Sebastian Stan on Why ‘I Tonya’ Uses Comedy to Tell Tonya Harding’s Story
In January of 1994, Tonya Harding became a household name, and not because of her unprecedented triple axel. Instead, the media painted Harding as the trailer-trash villain to Nancy Kerrigan’s picture-perfect American princess. We’ve all heard the story: Just weeks before the ‘94 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Kerrigan was attacked with a police baton on her landing leg. The knee-whacking incident was one of the most infamous sporting scandals of the decade, resulting in the end of Harding’s skating career. But regardless of what you believe about Harding’s involvement (to this day she claims she knew nothing of the attack), it’s undeniable that there was at least one villainous mastermind behind the incident: Harding’s violent ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who went to prison for the attack.
In I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie’s dark satire about Harding’s life, Sebastian Stan portrays Gillooly opposite Margot Robbie’s Tonya. We first meet Stan’s Jeff in a present-day talking head-style interview before flashing back to his younger self. The film takes a humorous approach to the violence and tragedy of Harding’s life, recounting the abuse she suffered by the hands of her ex-husband and mother (played by Allison Janney). It’s a risky tone that could prove divisive among audiences (read our review here), but Stan believes that comedy was inherently built in to Harding’s story. “Comedy is only funny when there’s real pain,” he said during an interview Toronto.
I caught up with the actor last weekend after the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. He told me about meeting Gillooly, and how their conversations informed Stan’s performance and shed light on the real-life couple’s tumultuous relationship. Stan also shared some details on Avengers: Infinity War, revealing how many actors he shared scenes with in the massive superhero team-up.
I saw this at the world premiere and loved it. There’s been a ton of praise for it since the premiere on Twitter. Did you expect such a huge reaction?
I didn’t know what to expect because I hadn’t seen the movie. It was the first time I saw it and I was just judging based on what everybody was laughing at. It was still surprising. Because there are certain things I was sure they were gonna laugh at and they didn’t, and things that I thought were more serious, they did. So I’m still kind of taking it in.
What were the things you thought would get big laughs that didn’t?
Some of the one-liners that LaVona (Allison Janney) has are so funny. Most of those worked, but you know, I think it’s because we worked on it, we sort of felt closer to it. Even some of the violence. We had moments where we had to try and find as much humor in that in some way, whether it’s breaking the fourth wall talking to the camera, just showing the craziness in a different way. So I know they were trying to do that a lot, but I think sometimes I was laughing when I was seeing how ridiculous Jeff and Shawn were when they were coming up with some of these plot points. And it’s only because Paul Hauser, who plays Shawn, really makes me laugh all the time. It’s hard to keep a straight face. I was like, “I can’t believe these guys are doing this.” It’s funny because sometimes the audience caught onto that and other times sort of hung back and felt a little weirded out.
The humor in this is so distinct. You really don’t expect this story to be told with such dark satire.
That’s true, you really don’t. But I guess it sort of needs it, in a way. It is very sensationalized, it is very unbelievable that it’s actually true, so it has a lot of comedy built in it.
Even some of the violent moments oscillate between humor and drama. What was the mood like on set when you were filming those? Was it upbeat, or were you in a more intense headspace?
It depends. Sometimes we were in an intense headspace. [Margot] and I would always check in with each other. “Are you okay? Did I get you on that one?” But we choreographed it and sometimes we’d go and have a chuckle and go, “Oh my god. I can’t believe this is what we’re doing. I can’t believe this is our jobs!” We would look at each other and talk about them in third person and be like, “Oh, they’re so crazy!” And then there were other times when it was tense and it was about a trust that we would have. Margot had definitely had a lot of trust because we needed to go places, and she is such a generous actress. She was free to take it anywhere.
What was Craig’s directing style like on set? Would he direct you to play it in a humorous tone or let you play with it?
No, he let us play with it a lot and when he came in, he came in with something very specific and it was just like the right amount. He didn’t over-direct anything but at the same time he wasn’t not there. He was great. I really, really liked working with him. Very trustworthy. There was just so much going on in terms of trying to do these characters. I feel like there was so much in our heads. For me, there was a lot of physical stuff, voice stuff I was always in my head about it. Just to have him go, “Okay, you’re fine.” That guide was very helpful.
How familiar were you with Jeff and the details of the scandal before you got the script?
I mean, I was and I wasn’t. I had done all the research on what I could. And then it was just more about finding out what inspired Steven Rogers to write the script. It was more about that. It was more about “Where do we go?” So then it was the interviews that he’d done with Tonya separately and Jeff. Then I thought, “Okay, I gotta go hear the interview with Jeff.”
You listened to Steven’s interview with Jeff?
I did, and then I met him. I was able to really start piecing together some things.
What did you take away from your conversations with him?
Just little things. Mannerisms, the way he laughed, the way he said things. The fact that I really walked away believing that he really loved her. Whether he did or didn’t do it, he said she did – all that stuff, it’s like, I still saw someone who was looking back in the past wondering, “Wow, what happened?” It’s kind of tragic, if you think about it. For all of them because the ’90s were so much about 15 minutes of fame.
How did you approach portraying a guy like Gillooly? He’s a pretty awful and abusive person, but you bring humanity to him.
It was difficult. I just wanted to try to find the humanity in it. There’s gotta be a human being in everybody, regardless of what they do or what people think they did. I had to remove my own personal ideas and thoughts about the situation. I had to kind of not judge, and really try and find some truth. The truth for me was that nothing at that level is excusable, nothing that you’re never really able to get over. But I was like, if I just keep thinking that this is a crazy bizarre love story, just keep thinking of it as two people who are extremely isolated and trying to reach one another and they just don’t have the tools to do it, they don’t have the capability to do it. Where to go? Then I found some way in.
So you see it more as a love story between Tonya and Jeff?
I had to, yeah. For me it was, a little bit. I mean, as f—ed up as that sounds, I was trying to understand it from a place of insecurity, uncertainty, from a place of wanting to be needed, loved, to become somebody. I was trying to take it from all of those angles as opposed to just, this is what happened.
You’re going to be in Infinity War next year. It’s going to be such a massive team-up. How many actors do you share scenes with in that movie?
Oh, I don’t know. There were definitely a lot of them. Definitely at least 12, 13 that were all kinds of various different characters. But it’s crazy, it’s amazing, absolutely incredible to just see everybody there. I don’t know this next one because I haven’t been involved yet, but pretty exciting.
How big of a role does Bucky play in the movie?
Um, you know what, I actually wouldn’t even know, because I didn’t read the script.
What’s that like to show up for a film without reading the script?
You just trust the people that you work with, and you just happen to be trusting the right people this time.