When Allison Janney watched Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan compete in the 1994 Olympics — along with 126 million others — she had no idea that she’d eventually earn her first Oscar buzz for playing Harding’s mother. Most of those viewers tuned in because weeks prior, Harding’s ex-husband and bodyguard arranged for an attacker to club Kerrigan’s knee with a police baton. But for Janney, it was personal: few know that she was once a serious figure skater herself, sidelined from the sport by a freak accident that occurred when her parents hosted a party.
“There was a game where couples had balloons tied around their ankles and you tried to pop the other couples’ balloons,” said Janney, who portrays LaVona Golden in Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya.” “I was cheating, and had my balloon tied around my knee, because I had a strapless long dress on. Cheaters never prosper! I was so competitive… Someone stepped on the back of my dress, and it ripped, and it started to fall off. I was 17 and [around] all these parents and kids, and I grabbed my dress and ran to go inside, and there was a porch with sliding doors and things, and I just thought a door was open and hit it and the glass fell on top of me.” She cut a tendon and lost an artery along with “three-quarters” of her blood.
In hindsight, Janney, now 58, calls her Olympic ambitions prior to the accident “impossible.”
“I was too tall” — at six feet, she’s 11 inches taller than Harding — “I wasn’t good enough, and my coach moved away.” So she chose “to go to college and let the skating go, which was I think the wisest decision,” although, “the universe could have probably told me in a gentler way. I would have listened.”
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Raised in Dayton, Ohio, Janney continued her education just two hours away at Kenyon College. During her freshman year, one of the school’s graduates, Paul Newman, directed her in “C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby,” a play about the real-life organizer of a 3,455-mile footrace across America. Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, were “instrumental” in getting Janney to move to New York City to attend the Neighborhood Playhouse, a conservatory where she met “I, Tonya” screenwriter Steven Rogers.
Newman won his first Oscar (“The Color of Money”) nine years after meeting Janney, and she is expected to secure a nomination for her role in “I, Tonya” as a ferocious opportunist, a character so delicious that she easily carries off the dialogue, “Well my storyline is disappearing, what the fuck?” It’s Janney’s favorite career line, from her favorite character to date. She previously won seven Primetime Emmy awards, including four as White House press secretary C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing,” and two as recovering addict Bonnie Plunkett on “Mom,” her CBS sitcom that garnered an audience of 8.5 million for its season five premiere last month. Her film work includes everything from “American Beauty” and “The Help” to “Juno” and “Finding Nemo.”
“I, Tonya” — acquired by NEON and 30WEST following its Toronto International Film Festival debut — has already earned Janney nominations for a Critics’ Choice Award and an Independent Spirit Award. “Whenever she’s onscreen, you feel safe, you know you’re being told the truth,” said Julianne Nicholson, her co-star from “I, Tonya” and “Masters of Sex,” where Janney won an Emmy as a guest star.
At least three times, Rogers (“Stepmom,” “Love the Coopers”) wrote parts for Janney that the studios then gave to other actresses. Thus he attached Janney’s name to “I, Tonya” when he began pitching the project, without her knowledge. “He said, ‘Oh by the way, you’re going to play her mother, and you’re going to wear a fur coat, and you’re going to have a bird on your shoulder, and you’re going to be an alcoholic, and you’re abusive,’” Janney said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, it sounds right up my alley.’ I was thrilled.”
To pen the script, Rogers interviewed Harding, banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and her former spouse, Jeff Stone (née Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan), who served 14 months in prison for helping plan the Kerrigan assault. However, he could not find Golden; as far as Harding knew, she was living in a trailer behind a porn shop. So Rogers and Janney used the ex-couple’s testimonies (and their imaginations) to invent her character.
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For example, Rogers concocted her nicotine habit just so Janney could tell the skating coach (Nicholson) who orders Golden not to smoke on the ice, “Oh, I’ll smoke it quietly, then;” Janney requested an oxygen tank when the onset animal trainer informed them that Janney could not smoke in the presence of her alter-ego’s pet parakeet (real name: Little Man, who Janney auditioned, along with about three winged cohorts).
Luckily, a college student’s long-ago Harding documentary did feature footage of her mother. “I saw a woman who was covering up a lot of anger and resentment,” said Janney, who underwent three hours of makeup for each of her seven days of work.
“I looked at the fact that she had four husbands, so obviously she wasn’t finding what she was looking for with a man, nor were they helping her get out of her circumstances; she didn’t have a lot of money, was not living in a very nice place, did not have nice things, probably wanted them, felt that she deserved them, wasn’t getting them. And then she has this daughter who has this unbelievable gift, and she sees a way out for both of them, and is fiercely trying to get it and let nobody stop them.”
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Janney continued, “I don’t think LaVona would see her accountability in this story of her daughter’s demise. As far as she’s concerned, she gave her daughter every opportunity to succeed, and it was her fault that she failed.” One early scene has Golden halting her young daughter (McKenna Grace)’s coloring, thinking, “‘I’m not going to sit back and let this girl think life is rosy.’ And she kicks her out of that chair. And damn it, that’s what she does the whole movie.”
Later in the narrative, Golden hurls a steak knife at Harding. Janney called Robbie — also an “I, Tonya” producer — “brave, and it made it fun to act, to jump in those scenes when you knew your partner was ready.” To tell what is ultimately Harding’s story (hence the title), Janney said she and her collaborators did not want to “candycoat” the violence, which “comes off as strangely normal.”
“It’s just the way they communicate with each other,” she explains, because often “people aren’t aware that they’re being abusive.”
Golden did eventually resurface — with a new first name, Sandy — telling “Inside Edition” in November 2017 that she wished to meet her six-year-old grandson, and was never abusive to Harding, with the exception of “one swat at a competition.”
At the Hollywood Roosevelt hours before finally meeting Harding at the film’s Los Angeles premiere, Janney discussed how her feelings toward the former skater have evolved. Harding’s technical program at the 1994 Olympics was delayed due to a broken lace on her skate. The actress felt “so humiliated and embarrassed for her,” she said. As for the widely-held assumption that Harding conspired to hurt Kerrigan, “I totally judged her, thought she definitely did it,” Janney said. “We were only fed that part of the story.”
Gillespie, best known for helming “Lars and the Real Girl,” was “the perfect man for this job,” said Janney. “Everyone came…ready to fight…knowing we didn’t have a lot of time, we had to make this happen,” she said, snapping her fingers to show the speed with which unexpected snafus were solved. “I’m just so impressed with him, and also his ability to trust his actors and let them go and encourage them to go further.”
Even though a life-threatening scare dashed her own visions of gracing a podium, Janney still keeps her blades sharpened. Early in production, Nicholson went to the film’s Macon, Georgia set for some lessons: “I saw this figure — this long, graceful figure — iceskating, like professional, like spinning and legs up and it’s fucking Allison! And I was like, No! I can’t believe she can skate like this, too.”
“I, Tonya” opens in select theaters today, with a wide release to follow next month.