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Margot Robbie gives Tonya Harding story the dimension it deserves

(L-R) Sebastian Stan, Margot Robbie and Julianne Nicholson in
(L-R) Sebastian Stan, Margot Robbie and Julianne Nicholson in "I, Tonya."

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I think both women were treated unfairly in that they were reduced to one specific thing. Whatever could fit into a three-word headline. — Margot Robbie  

When Margot Robbie began working on "I, Tonya," she had no idea the extent to which her character's story would resonate with the current political climate in Hollywood. Production on the film began long before Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual abuse by upwards of 80 women, catalyzing the stream of allegations against power abusers in the entertainment industry and beyond. While the moviemakers could not have anticipated today's environment, their film enjoys a certain serendipity.

Robbie talks about Harding being a victim of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse. The actress — who is also a producer on the film — aims to cast light upon the discrepancy between the Harding that many people claim to know, and the resilient woman who pursued her passions despite the world telling her she was unworthy.

There's a danger in flattening highly complex stories of women into sensationalized headlines. Cognizant of this, Robbie aims to do justice to the power of Tonya's narrative, offering the world a multidimensional depiction of someone so wildly unpopular, yet deeply misunderstood. Through Robbie, we get a sense of what it means to intimately believe in someone who was almost unanimously pegged as a villain. 

Tonya's story, in addition to Robbie's immersion in it, offers invaluable lessons for our current climate. The film highlights the ubiquity of violence against women, the strength of women everywhere, and — above all else — the importance of making their voices heard. During a time when sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men in the industry and beyond surface nearly every day, stories like Harding's could not be more relevant. 

Robbie recently spoke with The Frame's John Horn.


On the moment at which she really understood how to play Harding: 

I guess there were small epiphanies along the way ... there were really three chapters of her character and her life that I could divide up clearly because I play her from [ages] 15-44. So there was Tonya at 15; there was Tonya in her 20s, pre- and post-incident; and there was later in her life, Tonya in her 40s. If you looked at my script, you’d probably put me in a mental asylum because I look like a crazy person! I have different color-coded versions of what age she was, what stage of life she was in. In my mind I kept it very divided. It was small instances, like when I watched a documentary made about her when she was 15 called "Sharp Edges" in which she was obviously speaking very candidly because she had no idea that later in life she was going to be so scrutinized by the media. That was an epiphany moment to understand her childhood, to understand abuse, to understand the cycle of abuse. There was always a different moment in a different interview, either from a documentary or an interview that she'd done in the past that makes that stage of her life click. It makes me understand what she was going through at that time.

On the media’s portrayal of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya:

I think both women were treated unfairly in that they were reduced to one specific thing. Whatever could fit into a three-word headline. Whatever could sound splashy — that's now them. Nancy is the angel, Tonya is the monster; Nancy is upperclass, Tonya is white trash. Nancy, I believe, actually grew up in a blue collar family. It's not like she was depicted fairly either. I think the aim was [to] get the quick easy answers, don't look any further than that. And we all just ate it up. I had actually never heard of her when I read this script. I had never heard of any of this and I didn't know much about the figure skating world, so I approached the character and the story with a clean slate — which was amazing, having no preconceived  notions or judgement toward them. Because I have to be on her side, that made it a lot easier. I knew that we'd be showing this movie to the majority of audience members having already judged her. And to approach the story, not with an aim to change their minds, but just to show them another side to it.

Actress Margot Robbie plays figure skater Tonya Harding in
Actress Margot Robbie plays figure skater Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya."

  On what it means to be "on Tonya's side" as the actress portraying her: 

I think, no matter what character you play, if you're playing the villainous character, you have to believe that when we make a decision in life, it's because we truly believe that was the best thing we could do at that time. And, in that way, I do that with every character. I find their point of view and I have to find a way to believe in it wholeheartedly.

On Tonya's history of being an abuse victim:

She was speaking very candidly at 15. She said: "My mom's an alcoholic and she hits me and she beats me." It was like she was listing a grocery list. She was so desensitized to it at 15. And that hit me really hard. It made me realize that if she's numb to it at 15, then this is a regular occurrence. This is happening daily or weekly. I think there's that thing, too, when you're young you kind of accept your circumstances without question. It's not until you get older and you start seeing other people's circumstances that you wonder, Hey, why am I in this situation? I think in her teen years you do see a bit of defiance.

  On what it was like to show the film to Harding:

I wasn't there. We wanted to give her her space. I definitely don't want to speak on her behalf, but I can imagine it would have been a very emotional, strange experience to see the best and worst parts of your life depicted on screen in a two-hour feature film. But I think ultimately she felt somewhat vindicated that her side of the story had been told finally.


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