Allison Janney Is a Cursing, Bird-Owning, Chain-Smoking Revelation in I, Tonya

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Janney.

We all knew Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in the wickedly funny, highly unconventional biopic I, Tonya, would be a hot topic in this year’s Oscar conversation. There’s the you-can’t-make-it-up frizzy hair, all that skating, and the general fascination with the Australian playing the most colorfully disgraced American figure skater in history. Harding, for anyone too young to remember (including Robbie), was a proud Oregon redneck who got entangled in an insane scheme that literally kneecapped her U.S. rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics, and made for the biggest tabloid news story of the early ’90s not involving O.J. Simpson.

Yet, at the I, Tonya world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last night, the performance everyone couldn’t stop raving about was Allison Janney’s. With short hair and saucer-sized glasses, Janney plays Harding’s chain-smoking, expletive-spouting nightmare of a stage mom, LaVona Golden. And she does, like, half of it in a fur coat with a freakin’ tropical bird on her shoulder, pecking at her face — which is how LaVona actually appeared in The Price of Gold, the ESPN 30 for 30 about the incident.

“That’s an Academy performance, right? It has to be,” a fellow journalist remarked as Janney stepped onstage after the screening and the audience went nuts.

The film, directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), plays out as a mock-documentary based on, as the opening says, “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews with Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Every major character has moments of narrating directly to the camera, interspersed with replays of events, which all seem to be unreliably recalled. Screenwriter Steven Rogers wrote the part of LaVona with Janney in mind, Janney told me at the party after the screening, but Tonya and her mother haven’t talked in decades, so she never got to meet her subject. “Steven asked Tonya where her mother was and she didn’t know, and if she did, she wasn’t going to let on,” said Janney. “We couldn’t find her anywhere, so we just used existing footage and what he found out through Tonya what her mother was like. It was a little freeing, to me, knowing that, Well, we have this tape and from there, it’s whatever we choose to create as a team.”

When we first meet LaVona, she’s at an Oregon ice rink trying to bulldoze the woman who would become Tonya’s longtime coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), into training her — at the age of “a soft four,” as LaVona puts it. Oh, is Janney’s part a delicious one. There she is, sucking on a cigarette at one of young Tonya’s practices telling her that those beautiful spins she’s doing are “nothing special.” Or snapping back at fellow parents who are upset with her choice of words: “I didn’t swear, you cunt!” The insults she spouts off on Tonya’s skating (“You skated like a graceless bulldyke!”) are a marvel, as is Janney’s hilariously unadorned delivery. She seems to recognize that material this outrageous is best played straight.

LaVona is so overbearing she actually tags along on Tonya’s first date with Jeff and asks them if they’ve fucked yet. (She also regularly hit her daughter as a kid, then tells her she’s “a dumb piece of shit” for being with a man who beats her.) Her best moment, though, may be when, in the middle of a long LaVona-less detour into Tonya and Jeff’s relationship, she suddenly pops up in one of those straight-to-camera setups and snaps, “Well, my story line is disappearing right now. What the fuck!” The entire theater cheered.

“There’s something about playing LaVona that’s like laughing in church,” Janney told me. She cites as one of her favorite moments the time when young Tonya (played by adorable McKenna Grace) is coloring at the kitchen table and LaVona just kicks her chair over. “I’m smoking in the kitchen and I’m mad at her for being so happy coloring. That kind of stuff, it’s terrible! Why does that make me laugh? I don’t know! It’s like someone slipping on a banana peel. It was a lot of fun to play. I got to work out some dark sides of Allison.”

Janney approached LaVona, ultimately, as a mother who saw her daughter’s success as a ticket out of a life that she didn’t want for either of them. “I have a soft spot in my heart for her,” Janney said. “The relationship is tragic — especially the scene in the diner where LaVona shows some of what’s underneath her saying, ‘I wish I had a mother that was like me instead of nice. Because nice gets you nowhere.’ You see that she never had a chance in life and she wants to give her daughter a chance.”

But as good as Janney’s performance is on its own, it’s her Acting With Bird that really takes it over the top. “I love that bird. I’d want that bird as a pet,” said Janney of the crimson-bellied conure named Little Man. (We’re trying for a photo, hold tight.) They met just before she spent the day shooting her straight-to-camera scenes with him, and got along immediately. LaVona was clearly very comfortable with her bird and let him hang out on her shoulder all the time, so in order to mimic that same relationship, Janney said, “I was determined that whatever the bird was going to do, I was not going to let it throw me. I couldn’t be flustered by what the bird did. And that bird did a lot of shit! I mean, that bird would poke in my ear, and he’d crawl down my jacket onto the rim of my glass and drink out of it. And I just kept trying to tell my story and deal with the bird as if it was something I always did. I found it a really fun challenge. He was a great scene partner.”

*This article originally referred to Robbie as being Oscar-nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street. She did not receive a nomination. We regret the error.

Allison Janney’s a Crass, Bird-Owning Revelation in I, Tonya