Tuesday 15 October 2019

The ice queen - How Margot Robbie became Martin Scorsese's muse

Margot Robbie went from jobbing actor on Aussie soap Neighbours to muse of Martin Scorsese. She talks to Paul Whitington about her rapid ascent, portraying vilified figure skater Tonya Harding and her Oscar nomination

Margot Robbie
Margot Robbie
Margot Robbie ✓
Margot Robbie attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Margot Robbie attends the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on March 4, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Margot Robbie attending the Nespresso British Academy Film Awards Nominees Party at Kensington Palace, London
Margot Robbie attends the Calvin Klein Collection front row during New York Fashion Week at New York Stock Exchange on February 13, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
Play it cool: Margot Robbie as Tonya
True story: Sebastian Stan, Robbie and Julianne Nicholson in I, Tonya

Margot Robbie looks rested, unflustered and effortlessly elegant when I meet her in the drawing room of London's Ham Yard Hotel. This despite the fact that the Australian actress has been globetrotting for weeks on end, attending award ceremonies in between media junkets promoting her new film I, Tonya, which she stars in and produced.

The night before our interview, she was on the Graham Norton Show, the following evening, she would attend the BAFTAs and then it's back to Hollywood for the build-up to next Sunday's Academy Awards, in which she's nominated in the Best Actress category. But Robbie seems as unfazed by all this industry flim-flam as she is by her recent rise to A-lister status.

"A lot of things have changed," she says with a smile, "and every time something changes, you go 'woah, this is weird', and then you learn to adapt. Then something else happens and you think, this is really weird, and you adapt and move forward again."

Her success has been sudden: just seven years ago she was a jobbing regular on the Aussie soap Neighbours: when she left it to try her luck in Hollywood, she was plucked from obscurity by Martin Scorsese to star in his 2013 drama Wolf of Wall Street. She had an eye-catching cameo in the Oscar-nominated Big Short, was an empowered Jane in the otherwise dull 2016 Tarzan remake, and stole the show as the bat-wielding loon Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad.

All of which proved her versatility, charisma and range. But she's admitted that she consciously avoided lead roles because of the career risks involved. "I feel like guys get a few more chances to be the lead in a flop," she has said. "If you're a woman and it flops? Good luck getting another one."

I, Tonya changes all that. One of the most enjoyable films of the last 12 months, Craig Gillespie's movie retells a story that dominated American tabloids in the mid-90s, and daringly uses humour to deal with its darker aspects. Robbie is nothing short of sensational in the lead, playing the ill-fated US figure skater Tonya Harding, who became the most hated woman in America following a bizarre attack on one of her rivals.

Play it cool: Margot Robbie as Tonya
Play it cool: Margot Robbie as Tonya

Robbie, who's 27, was just three years old when the infamous assault on Nancy Kerrigan happened, and had no idea who Tonya Harding was when she first read the script.

"I'd never heard of her, so I thought the whole thing was fiction. I thought the writer, Steven Rogers, was absolutely brilliant but out of his mind because everything was so absurdly specific, and I thought, wow, how did he come up with this? And then, of course, I found out that it was a true story and I was amazed that he could fit so many elements into one thing and make it feel so spontaneous."

Why did she end up deciding to produce the film as well? "I just believed that if we got this right, it could be something really special," she says. "I also recognised there are a lot of ways to not get it right, so I wanted to make sure I was part of all the conversations about creating this project."

The real story of Tonya Harding is so crazy, you couldn't make it up. Born in Portland, Oregon in 1970, Harding was raised by her mother, LaVona Golden, a diner waitress who beat her daughter regularly and pushed her into skating.

She was a natural, and would later become a national champion, two-time Olympian and the first American woman ever to complete a triple-axel in competition. But the American Olympics committee was snobbish and considered Tonya white trash, a view sadly endorsed by the antics of her abusive husband Jeff Gillooly, who in January of 1994 orchestrated a botched assault on Nancy Kerrigan's knee. Tonya didn't even know it was going to happen, but that didn't stop the American media from vilifying her.

Margot met the real Tonya, but "only at the last minute, once I had decided exactly how I was going to play the role. I didn't want the character and the real Tonya to be the same thing, I wanted it to be something separate."

Actress Margot Robbie arrives for the Annual Academy Awards Nominee Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on February 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn BeckROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Actress Margot Robbie arrives for the Annual Academy Awards Nominee Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on February 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn BeckROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Instead, Robbie studied hours and hours of TV footage of Harding's rocky progress through life.

"I studied a tonne of footage, her mannerisms, her dialect and her story in general, and luckily for me, there was this amateur documentary made about her when she was 15. That was really crucial, to be able to see the real her, and to see her speak without knowing that anyone was going to be scrutinising her.

"At one point she looks into the camera, and she's like 'oh my mom beats me and she's an alcoholic'. She says it totally deadpan without a trace of self-pity - she wasn't even close to tears, it was such a habitual thing."

The violence in I, Tonya is shocking, all the more so because it's often accompanied by jokes: this risky approach was deliberate, and carefully planned.

"From the very start," Robbie explains, "the big worry was how were we going to handle the violence. I didn't like the idea of minimising it, the way you hear Jeff and LaVona speak about it. We had to show it, in all its brutality, and it was Craig Gillespie who came up with the idea of breaking the fourth wall.

"Having her speak matter-of-factly to the audience gives you an insight into the fact that she's dissociated herself emotionally from what happens to her physically, which was hugely important to me."

Allison Janney gives a riveting performance as Tonya's mother, but had less to go on in terms of research.

"When Steven Rogers was writing the script, he tracked down Tonya and Jeff, but he couldn't find LaVona, and Tonya didn't even know if she was even alive. So we went off Jeff and Tonya's portrayal of LaVona to create the character, which seemed to be the only thing they agreed on. And then, a couple of months ago, she popped up on this TV show called Inside Edition, and we were amazed - it was so similar to what Allison had done."

Born in the small town of Derby, Queensland and raised on Gold Coast by her single mother, Robbie was drawn to acting in her teens, but didn't commit to it until she'd finished school. For someone who's shot so vertiginously to fame, she seems admirably level-headed. "I have awesome friends, an awesome family that aren't in the industry at all, and I got to finish my childhood separate from all this."

Margot learnt her trade on the Aussie soap Neighbours. It was, she says, a wonderful training ground. "It's very sink or swim, it's a really demanding job. Sometimes I'd sit in the make-up chair with 60 pages in my lap, and you don't have months to prep for it, you've got the night before. It's insane, so you've got to be dedicated and quick and adaptable."

Margot Robbie and Tom Ackerley attend the Arizona Coyotes vs New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden on February 26, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/GC Images)
Margot Robbie and Tom Ackerley attend the Arizona Coyotes vs New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden on February 26, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/GC Images)

As soon as she got to Hollywood, Robbie was cast in a major TV drama called Pan Am, which though well reviewed, was cancelled after one season. It was a blow. Then Martin Scorsese called her for an audition.

"On Wolf of Wall Street, I just thought they'll probably cut the character out of the film, I mean there's so many brilliant actors here and such crazy things happening, no one's going to notice what I'm doing. So I could just really go for it and that was such a liberating way to work, and I think my performance was better because I didn't feel watched at all. No one gave a shit who I was, and it was great."

They know who she is now, and next Sunday, Margot will attend the Oscars as a Best Actress nominee.

"It's a funny thing," she tells me, "you think you don't care about awards and then someone honours you in that way and you think, that was really nice, I feel really special right now, and obviously the Oscars is such a big thing. This is the 90th year, and you think of the people that have stepped on to that stage, so it does feel special."

She's up against Meryl Streep, Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand and our own Saoirse Ronan, and says that "in a way, I would be disappointed if I won because I just adore those actresses so much and, oh my God, I'm lucky to be considered in this group". It doesn't sound like false modesty.

Is she looking forward to it? "You don't get to bring guests unless you're nominated, so this year I hope I can bring my mum and my husband. Every time I go to one of these events, I think, oh God, I'm going to be standing on my own, I don't know anyone, and then every time I get there I realise that I know so many people in the room, so you run around saying hi to everyone. So it's kind of fun."

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad

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