Training Margot Robbie to Be ‘I, Tonya’: Skating Choreographer Sarah Kawahara Tells All

The two-time Emmy-winner spoke to IndieWire about working with Robbie and her doubles — and the real Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
Sarah Kawahara attends the Choreography Nominee Reception at the Television Academy's Saban Media Center, in the NoHo Arts District in Los Angeles2017 Choreography Nominee Reception, North Hollywood, USA - 27 Aug 2017
Sarah Kawahara

Portraying Tonya Harding required Margot Robbie to find empathy for a villianized woman, to balance comedy and pathos — and, to believably land a triple axel, the move that made Harding famous before she was infamous. However, Robbie was raised in Dalby, Australia, a coastal town where temperatures rarely go below freezing.

Now the Neon/30 West release is a specialty hit, and Robbie has become a Golden Globe and SAG Award nominee with a litany of gravity-defying onscreen spins. Credit for that transformation goes to choreographer and former Ice Capades skater Sarah Kawahara, who also served as onetime choreographer for Harding’s nemesis, Nancy Kerrigan.

Kawahara’s choreography subjects include Peggy Fleming, the 2002 Olympics opening ceremony, and Will Ferrell in “Blades of Glory.” She said the 1994 attack on Kerrigan had a huge impact on her career. “It changed the face of skating,” she told IndieWire in a recent phone interview. “All the sudden there was so much interest in skating, and so Disney produced a lot of television specials.”

I, Tonya”Courtesy of NEON

In 1995, Kerrigan starred in “Disney’s Nancy Kerrigan Special: Dreams on Ice” for CBS, choreographed by Kawahara. “She was not a happy girl for someone who had won an Olympic medal,” she said. “But she’s so beautiful and so talented and we really tried to shake it up and give her a light side and a lyrical side, because she was always so severe of a skater. It took her a while to get out of that time, because that was a very difficult time for her.”

Kawahara also met Harding a couple of times prior to Kerrigan’s injury, while choreographing and directing the Champions on Ice tour. “She was nice enough… kind of cautious,” Kawahara said. “I think she always felt like she was trying to prove that she belonged. She didn’t quite fit in, but she was there and she was looking for a way.”      

ORTEGA JACK KAWAHARA Celebrating their Emmy win in a tie for Outstanding Choreography are from left, Doug Jack, Kenny Ortega and Sarah Kawahara, for the Opening Ceremony at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, at the 2002 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los AngelesCREATIVE ARTS EMMYS, LOS ANGELES, USA
Doug Jack, Kenny Ortega, and Sarah Kawahara won Primetime Creative Arts Emmys for choreographing the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter OlympicsReed Saxon/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For “I, Tonya,” the challenge wasn’t in creating routines. “They really wanted a reenactment,” said Kawahara. That meant having to capture the skating styles of the period, 1986-1994, a time that Kawahara calls “predominantly athletic; an exception was artistic.”

Said Kawahara: “[Harding] definitely had limitations… Her spins were very, very, very fast — faster than average — and her footwork was okay, but it wasn’t her strength. Her strength was her jumps — the height of her jumps — her skating power, her speed, and her spins.” However, she said Harding’s skating did become more graceful and elegant, “because she wanted it so much and she had to [adapt].”

Robbie trained for three months. The first five weeks were in Burbank with Kawahara, for thrice-weekly training sessions that lasted two hours each. Then Robbie returned to Australia, where she sent a list of sequences to work on with a Kawahara-approved coach; in total, Robbie learned five routines. “She’s very good at visualization, so anytime that she had to travel or on downtime, she rehearsed visually, and she would come back better every time,” Kawahara said.

Kawahara cast two doubles for Robbie, who handled “the heavy lifting, the big jumps and the fast spins and the footwork.” Filming began in late January 2017, in Macon, Georgia, when Kawahara first put Robbie and the doubles together on the ice “so that I knew that it would really line up.” They were aided by a camera operator who happened to be able to do his job on ice skates.

Kawahara also cast a double for McKenna Grace, the actress who played Harding at age 10. “Tonya was a good jumper very early,” she said. “I was able to find a young lady from San Diego who was able to do everything. She was a good spinner and did a nice double lutz and she had jump combinations. I was really thrilled to be able to help bring that to the screen.”

During the month of shooting, “Margot did a lot of her own skating,” Kawahara said, singling out Robbie’s dance elements such as high kicks, head rolls, and miming a robot. “She was able to do the position of prepping the triple axel and going into the triple axel and then landing it. Margot was really able to — as an actor — take it to the next level, and capture the moment, and capture the emotion of Tonya landing that triple axel. So it was thrilling to see her work.”

Only eight women in history have landed the triple axel in competition, and “I, Tonya” used CGI to replicate Harding’s 1991 triumph (shown below).

Actress Julianne Nicholson, who portrays Harding’s skating coach Diane Rawlinson, also worked with Kawahara. She initially found the experience “very intimidating.

“I feel like a lot of times actors can be coddled a little bit, or handheld, and made to feel like everything’s okay,” Nicholson told IndieWire. “[Kawahara] was very encouraging and all those things, but she’s not warm and fuzzy. It’s very practical and matter-of-fact. And so when you then get compliments from her, it really means a lot.”

Robbie’s skating skills also enabled one of the biggest laughs, where Harding lambasts judges for low scores. (“Suck my dick! This is fuckin’ rigged!”) “Margot was able to skate up really strong and fast, and then stop and then have her confrontation,” Kawahara said. “After her first take of the scene, everybody roared and laughed and applauded in the audience. It’s so great to have an actual spontaneous reaction when you’re shooting a movie, because everything is planned!”

“I, Tonya” is currently playing in select theaters.

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