Is Margot Robbie Really Skating In 'I, Tonya'? Her Choreographer Opens Up – EXCLUSIVE
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The movie I, Tonya came out on Digital and Blu-ray on March 13, and there was one thought I couldn't get out of my mind as I watched it: Was Margot Robbie really doing all of the skating? And if she was, what kind of black magic was she using to do it? Yes, I know that's actually two thoughts, but as a former figure skater myself, I get how hard it is just to glide across the ice with confidence, let alone do it on camera. So I needed to know: How did Margot Robbie train for I, Tonya? And how did she transform into Tonya Harding, one of the best and most notorious skaters of all time?
To find out, I spoke with Emmy-winning choreographer and skating coach Sarah Kawahara in an interview for Elite Daily. Kawahara is the mastermind responsible for training Robbie to play Harding, the skater from Portland, Oregon, whose connection to the 1994 attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan basically made her a household name at the time. And not in a good way.
What happened was this: Kerrigan was attacked by a man with a police baton just one month before the Olympics in Lillehammer. Did Harding hire the attacker? No. But a guy named Shawn Eckardt did, and he was in kahoots with Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gilhooly. Was Harding herself involved? The details remained murky. But it was clear she knew something was going on, and after the Olympics were over, she pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution. She was fined $100,000, sentenced to probation and 500 hours of community service, and she was banned from ever participating in a U.S. Figure Skating event again. Essentially, the decision barred Harding from skating for life.
At the time, the whole debacle was like the darkest of soap operas playing out in the media in real time. But what's often overlooked when talking about the scandal is what an incredible and powerful skater Harding actually was. Enter I, Tonya, which does a seriously amazing job of reminding fans of Harding's talent by recreating some of her most famous routines with Robbie — including the time she made history by becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition.
There's no question that Robbie totally nailed the performace. So I chatted with Kawahara to get to the bottom of just how she and the actress (who had no prior skating experience, BTW) were able to pull it all off.
The partnership came together pretty early on in the movie-making process, when Kawahara interviewed with I, Tonya producer Brian Unkeless. "He had seen my work with Blades of Glory and wanted to meet me," she explains. "So we met, and I got to meet Margot over Skype, and then we got the green light to work together!"
At the time, Robbie had nearly zero experience on the ice, aside from playing hockey as a teen, but Kawahara wasn't nervous about teaching her how to recreate Harding’s signature moves.
"I was curious more than I was nervous," she says. "I was curious to see how she would take to skating. Because Tonya was not a balletic skater, it was more about being athletic and aggressive and having power. When you’re a beginner skater, that's a big undertaking. So I was curious to see how invested she was. But she was truly, totally, 100 percent invested in bringing this character to the ice and to life."
The two of them worked together three or four times a week for five months, with Robbie supplementing with another trainer in between.
"I felt very lucky that she had that kind of talent where she could really absorb all of our lessons, and then she could visualize them when she wasn’t on the ice," Kawahara explains. "I made videos for her, and she studied. She went home for Christmas and I set her up with another coach to keep those sentences of choreography alive in her body. She was very, very invested in learning to skate. Truly, I’ve worked with a lot of skaters over the years and I’ve worked with quite a few actors, and I would say she was one of my best students ever. I always said to her, ‘You know, if you’d started earlier, you could have actually been a skater.' It was a surprise to me how well she took to it, and how hard she worked at it. Most importantly, how hard she worked at it."
A little bit of computer magic and two professional skating doubles were used for big moves like the triple jumps and fast spins, but according to Kawahara, Margot did A LOT of the skating herself. "It was amazing," she says. "I taught her five different routines. The dance work and the choreography is all really her; she really did it on the ice."
I have to imagine some pretty nasty falls took place while Kawahara was teaching Robbie how to crush these kinds of moves, and the choreographer did recall one time the actress landed on her butt while trying to master a high kick. "It happens to everybody," she says. "When you learn to skate, you fall. It comes with the territory. But you have to get up. You have to bounce back and get up and try again. [Robbie] got into that skater mentality. There wasn’t really anything that she said, 'No, I can’t do that,' or 'I don’t want to do that.' That never came into her vocabulary at all, and it was really delightful, because a lot of it is about attitude and how you embrace your situation, and she really did embrace it."
Speaking of embracing it, I couldn't wait to get the 411 on how Robbie was able to nail Harding's reaction to landing that legendary triple axel during the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
"It was PERFECT!" Kawahara says. "We practiced that really from almost day one or day two. Because when you land a jump, you’re landing backward, and then you turn forwards. And you have that ebullient moment as you turn forward. It was at first daunting, the idea of turning 180 degrees from back to front, and skating forward and then expressing your emotions. So I figured out a way that she could turn forward on a 90-degree angle, and if I turned her forward on a 90-degree angle, I could get the power and expression from her. That was a nice little trick that I found working with her. So we really practiced the landing of the triple axel, and then the moment of exhilaration after — which became the poster!"
So cool. And apparently, even Tonya Harding herself thought so. Kawahara had met Harding back in the '90s, during the time of the infamous Kerrigan incident, and later, when the skater guest-starred on her "Champions on Ice" show. But the two hadn't re-met, so to speak, until the opening of the film.
"She was very sweet — she told me she thought I did a good job," Kawahara recalls. "And she was happy to see her skating represented so well. I had great doubles — her jumps were represented spot on. I'm very proud of that."
I, Tonya is now available on both Digital and Blu-ray.