By Pat Mullen
VANCOUVER – “I find characters that are dancing on the edge of sanity are very fun to play,” says I, Tonya star Sebastian Stan. “Sometimes there’s a lot there to explore.”
Stan trades the mask of the Winter Soldier from the Captain America blockbusters for the ratty moustache of Jeff Gillooly, the volatile partner-in-crime of notorious figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie). I, Tonya dramatizes their alleged conspiracy to oust Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan via a violent assault, dubbed “the incident” in the film. Gillooly is a blundering agent of Harding’s downfall.
“There were plenty of tendencies to go for comedy or to go bigger, or to make him a bad guy,” says Stan, following I, Tonya’s TIFF premiere. “I needed to find something else, without judgement from what I heard that he may or may not have been like.”
Stan describes meeting Gillooly and interpreting his behaviour and mindset.
“One thing I picked up on was that he was really in love with [Harding] and was doing his best to stay in her life, but not necessarily in a good way,” he says.
I, Tonya doesn’t hold back in depicting Harding’s violent relationship with Gillooly. The balance of humour and violence creates a household where abuse was normalized.
“It was very choreographed,” notes Stan of rehearsing the violence with Robbie and director Craig Gillespie. “We spent a lot of time rehearsing it correctly and making everyone feel safe. [Margot] was like, ‘Let’s just go for it as much as we can.’”
The film is sympathetic to Harding’s downfall without absolving her. Regardless of who orchestrated “the incident,” the film suggests that Harding bore some responsibility and her turbulent marriage stoked the fire. Tension mounts as Harding copes with fame and Gillooly envies her success.
“Celebrity exposes a lot of things,” observes Stan. “There’s a great line [in the film], like, ‘Your strengths get stronger and your weaknesses get weaker.’ That’s the case with Tonya and Jeff. It was just the ‘90s and their 15 minutes of fame. They were in the centre of it and got yanked out. It was probably really difficult.”
I, Tonya can be seen in theatres December 8.