Most audiences may not associate Sebastian Stan, best known for his role as Bucky Barnes — aka The Winter Soldier — in the multi-billion-dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe, as an actor prone to taking risks. But “I, Tonya” provides a very different showcase for his talents than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s exactly the kind of role he’s eager to sink his teeth into.
Directed by Craig Gillespie, the unique biopic follows the wild real-life exploits of iceskating champ (Margot Robbie, in a breakout role) as she claws her way to the top of the sport, despite a fraught personal life and a big-time bias against her “white trash” background. Hobbled by a dismissive mom (Allison Janney) and her abusive Jeff Gillooly (Stan), Harding watches her hard work crumble after getting mixed up in a tabloid-ready story of human fallibility.
Everyone knows what happened next: the Gillooly-designed attempted “whacking” of Harding’s Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan that exploded the 24-hour news cycle and ended Harding’s career. It’s an unexpectedly funny movie considering the dark context, and Gillooly – criminally stupid, clearly violent – sits at the center of that complicated tonal balance.
“It scared me, and every time I get scared by something in the sense of like, I don’t know if I can do it as an actor, then I’m drawn to it because that’s the challenge,” Stan said of his first impressions of the part.
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The actor, who spent part of his childhood in Europe, didn’t remember the Harding incident (he did, however, recall the O.J. Simpson trial, which briefly surfaces in “I, Tonya”). A fan of ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentary series, the actor just so happened to catch the Harding-centric “The Price of Gold” right around the same time he got sent Steven Rogers’ unique script.
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“It was all very fresh in my mind,” he said of the incident. “It reminded me of a Coen brothers movie, it reminded me of ‘Fargo,’ except it was real. I was like, ‘oh my God, I don’t know I if I should laugh, or be terrified, or what I should do.’ When I read the script, I got a little more obsessed with it just because it was so weird and crazy.”
Stan’s obsession didn’t abate, even while he waited to hear back after an initial Skype chat with director Gillespie. (And, yes, he was sporting a Gillooly-styled ‘stache when he and Gillespie first spoke.) It took Stan nearly a month to officially nail down the role, but he never quite gave up hope: he kept his facial hair in the interim. “I didn’t shave because I didn’t know what they wanted to do, and I just wanted to have the option,” he said with a laugh.
The physical demands of the role were appealing to Stan, even beyond facial hair that’s so heinous that his character actually apologizes for it during the first act of “I, Tonya.” (It’s a weirdly crowd-pleasing moment in a film filled with them.)
“He had a specific way he sounded, he looked a certain way, there were questions I had as to how does someone end up possibly doing something like that, what leads to that behavior?,” Stan said. “I just love that stuff, I love when I get excited about kind of like being a detective, and then I have to go back and piece things together and find out.”
Deep in his detective work, Stan couldn’t find much about Gillooly online – after all, Rogers was his first big interview in years – and when he asked the screenwriter for a little help, Rogers offered to send the actor his full interview with Gillooly. The initial blessings (like being able to hear Gilloly speak) soon gave way to a headier new kind of understanding: this stuff was real.
“When I heard that interview, I realized how close [it] was to the script, it was crazy,” Stan said. “It was crazy that they even talked to him and he could get in touch with them. There were all these other things that were in these interviews that were never talked about before.”
Still, Stan admits that he initially approached the role with some judgment for Gillooly – how could you not? – mostly rooted in his total disbelief that anyone could be as stupid as Gillooly and his lackey Shawn Eckhardt. “I was like, oh my God, how could anyone sort of think this was a good idea? How did they even think that this was going to just sort of happen and it would just be okay?,” he said. “That I couldn’t understand.”
And he also grappled with Gillooly and Harding’s fraught relationship, one marked by mutual physical and emotional abuse that “I, Tonya” doesn’t shy away from portraying. As Jeff and Tonya, Stan and Robbie get into knock-down, drag-out fights with startling regularity, a turn made all the more wrenching by Tonya’s similarly abusive relationship with her mother, played by Allison Janney.
Late in the film, Jeff accidentally shoots Tonya (technically, in real life, Gillooly shot at the pavement Harding was standing on, and a piece of it broke loose and hit her in the face, but still).
“It was very scary to me, because I didn’t know what to do with it,” Stan said. “I didn’t know if I could play a part like that. But it was intriguing.” Stan knew he couldn’t effectively play Gillooly unless he could move past some of his reservations and worries. He had to find the real person in all that insanity.
“After a certain point, I had to stop, you have to let go of your judgments, you have to put it aside,” he said. “There was so much noise around this story. When you take away all that noise, one thing that was in the script that Steven did so brilliantly and that helped me was that there was still a very bizarre, unfortunately very tragic, very sort of toxic love story.”
He added, “I had to continue to tell myself that that’s essentially what a perspective of it could be, and once I started going from that angle, then I was able to find some understanding.”
The role was a big, transformative one for Stan – beyond just that mustache – and he’s returned the favor, turning out in force for publicity events, post-screening Q&As, and awards shows to support the film and its oft-nominated stars Robbie and Janney. On Golden Globes night, he presented alongside eventual best supporting actress winner Janney, who hit the stage with a fake bird on her shoulder, a nod to her own “I, Tonya” character. No one looked happier to be there.
Stan’s work in the film has yet to gain much traction in the awards race, but as the film’s stature (and box office returns) continue to grow, it’s become increasingly difficult to deny that he should at least be part of the best supporting actor conversation alongside the likes of current frontrunners Willem Dafoe, Sam Rockwell, and Armie Hammer.
“What excites me is finding a character that’s so far removed from who I am,” Stan said. “That’s why if there’s a part and they call me and they say, ‘Listen, you’re going to have to shave your head, you’re going to have to gain 10 pounds, you’re going to have to have a handlebar mustache and a mullet,’ I’m like, ‘Great, do it, let’s do it.'”
“I, Tonya” is currently in theaters.