Who gets to tell your story (especially when it goes wrong) : Behind the scenes of I, Tonya


I, Tonya, to borrow ice skating analogy, is a triple axel of a film –nearly impossible to pull off well, breathtaking when it happens.

It features (in Electra’s opinion) the Hollywood performance of the year in Allison Janney, as the chainsmoking, chip-on-the-shoulder, Cruella-de-Vill’d mother from hell – LaVona Golden, who gave birth to Tonya Harding, at one point one of the most famous women in the world, but more of her later.

Allison Janney in I,Tonya - Credit: Ent One

Allison Janney in I,Tonya - Credit: Ent One

It also features Margot Robbie’s excellent turn as Tonya Harding, and the film itself, directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers, is part thriller, part comedy, part biopic, part mockumentary, one that combines conventional skating set pieces with casually breaking fourth camera walls.

Pieced together, the story manages to swing between wildly dramatic and traumatic episodes, with outrageously funny scenes, all punctuated with a telling and vibrant soundtrack. For example, Allison Janney’s character, with all her promise of maternal evil, gets properly introduced to the sound of Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman as young children whizz around an ice rink. The visual transformation is something to behold, with Allison Janney commenting how she felt she saw the final look for LaVona. “I thought I'd stepped out of a Diane Arbus photograph or something,” she says. “It was extraordinary. I felt so empowered by that look. I think I looked better there than I do right now.” 

Tonya Harding, born in 1970, was that girl from the wrong side of the tracks who made good. With an unlikely talent for ice-skating, she was pushed ( often literally) by her mother into success. She managed to become the first American woman to land the highly technical triple axel in competition – something that can’t ever be taken away from her. Everything else, however, was.

In January 1994, weeks before the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, Tonya’s main team USA competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked at a training session in Detroit. Her leg was hit with a baton, and depending who you believe, Tonya may have been involved, her husband of the time certainly was, even though neither actually wielded the baton. Harding was subsequently banned from the US figure skating association for life.

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding. Credit: Ent One

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding. Credit: Ent One

I do feel like I'm shaping my career in a way that I want it to be shaped and not just waiting, hoping,” Margot Robbie

“Real life happens to be a lot more insane than what we do in the films most of the time,” notes Margot Robbie. “Everyone I know, no one is just one thing. In fact the most interesting people are full of contradictions.”

The contradictions that whirl around Tonya Harding’s story have much to do with who is recalling what happened on screen. It brings to mind a refrain that runs throughout Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton; Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.  Harding did give her blessing to the film; Margot Robbie got to meet her two weeks before shooting commenced

Margot Robbie produced this film as well as starring in it. So as women working in this era of Hollywood, how in control of their own stories do Robbie and Janney feel?

“Being a producer on this film and having a production company I do feel like I'm shaping my career in a way that I want it to be shaped and not just waiting, hoping,” replies Robbie.

“I don't think someone would have just given me this role if I hadn't gone after it and I wasn't really prepared to wait 10, 15 years until something like this came along. I wanted to do that now.”

That tenacity is paying off, with a string of award nominations and wins already secured, plus Margot Robbie is nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars too.

“The production company, its purpose isn't to have starring vehicles for me but for any actress,” she adds. “We want female driven content and female storytellers telling those stories as well even better. So yes, I do feel empowered by getting to be more in control of my fate I suppose.”

'Where now women are encouraged to speak up and question anything that doesn’t feel right, Tonya Harding did exactly that yet was continually penalised for doing so.'

“I love telling other people's stories,” adds Allison Janney. “I love telling women's stories. I have played a man before but mostly I like telling women's stories and the more complicated and messier the better.” They also both adore Hamilton , with Janney happily sharing she’s seen the musical twice. “I think there are going to continue to be incredible female stories to tell and thank God for people like Margot who can wear all these different hats and goes out and looks for female driven content and good stories.”

Without spoiling too much of what I, Tonya presents for discussion, it’s fascinating to view it among the backdrop of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the wave of feminism sweeping the film industry (and beyond). It feels that the tale of a plucky teenager who sewed her own skating costumes because she couldn’t afford tailor made ones, may well be something to champion had it taken place at the 2018 Winter Olympics rather than the 1994 games, or at the very least become a potential crowdfunding success story.

Similarly, where now women are encouraged to speak up and question anything that doesn’t feel right, Tonya Harding did exactly that yet was continually penalised for doing so. There’s a distinct sense that she was out of her time, a fact the film amps up by pitching a mainly 1970s and early 1980s music soundtrack to a predominantly 1990s story.    

“We've spoken at length about a lot of the bigger themes in the film, classism, there is a clear divide in America,” says Margot Robbie.

“It's things we discussed at length and didn't realise how relevant and topical sadly it would become. When Steven wrote the script Trump wasn't President. When we filmed this the Me Too and Times Up movement hadn't begun, so it's things that we recognise as issues that society needed to discuss we just didn't realise they'd be discussing it so loudly.”

I, Tonya is out in UK cinemas on 23 February 2018.

By Natalie Jamieson. Additional reporting by Emma Jones.