Allison Janney talks her BAFTA-winning role in 'I, Tonya', and how every role feels like her first
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I, Tonya tells the "mostly true" story of figure skater Tonya Harding, and the career-defining incident where she was linked to a physical attack on a skating rival of hers.
Read about director, Craig Gillespie, and the writer, Steven Rogers, discussing perspective, relative truth, and responsibility to their subject here. To read what Margot Robbie had to say about playing Tonya herself, you'll have to wait for The National Student print edition, coming soon to a campus near you!
Here's what Janney had to say about playing this complex and captivating role:
How did you make sure the character of LaVonna Harding wasn’t a caricature?
Allison: I thought the stakes were very high, and I find when things tend to be funny, whether it’s a drama or a comedy, the stakes are very high. And I think for LaVonna, she wanted her daughter to be successful in the figure skating world. She wanted it really badly, and so when Jeff Gillooly got in the way, or the figure skating community didn’t embrace her daughter, she was enraged.
I had to ground her in reality to flesh her out, so she wasn’t just a monster, she was a woman who had probably been disappointed at every turn in her life, probably a woman who was abused. I didn’t get to speak to the real woman, but I approached her like any other role as an actress, you have to make it make sense to you, and make her choices make sense to you. Why would she behave like this? Why would she do this? Why would she do that? Which was really fun to do, and the humour comes out of the juxtaposition of the different viewpoints smashed up next to each other. It’s just shocking to see LaVonna throw a knife at Tonya, and then you cut to her saying “What family doesn’t have their ups and downs?” And just minimising this unbelievable terrifying abuse.
Your character has very a distinctive look, and the film does a very good job of recreating that look - how much does a character’s look help your performance?
Allison: Definitely, my look was incredibly liberating. At first I thought I was going to be — you know, I went through 2-3 hours of make up for the direct address scenes for LaVonna’s old age make up, and then the incredible wig, and the costumes by Jennifer Johnson — a brilliant costume designer - having that fur coat, and then me auditioning three birds, and picking that bird. And when I saw the final look, it felt like I had stepped out of a Diane Arbus photograph or something, it was just extraordinary. And I felt so empowered by that look, I didn’t feel as horrified as I thought I would feel seeing myself look so old … I think I look better there than I do right now! I loved it! It made me confident in my choices as an actress, in that role. I just felt like I didn’t care what anybody thought of me. I’ve earned the right to sit here and I’m going to tell you my story, and you’re going to listen to me. I loved it.
As a woman in 2018, how in control do you feel of the stories you’re telling?
Allison: I love telling other people’s stories, I love telling women’s stories — though I have played a man before! — but I mostly like telling women’s stories, and the more complicated and messier the better. I think there are going to continue to be incredible female stories to tell, and thank god for people like Margot who can wear all these different hats and goes out and looks for female driven content and good stories, and Craig who directs great and beautiful movies about complicated lives. I’m happy to be part of telling stories, because that’s what I love to do.
Can you discuss your process of preparation for this character, and how it differed from previous roles?
Allison: I love the costume designer to tell me who my part is, I love the hair and make up to tell me. I look for clues everywhere. When I start every job I don’t know how to do it, I always think “Why am I an actor? I don’t know how to do it.” Every job is like I’ve never done it before and I find the role in so many different places, I look for it everywhere. I found this one, the challenge was making her real, and understanding her pain and what she lost in her life, and this sorts of things rooted me in who she was. I never know where it’s going to come from, where I might find the clue to the character, but I look for it anywhere and from anyone: “Tell me who I am!”
Steven Rogers (writer/producer): This is probably the closest to who you are in real life…
Allison: Right, that’s why Steven wrote this character for me — because he knows how much of a monster I am inside and out. Oh lord…
I, Tonya skates into cinemas Fri 23rd Feb, distributed by EntertainmentOne.