Margot Robbie’s latest film, the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, with critics praising Robbie’s nuanced, sympathetic performance as the disgraced figure skater. Harding’s story—a lifetime of struggle that led to the sensational moment in 1994 when her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired a man to break rival Nancy Kerrigan’s leg ahead of the Winter Olympics—has always seemed larger than life, which might explain why Robbie thought it was a made-up story when she first encountered it.
“To be honest, when I read the script, I didn’t know who Tonya Harding was, and I didn’t realize it was a true story,” Robbie told Vanity Fair this week, noting that she was roughly four years old when the incident took place. “I thought it was entirely fictionalized and our writer Steve [Rodgers] was so creative to come up with the quirky characters and absurd incidents.”
After clearing up her misconceptions, Robbie spent the next year or so studying Harding obsessively, watching numerous interviews and film of her skating. In that same interview, she highlighted an anecdote that serves as a reminder that being an “Olympic also-ran” still means being one of the most skilled athletes on the planet; when producers hunted around for a skating double to recreate Harding’s most famous, non-scandal-related professional accomplishment—executing a triple axel in competition at the 1991 U.S. Championships—they were flatly told that it was essentially impossible to find someone capable of matching the feat. They ultimately had to use CGI to get the shot.