In 'I, Tonya,' Allison Janney Is An Olympic Mom Who Doesn't Play By The Rules In the new film, the actress plays Tonya Harding's mother, a complex role written specifically for her. "I had to understand what she wanted for her daughter," Janney says. "And the humanity in that."

In 'I, Tonya,' Allison Janney Is An Olympic Mom Who Doesn't Play By The Rules

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Steven Rogers and Allison Janney, welcome to the program.

STEVEN ROGERS: Thank you for having us.

ALLISON JANNEY: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So Steven, can you recreate the conversation where, Steven, you first told Allison, I've written this role for you, and...

ROGERS: I said, I've written this role for you, and this time you're going to play it. You have a bowl haircut. You have big sunglasses and a bird on your shoulder. And you swear like a linebacker. It's perfect.


JANNEY: I think I giggled and just, like, screeching and howled with joy thinking about playing someone like that - no idea who she was.

ROGERS: Here's the thing. It was a spec script, which meant I wrote it for free. Nobody paid me. But if people wanted it, the caveat that I had going out with the script was that Allison Janney was playing the part that I wrote for her. So then...

JANNEY: Yeah, he's written a lot of roles for me and none of which got played by me for (laughter) - not because - not for lack of trying on Steven's part.

ROGERS: I've known Allison for more than half of my usable life. And I wanted it in writing.


ROGERS: Or it was a deal-breaker. And I actually said that before Allison had agreed (laughter)...


ROGERS: ...To play the part or had even read the script.


SHAPIRO: You both lived through the actual Tonya Harding scandal which came to its climax in 1994. It was nonstop news coverage for days. Do you remember what you made of the story at the time, how you each viewed the event then?

JANNEY: Well, I used to have dreams of wanting to be an Olympic figure skater myself. And I was very graceful, but I'm 6 feet tall, and it turned out I couldn't really do the acrobats required to be a figure skater. So when this happened with Tonya Harding, I was already - I always watched the figure skating. It was always part of my life. And so it was huge for me. I was glued to my television set.

SHAPIRO: And how did you judge Tonya Harding in the moment?

JANNEY: Well, I kind of - I looked at her the way they portrayed her to be - this bad girl. And I - when I watched her skate at the Olympics, I had my eyes - my hand over my eyes kind of. Like, I couldn't watch it unravel in front of me. It was almost unbearable. And I definitely judged her in a way that I think the media wanted me to. She was portrayed as the bad girl. I definitely thought she did it. And I feel differently now having worked on this movie.

ROGERS: Like Allison, I didn't know any better. There was no real nuance to it.


ROGERS: And when I was thinking about the story, I just felt like the media reduced everybody to just one thing.

SHAPIRO: I was actually in high school in Portland, Ore., in the '90s, and I remember friends of mine...


SHAPIRO: ...Would go to the skating rink where she practiced and watch her.


SHAPIRO: She was, like, our hometown anti-hero maybe.

ROGERS: Yeah. You know, when I first saw the documentary that Nanette Burstein did on Tonya Harding, what I liked about Tonya immediately was that she was sort of unapologetically redneck - and that's her word - in this sport where the judges want you to be this very old-timey, pageanty (ph) version of what they think a woman's supposed to be. And she said, I am lower-class, and I'm not going to pretend to be something 'cause I can do the triple. You got to give me the medal.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a clip of this. This is a scene where Allison, your character, LaVona, Tonya's mother, is speaking with Tonya's childhood skating coach.


JANNEY: (As LaVona Golden) What does she need a fur coat for? I don't have a [expletive] fur coat.

JULIANNE NICHOLSON: (As Diane Rawlinson) Because it's not just about skating. The judges want figure skaters to be...

JANNEY: (As LaVona Golden) Yeah, rich, prissy...

NICHOLSON: (As Diane Rawlinson) Well-rounded. It's a question of fitting in.

JANNEY: (As LaVona Golden) She's 12, and she lands triples. She doesn't fit in. She stands out.

NICHOLSON: (As Diane Rawlinson) She stands out because she looks like she chops wood every morning.

JANNEY: (As LaVona Golden) She does chop wood every morning.

NICHOLSON: (As Diane Rawlinson) LaVona...

JANNEY: LaVona - if anything, she believed in her daughter and knew that her daughter was the better skater. It had nothing to do with - she shouldn't have to have a fur coat to be a figure skater.

ROGERS: I feel like LaVona was the same way. Like, she was very unapologetic about who she was and where she came from. And if you didn't like it, get out of the way. She wasn't...

JANNEY: And yet...

ROGERS: ...Playing by those rules.

JANNEY: And yet what I love and which made me - broke my heart about her a little bit is that in the documentary, she's wearing a fur coat. And that just - that was a big clue to me that she actually does care.

SHAPIRO: I was not aware that Tonya Harding's mom was part of the Tonya Harding story until I saw this movie.

JANNEY: Nor was I. Nor was I. And boy, is she a part of the story. When I read the script, I got excited about it. And then I thought, wait a minute. I got to make her real. I got to find out why she's like this because she's got to have her version of the truth. What she did was to help her daughter have a life better than her life. LaVona is someone who's mad at the world, and she's not gotten a break ever. And she's got a lot of anger. But I had to understand what she wanted for her daughter and the humanity in that.

SHAPIRO: Allison, there are unique challenges to playing a person who is alive with that person's cooperation.


SHAPIRO: When you're playing a real, living person and have no access to that person, where do you begin?

JANNEY: Mostly I just look at her as a - as I do any part. And I try to figure out what they want, what their intentions are, what makes them human, what - just those very basic things that you do as an actor. And I try not to think of her as a - if I try to think of someone as a real person, I might be intimidated by that. I like to think of them as - they're going to be mine. I'm going to be playing them, so they're going to be my character. I don't think she's mother of the year. I don't think anyone should try to copy her mothering techniques. But deep down, she's a human being, and I like to find empathy for those people.

SHAPIRO: Allison Janney and Steven Rogers, thank you so much.

JANNEY: Thank you, Ari.

ROGERS: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Allison Janney plays LaVona Harding (ph) in the new movie "I, Tonya," and Steven Rogers is the screenwriter.

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