Inside Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding Transformation in I, Tonya


The challenge of I, Tonya wasn’t just in transforming Australian beauty
Margot Robbie into five-foot-one figure skater Tonya Harding, or even in
portraying her from ages 4 to 44, with many, many bad hairstyles in
between. With an $11 million budget and a 31-day shooting schedule, I,
Tonya was never going to be an eight-hours-a-day-in-the-makeup-chair
kind of movie. Some days Robbie would shoot eight or nine scenes,
swapping out wigs and wardrobe in 20 minutes between setups.
Makeup-department head Deborah LaMia Denaver, a previous Oscar nominee
for her work on Ghosts of Mississippi, was, for the most part, unable to
equip her star with expensive prosthetics or age makeup. So, she got
creative.

“Margot’s eyes smile, they’re built that way,” Denaver said of the
27-year-old star, who also produced the film. “I took the corners of
her eyes and used lash adhesive and just pulled them down to give them a
little bit of a droop like Tonya had. Same thing with her mouth. I not
only made her lips narrower but I dragged down the corners of her
mouth.”

The majority of Robbie’s makeup transformation is in subtle details like
that, with freckles or braces or Tonya’s signature black eyeliner
complementing the actress’s committed, fierce performance. The wigs,
created by hairstylist Adruitha Lee, who won an Oscar for another
small-budget film, Dallas Buyers Club, completed the effect. Robbie is
not a dead ringer for Harding—“It’s not a look-alike film, that’s not
what it’s about,” as Denaver put it. “We wanted to make it feel like
we were telling that true story. I really think we got the essence of
Tonya.”

Denaver’s only splurge was on the prosthetics that Robbie primarily
wears in the present-day interview scenes woven throughout the film, in
which a 44-year-old, chain-smoking Tonya narrates her wild life story.
Robbie wears prosthetics on her chin, cheeks, nose, under her eyes, and
around her neck. It took time, according to director Craig Gillespie, to
figure out how to make room for the performance underneath all of that.

“We did several molds to see how many wrinkles, how much thickness
[to have],” he said of those interview scenes. “We actually re-did
the prosthetics and went with [something] with less density to it,
and thought that was a better compromise. A little bit goes a long
way.”

Partial prosthetics were incorporated in other scenes—such as a
sequence in which Tonya, fresh off a fourth-place finish at the 1992
Olympics, spends a little too much time drinking away her sorrows and
gains weight. But prosthetics were really put to work in the 12-hour
shoot for an interview scene. Denaver remembered she and her team
members were “on our knees, constantly touching up because of the
conditions,” which included both near-100-degree heat and, on the last
day of filming, torrential rain on the Atlanta set.

On days that included multiple scenes, Denaver and her team would rush
to swap out wigs and aging makeup, often precisely matching the video
footage from a real-life skating competition or interview. “There were
days that we did seven or eight changes. It was crazy,” she said.
“Especially when we’re doing all the competitive stuff on the ice, all
those looks we tried to copy—the colors of the lipstick, the colors of
the eye shadow, right down to the nails.”

Though Tonya Harding is the most famous face in I, Tonya, the most
memorable may belong to her acid-tongued mother, LaVona Golden, played
by Allison Janney
, who underwent her own remarkable transformation.

“We needed to make her look younger because we needed a place to go,”
Denaver said of the earliest scenes in the film, which depict LaVona 40
years younger than she is by the end. Janney had what is, essentially, a
temporary face-lift—with tape applied to her temples and neck—masked
with a gunmetal-gray wig that is, like nearly everything else in the
film, so terrible because it is drawn precisely from real life. As
LaVona aged and, in Denaver’s words, “got more miserable . . . we
kind of went with that and made her look more stern.” Janney’s eyebrows
became more severe, and the color was drained from her face. “I really
wanted to convey that stress and pain in her face as she got older,”
Denaver said.

For the present-day interview scenes, Janney is accompanied by an oxygen
tank, a nip-happy parakeet, and an even harsher bowl-cut wig. But no
prosthetics—there was no room left in the budget for it.

“We did all stretch and stipple because we didn’t have any more money
for prosthetics,” Denaver said, referring to the common process of
stretching the skin and holding it while applying liquid latex, powder,
and paint—in multiple layers to Janney’s entire face, hands, and
neck—to create wrinkles. “I’m so pleased with that makeup. We
accomplished it with so little.”

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