How I, Tonya used conflicting accounts of Tonya Harding's story to its advantage
We’re sitting on the eighth floor of a Manhattan office building, and Allison Janney is about to tell me what she really thinks of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. More than 20 years ago, an attack on Harding’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan implicated Harding and ignited a media frenzy that rocked the 1994 Olympics and rattled the refined ethos of the sport. Does the actress, who plays Harding’s acid-tongued mother in I, Tonya, think Harding had anything to do with the incident?
What does she believe to be true?
But just as Janney opens her mouth, the building’s fire alarm starts blaring. “Well!” Janney says, grinning. “Maybe we should go.”
We might as well. Because whatever Janney’s — or anyone’s — feelings about Harding may be, this movie is likely to challenge them. The darkly comedic drama from director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) chronicles the journey of Harding (Suicide Squad’s Margot Robbie) from figure-skating prodigy to disgraced Olympian from multiple perspectives — because, as Robbie’s Harding bitterly declares in the film, “there’s no such thing as truth.”
But there is such a thing as reality. And in reality, a man hired by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard Shawn Eckardt kneecapped rival Nancy Kerrigan on Jan. 6, 1994, weeks ahead of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The men served time in prison. Harding, after pleading guilty to obstructing the investigation, received a lifetime ban from competitive skating.
I, Tonya details all of this. Actors meticulously reenact the incident as well as prime-time interviews given in the aftermath. Robbie wears exact replicas of the same costumes Harding wore on the ice. Janney performs with a pet bird perched on her shoulder, just like Harding’s mom, LaVona Golden, did for a TV appearance. It hits every major, absurd beat: Harding’s broken skate lace at the Olympics. Her press conference expressing sympathy for Kerrigan. The crumpled note the FBI found with Harding’s handwriting on it, spelling out where and when Kerrigan trained.
The one thing it avoids, notably, is Kerrigan’s side of the story. Played by Caitlin Carver, Kerrigan appears in just two scenes and utters a single line: “Whyyyyy?” Rogers says he chose early on to minimize Kerrigan’s perspective. After watching ESPN’s 2014 documentary about the saga, The Price of Gold, he realized he wanted to write about Harding — and Harding only. “It’s not I, Nancy. It’s I, Tonya,” he says. “Nothing against Nancy Kerrigan, but I wanted to tell the story of the people who potentially thought [the attack] was a good idea.”
That story centers on Harding, obviously, and Gillooly. (Eckardt died in 2007.) Rogers tracked both of them down in Oregon, where he conducted hours of separate interviews. After noticing how contradictory their accounts were, he shaped his screenplay around their conflicting testimonies, toggling scenes between Harding’s and Gillooly’s points of view and sprinkling in recreated present-day interviews to add context. At times, characters even break the fourth wall mid-scene to inform the audience whether something — to their recollection — happened. “[The story] is he-said-she-said, which has been the case now for 23 years, [so] all the rulebooks went out the window,” Gillespie says. “We’re seeing stories that are actually being contradicted in the middle of scenes. It gets so complicated.”
His stars certainly thought so. “It was so difficult to play a scene that was Jeff’s perspective of the events,” says Robbie, who acts opposite Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Civil War) as Gillooly. “It led to a lot of arguments between Sebastian and me.” Playful arguments, Stan clarifies: “We would both look at each other like, ‘Oh, Jesus, who have we become?’”
Two actors who have spent far too much time in their subjects’ heads, that’s who. Robbie and Stan met their real-life counterparts, but while Stan sat down with Gillooly so he could study his mannerisms — “I wanted to see how he looked when he smiled,” the actor says — Robbie opted not to meet Harding until she had finished developing the role on her own. She pored over hours of footage of Harding at different stages in her life. “It took months, because every time I thought I’d seen everything, I’d dig a little further and find something else,” Robbie says. “To see her vulnerability when she was young, her defiance when she was in her early 20s, her defensiveness post-incident, and then her bitterness later in life was just an incredible arc to map out.”
Janney never never met the real LaVona — Rogers couldn’t find her, Janney says, and Harding didn’t know where she was — so she drew from the few on-camera interviews LaVona had done. “The fact that she did an interview in a fur coat spoke volumes to me about who she was and how she wanted to be seen,” Janney says. “I saw a lot of hurt there, and I find that I don’t need to see her. LaVona would have confused me more if I’d met her.”
For their part, Gillespie and Rogers made sure to document the source of every piece of information in the film. And if a memory had been contested, a character would say so. “I was very, very concerned [with making factual errors],” Rogers says. “Everything was vetted by lawyers. I had to show all the research, every documentary, every article, and then back that up with more.” Adds Gillespie: “My bible was Steven’s script. I would say to him, ‘Did this happen?’ And the answer usually was ‘This is what Tonya said.’”
Whether I, Tonya tells the version that’s true in the absolute sense of the word, however, is hard to say. Even for the people who made it. “It’s 100 percent accurate to the truth, to Tonya’s truth, to Jeff ’s truth,” Robbie says. “Every scene is something that they said happened. Everything. But how close is it to reality?” She laughs. “We’ll never know. I mean, I’ve got no idea.”
Neither does Janney. After the alarms die down, she offers a diplomatic answer. “I like to believe that Tonya didn’t have as much to do with it as the media portrayed her to,” she says. “That’s what I like to think.” But that’s her truth. It doesn’t have to be yours.
I, Tonya is in theaters now.