Margot Robbie delights in throwing herself into her performances. She once smacked Leonardo DiCaprio in the face while auditioning for The Wolf of Wall Street, she revelled in her character Harley Quinn’s wicked behaviour on the set of Suicide Squad, and she recently got caught up in a violent argument with co-star Sebastian Stan while shooting I, Tonya, a biopic about the notorious American figure skater Tonya Harding. Robbie became so overwrought while filming the scene that she stormed off the set, screaming at Stan who plays Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly.
“We got so carried away in this scene where we’re having this massive fight and he slammed my hand against a door, and I think I even punched him in the side of the head,” Robbie says. “It was such an incredible, intense argument that for a moment I forgot that I wasn’t Tonya and he wasn’t Jeff and I wasn’t on a film set. Sebastian came running after me and asked me where I was going and I said I was going to the hospital because he had broken my hand in the fight [it wasn’t broken – Ed.]... I forgot I was acting and nothing makes me more exhilarated when I genuinely forget where I am.”
I, Tonya, which premiered to rave reviews at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, recounts the events surrounding how Harding’s husband (Stan) arranged to have someone break rival skater Nancy Kerrigan’s leg prior to the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships. Robbie spent four months learning to skate so that she would be able to mimic as many of the complex figure skating moves as possible.
In the meantime, Robbie is appearing in Goodbye Christopher Robin, the biographical drama directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) about acclaimed children’s author and Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne. The story focuses on Milne’s relationship with his son, Christopher Robin, who became the basis for the child in the stories and his world of animal creatures. Robbie plays Milne’s wife Daphne de Sélincourt, who has a complicated relationship with the troubled author, who struggled with PTSD after serving as a Captain in the British Army during WWI.
“Had the most magical time shooting this. Trust me, you don’t want to miss it,” tweeted Robbie about her experience on the movie.
Meanwhile, she has recently completed work on Mary Queen of Scots, in which she plays Elizabeth I opposite Soairse Ronan as Mary Stuart. The 27-year-old Queensland native married British filmmaker Tom Ackerley in December of last year after meeting him on the set of Suite Francaise in 2014.
Do you think I, Tonya will change people’s perceptions about Tonya Harding or her role in the attack on her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan?
We didn’t set out to make the film to change people’s minds or make a particular statement about what happened surrounding the incident. The greater theme is truth, and there are so many different sides to a single story. I don’t know if people will walk out of the theatre thinking that someone was in the right or the wrong, but people will appreciate that they didn’t know the full story.
Did you get a chance to meet Tonya Harding before starting work on the film?
Yeah, I spent a couple of hours with her before we started shooting, [Aussie director] Craig [Gillespie] and myself did, and then that was it. But there’s so much footage in the archives that we could reference and replicate in a lot of instances.
But I really did want to differentiate her as a person and the character I play in the film. I felt like if I spent too much time with her then I’d probably hold back when we were filming and I definitely didn’t want to do that. It wouldn’t be right for the character.
What was Harding like in the course of the brief time you spent with her discussing the incident?
She saw the film and she has been so gracious about it and was very complimentary about my skating. I personally would not want someone to distil my life into 140 pages, but she was very kind and appreciative of what we tried to pull off in the film. She was more worried about me and how I felt about playing her, which was rather surprising after all she has been through.
How much time did you spend working on your ice skating technique?
I spent about four months trying to learn as many of the moves and the kind of choreography that ice skaters perform during their routines. It was much more difficult than I imagined.
One big thing I found out was that the real challenge is making the skating look as effortless as possible, even though it’s very athletic and physically demanding. Skating is like ballet in that sense because it’s that effortless quality that makes it look so beautiful and artistic.
Did you ever attempt to do some of the complicated jumps like the triple axel?
[Laughs] There was no way I could even attempt that – only six women in history, including Tonya Harding, have ever even landed the jump in competition. The best I could do was as many of the spins and artistic moves, but it takes years and years of practice to be able to pull of those jumps!
The relationship between Harding and her ex-husband was very intense and complicated, wasn’t it?
It was only while we were about a third of the way through shooting that the film took on a different quality for me. They had a bizarre relationship, but Sebastian [Stan] brought such humanity to Jeff that it turned the movie into a love story that overshadowed any of the other themes.
His performance made you believe that what he did was out of love for Tonya, even though that was very messed up. But it changed the nature of the story in a way that I hadn’t expected.
What was the biggest impression about Harding and Kerrigan that you came away after making the film?
That it wasn’t as black and white a story as the media made it out to be between Tonya and Nancy. In the eyes of the public, Tonya was made out to be the devil and Nancy was the angel, but that wasn’t the case.
You’ve been playing a lot of intense characters lately, particularly in Suicide Squad and now in I, Tonya. Where do you get that strength from?
My mum has been a great example for me. She was a single mother raising my brothers, my sister and me by herself, and we didn’t make life easy for her. We were always fighting and she had to be a very strong woman to hold things together. She’s amazing.
What was it like growing up on a farm in Queensland?
It was perfect for kids. My siblings and I went boar hunting and surfing, and I grew up learning more about agriculture and animal husbandry than you could imagine. It was not the kind of upbringing that you could ever have expected would lead anyone into acting.
So what inspired you to become an actress?
I have always had a wild imagination and I loved watching videos and pretending to be part of the kinds of adventures the characters would get to go on. I was always play-acting as a kid and I would watch the same movies on video over and over again and would re-enact the scenes in front of my mum. She was a great audience, though, and she would wonder how I managed to remember all the lines!
I would also put on these little plays for my family and I would force everyone to pay one dollar for each performance! So I always understood the business angle of things. But even after taking an acting course, the idea of becoming an actress would have struck me as being just as likely as becoming an astronaut.
How did you get started in the business?
I had a job in a surf shop and around the corner, a couple of guys were shooting this movie. By coincidence, one of them introduced me to an agent, and that led to a few guest roles on TV shows.
And then I was cast in Neighbours straight out of high school. That was my acting training camp. I would often have to learn up to 60 pages of dialogue in a week by heart and work five days a week and do 16- or 17-hour days. But it was the kind of experience I needed and it was a very important step for me.
Your colleagues have often said that even though you can be very light-hearted and congenial, you take your work and career very seriously. Would you agree?
I’ve always put a lot of effort and thought into the kind of roles and projects I want to be part of. I’ve had a very good team behind me, and for me it’s always been important to be very strategic about my career. There’s a lot of luck, but you also need an idea of what kind of career you want to pursue.
You work a lot and you’ve been living in London and the US for many years now. Do you ever get homesick for Australia?
I’m always homesick. But it’s not the same as when I was 17 and moved to Melbourne and I didn’t tell anyone. Now it’s this feeling of not being part of all those crazy dinner conversations we would have. Whenever I go back home we get right back into it and we all trade stories about what’s going on in our lives – it’s surreal.