It’s been nearly 24 years since “the whack heard ’round the world,” but figure skating villain Tonya Harding and her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, are back in the spotlight thanks to the upcoming release of “I, Tonya.”
The new film spotlights Harding’s life before and after the infamous 1994 attack on fellow U.S. skater Kerrigan, planned by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and bodyguard Shawn Eckardt, and allegedly Harding — something the former Olympic skater still disputes although Gillooly maintains the skater knew about the assault.
Director Craig Gillespie explained he felt drawn to the story himself after passing judgement on Harding without knowing all the facts back when the incident occurred in the 1990s.
“I was 22, was an actor and I had just done a commercial with Nancy Kerrigan just three months before this happened,” Gillespie said. “My perception at the time was that Jeff and Tonya did it and the two were co-conspirators.”
After reading the screenplay from writer Steven Rogers, Gillespie said he knew it was time to re-evaluate the way Harding became a pop culture villain.
“The media so quickly makes people punchlines and headlines and will really chew them up and spit them out,” Rogers said. “I’m not condoning what happened but it was a simplistic version [spread in the news].”
Rogers said he was inspired after watching ESPN’s “30 for 30” episode about the skaters.
“I went on the Tonya Harding website to see if the life rights were even available and I called the number for her agent and it was a Motel 6,” he recalled. “At that point I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m in.'”
The mockumentary style of “I, Tonya,” Rogers said, stemmed from his interviews with Harding and Gillooly early on — who both shared what he called “wildly contradictory” takes on the attack.
“Everyone was trying to control that narrative and, to me, that is very human. People tell themselves what they need to in order to be able to live with themselves,” Rogers added.
Robbie, who was too young to remember the incident, told Variety that she didn’t know the story was real until making the movie. However, at the end of filming, Robbie described meeting Harding in person as “surreal.” She added, “I’ve texted her and things like that since [we left Portland].”
“She was lovely and understanding that I needed to inhabit the character,” Robbie continued. “I wasn’t trying to replicate her and I wanted to embody her spirit. At the end of the day, there is a difference, for me, between her and the character.”
While co-star Sebastian Stan portrayed the villainous Gillooly, he explained that meeting his real-life character gave him mixed emotions.
”Meeting Jeff was awkward and strange. He asked me why would anyone want to make a movie about this. I think he was wary of this thing coming back in a way,” said Stan. “Now he’s in his fifties and if I didn’t know anything about the guy, it was a pleasant conversation and completely normal.” Stan added, “It’s weird; life and fiction merge too many times.”
The film opens in theaters Dec. 8.