The Fungible Facts and Twisted Humor of ‘I, Tonya’

For someone who spent two decades of her life angling to be the best athlete in a grueling, solitary sport, Tonya Harding was rarely alone. She moved out of her bitter mother’s house at 18 only to move in with, and soon marry, her volatile boyfriend. In the early ’90s, she trained at a rink built in the middle of an Oregon mall, shoppers pausing to observe her as they sipped food-court sodas. When she competed, the judges were there watching; when she finished, her coach was there waiting. She was always surrounded: by expectations, by ne’er-do-wells, by sequins, by fans, by the big TV satellite news-crew vans that came to idle outside her home.

Which might be why one of the most affecting scenes in I, Tonya, the wild tragicomockumentary about Harding’s gritty life that premieres in New York and Los Angeles this weekend and is already generating Oscar buzz, focuses on the skater when she’s all by herself. The scene takes place in 1994, and Harding, played by Margot Robbie, is at the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, about to perform her free skate.

After a mediocre performance in the technical program two days earlier, she sits in 10th place, any chance at a medal essentially out of her grasp. Still, she remains surefire CBS ratings gold, thanks to the outrageous events of the preceding month and a half: the sudden and suspicious attack on her rival, 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Nancy Kerrigan, right before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit; Harding’s subsequent admission that she had nothing to do with the assault but had become aware when she returned home from Detroit that her ex-husband (but on-again boyfriend), Jeff Gillooly, and his loser friend Shawn Eckardt were involved in orchestrating the hit intended to keep Kerrigan, a beloved gold medal front-runner, out of Lillehammer; the $20-million-plus lawsuit Harding filed, and later dropped, in order to pressure the USOC into a deal to let her compete in the Winter Games.

She stares into her dressing room mirror at the Lillehammer Games and smears a thick stick of rouge, garish in both color and volume, up her cheekbones. She rubs it in with impatient ferocity, getting a bunch on her forehead in the process. A tear falls down her face. She smiles, insistently, at her reflection, a grimace masquerading as grace, and even in this silent moment she is fully herself: trying to convince the person in front of her to believe something that may or may not be true.

In a movie that flexes its gruff physicality in scenes ranging from figure skating to knife throwing, from kneecapping to gun-waving, this quiet, intense bit of solitude makes for as visceral a moment as any. And in a film brimming with lively, confident performances, it is a showcase of Robbie’s magnetic presence as the tarnished Harding. When Robbie first read the I, Tonya screenplay, she thought it was a bananas story dreamed up by a “kooky” screenwriter, and it’s easy to understand why: For one thing, Robbie was a 3-year-old living in Australia at the time, half a planet and a whole generation away.

And for another, when it comes to the story of Harding’s real life, it remains impossible to separate fact from fiction. I, Tonya is a reminder that reality can be as fungible as it is fucked up. “The haters always say, ‘Tonya, tell the truth!’” says Harding’s character, in a voice-over. “There’s no such thing as truth. … It’s bullshit.”

Steven Rogers, the screenwriter and producer behind I, Tonya, didn’t mind that Robbie thought his script was an original story. “I said to [coproducer] Bryan [Unkeless], ‘Don’t tell her,’” Rogers tells me, laughing. “‘Let her think I’m a genius!’” We are sitting outside eating pizza at a cafe near Rogers’s home in Santa Monica, as his very good boy, a goldendoodle named Walter, lounges under the table. Rogers explains how he came to write his version of Harding’s story.

“I had just written a Christmas movie,” he says, referring to 2015’s Love, the Coopers. (Rogers’s other credits include Kate & Leopold and Hope Floats.) “I knew I wanted to write something that was the polar opposite of that.” One night, he and his niece watched the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The Price of Gold, which was released in 2014 as a 20-years-later revisiting of the events surrounding the infamous January 1994 attack in which Kerrigan, a leading contender for Olympic gold in Lillehammer, was struck just above the knee by an attacker with a retractable police baton as she walked off the ice following a practice skate at the U.S. Nationals in Detroit.

Tonya Harding reads from a statement during a 1994 press conference
AFP/Getty Images

About a week after what I, Tonya refers to as “the incident,” authorities obtained a confession from Eckardt, Gillooly’s scheming, fabulist buddy. Eckardt admitted that he had helped orchestrate the attack, intended to injure Kerrigan enough to prevent her from qualifying for Lillehammer, by hiring a pair of goons named Derrick Smith and Shane Stant to carry out the hit. (Kerrigan would heal in enough time to win the Olympic silver medal.) He also implicated Gillooly and Harding, saying that they were aware of the plan. Both denied this, though Gillooly would later serve time in jail after admitting to racketeering. Harding continues to insist that she had no prior knowledge of the scheme, but has admitted that she learned about it in the days following the assault and stayed silent. (She has said that, based on threats from Gillooly, she kept quiet out of fear for her safety.) Shortly after the Lillehammer Olympics, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution and was given three years of probation, a fine, and a lifetime ban from competitive figure skating for not speaking up.

Kerrigan declined to be interviewed for The Price of Gold. But Harding gave a wide-ranging interview that alternated between candid and defensive. After watching the documentary, Rogers was hooked. “I thought, hey,” he says, “‘Nothing doesn’t say Christmas like Tonya Harding!’”

Wanting to find out whether Harding’s life rights were available, he Googled her, found a number for an agent, and was connected to a Motel 6 when he called. After finally tracking down an appropriate contact, he arranged to fly to Sisters, Oregon, where Harding was living, to speak with her about her life. “She picked me up in her truck,” he says. “There was no passenger door handle. I didn’t even know how to get in.” Rogers had never conducted this sort of personal interview before and was nervous when he realized that Harding had recited her story so many times that “a lot of it came out by rote.” But he pushed past the well-worn material, and they wound up chatting for six hours.

Harding told him about her roughshod childhood, her domineering and, in Harding’s telling, physically abusive mother — in The Price of Gold, a childhood friend describes peering through a crack in a bathroom stall door and seeing Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden, smacking Harding repeatedly with a hairbrush — and her rise as an ice skater. She also described an often-violent relationship with Gillooly, whom she began dating at 15, married four years later, and filed at least two restraining orders against in the early 1990s.

Wanting to give Gillooly a chance to tell his side of things, Rogers located him, too: He had changed his last name to Stone to separate himself from the verbified infamy of Gillooly, but was still living in the Portland area and agreed to speak. After hearing Harding’s accounts of Gillooly’s menacing behavior, “I was very circumspect about meeting him,” says Rogers. “He said he’d pick me up at the airport in his truck. I said, ‘Uh-uh, I’ll meet in public.’”

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan
AFP/Getty Images

Gillooly’s account of the years he spent with Harding, however, was so markedly different from hers that Rogers realized that his script would need to address, and even ought to be about, the elusiveness of truth, “the things that we tell ourselves in order to be able to live with ourselves,” he says. “Tonya says that nothing is her fault. Jeff says, ‘I never hit her.’” Memory is a tricky, fickle thing, built as it is atop a shaky foundation of truth. Rogers combined both stories into a fast-moving meta-narrative “based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” as the I, Tonya title card puts it.

There was no such interview with Kerrigan. “I wasn’t so interested in the girl that got hit, and was a victim, and came back and won the silver,” Rogers says about where Kerrigan fits in to all this. “It’s not I, Nancy. She’s not really a character in the movie. She has one line. I didn’t want to do a traditional biopic, because it’s not a traditional story.”

Harding’s story may not be traditional, but it was a natural fit for the frenzied media ecosystem of the early ’90s, when made-for-TV movies were more common than prestige awards bait and tuning into scandal did not involve Olivia Pope. The Jerry Springer Show and the Court TV channel were in their early days, and Hard Copy was at the peak of its run. (To emphasize this, I, Tonya features a composite character named Martin Maddox, played with greasy charm by Bobby Cannavale, who describes himself in one of the movie’s opening scenes as “a reporter for Hard Copy, a pretty crappy show that ‘legitimate’ news outlets looked down on — and then became.”) When the Kerrigan-Harding drama first began to die down, about five months after Kerrigan’s wailing cries, it was right around the time the world was tuning in to watch O.J. Simpson in his white Bronco.

I, Tonya

It was a sleazy sweet spot of an era to grow up in. I gained a lot of knowledge about human anatomy at an impressionable age via Lorena Bobbitt, and Joey Buttafuoco was an important introductory class in the discipline of Long Island studies. (Mixed in with the Look Who’s Talking trilogy and various Walt Disney VHS tapes in our collection were careful recordings of two-thirds of the Amy Fisher TV movie canon.) And I absorbed footage of a sobbing, pleading Kerrigan replayed again and again on the news; I admired her resilience even as I identified with Harding’s frizzy, unruly blond hair. On both the Wednesday night of the women’s technical program at the Lillehammer Games and the Friday night of the longer artistic competition, 64 out of every 100 turned-on televisions in the U.S. were tuned into the CBS tape-delayed broadcast of the competition. The Baker family TV was one of them.

Paul Walter Hauser, who plays the big ol’ deadbeat Eckardt in a breakout performance in I, Tonya, and who, when we speak, is wearing a backward Chance the Rapper hat, a blazer, and a festive T-shirt depicting Clark Griswold and family (’tis the season!), points out that at the time, these sorts of stories not only got blanket wall-to-wall coverage, but maintained it for weeks, and even months, on end. “I grew up in a time where, when you came home from school, it didn’t matter if you came from a religious family or the most liberal family in the world,” he says. “You turned on Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams and Ricki Lake. They were all covering the story. When a story broke, it kind of simmered and marinated and stayed with you.”

I was shocked to recently learn, through an informal poll of my 20-something-aged colleagues, just how many tastemakers out there are as unfamiliar with the name Tonya Harding as Robbie was when she first read the script. “That whole generation, it just hasn’t been on their radar,” says I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie in a phone conversation. “It’s funny — you had Obama saying that he was gonna go Tonya Harding on a guy,” he adds, referring to a 2007 campaign speech in which the then-presidential candidate joked that critics thought he’d have to kneecap an opponent. “And I guess none of them knew what that meant.”

For many of these types, I, Tonya might well be their first exposure to what was, at the time, a cultural touchstone. Before there was Team Jen and Team Angie, there was Team Tonya and Team Nancy. For Julianne Nicholson, who plays Tonya’s prim-and-proper coach, Diane Rawlinson, and is from the same state as Kerrigan, the allegiance was regional. “I grew up in Massachusetts,” she tells me. “So I was Team Nancy.” Allison Janney, who is cruel and laugh-out-loud funny as Harding’s mean, drunken mother, Golden, admits to me, almost sadly, that she “identified more with Nancy Kerrigan. … But now, after having done the movie, I have so much more empathy for [Harding].”

Despite being positioned, both by the media and by figure-skating insiders, as a high-class competitor, Kerrigan came from a blue-collar family. But she looked and played the glamorous role expected of a figure skater, and was a favorite of the judges, of corporate sponsors (Decades before I, Tonya, Gillespie directed a 1993 Campbell’s Soup commercial featuring Kerrigan), and of my mother. Harding resonated, on the other hand, on a deep and meaningful level with anyone who viewed her hardscrabble upbringing, her tacky, hand-sewn costumes — when, as a kid, her coach Rawlinson suggested that she’d be well-served to acquire a fur coat like everyone else, Harding shot up and skinned rabbits to make her own — and her outward disinterest in succumbing to authority as features, not bugs. That Harding was, at the time, the only American woman capable of landing a triple axel in competition (while skating to the theme from Batman) was a particularly satisfying middle finger to the sport: Like her or not, she had the goods.

“I wouldn’t know a triple axel from a truck axle,” says self-described “Tonyaphile” Terry Hall, speaking by phone from his home in New Zealand, where to this day he compiles and maintains The Portlandian, the internet’s most exhaustive and meticulous Tonya Harding online newsletter that he launched in 1996. Two years before that, Hall had become fascinated with the Harding saga while searching for a good topic to use in a persuasive speech contest he was preparing for. “It’s got all the ingredients of a gripping story,” he says. “It’s got sex, violence, glamour, revenge, greed. There’s mystery, there’s tragedy, there’s a comedy aspect to it.”

It didn’t take long before he’d figured out the best way to connect with other like-minded souls despite being in the remote reaches of New Zealand: Usenet. “I stumbled across these newsgroups like,” he says. “There were other Tonya supporters on that group, and we eventually got in touch and would engage in these flame wars with the Tonyaphobes on these groups, who were mostly members of the skating establishment.”

I, Tonya has all these same ingredients as the story it is based on, but one of them is by far the trickiest to convey. “One of the first questions Margot asked when we first met on the film,” says Gillespie, “was: ‘How are we going to handle the violence?’ And I said, ‘I think we have to be brutal with it, because it completely informs us on her character and why she made the choices she made, and how she sees the world.’” There are a number of moments in I, Tonya that are startling in their physicality: Harding’s mother hurls a knife at her during an argument and it lodges in Harding’s bicep as they both stare at one another in disbelief; Gillooly slams her hand in a car door; Harding fires a shotgun at her husband.

I, Tonya

In their conversations with Rogers, Harding’s and Gillooly’s characterization of the violence in their relationship diverged widely. (“Tonya did say, ‘Jeff fired a gun at me,’ Rogers says. “Jeff did say, ‘Tonya fired a gun at me.’”) The film reminds the viewer of this by having the characters, often in the midst of a physical tussle, look at the camera and say so. (The fourth wall is broken several other times in I, Tonya, but the instances dealing with violence are the most jarring.) In some cases, this is done to emphasize a character’s detachment from reality or highlight the disputed nature of a scene. In other cases, it is played, uncomfortably and not unintentionally, for shock value and even for laughs. “I love when the audience is having to decide,” says Gillespie, “like, when some people are laughing and chuckling and other people are looking around saying, ‘This isn’t funny right now.’ And it becomes personal.” This is where the movie takes its biggest risks, and it is where it achieves its most mixed results.

As Sebastian Stan sits on a big leather sofa in a Hollywood hotel a few hours before Tuesday’s I, Tonya red-carpet premiere, his eyes briefly bug out when he describes to me the hair-trigger temper of his character. “He could always just, like, snap!” he exclaims, leaning suddenly forward, briefly inhabiting the tightly wound, on-edge Gillooly. “He had this temper that used to come up whenever he would feel intense emotions,” he says. Stan’s version of Gillooly is a man who unravels with every clenched jaw, a character who oscillates between a quiet, “meek” man and an animal backed into a corner and about to lash out.

“There’s an element of danger to the humor,” Stan says. “The whole thing felt like having the reins to horses that are on steroids.” Rogers says that Gillooly, after seeing a trailer for the film, emailed him about Stan. “‘Oh my god, he’s got my mannerisms down,’” Rogers says Gillooly wrote. “I said, ‘I’m nervous about you seeing it, because I hope you like it.’ He wrote back and said, ‘I’m sure I’ll like it. I liked Hope Floats, and I’m sure it’s pretty much like that.’”

Tonya Harding leaves the ice in tears during the Winter Olympics
Getty Images

In the movie’s openly unreliable universe, Harding is accustomed to Gillooly’s violence after growing up with a physically and psychologically abusive mother. One of the only times Janney’s Golden cracks even the smallest smile in the entire film is when she’s taunting Harding, at her own wedding, about her brand-new husband: “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb,” she snarls with a smirk. Janney is savage in the role, stealing scenes as she steals her daughter’s innocence, drawing some of the movies biggest laughs and most horrified gasps. “I would never be with someone who fuckin’ hit me,” she tells a black-eyed Harding. By that point, the movie has shown her pushing Harding off a chair and beating her with a brush. “You hit Dad,” Harding replies. “That’s different,” her mother snaps.

Golden has no current relationship with Harding; in Harding’s 2008 book Tonya Tapes, the woman she refers to as “Mom” is her publicist, Linda Lewis, who has recorded musical tributes to Harding. (Step aside, Sufjan Stevens!) Not only did Rogers write the role of Golden with his old Neighborhood Playhouse theater friend Janney in mind — “not just in my head,” he says, “but in my heart. I’ve known Allison for over half of my usable life” — he made it clear to interested partners that he would sell his script only on the condition that Janney be cast in the role. (Working with his friend was something he’d tried to do, in vain, for years, to the point where the duo had developed an inside joke about their inability to get her cast as one of his characters: The role of Allison Janney will be played by John Malkovich.)

“She’s one of the most talented people ever,” Rogers says. “A lot of times, in her movie roles, she plays these shoehorn parts. She’s like, the head of the CIA. But she’s not the head of the CIA. She’s actually Cate Blanchett! She’s actually Viola Davis! She’s actually Maggie Smith! She’s a treasure.”

Janney calls herself “the Eeyore” of the friendship, adding that Rogers “has got the happy gene, I call it. He’s just always positive and optimistic and happy, and sometimes it’s infuriating to me.” (Rogers uses the “happy gene” phrase verbatim to describe his dog, Walter.) Her sulking, sardonic performance as Golden, though, makes Eeyore look like Winnie the Pooh.

“On the page she’s pretty much a monster,” Janney says. “But this is a woman who is angry at the world, and resentful, and felt that she was dealt a bad hand in life and never got a leg up, never got help from anybody. And most of all, from her own mother. She’s jealous of her daughter. It’s a complicated relationship, and I don’t think she knows how to love, knows how to express it.” As with so many elements in I, Tonya, the most unbelievable details are the ones that are most strongly rooted in fact. The fur coat and the bird on Golden’s shoulder? Both details come straight from a video that one of Harding’s friends made when they were in high school. (When Inside Edition recently tracked down Harding’s mother, the bird was gone, replaced by a wreath of flowers on her head.) Rogers says that in his conversations with Harding and Gillooly, one of the few topics that dovetailed neatly in their stories was how awful Golden was.

At the Los Angeles premiere of I, Tonya on Tuesday night, Robbie is one of the first actors to arrive for the red carpet and one of the last to leave. In a metallic, sparkling dress that wouldn’t be out of place in a skating competition, she dutifully and expertly tolerates the photographers screaming at her to Margot, Margot, turn all the way to your left! Hon, can you please look to your right? Her elegance is markedly distinct from the way she inhabits Harding’s body in the film, where she stomps around in her skates and holds her cereal spoon like a shovel and can’t sit down without basically manspreading. “Margot was just incredibly focused, and determined, and ambitious, and very positive and very pragmatic,” says Nicholson. “There was no room for feeling bad or feeling tired — or if she did, I never saw or heard anything like that.”

The I, Tonya production schedule was almost outrageously compressed, squeezing 260 scenes, many involving elaborate costume and set design changes, into 31 days. On one of those days, says Gillespie, everyone was gathered inside Macon Coliseum, the Georgia arena where the on-ice scenes were shot, and the task was particularly rough. Rink time was limited, as any up-at-dawn hockey mom can attest to, and the crew had nine scenes to get through before they lost access to the building. “I think we ended up doing the math,” Gillespie says. “We had 30 setups and 20 minutes per setup to light and shoot it.”

I, Tonya

It was that day, on the fly, when Gillespie asked Robbie to do an impromptu take of her putting on her face in the mirror. “I went over to [Robbie] real quick,” Gillespie says, “and I said, ‘Can we just have you put on your makeup and then try and get ready for your performance, with all those pressures?’ I just hit her with it, in that one second there, and then called action, and she did it in one take that was so riveting, and we moved on. It was such a luxury to know that she could deliver.”

The real Harding had no such luxury; she failed to deliver that day in Lillehammer, and she lived out every skater’s worst anxiety nightmare for good measure. Right before she was set to take the ice, her extra-long skate lace broke, and no one could locate a replacement. It was the real-life version of the classic “forget-yer-skates dream,” as the band the Tragically Hip put it in one of their songs. Sure, they were a Canadian band, referring to an ice hockey player’s recurring subconscious fear, but the horror was, as it turned out, just as applicable to a doomed, lonely American ice queen. Harding ran onto the ice to avoid disqualification, started and then stopped her routine, skated over to the judges and hoisted up her leg, sobbing, her face a mask of tragedy, an image equally as iconic as Kerrigan’s confused, anguished expression seven weeks earlier.

The judges allowed Harding to get off the ice to figure out a solution, and her subsequent performance was just fine. But her disappointing eighth place finish would be her last figure-skating competition. A month later she stood in court and pled guilty to the charge of hindering the prosecution in the investigation into the Kerrigan attack by not disclosing to authorities what she had later learned. She maintained that she had known nothing of the plans in advance, but her subsequent inaction was enough to get her banned from the sport for life, at age 23.

A few minutes before I, Tonya is about to begin inside the theater, Robbie finally spots someone on the red carpet’s fringes, and her smile changes from a practiced, placid paparazzi pose to a wide, goofy, actual grin. “Oh my god!” she squeals, holding her arms open for a hug. “You look stunning!”

It’s Tonya Harding, the real one, her 5-foot-1 frame making the already tiny Robbie look downright statuesque. Harding looks like a mix between Suzanne Somers and Ramona Singer; she looks a little bit overwhelmed, and as she stands near her third husband, Joseph Jens Price, she looks almost unrecognizably happy. Then she begins to paw at her eye, and it’s unclear whether she’s crying, or whether she’s having, perhaps, some sort of false-eyelash mishap. (It wouldn’t be the first time that her equipment has malfunctioned.) Following the I, Tonya premiere, Robbie and Gillespie get up in front of the packed theater and introduce Harding to enthusiastic applause. She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t have to.