Hair in a ponytail and her face free of makeup, Margot Robbie, 27, enters the Italian restaurant in Atlanta where we've arranged to meet. She's just wrapped one of the final days on the set of I, Tonya, and is dressed in track pants and a T-shirt, all evidence of the disgraced ice skater wiped away.

She pulls out a chair and chuckles as she says, "I definitely underestimated how difficult ice skating is as a sport." She shakes her head emphatically.

"It gave me such respect and admiration for figure skaters, but especially what Tonya Harding did, landing a triple axel. Now I understand what a humungous feat of athleticism that is." She grins. "We couldn't even get a stunt double to do it, because no one can actually do it."

Margot Robbie says she has a newfound respect for iceskating since making I, Tonya.
Margot Robbie says she has a newfound respect for iceskating since making I, Tonya.

Evidently, all her months of training paid off because we next meet on the Golden Globes' red carpet, where she is nominated for her portrayal of Harding.

Advertisement

Inside at the show, she's seated not with her husband, Tom Ackerly (who produced the movie), but next to the real Tonya Harding. Evidently what she told me a few months earlier, as part of a glowing endorsement of this misunderstood athlete, was utterly sincere.

Harding became an infamous villain in the sports world when she was accused of masterminding the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan during the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships. I, Tonya shows another side of the story.

The 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan became one of the biggest news stories of the decade.
The 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan became one of the biggest news stories of the decade.

"Tonya's tough," she explained. "Really tough, and resilient. She never came across as a victim and I don't think she would classify herself that way, though she was definitely a victim of the media. The world remembered her as a headline. They forgot the athleticism and everything else about her and she was just labelled a monster."

It was a story that rocked the 90s but Australian director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) wanted to go beyond that headline. "It was an unfair punishment that Tonya was banned from ice skating forever, and its an image she can't get away from. This one incident with Kerrigan is something she will be known for her whole life, so it was nice for me to be able to tell the whole story where you get to see where she came from, how she grew up and the things that informed her choices as she got older."

How did Harding feel about Robbie's portrayal? Robbie says: "I think she was quite grateful that we showed her story in a way that people haven't seen before. She wasn't a consultant on set and she wasn't on set, nothing like that. She didn't get a say in the script," she explains.

Tonya Harding found herself in the centre of a media storm when her husband organised an attack on fellow iceskater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.
Tonya Harding found herself in the centre of a media storm when her husband organised an attack on fellow iceskater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.

"At the same time this isn't meant to be a traditional biopic and it isn't us saying she is a victim or she is a hero. We were just trying to say that she is a person. And with that, you are going to see the good side and the bad side."

A jarring aspect of the film was the violent nature of the relationship between Harding and her mother (Allison Janney), plus her combative relationship with husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Their marriage endured from 1990 to 1993.

Janney's performance as the stage mother from hell, LaVona Golden, earned her a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress. Both comical and terrifying, Janney says it was a difficult role to come to grips with.

"The big challenge for me playing this part was thinking, 'How am I going to be this awful and say these terrible things to my child?' I just had to believe that it was all for her good, that it was going to make her the best she could be."

Harding and her mother have been estranged for years and Golden apparently changed her name. Janney explains: "We tried to look for her and it would have been great if I'd met her but she was nowhere to be found."

She continues: "It's a story that I knew, of course, but I didn't know it like this. This was a huge story that rocked the figure skating world and I remember it started the 24-hour news cycle. It was tabloid fodder. Harding was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks and this princess ice skater, Nancy Kerrigan, was in this rivalry [with her]."

For Robbie, it was an incredibly physical role - not only on the ice.

"There are a lot of scenes obviously between Tonya and Jeff, where they're fighting but she also hits him back a lot. Craig said it was important to show her giving it as good as she's getting," says Robbie. "As our story shows you, Jeff and Tonya's versions of events are very different."

Like Harding and Gillooly, Robbie and Ackerly also have a working relationship together. But that's where the comparison ends. She laughs. "Well, yes. Fortunately, our relationship is nothing like theirs. It just didn't relate at all."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Margot Robbie and Allison Janney
What: I, Tonya
When: In cinemas today