The Many Truths of I, Tonya
Sebastian Stan and Steven Rogers on unreliable narrators and figure skating's most controversial figure
There are two Tonya Hardings. There's the world-class figure skater who threw it all away when she had some heavies break the kneecaps of her archrival, Nancy Kerrigan, on the eve of the 1994 Winter Olympics. And then there's Tonya the abused kid who grew into an abused woman, the hardscrabble success story surrounded by dangerous idiots who wrecked her life and turned her into a national media punch line. Who said both can't be true?
For the literal he said, she said retelling in I, Tonya, actor Sebastian Stan swapped the metal arm of Marvel's Winter Soldier for the weasel mustache of Jeff Gillooly, Harding's first husband and the source of many of her woes. As the story flicks between Harding (played by Margot Robbie) and Gillooly's version of events, Stan said, "Our job was to represent each of these points of view equally, and at some point leave it to the audience to decide who to believe."
Growing up in Europe in the early Nineties, the Harding media show passed Stan by, and it wasn't until 2014, when ESPN presented the story in the 30 for 30 episode "The Price of Gold," that he got his education. Yet even then, he quickly realized that this landmark moment in American culture is mired in ambiguity. He said, "People stop me and say, 'Oh, so-and-so hit somebody in the knee with a bat.' Nobody seems to know exactly what happened. There's just an echo of murmurings of this large media spectacle." For Stan, the story is "very similar to the O.J. situation. Even though we kind of pretty much know, we don't accept it, or we can't accept it altogether, because there's something mythical about it."
The source material for I, Tonya is interviews with key players conducted by Steven Rogers, the scriptwriter best known for fluffy cinematic confections like Stepmom and Love the Coopers. Stan said, "He approached this going, 'I want to get as far away from a Christmas story as possible,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, but you ended up writing a really unbelievable script out of it.'"
Much like his characters have a habit of reinvention, Rogers sought to escape a career rut. He had extraordinary early career success with the first script he ever wrote, the Central Texas-shot Hope Floats, but also quickly found himself pigeonholed. He said, "They think of you as just one thing, and I became the guy that wrote romantic comedies – which they were rapidly not making anymore." Realizing that he had to find a new career trajectory ("I'd got used to eating," he explained), by sheer accident he saw the same 30 for 30 as Stan, and was immediately hooked. "I've never been on ice skates in my life," he admitted, "but I wanted to do the Wicked thing of taking someone who is vilified." Just as the studio system was seeing him as just the rom-com guy, "all of the characters were being reduced by the media to just a punch line, to just one thing."
If he was looking for an antidote to the trite and cozy middle-class diversions of his old work, this was the blue-collar break he needed. "I went on the Tonya Harding website, to see if the life rights were even available, and I called her agent, and it was a Motel 6. I just thought, 'I'm in. I don't know where it's going to take me, but I'm in.'"
Despite never having interviewed anyone before, Rogers flew to meet Harding. "She picked me up in her truck, but there was no passenger door handle on the outside, so I couldn't get in." At that first lunch, "she was trying to put her good face on. She's told this story a lot, so a lot of it just came out by rote, so I thought, 'Mmm, got to get around that.' So once I got the life rights, I went back up there and interviewed her over a two-day period."
Next on the list was Gillooly who, much to Rogers' surprise, had never really given his side of the story of what everyone involved called "the incident." Rogers said, "He's given interviews like, 'Where are they today?' or he's commented on stuff for Hard Copy." Unlike Harding, Gillooly refused to take any payment for his participation. Rogers said, "The only reason I think he wanted to talk to me was because his wife liked my movies, those romantic comedies that I was trying to run from."
After more research, including a conversation with Kerrigan herself, Rogers began writing the script. Yet when he started looking at his notes, he found himself with a stack of very different takes on a single event. "They're all trying to control the narrative, and control the story, which I think is very human. They're all trying to tell themselves what they need to tell themselves in order to live with themselves." The contradictions were not a problem but instead, he said, "I thought, that's my in. Put everybody's remembrances up there, and let people decide for themselves what they think happened."
The story became less about the incident, and more about how Gillooly and Harding saw each other. For Stan, that meant playing multiple Jeffs: the abusive twentysomething maniac that Tonya fled; the meek pawn of circumstance of his own reminiscences; and the remorseful 50-year-old that Rogers interviewed. He said, "I spent a great deal of time focusing on the technical aspects. I was walking around the city like crazy, listening to the interview over and over, trying to get his voice down, trying to physicalize things that I saw in little pieces here and there of footage that I found online."
Yet even that personal research, added to Rogers' script, left some big gaps for Stan in Gillooly's story. "I couldn't find anything on him in his childhood. I couldn't find anything about, how does he look now? Did he take care of himself? Did he gain weight? Did he have any ideas when he was young about what he wanted to become?" So in January 2017, two weeks before shooting, Stan traveled to Portland, to see the places where Gillooly and Harding grew up – the rink where they met as teens, the diner where they had their first date – and then had dinner with the real Gillooly. "It was very surreal," Stan said. "You spend two months studying someone, and then you meet them and it's like a weird déjà vu."
With only one evening together, Stan filled in a few of those blanks, and got a rounder opinion of the man he was re-creating. The actor described him as "very pleasant and very open," if still confused about why anyone would want to drag up this old history. Moreover, Gillooly did not seem to know what to make of Stan. "I think he said something about his daughter had watched Gossip Girl, but he didn't really know anything about me. He was certainly looking at me [like] 'I don't know why they cast this guy, because we don't look anything alike.'"
For Rogers and Stan, the purpose of I, Tonya is in finding the truth of the people, not the events, and they are both OK with that. Stan said, "To this day, I can't tell you that I arrived at some conclusion where I can sit here and tell you the truth. I don't think we'll ever really know."
I, Tonya opens in Austin this week. For review and showtimes, see film listings.