The new film I, Tonya, which made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, sees Margot Robbie step into the notorious skates of infamous American figure skater Tonya Harding, who in 1994 made the U.S. Olympic team after her rival, Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed in the knee in a plot masterminded by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. Harding’s level of involvement or knowledge beforehand has always been up for debate, though she was ultimately banned from figure skating for life; Gillooly, however, emerged as the real creep of the ordeal, especially once Tonya revealed he’d been physically abusive to her throughout their marriage.
I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) presents the events of Harding’s life as a kind of ludicrous and darkly comedic story, with Margot Robbie playing Harding as both trashy and defiant, an athletic wonder and also a habitual liar, plagued by toxic relationships with her mother (an excellent Allison Janney) and later her husband, played with pathetic aggression but also an undercurrent of pure infatuation by Sebastian Stan. Stan is likely best known for his role in the Marvel movies as Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier, but his career has spanned from Gossip Girl to underrated TV gems like NBC’s ill-fated Kings and USA’s Political Animals to films like Ricki and the Flash, The Martian, and The Bronze, where he played a hyper-competitive gymnastics coach with his eyes on the Olympics. This summer, he co-starred in Steven Soderbergh’s phenomenally fun Logan Lucky.
Stan took a moment in Toronto this weekend to sit with Decider and discuss playing Gillooly, the appeal of the Olympics at the movies, and why Tonya Harding just might be a hero if you look at it a certain way.
Decider.com: This is your first time playing a real-life character in a movie?
Sebastian Stan: Yes, it was.
Was that a little daunting?
100%, yeah. It feels like you have someone’s life in your hands, in a way.
I feel like you’re around the same age as me, and I remember watching that whole Olympics and all the controversy around it; do you remember watching it back then?
I watched it very, very, very briefly. But then I caught up with it again when 30 for 30 did that great documentary [The Price of Gold]. And then doing research on this, I really got into it. It’s just a wild time.
That was my next question, actually: were you all encouraged to watch the 30 for 30 or the NBC documentary [Nancy & Tonya]? How much did they want you looking at footage of your characters?
Yeah, they wanted to, but mostly Craig [Gillespie] left me to decide. He said if you want to meet [Jeff Gillooly], meet him. If you don’t want to meet him, you don’t have to. And I was like yeah, I’d love to meet him. And it was great to meet him, because I didn’t have enough footage of him from the present day. It was great to see him now, especially if I was going to try to play him at an older age.
What was your impression of him?
Again, you’re always walking in there with a preconceived idea. And I’d watched so much, over and over and over again, so just seeing him, it was like, “HEY!” I was actually really excited, because I’d spent so much time with him already. And he was very cool with it, he was like, “Hey, what’s going on?” And I was like, I’ve gotta calm down I guess. But yeah, it was surreal; I think there’s a lot more to the story than people think. And that’s what our movie does is try to point that way and get you to look at it a little differently. And it’s bizarre, but in the end, I wanted to see him and how he talked and acted. It was good.
What are the challenges of playing somebody who is on the surface pretty despicable, and then finding something both human and also funny in there?
Well all those things were in the script, that’s what was easy. But it was all laid there as it was, and then Craig coming in and really getting it down. It seems like he knew the very balance of how far to take it. And I think when you see the movie, you see that he’s done it very cleverly in terms of giving a mix of all the right things. Yeah, it’s crazy, man. I think we had to commit ourselves to what was on the page, and at the same time really keep an objective, bird’s-eye-view of safety and being able to trust each other. And Margot, it was very easy with Margot. You know, she was very committed, she wanted to go the distance, and we trusted each other. And sometimes we laughed and sometimes we’d go “Are you okay?” you know, checking in. And by the end we managed very well.
That was actually my next question, about the trust necessary with you and Margot for the scenes of domestic violence.
Yeah, the trust was important. Definitely needed the trust.
In a story like this, where the unreliability of the narrators is part of the point, how do you choose to play those present-day scenes? Is Jeff full of shit? Does he know he’s full of shit? That kind of thing.
That’s where I had to go back to the script. Ultimately, I have to honor the script, that’s what I’m there to do. So I had to take myself out of that. And, you know, the script says it could’ve been both. He could’ve been telling the truth, he could’ve been lying, it could’ve been [Tonya’s] point of view. But I had to be believable; I had to find the truth in those things. And for me, I didn’t really … yes, domestic violence was part of it, was definitely there as something to pay attention to, something that was unsettling. But primarily I had to focus on: you’ve got these two people who kinda came back to one another over and over again in the span of a few years. They were married so young, and they really depended on each other and really relied on each other. She could’ve handed back just as much at times. So it was a little bit of a crazy love. I had to look at it from a love-story point of view.
So now you’ve recently starred in a couple of movies about an obsession to win at the Olympics, this and The Bronze. Why do you think these make for such good stories?
Well, there’s a very American thing about that; we all sense it in the air all the time, we all feel it. It’s this idea of sensationalism, this idea of celebrity, of being a winner. Seeing heroes climb high and falling, and watching them climb back up and you’re resurrected. These are things you’ve seen in America time and time again. Figure skating was definitely very specific because it didn’t have as much attention on it when it started. And then [Tonya and Nancy] brought a lot of attention to it; actually made it more popular. And that’s one way you could argue that Tonya is actually a heroine. There was no … you know, you think, “Oh, it’s these little girls wearing these outfits and they twirl around and are really pretty on the ice,” and here comes this girl, and she’s like balls to the wall, she pulls no punches, and says fuck-you to everyone, and you could argue she was pushing the female card and changing the perspective about her sport.
And being unapologetically athletic.
And this idea of “How could this be happening in the sports world?” It was just sensationalized. It was also right around the time that the media turned into a 24-hour news cycle.
So between this movie and Logan Lucky, you’re getting to spread your wings more, comedically. Is that a conscious career decision?
Yeah, I always think anything that helps bring some difference to what I’ve done so far is challenging and something I gravitate towards. I think [I, Tonya] taught me a lot about commitment and challenges. I felt like I worked a lot, I worked really hard. It was a good lesson that way. Moving forward, I’d love to continue to find things that are ultimately scary. You have to really fall in love with a project. Watching this movie last night, I just loved watching the movie, it wasn’t so much about what I was doing.
So finally, at Decider.com, our focus is on streaming, both new things but also resurfacing shows and movies that are available to stream that may have been forgotten. Is there anything from your back catalog that you would hope people might revisit via streaming?
Ah, I don’t know. You should check out Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. That’s a fun one. That was one of my first movies. I don’t think that’s on streaming, though. [NOTE: It is! Rent it on Amazon Video.]
Who’d you play?
I played Joey McIntyre’s little brother. Mila Kunis is in it, Jon Bernthal. Some interesting people.