LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The stars aligned for Allison Janney when she dressed up in a cheap fur coat, perched a parakeet on her shoulder, and chain-smoked and swore through figure-skating movie “I, Tonya.”
Not only was the part of the hard-driving mother of U.S. skater Tonya Harding written expressly for Janney, it also took her back to a world she knows intimately.
Figure skating was Janney’s childhood passion and although she doesn’t perform any double axels in “I, Tonya,” her role is expected to bring the former “West Wing” actress her first Oscar nomination next month.
“I had dreams of being an Olympic figure skater. I had a coach, I worked really hard and I trained early in the morning and after school and I was obsessed with it. I was quite graceful on the ice but I‘m six feet tall and ultimately didn’t think I was going to be able to do the jumps that were required to go to the Olympics,” Janney, now 58, said.
Dark comedy “I, Tonya,” opening in U.S. movie theaters on Friday, is based on the life of Harding (played by Margot Robbie) and the infamous 1994 attack on her Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan.
Kerrigan was clubbed in the thigh in an attack orchestrated by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, that led to Harding being banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
Janney plays LaVona Harding, who bullies and beats her young daughter to reach the top of a sport.
“She is sort of a monster on the page and I had to find her humanity, and what she wanted in life. I think if you asked LaVona, she would say she gave her daughter an incredible upbringing and made her a champion,” Janney said.
While Robbie and screenwriter Steven Rogers met with Harding and Gillooly, Janney had little to go on to play LaVona except for a 1980s student documentary.
“I could see so much defensiveness in her and denial about not caring for her daughter … She sort of brushed it off in a way that made me think ‘Wow. She does care’,” said Janney.
Janney well recalls the Harding-Kerrigan incident but she came away from the film with a different view.
“I definitely had a lot more compassion for Tonya Harding watching this movie. I don’t think we exonerate her completely but I don’t think she is as guilty as we all remember her to have been,” she said.
Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by James Dalgleish