Allison Janney is asking me to forgive her. ‘I’m so jetlagged. Just know that…’ she laughs as she sits down. It turns out she has nothing to apologise for. Jetlagged Janney is more switched on than the best of us on a bad day. We’re in a central London hotel room to talk ‘I, Tonya’, the dark comedy-drama biopic which has already earned her Oscar and Bafta nominations and a Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actress.
The film will tell a familiar tale for many; the globe-rocking, 1994 figure skating scandal had everyone glued to the news. If it’s not, though, ‘I, Tonya’ is about remarkable figure skater Tonya Harding, and her possible connection to an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, a rival and Olympic teammate. Janney plays LaVona, Tonya’s abusive, difficult, profane, chain-smoking mother. It’s a captivating performance – and she did an awful lot of it with a bird called Little Man perched on her shoulder.
The bird must have been surreal.
‘It was, but there's real footage of LaVona with a fur coat and a bird on her shoulder. I'm a huge animal lover but birds kind of freak me out, so I auditioned three. A couple of them kept crawling up in my hair. Little Man just sat on my shoulder and hung out so I decided that he was going to get the part. It was my first casting session. I felt pretty powerful. When we started shooting he kept pecking at me. It pissed me off a little bit but I think it fuelled my performance. We ended up being a good duo.’
Do you remember ‘The Incident’?
‘I love how we call it “The Incident”. I used to be a figure skater before I wanted to be an actress, so I was very much tuned in. I was shocked like the rest of the world that something like this would happen in the very refined realm of figure skating. It was unbelievable.’
At the time did you think Tonya was guilty?
‘It was at the advent of the 24-hour news cycle in the States. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were the precursors to OJ Simpson. People couldn’t get enough. The narrative the press put out there, that Tonya was a no-good girl from the wrong side of the tracks and Nancy was this ice princess, was the perfect story. I believed what the press told me. I believed that Tonya Harding had done it.’
‘I don’t know if she's completely blameless but having worked on the movie and heard her story – the environment that she grew up in, the abusive mother that I portray, the figure skating community that wouldn’t embrace her – I have a great deal more empathy for her. She was rebellious and headstrong. The movie lets everyone make up their own mind.’
Do you see LaVona as a bad person?
‘On the page, yes. But I wanted to show a three-dimensional woman. She didn't think she was horrible or abusive. She thought she was a good mother who gave her daughter opportunities. I wanted to find her humanity. I would imagine that her own mother didn’t protect her or was ineffectual in her life. I had to find those places where my heart would open to her and I could let her in.’
People gasped in our film screening when LaVona throws a knife at Tonya. Did that feel like a big moment to shoot?
‘Yes. From that moment on, everything shifted. Yet the power of the mother-daughter relationship is something you can’t deny. I think a daughter always wants approval no matter how monstrous the mother is.’
What was it like to take on a character, based on a real woman who is alive and potentially going to see the movie?
‘When I took on the role, no one could find her. Tonya didn’t know where she was and didn’t care. At that point I kind of assumed that she wasn’t still around. She wasn’t a great historical figure, she was somebody’s mother and this was her daughter’s version of her mixed with [screenwriter and co-producer] Steven Rogers' artistic license in creating her, so I approached her like a fictional character. Had I known, I wish I could have spoken to her. I would have asked her a lot of questions about her upbringing and her husbands and what life was like for her.’
Would you still like to meet her now?
‘I don’t think I should meet her at this point. It’s already out there. I don’t know if she’s going to see it. I don’t know what I would say to her.’
LaVona makes Tonya angry to try and make her great. Does that ‘tough love’ approach work on you?
‘Yes. Weird things motivate me. Telling me I'm no good or I can’t do something motivates me. I did this play with Stanley Tucci a long time ago and I used to have him tell me that I was a terrible actress before I went on stage. It would empower me somehow.’
You were a figure skater growing up. Was the competitive world we see in this film your reality?
‘I never made it that far in my figure skating career. I wasn’t that good! I had to give it up because I had an accident. I went through a glass window, life took me in another direction and I went to college and started acting. But I am a very competitive person. My family will tell you I throw boardgames, the ping pong paddle! I get furious when I lose. I'm the worst sport.’
Tonya was headline news in her very early twenties. How would you have coped with being in the spotlight at that age?
‘I couldn’t have. She’s much tougher than I would have been. As a figure skater it’s just you out there on the ice. I like to be part of a group, in plays and ensembles. To do a one-woman show on Broadway, that would be terrifying to me.’
There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around ‘I, Tonya’. How does that feel?
‘It's my first time being in that conversation and I didn't necessarily think that was ever going to happen for me. It’s pretty overwhelming and exciting.’
You’ve played so many disparate characters. Is there one you are most fond of?
‘CJ from ‘The West Wing’. She’s a character that I will always be proud of, for inspiring girls to go into public service, to dream bigger for themselves. It’s a great thing to have been part of.’
You must be constantly getting asked for your political stance on things…
‘Oh I am and I’m such a disappointment. I know CJ Cregg and I am no CJ Cregg.’
‘I Tonya’ is in UK cinemas Feb 20.