Nominated for an Oscar for her latest role as the controversial ice skater Tonya Harding, Margot Robbie talks to Stylist about refusing to toe the line.
In a gourmet bakery on LA’s La Brea Avenue, over a bowl of chia seeds and berries, Margot Robbie and I are comparing the size of our respective canines’ poo. (Hers is a petite rescue mutt named Boo Radley, mine a chihuahua mix.) “They are so small. Like, this big,” she says pointing to a raspberry, her grin nearing the width of the peak of her black nautical cap. “It’s so good.”
Robbie is the kind of Best Actress Academy Award nominee who can talk unflinchingly about dog poo despite the fact that, after her lead turn in black comedy I, Tonya, she is being considered among the best actors of her generation. She’s also president of her own production company, LuckyChap Entertainment (which she runs with four of her seven former south London flatmates, including her husband, Tom Ackerley). Sunny, quick-witted and unshowy, Robbie is, to coin a breakfast-related metaphor, a good egg.
A good egg but a badass: the 27-year-old thumped Leonardo DiCaprio in the face without warning in her audition for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, her breakthrough role which came only a year after graduating from Neighbours in 2011. She does many of her own stunts, gave a speech at 2017’s Women in Hollywood Awards calling out the film industry’s propensity to see women “in the simplest terms and with the most convenient definitions”, and can trapeze and tattoo: she famously inked emojis on her 2016 Suicide Squad co-star Cara Delevingne’s toes. In short, Robbie seems to approach life as if she is leaping out of a plane to land feet-first on a bullseye. (She also skydives.)
This chutzpah seems matched with unflinching focus and a knack for accents and comedy. Right from the beginning she has fleshed out her roles, forcing us to pay attention. “I’ve always thought: OK, if I’m playing the wife right now, I’ve got to put my f***ing stamp on it and she needs to be putting her foot down and not take any s**t,” she explains.
I, Tonya sympathetically (some critics have said too sympathetically) tells the story of two-time Olympian ice skater Tonya Harding, who received a lifetime ban from the US Figure Skating Association in 1994 for hindering the prosecution’s investigation into an attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. The incident, in which Kerrigan was struck above the knee with a metal rod, was orchestrated by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. As the film shows, Harding had long been a controversial character in the ice skating world – refusing to conform to the ‘princess’ image of a figure skater. Pitted in the press as the ‘evil’ to Kerrigan’s ‘good’, the public duly rounded against her. I, Tonya paints a different picture – one of a woman whose success and fall from grace belies abuse, both from her sadistic mother LaVona (played by Allison Janney, winning her the 2018 Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress) and Gillooly.
The film, which Robbie co-produced through LuckyChap, saw her training to ice skate for several months in order to play the first American woman to pull off a triple axel in competition, a move that one could say Robbie has performed in career terms. Her first lead role has seen her nominated for a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, Bafta and an Oscar.
And yet descriptions of Robbie often reduce her to breathy Playboy cliche. Indeed, a fusillade of outraged tweets were posted in Robbie’s defence over a condescending Vanity Fair cover story in 2016. (#TimesUp on that!) Today, I tell Robbie I won’t be describing her as many have: as a blonde bombshell. “Thank you!” she says with a ‘pinched fingers’ gesture that suggests I’m on point. “If I never see the word ‘bombshell’ again in an article relating to me I will be thrilled.”
Far more important is the deluge of projects Robbie has coming up. Since she moved to LA in late 2016, LuckyChap has made three films with seven in development, including a Suicide Squad all-female spin-off. Last year, Robbie was listed by Time magazine as one of its 100 Most Influential People. Next up she plays Queen Elizabeth I, balding and pock-marked, in Mary Queen Of Scots. When I think of journalists who have painted Robbie in one-dimensional terms, I am reminded of her Instagram post in December 2016 upon her marriage to Ackerley: a ring-fingered salute to the camera. Just the sort of gesture that Tonya Harding would also give to the establishment…
The Oscars are a few days away. How are you feeling about the impending ceremony?
The fact that we [LuckyChap] are even going to the Oscars with this film is like Tonya Harding going to the Olympics. I feel like people are going to say, “How did you riff-raff get into this prestigious event?” It’s symbolic of Tonya’s journey and being like, “F*** it. I’m here. Take it or leave it.” What made people find Tonya abrasive was that she was unapologetic for who she was. That’s why playing her was so liberating. I’m constantly apologising. I hate that about myself.
You took Tonya to the Golden Globes last month. How did everyone react to her?
People were starstruck. At one point Gal Gadot came up to us and said, “Margot, this must be your mother.” And I said, “No, no. This is actually Tonya Harding,” and she said, “What? The Tonya Harding?” Tonya got her picture taken with Meryl [Streep], she walked straight up to Tom Hanks. Then there was this absurd collision of worlds where Tonya and Tommy Wiseau [eccentric director of The Room, played by James Franco in The Disaster Artist] ran into each other, and neither of them knew who the other one was. Everyone couldn’t have got their iPhones out quick enough.
Do you feel that Tonya has finally found some acceptance in the wake of the film?
I do get the impression that she’s found some sort of closure. I flew to Oregon and met her just before we shot the film, and when we spoke about everything, [it was obvious that] she hadn’t let it go yet. I asked Sebastian [Stan, who plays Gillooly] if he was the same when he met him. And he said, “Not at all.” That devastated me. Now that her name is being said in a more positive conversation, I think she’s found a way to close the chapter, to some extent.
Did you relate to her as a hustler?
I take ‘hustler’ as a compliment. I see Tonya as a hustler and an underdog. When I read the script I was looking for a female gangster film. But I, Tonya is the premise of a gangster film – an underdog rising to the top despite circumstances. But she wasn’t seen that way back then. Announcers would say: “And this is Tonya Harding, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks.” Like, why are you here? That made me so angry. She was vilified because she wasn’t the kind of woman [the US Figure Skating Association] wanted. They put other women like Nancy on a pedestal because she looked and behaved the way that they wanted a woman to look and behave.
Tonya and Nancy were also pitted against one another by the media…
The tabloids would put two women on the cover with a jagged line down the centre under the words ‘catfight’. They do the same thing today. It’s frustrating we haven’t evolved in any way.
The matter-of-fact tone in which Tonya’s abuse is presented has been criticised, and yet I feel it’s the most pertinent aspect of the film. Violence is normalised for Tonya, just as sexual harassment has been for so many women…
That was the whole point. When all of these assault allegations started coming forward, I remember hearing half of them and thinking, ‘I didn’t know that was classified as assault or sexual harassment’. I just chalked it up to a sleazy guy being sleazy. That goes to show that when a problem can be so prevalent in society, we just accept it as a way of life. I’ve definitely gone back through my memories and now I’m reassessing things with the view of, ‘OK, that’s not acceptable behaviour, and why did I accept it at the time?’
Sexism isn’t just a male preserve. Do you think that we as women also need to check ourselves, and our attitudes to each other, for real change to happen?
Yeah, absolutely. It used to really baffle me when I was younger that when a woman’s boyfriend cheated on her, she would go f***ing ballistic at the other chick, not at him. I always thought, ‘What bullsh*t psychology is going on here? What is going on in our heads?’ That’s why I love the strong solidarity that’s going on between women at the moment.
It’s great now that women are getting angry on one another’s behalf, as they did over your Vanity Fair story…
You know what’s so funny? I didn’t even blink when I read it. I’ve read more sexist stuff written about me, but it’s just that I didn’t have the profile back then for anyone to care. The fact that people spoke out and said, “That’s not OK” is amazing.
There was a swathe of women wearing blush-pink dresses at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January. Was that pre-agreed or just that the Women’s March was on everyone’s mind?
That was a coincidence, but when I heard that the dress colour for the Golden Globes was black I said, “Why isn’t it pink? We should be celebrating.” But I can see the logic for black.
There has been such a cataclysmic shift with #TimesUp that many representations of women now seem out of touch. Do any of the films you have worked on or are working on feel dated?
It’s crazy; we’ve had to reassess everything. Some of our projects no longer seem relevant, others seem 10 times more important to tell.
Would Jane in The Legend of Tarzan  be a balls-out feminist now?
Well, I scored a few wins. Jane doesn’t wear corsets. I also said to the director, “Because I’m being held down by lots of men, can I at least be fighting back, problem-solving and not waiting for Tarzan to come and rescue me?” I’m glad I did. But I get it, though; it’s not called Jane of The Jungle.
Not yet. I know you rewatched a lot of old films for your upcoming role in Dreamland. Did you discover anything surprising?
I love old films, but my heart breaks when I watch Marilyn Monroe’s, because the characters she plays are so misogynistic and degrading that it’s mind-boggling that that was the norm. The same with Bonnie And Clyde; parts of it make my blood boil.
You’ve produced three films now. How’s it been shifting into a role where you often need to put your foot down?
I definitely struggle with it. I recently came off a conference call to a lot of male executives, along with a female writer who I’m working with. Straight after we texted each other almost exactly the same message: “Sorry, was I being pushy just then? Did I sound like a bit of a bitch?” Then we called each and said, “This is f***ed up! Do you think any of the men on that conversation are texting each other right now?”
As a film producer, do you have a policy on women’s pay?
To my mind, whoever is doing the most work, or adding the most box-office value, should get the highest pay – whether that’s a man or a woman. If I was doing a project with a female lead and the male supporting character was getting paid more, I’d f***ing put my foot down.
I get the impression that you’re good at saving money. I mean, you had seven people living in a three-bedroom flat in Clapham.
[Laughs] I can be so f***ing thrifty. Saving money is my area of expertise. It’s a good skill to have for reallocating funds in a film budget. Any room [in that flat] that wasn’t already a bedroom would become one. So we didn’t have any living rooms, just bedrooms. It was all very close-quarters.
Was there lots of sneaking around the corridors at night with Tom?
Yeah, it was ridiculous for a time. But very fun. We got together young and we’re married now, so it’s great to have all those stories.
How did the others react when you dropped the bombshell of you and Tom getting together? (Damn, I promised not to say it…)
It was [a bombshell]. It was a crazy time in our past. In Friends when Monica and Chandler get together and the rest of them worry that it’s going to mess with the group – that was everyone’s biggest concern. We were such a tight-knit, weird family. We do everything together, even now.
What for you are the main differences between life in Clapham and LA?
They are worlds apart. I loved London so much; riding the Tube. Also because the paparazzi can’t follow you. I miss walking down the road to go to the pub – we’ve talked a lot about opening an Aussie pub in LA. Being in the world and getting to watch people interact, it’s helpful as an actor being able to do that rather than being locked in a car. It’s hard to get perspective in LA.
The most historic sporting scandals
The Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan incident hasn’t been the only shocking event to plague the Olympic Games…
ZOLA BUDD’S COLLISION
The South African athlete came into contact with America’s Mary Decker during the 3,000m at the 1984 Olympics Games in Los Angeles, causing Decker to crash out and blame Budd.
100M DOPING SCANDAL
It was the most hyped race at the Seoul Olympics in 1988: Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis in the 100m. However, it became famous for the wrong reasons when Johnson was caught doping and stripped of his gold.
Chinese gymnast Dong Fangxiao (right) was part of a team that won bronze. But 10 years later, it emerged she was 14 at the time – two years under the age limit – and the medal was re-awarded to the US.
After Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier surprisingly won silver instead of gold, judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted to being part of an undercover vote-swap scheme. The pair were later awarded gold.
THE ALLEGED ROBBERY
It made global headlines at Rio 2016 when swimmer Ryan Lochte claimed he and three others were robbed at gunpoint. It emerged the story was false, and they had vandalised a petrol-station bathroom. Lochte was suspended for 10 months.
I, Tonya is in cinemas from 23 February
Words: Stephanie Rafanelli
Images: Rex Features