I, Tonya challenges our perception of a vilified pop-culture figure from the ’90s

We spoke to the director of the acclaimed new biopic of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding.

Sebastian Stan, Margot Robbie and Julianne Nicholson in I, Tonya

Pretty much the only thing that made Tonya Harding a household name was timing. Olympic skaters have rarely become celebrities; people who were involved in sensationalistic but non-lethal criminal acts have had a little more visibility, but the fact remains that we would not be talking about disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding in 2017 if the 1994 event that we so immediately associate with her had not happened. Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is in part a biopic of the woman who rose from humble origins to become a minor figure skating sensation for all the wrong reasons — the other part of it is an exploration of how all those wrong reasons came to be.

“I think it was really a product of the times, because it happened at the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle,” says Gillespie. “We just needed content for the news. It would stay in the public consciousness for months — OJ, the Menendez Brothers, Monica Lewinsky, these things would be discussed for months at a time and they’re all iconic in their own way. Some of these things just got embedded in our brains. Things last maybe three days now — it’s crazy! There are so many more outlets and platforms for opinions that, in some ways, it’s shortened our attention span. (…) The difference back then, also, was that the media shaped the narrative. Now that there are so many platforms for so many points of view — it’s not that we necessarily listen to them more, since we tend to pick our own points of view and follow them — but the amount of platforms sort of dissipates the message.”

Margot Robbie stars as Harding, who grows up in complete poverty, crushed under the thumb of a domineering, abusive mother (Allison Janney) who nevertheless accepts that Tonya follow her childhood dream of becoming a figure skater. As Tonya becomes better and better, her relationship with her mother becomes increasingly tense, and she soon moves towards her boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Alas, Gillooly also proves to be abusive and temperamental, their long on-again, off-again relationship peppered with instances of abuse both physical and psychological. It all comes to a head, of course, when Gillooly hires a couple of goons to injure Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya’s primary adversary in the race to the Olympics — if that’s what really happened.

Gillespie uses unreliable narratives to weave his story, constructing the film around talking-head interviews with the principals about a decade after the fact. The stories they tell often contradict themselves — Gillooly will claim to have no recollection of an event that Gillespie has just depicted, for example. The question that has dogged Harding for the last two decades — whether or not she knew that Gillooly had planned the assault on Kerrigan — is one of the many issues explored, but Gillespie also uses the slippery nature of the truth to address the pop-cultural idea of Harding as a punchline.

“I liked that opportunity with this job,” says Gillespie. “I knew the audience was going to come in being judgmental. It’s been that way with her for 25 years — she’s a punchline. I really looked forward to the opportunity to take that perspective and turn it back on ourselves, both in terms of judging her and feeling complicit in being so judgmental. Once I really understood the story and the journey that she was on to get there, I saw it was a really great opportunity to create empathy and show how quickly we are to judge.”

I, Tonya also functions as a portrayal of abuse and the way it seeps into the cracks of a person’s life. Gillespie’s film has many rough scenes of physical and mental abuse, but a streak of dark humour also runs through it — sometimes almost parallel. I asked Gillespie how he balanced these two elements throughout the film.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of energy in the story,” he says. “But I didn’t want to undermine her emotional journey and her character. I knew it was going to be tricky. I felt that, for the roller-coaster feeling of this film to really work, and to really understand the gravity of what we were talking about, those scenes had to be brutal and they hand to land. It was almost like a wake-up call, you know, for the true reality that she was living in. At times, the story is so farcical that you forget that this is a life you’re dealing with.

“It was also about making those characters palatable. The character of Jeff Gillooly is so heinous, but, they did have this relationship. As it happens in these abuse cycles, they did keep coming back and it’s not… Sometimes you see these kinds of relationships depicted in a very black-and-white way but it’s much messier and more complicated than that. There is love involved with their story, and it’s about trying to figure out what her motivation is. Why did she come back? Why is it that, apart from that abuse, they feel they need each other? What’s that journey?” ■

I, Tonya opens in theatres on Friday, Jan 5. Watch the trailer here: