While Margot Robbie may not be able to skate as well as Tonya Harding, the two women have one thing in common: young female fans.
Played by Robbie in the darkly comic biopic I, Tonya (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding in January), Harding navigates ups and downs in her controversial figure-skating career but wears a huge smile when a girl approaches saying she wants to be a skater like her.
It reminds Robbie, 27, of a time after Suicide Squad opened last year and a friend texted her a picture of a youngster on a New York subway car reading a comic featuring Harley Quinn, Robbie’s colorful Squad anti-heroine.
“Her feet weren’t even touching the ground she was so little,” Robbie recalls. “And (my friend) was like, ‘Hey, dude, look what you’re doing. You’re changing the world or something.’ ”
She may not be changing it yet, but Robbie is carving her niche with transformative roles like Harley, Tonya and Queen Elizabeth I (in Mary, Queen of Scots, expected Nov. 2, 2018) and her LuckyChap Entertainment production company (co-founded with husband Tom Ackerley).
Not that she worries about all that when she’s wearing braces as awkward 15-year-old Tonya or weathering a breakdown at the 1994 Winter Olympics as embattled 23-year-old Tonya.) “When I’m on set, I forget the whole world’s going to see what we’re doing,” Robbie says.
The native of Australia’s Gold Coast was more apt to be surfing than skating growing up, and her training for I, Tonya “was a rude awakening,” she says. Because Harding was a face of the skating world — and a quasi-villainous one following the infamous clubbing of rival Nancy Kerrigan’s knee — Robbie spent a lot of time on the ice. (Stunt doubles were used for the most difficult sequences.)
“What I found addictive was to be good enough to go really fast, and when you know your body’s strong enough to sustain that speed, you feel invincible. And I wasn’t even doing triple axels," says Robbie, who also talked with Harding as part of her prep work. The former skating champion has been supportive from the start, granting the actress and filmmaker interviews and even attending the L.A. premiere.
The Oscars love when an actress takes on a real-life figure with a point of view, and Hollywood has taken notice, says Dave Karger, special correspondent for IMDb. “It’s by far the best thing she’s ever done and the next step in her meteoric rise.”
A darling of Toronto Film Festival in September, I, Tonya could be a rebellious force during award season: It’s a dark horse best picture contender, Allison Janney (as Tonya’s abusive mother) is a lock for a supporting actress nomination and Karger says Robbie is “in the conversation” for best actress alongside heavyweights like Meryl Streep (The Post) and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
Robbie is having fun with the Oscar talk. “I’ve never had it before. Honestly, I just didn’t even know there were this many events this time of year,” she says. “I’m flat out going to things all the time, which is lovely.”
With her new company, Robbie is developing a solo Harley movie for herself (“If I’m not swinging that baseball bat next year, I’ll be devastated”) but also sees an opportunity and responsibility to help make a difference in a town beset by sexual harassment scandals.
“It’s a strange business in that we don’t have an HR office — there’s a lot of gray area and acting can be a very intimate thing, and there’s no specific outline to any job or role,” Robbie says. “We just need to implement some sort of order and system and make sure people are respectful and creative at the same time and not take advantage of positions of power.”