ATLANTA — This is the kind of time-warp whiplash Margot Robbie had to deal with daily in filming the Tonya Harding tragicomedy I, Tonya: Play 23-year-old Tonya arguing with her mother in the afternoon, then put on a wedding dress to get hitched as 19-year-old Tonya that night.
It’s enough to “make my head hurt,” Robbie laughs. “I am constantly going, ‘Where are we? What’s happened? Are Jeff and I married right now? What bruises should be on my face?’ ”
In the Golden Globe-nominated biopic (now showing in select cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Atlanta, goes nationwide Friday), Robbie plays Harding from age 15 to her mid-40s, tracking the infamous Olympic hopeful from figure-skating wunderkind with a mean triple axel to national disgrace following the 1994 clubbing attack on Nancy Kerrigan. Through documentary-style "interviews," the story is told primarily from her point of view as well as the POVs of Harding’s abusive mom LaVona (Allison Janney) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
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USA TODAY was on the set of I, Tonya last February and discovered five intriguing things about this year’s most bonkers Oscar contender.
1. Margot Robbie navigated a dizzying number of costume changes.
Ninety, in fact. The actress’ wardrobe, which spanned 1973 to present day, “so cleverly mapped out Tonya’s whole journey,” Robbie says. Designer Jennifer Johnson describes making “a factual timeline” with the clothes, with inspiration coming from grainy VHS footage of Harding’s competitions and old National Enquirers purchased on eBay for a wide range of authentic options.
2. But fashion was only the start of her transformation.
Robbie wore padded “fat pants” to add weight in Harding’s heavier times, as well as leg enhancers with her skating tights (to give her legs a more muscular athletic look) and various facial prosthetics and aging makeup. “You need air conditioning things around you so it doesn’t melt straight off your face,” adds Robbie.
3. A parakeet dared to poop on Allison Janney.
Her character is seen in her full wacky splendor in scenes involving a fur coat and a bird. LaVona chain-smokes throughout the movie, but because cigarettes could potentially kill the real animal (which actually did poop on her), Janney had the idea to use an oxygen tube instead to hint at her tobacco habit. “She’s extremely flawed,” Janney says of the role that garnered her a Golden Globe Sunday. “Somewhere in there she really does love Tonya, but she’s just not a woman who’s capable of showing love or being loved.”
4. Pretty much everybody liked the real Tonya.
Screenwriter Steven Rogers interviewed the former skater and immediately enjoyed her company. “Here she is, unapologetically redneck in a sport where you’re supposed to be some weird old-timey version of what a woman’s supposed to be," he says. "She’s like, ‘Well, I can do the (expletive) triple. Give me a (expletive) medal.’ ” And when Robbie met with Harding, “I was so touched how concerned she was for me,” the actress reports. “She said, ‘You got kinda famous quickly,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, so did you.’ ”
5. The 24-hour news cycle is a character in itself.
Prior to O.J. Simpson, Harding was one of the first celebrities to have a scandal hugely sensationalized, says producer Bryan Unkeless. The media “built it up into a catfight ... and distilled Tonya down to a redneck bad girl and Nancy as the elegant princess.” Depending which side you're on, Harding was a supervillain or folk hero, all part of the human nature that I, Tonya explores with its colorful players, Janney says. “You’re either Team LaVona or Team Tonya. We could have T-shirts made for every character in this movie because everyone’s got their truth.”