeles Premiere of "I, Tonya."
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for NEON

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There are two things that made the ice skater Tonya Harding a household name: one was her astounding ability to land a triple axel in competition; and the other was the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Olympics.

That second event was committed by an inept bodyguard and Harding's then-husband, Jeff Gillooly.  Largely unknown when all of this was going on was LaVona Golden – Tonya's mean, abusive mother. However, she is a vivid character in the film, "I, Tonya."

Screenwriter Steve Rogers based his script on extensive interviews with both Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly. In the film LaVona is played by Allison Janney. It's a performance that has earned her an Oscar nomination as supporting actress.

Janney tells The Frame's John Horn that she didn't have the chance to meet LaVona.

I felt freed by the fact that I didn't have to meet her. And I got to put her together like I do any role as an actress. You know, a fictional role ... and I could do whatever I wanted. I definitely felt a certain freedom there. That being said, I would loved to have asked her a lot of questions about her childhood and what her dreams were. There could've been things that would've helped me. But I did not have that luxury. 

To get into the character, Janney both drew from the script and tapped into her own personal history. She reflects on the intense scene in which the Tonya character, played by Margot Robbie, asks LaVona if she ever loved her. It's a brutal moment in which a daughter is looking for some degree of caring from a mother who's regularly hurt her. Still, as tough as that scene is for the Tonya character, Janney says that it helped her to imagine the inner life of LaVona.

I knew that that was my one chance to show a side of LaVona that maybe showed through the cracks — her vulnerability, her wound, a little bit of that side of her that would make her more three dimensional. You could see her humanity in that scene ... I have to think that she was abused herself, because abuse tends to be cyclical. I think that she came from an abusive family.

In my mind I think [LaVona's] mother didn't step in and protect her from the abuse. So when she says, "I wish I had a mother that wasn't nice, nice gets you sh**," I don't think her mother gave her any opportunity to succeed. And definitely she was not loved. I think that's LaVona's secret — not so secret that she doesn't know how to love and was not loved. She doesn't know what that is. She's a woman who obviously has tons of resentment and anger built up. And I think as most mothers do, they see their daughters as an extension of themselves somewhat. And I think she saw herself giving her daughter this opportunity to get out and change things and give them both a better life. And her daughter throws it all away over Jeff Gillooly. 

Finally, almost sheepishly, Janney tells The Frame that to find her way to being the abusive critic she imagined LaVona to be, she tapped into her own inner critic.

When I went deeper and thought of Tonya as an extension of [LaVona], I thought, well, she's also talking to herself too. In acting this, I bring out my inner critic of myself — Allison's inner critic. And I know how mean I am to myself sometimes when I don't do well. Or haven't done something. The way I talked to myself was how LaVona talked to Tonya. Sometimes that made me really understand how to be that mean. And be grounded in it. 


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