How Margot Robbie learned to skate like Tonya Harding in 'I, Tonya'

Courtesy of Neon Films

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya."

Imagine having little to no experience on the ice, then your job required you to stay balanced on thin blades while mimicking an Olympic-level figure skater's signature moves. That's what actress Margot Robbie, at 27 years old, needed to do for the lead role as Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya."

Robbie worked with skating choreographer Sarah Kawahara for three months ahead of filming, practicing about four times a week, to learn the skills necessary to portray Harding on screen. 

They would start with stretching and then move on to practicing choreography on the floor without skates. Finally, Robbie would migrate to the ice.

"Learning to skate from scratch as an actor is a whole different ballgame because you have a limited amount of time to master [a skill] that has taken years to develop as a competitive skater," Kawahara said in a phone interview. 

Kawahara began skating at age 6. She later joined the Ice Capades as a performer and choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics. She went on to choreograph and train actors on various film projects, including "Blades of Glory" in 2007.

Though Kawahara has worked with several starlets over the years, she felt Robbie was "a natural" on the ice, adding that the People's Choice Award-winning actress ended up executing much of the skating in the film herself, except for the big jumps and spins, which were performed by doubles.

"Margot took to skating," Kawahara said. "It requires a lot of repetition, hours and hard work. She has a great work ethic."

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for NEON

Sarah Kawahara attended the Los Angeles premiere of "I, Tonya."

For the jumps and fast spins, Kawahara enlisted the help of a few doubles, though finding them was a challenge. She needed senior-level skaters who could perform complicated moves, including a triple Lutz, while also convincingly doubling for Robbie.

Production was happening at the same time as the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, so none of the qualified skaters from the United States were available. Luckily, Kawahara found Anna Malkova at a local rink in Orange County, California, who was available because she competes for France. Kawahara then cast American skater Heidi Munger, a first alternate following a fifth-place finish at Easterns, as an additional double.

"We lucked out there," Kawahara said of the doubles cast. "They worked so hard, and I think they had a good time."

In addition to working with Robbie and the doubles, Kawahara choreographed all of the routines in the film. She tried to keep the choreography as close to Harding's programs as possible, but she adapted small details to fit what was most natural to Robbie. 

"I adapted where it was needed, [in order] to make Margot look the best," Kawahara said.

Kawahara was thrilled with how Robbie's performance turned out. And, well, she thinks everyone else should be too.

"I'm proud to say that Margot was able to do the first minute of Tonya's [1994] Olympic routine, and they used it," Kawahara said. "She should be recognized for that."

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