When actor Sebastian Stan first read the script for “I, Tonya,” the eccentric biopic about former figure-skating champion Tonya Harding, he felt terrified.
Stan was considering the part of Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s abusive ex-husband who was convicted in 1994 for the attack on rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. “How could I ever play this?” Stan wondered. There were scenes showing Gillooly physically abusing Harding, manipulating her after the Kerrigan attack, and ultimately ruining her skating career.
But there were also moments of raw passion between them and a protective, vulnerable side to Gillooly that was at odds with the punchline that he became: “To Gillooly” meant “to kneecap someone.”
“I know there are a lot of really disturbing things that are happening in the movie,” Stan said in an interview. “Looking at the script, without trying to make any other judgments on the real people, what really came across to me was someone who was in love with this person to perhaps obsessive points, to a point where it was not healthy necessarily. But the same unhealthy, toxic love was coming from her towards him.”
“I, Tonya,” directed by Craig Gillespie from a screenplay by Steven Rogers, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend and quickly became the most buzzed-about film as audiences cheered the eccentric, empathetic performances by Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, Allison Janney as her caustic mother, and Stan as Gillooly. The film was reportedly picked up by Neon and 30West for about $5 million.
Stan, 35 years old, also plays Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) in Marvel’s “Captain America” films co-starring Chris Evans, and he’ll reprise the role in the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War.” He’ll also star in upcoming political drama “The Last Full Measure”.
He sat with MarketWatch to discuss “I, Tonya,” his indulgence in chocolate and books about space, and Bucky’s future in “Captain America.”
How did you approach Jeff Gillooly as a character? It seems easy to look down on these people, but you had to find the empathy for him.
The script had funny moments in it, it had scary moments, tragic moments. When I read the script I was like, “this cannot really be true.” I listened to the interviews that [screenwriter] Steven Rogers had with Tonya and Jeff, and I realized, “Oh my God, a lot of what was in the interviews is actually in the script.” Craig had a lot to do with it — the idea of tone, which was right from the beginning, the idea of something Fargo-esque about it. The sensationalism of it all. We had to play that along with finding anything that was grounding and that made it real. Things like breaking the fourth wall, talking to the camera, making the documentary-style approach — that helped a lot.
What were your thoughts on masculinity while playing him? There are times it seems he was trying to protect Tonya, even if his way of doing that was destructive.
I’m thrilled to hear that’s something you felt. I was sort of hoping for that. He was generally setting out to try and do the right thing but unfortunately was perhaps hindered and incapable by not having the tools to be able to do that in the right way. I think sometimes in life, we take things for granted. Not everybody has a psychologist in their mind that sits there and goes, “Do this, don’t do that.” Both of them are incredibly emotionally impulsive. It’s really unfortunate that sometimes, as is the case with Tonya obviously, we always tend to reflect the love that we get when we’re children. If you’re getting abandonment, if you’re getting abuse as a child, if you’re getting uncertainty when you’re a child, unfortunately you tend to look for that in your life later on and you think that’s love.
“You could say that they love too much. Sometimes maybe Jeff was coming from a place of, you love the thing that you have so much you’re squeezing it too hard. You gotta let it go. So anyway, that was a way in for me to something as opposed to trying to judge it and go “oh well, he’s a f-ing asshole and let’s just call it!”
Did you have to suspend judgment and just inhabit him?
There’s no judgment. You can’t judge a character, and you’re never going to always play characters that are morally sound or know right from wrong. Oftentimes it’s more entertaining to play characters that are living on the edge somewhere. With the exception of some of the villains on “Game of Thrones,” and a couple serial killers in our lifetime, people that even do horrible things tend to come from a place of serious need for love and care. Continue reading
Sebastian Stan has always appreciated a good anti-hero. Maybe that’s why he went from breaking hearts on Gossip Girl for three seasons to breaking up the Avengers as the Winter Soldier, a brainwashed Soviet assassin who just so happened to be Captain America’s former BFF Bucky Barnes. And even though he may be back with the good guys again following the events of Civil War, Stan can’t quite seem to escape the pull of the dark side.
That’s how – in between his obligations as a now-central cog in the MCU – Stan found time to appear in I, Tonya, a no-holds-barred look at the notorious Tonya Harding scandal that’s taken the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival by storm. The dark comedy from director Craig Gillespie has been earning raves for both Margot Robbie, who stars as the two-time Olympic figure skater, and Stan, who plays Jeff Gillooly, who served 18 months in jail for his role in the ’94 assault on Harding’s fellow Olympian Nancy Kerrigan. The morning after the movie’s TIFF premiere, RT sat down with Stan to talk about his Five Favorite Films and love of complex characters, along with the challenges involved in playing Harding’s infamous ex-husband and doing this stranger-than-fiction true story justice.
Rick Mele for Rotten Tomatoes: It’s interesting, a lot of the movies you’ve mentioned sort of use all the tools of moviemaking — they pull from the whole toolbox — which is something I think I, Tonyadoes too. It’s got flashbacks, interview segments, it’s heavily stylized, it’s got a fun soundtrack, characters break the fourth wall.
Sebastian Stan: That’s what was really great about Craig [Gillespie]. I had a front-row, center seat to see him, how he worked. He was the best. There was a scene in I, Tonya where we ran out of time. It was a courtroom scene with extras, a packed courtroom — the judge, five characters, and some dialogue. And they ran out of time. They were like, “How do we do it?” Like, “How do we tell the story of being in this room for the judge’s decision?” And Craig was like, “OK, we’ll do one steadicam shot. We’ll come in, we’ll sweep through, we’ll take everybody in, we’ll come around here, and then Margot breaks the fourth wall and talks into the camera.” And I was like, “That’s great!” But, you know, I guess what sets those guys apart is being creative in terms of showing you something visual in a different way.
RT: And speaking of anti-heroes, that’s a little like what you’re playing here. Jeff is a difficult character. He’s not a straight villain, but he’s definitely not a hero.
Stan: Of course. My thing with Jeff was, I felt like there were these two really tough tasks, which was, one, he’s going to see this. I met him once, and once only, and I don’t know the man, other than what I’ve tried to find out about him. But I was just like, I want him to feel like… Hopefully I got something right. Regardless of what happened and who he is and whatever was said. And then the other problem is, of course, if that really is true [the accusations of domestic violence], if that’s how he was… How do you justify any of that? So, it was really difficult.
But I tried to look at it from the perspective that it was sort of a love story, in a weird way. And then I just started going from there, trying to push further and further with, well, what makes someone insecure or obsessive or jealous or crazy or needy? That was my “in” to the situation. Because otherwise, half the time I would’ve been judging my every move, and you can’t do that.
RT: Was there anything you picked up from meeting him that you were able to use in your performance?
Stan: It was more physical stuff. Meeting him was more helpful for me for the interview scenes, when he’s way older. Because I had no footage of him, like, now. So just seeing him now, and how he was behaving, what his mannerisms were. It was more about that, rather than the story itself. I just kind of wanted to watch him.
RT: How much did you know about the story going in? I was thinking back on it, and I definitely remember when this all happened, but I was still kind of young. I think we’re around the same age, but do you remember following this story?
Stan: I do and I don’t, yeah. We were really young. I remember the O.J. stuff really well, so this was right before that. I remember seeing something about her. But recently, maybe a year or two ago, I saw “The Price of Gold,” the 30 for 30 [documentary]. And I was like, I never really knew what happened with that Kerrigan thing. This is another take on the story, that I don’t think people have seen or heard of, or thought of. If you ask anybody about Tonya Harding, they just kind of remember something about a bat. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Margot Robbie stars as Harding…
…Allison Janney stars as LaVona Golden, Harding’s abusive mother…
…and Sebastian Stan plays Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s equally abusive ex-husband and alleged co-conspirator in the attack on Kerrigan.
Now, I know there’s only one question on your mind: Did Sebastian Stan really grow that iconic Jeff Gillooly-level mustache for this role?
Well, get ready for the journey of a lifetime. I spoke with Stan the morning after I, Tonya premiered at TIFF, and it basically turned into a cold case file.
As soon as I brought it up, Stan said quietly, “Ahh, the mustache.” He smiled. “The mustache may or may not be mine.”
“I’ll tell you this,” he continued, and then paused, choosing his words carefully. “I had a mustache for the audition. I had a mustache for…here, I’ll show you a photo.”
He grabbed his phone and pulled up a selfie in which he was in his Jeff Giloolly costume making a funny face — and he had a mustache that was definitely his and looked a lot like the one he had in the movie.
“I had a mustache for some of the time filming in Atlanta, which proved to be interesting,” he said cryptically, like a very wise but mischievous wizard with a secret. “We had to alter it at times because of the fact that [Jeff] ages [in the film], but yeah, I did for as long as I could.”
The one and only thing we know for sure is that Jeff Giloolly himself officially approved of the ‘stache. “I posted one time when I was on set, and [Jeff Giloolly] wrote to me and he said, ‘You might have actually made that mustache look cool for once,'” Stan said.
Sebastian Stan’s mustache, you riddle, I will solve you.
With all the recent news and photos of Sebastian promoting I, Tonya at the Toronto International Film Festival I thought it was time for a very handy video master-post featuring all the newest interviews in one easy to watch location. So to make things as organized as possible I’ve decided to create a YouTube playlist specifically for all the interviews Sebastian took part in during his time at the festival.
You can find screen captures from all the videos in the playlist in our gallery.