The upcoming biopic I, Tonya is a darkly comedic rendering of the life of figure skater Tonya Harding — from her early days at the ice rink in Portland, Oregon’s Lloyd Center mall to the Nancy Kerrigan incident and her subsequent flameout at the Lillehammer Olympic Games in 1994. Breaking form with typical Hollywood biographies, I, Tonya is packaged as a kind of documentary, with contradictory confessional interviews by Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Harding (Margot Robbie) driving the story forward. The format gives the movie a true-to-life feel while trafficking in events that feel too absurd to be real. So what in I, Tonya, is accurate, and what can be chalked up to artistic license? For your convenience, Vulture has assembled a fact-checked guide to most significant moments in I, Tonya, a movie that manages to be as sensational as it is faithful to historical events.
Was Harding really forced to pee on the ice because her mom refused to give her bathroom breaks?
According to a woman who took lessons at the same rink as Harding during that time, Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden, did shout at her daughter, “I paid for you to practice, so you’re going to stay on the ice and practice.” In a Chicago Tribune article from 1994, this policy did mean that Harding was sometimes was forced to urinate on the ice, according to people who knew her then.
Did LaVona hit Harding with a hairbrush?
A woman named Antje Spethmann, who skated with Harding until they were 13, told the New York Times in 1994 that she did see that take place. This was also corroborated in the ESPN documentary The Price of Gold by a childhood friend named Sandra Lucknow.
Did LaVona throw a knife at Harding during a fight?
Did LaVona make Harding get her class picture taken in her skating costume for competition photos?
Yes. As Harding says in her autobiography, The Tonya Tapes, “She sends me to school in my skating outfit with my hair up in French braids with a tiara, so I could have [skating] pictures. Believe me. I have proof of that one, too.”
Did a young Harding wear a homemade rabbit-fur coat?
Did Shawn Eckhardt really claim to be a counterterrorism expert?
Oh, yes. The interview with Diane Sawyer from 1994 is as weird as you’d expect, with Sawyer explaining to viewers that, “Eckhardt has a résumé that makes him out to be a cross between James Bond and Oliver North, and before the attack on Kerrigan he reportedly bragged about dangerous exploits, including the fact that he had hit men.” Sawyer asked Eckhardt if he was the one who was “power mad” and “megalomaniacal,” and if he actually manufactured the entire scheme to fulfill a “deranged fantasy.” Eckhardt assured her, “My training and education has been in the areas of counterespionage and counterterrorism. I’ve done extensive research in the areas of terrorism trends and profiles. I’ve been quoted as an expert in terrorism trends and profiles.” He attributes that quote to a “travel magazine a couple of years ago during the Gulf War.” Sawyer’s incredulity at Eckhardt’s is outstanding to watch, especially when he says he got started in his “trade” at the age of 17.
In the movie, Eckhardt is presented as reveling in the footage of Kerrigan’s attack being broadcast on TV, but in his interview with Sawyer, he says that footage was what made him flip on Gillooly, because he was filled with so much guilt about participating in her attack. Eckhardt also claimed that he basically protected Kerrigan by insisting to Gillooly she didn’t need to be murdered to solve their problem. “There’s other things you can do to disable somebody,” he told Sawyer. “You don’t need to kill them.”
Did Tonya tell a judge to “suck my dick” after the judge criticized her outfit?
No. Robbie said in a late-night interview that the line was made up, but that when Harding saw the movie, she apparently wished she had said it. Harding did, however, tell the judge who criticized her outfit that unless she could come up with $5,000 to buy Harding a new costume she could “stay out of my face.”
What happened with Tonya and her half-brother?
Harding’s half-brother, whom she calls “creepy Chris” in the movie, was actually named Chris Davidson, and he did sexually assault her in their home when she was 15 and he was 26. In the movie, Harding quickly fends him off and leaves him on the ground, but the real-life events are much more frightening. As Harding prepared for her first date with Gillooly, Davidson tried to kiss her, and she threatened to burn him with her curling iron if he kept advancing. Davidson continued to force himself on her, so she set the iron to his neck, ran to the upstairs bathroom, and locked herself inside. According to Harding’s account, he then followed her and beat the door down, but she was able to get away and call the police. He continued to pursue her, though, so she hit him with a hockey stick and ran to a neighbor’s house. Davidson was arrested later that night and spent several years in jail. Shortly after his release he was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and Harding told Sports Illustrated in 1992 that she did not attend the funeral. Of the incident, Harding’s mom said, “I wouldn’t put it past Chris to try and get a kiss. Tonya has a vivid imagination. She has a tendency to tell tall tales.”
Did Gillooly slam Harding’s hand in a car door?
According to Harding, yes. In the movie, it happens fast, when the two are having an argument by their car, but in The Tonya Tapes, Harding says she was fleeing the house to escape Gillooly beating her up when he ran to their car and pulled a coil out of the engine to keep her from driving away. As she was exiting the car, Harding says Gillooly kicked the door shut and it completely closed with her hand in it. At that point, Harding says she grabbed the bag she had brought outside with her, and ran from Gillooly.
Did Harding chase Gillooly out of their house with a shotgun?
Robbie’s version of Harding breaks the fourth wall in I, Tonya to assure the audience she did not fire a gun at Gillooly as he ran away from her, and while the real Tonya does not reference that event specifically, she does say in The Tonya Tapes that Gillooly once threatened her with a shotgun. So overall, this one will have to stay unverified.
Did LaVona pay a heckler to harass Harding before a competitive skate?
Was a death threat called in against Harding?
Yes, before a regional competition in the Pacific Northwest.
Did Tonya really dramatically fire her coach, Diane Rawlinson, after exiting the ice in competition?
No. Harding’s second coach, Dody Teachman, was a former student of Rawlinson’s and had already been working with Harding as a kind of assistant coach when she moved into the top role. Rawlinson described the transition to Sports Illustrated as follows: “The bottom line is, it wasn’t working.” She added, “Tonya wasn’t training, and wasn’t meeting the goals she had set for herself. So I delegated her to Dody.” In The Tonya Tapes, Harding also makes it sound like an amicable arrangement, saying, “I thought I knew more. It wasn’t working out. We both decided I would go over to Dody, who was Diane’s very first student, and let her work with me.”
Is the scene behind the diner with Rawlinson and Harding really how the latter started coaching her again?
No. Harding says in The Tonya Tapes that she approached Rawlinson and asked her to come back and coach her again, and that she did it at the behest of Gillooly. “I went to her and asked her to take me back. And it took a lot, too,” Harding said, adding that in a meeting with Rawlinson and Gillooly she promised, “I will do this, and do this, and do this, and this — twist myself into a pretzel for you,” to convince Rawlinson to come back. Based on accounts given in ESPN’s The Price of Gold, Rawlinson did indeed dislike Harding’s blue nail polish.
Did Harding and Kerrigan room together on tour and get wasted in hotels?
It doesn’t seem like it. Harding does talk in The Tonya Tapes about occasionally bunking with Kerrigan on the road, but only mentions activities like shopping or eating or watching TV together.
Did Gillooly threaten to kill himself and accidentally fire a gun at Harding?
Based on Harding’s version of events, yes. In The Tonya Tapes, she describes a similar incident to what happens in I, Tonya, even if it’s not exactly the same. According to the book, Gillooly had broken into Harding’s apartment and taken her purse to coerce her into talking to him. She unsuccessfully tried to get it back from him outside her building, and Gillooly chased her back into her apartment, where she says he threatened to shoot himself and shoot her. She then left her home, walked to the parking lot, and Gillooly shot in her direction, hitting the pavement and causing an errant piece of asphalt to fly up and hit her in the face. The subsequent police encounter is then described as a chase that ended when two cop cars boxed Gillooly in and forced him to pull over. Harding says they were then both forced to get out of the car, and that even though the police confiscated Gillooly’s gun and shotgun, they let him go without charges and allowed him to take Harding home.
Did Gillooly make a marathon drive from Portland, Oregon, to Idaho just to scream “Fuck you!” at Tonya after an argument?
Unverified, but this one seems like artistic license.
Did LaVona try to record Harding making incriminating statements?
According to Harding, yes, but not in her home like it’s presented in I, Tonya. In The Tonya Tapes, Harding says her mom showed up at an ice rink where she was skating shortly before the 1994 Olympics and tried to record her with a microphone hidden in her coat. “They [the press] gave her a mic and turned it on and walked down into the rink to try and get me to say stuff,” Harding said, adding that she admonished her mother after she saw the device: “You can leave this rink and never come back. I don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore. I have put up with this too long.”
Did Harding’s dad really drive away and leave her in the street?
Actually, Harding’s mom left the two of them first, and she stayed with her dad for about half a year until he took a job in Boise, Idaho. Harding then moved back in with her mom, who was by then married to husband number six, James Golden.
Did Shane Stant really move his car every 15 minutes during his two-day stakeout in the parking lot of Tony Kent Arena in Massachusetts to avoid suspicion?
He actually moved it every 30 minutes. But yes.
Did Stant use his head to break through a glass door while fleeing after the Kerrigan attack?
He really did. Stant and Derrick Smith had cased the Cobo Center in Detroit, where the assault took place, in the days before the attack and decided those doors would be their exit point. But on the day of the crime, they were indeed chained shut, so Stant used his head as a battering ram and plowed through the glass. He also did tackle a man who got in the way as he ran. Stant was, however, wearing “a baseball hat, black leather jacket, black jeans, black gloves and brown hiking boots,” instead of the all-denim ensemble shown in the movie.
Was Harding’s car towed by reporters?
In The Price of Gold, Harding says people from the media would set off the alarm on her car and once had it towed so she would have to leave her house and face the cameras.
Were reporters ordered to stand behind a velvet rope on LaVona Golden’s lawn?
Did Harding have a secret meeting with a skating judge in a parking lot to talk about her scores?
In The Tonya Tapes, Harding says that she reconciled with Gillooly following their 1993 divorce because a rep for the United States Figure Skating Association told her to do it if she wanted “the marks.” According to Harding, “If I wanted to make the Olympic team, I need to make myself a stable life … They said I had a stable life when I was with him — married, settled down … And they wanted to make sure I was still going to be that way to go to the Olympic Games.”
Did Eckhardt publicly brag about the attack on Kerrigan?
Yes. In the documentary The Price of Gold, the Multnomah County district attorney at the time of the Kerrigan attack told ESPN that Eckhardt “couldn’t stop bragging to everybody that he had planned the attack.” One of the people he talked to about the “success” of the mission was a close friend named Gene Saunders; he even played him a poor-quality tape of the planning meeting in his house. Saunders encouraged his friend to turn himself in, and eventually went to the FBI with what Eckhardt told him. Like in the movie, real-life Eckhardt did actually plan to use the attack to try and raise the profile of his company, World Bodyguard Services, so he could provide protection services for more skaters.
An anonymous woman also called police in Detroit to say she believed Harding, Gillooly, and Eckhardt were behind the attack, because Eckhardt’s father had bragged about it to her. She also sent an unsigned letter to a TV news station in Portland, and they eventually turned it over to the FBI. The woman is believed to be an acquaintance of Eckhardt’s father. In addition to his boasting, she also apparently heard the tape of the planning meeting as well.
Did Eckhardt invite Gillooly to a Chinese restaurant at midnight while wearing a wire for the FBI?
According to Saunders, the FBI actually asked him to wear a wire and meet up with Eckhardt at a restaurant called Carrow’s, where agents would be during their meeting. According to Saunders, this is what they told him before he went into the sting operation. “[The agent] said, ‘We are watching his car. Whatever you do, do not get into that car with him,’” Saunders told Bleacher Report in 2013. “I said, ‘OK.’ He walked over again and said, ‘We just observed him loading a weapon and putting it in the car. Do not get in the car. We cannot protect you if you get in that car.’ OK. I’m trying to play it cool, but what do I know? First thing Shawn does when he walks into the restaurant is say, ‘Let’s go for a ride.’” Saunders ended up staying out of the car, and the FBI picked up Eckhardt for questioning the next day, at which time he confessed.
Did Harding think Kerrigan practiced at Tuna Can Arena?
According to the incriminating notes found with Harding’s handwriting that contained Kerrigan’s practice location, she did scribble “Tunee Can Arena.” So, not really Tuna Can, but close.