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Margot Robbie: I asked my girlfriends what they’d been through…

Charmaine Blake



The actor talks to Tom Lamont about speaking out over prejudice, hanging out with the crew on set, and going from Neighbours to an Oscar nomination for I,Tonya

Nostalgic, nodding to herself, Margot Robbie walks around the deserted London bar a little in the manner of a soldier returning to the site of a heavy battle. A few years ago, when the Australian actors film career was getting going, when she was a Neighbours graduate who had been cast in a Martin Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Robbie lived nearby. The 27-year-old was one of a cluster of friends who squeezed into a rented home in Clapham meant for half that number, to save money. In the evenings, to stretch their limbs and get drunk, the gang would roll out to this bar.

The best times, says Robbie, remembering meandering conversations, in-jokes, budding love affairs and business decisions, big hangovers. The bar looks different at 10 in the morning, day-lit, set up for brunch. But, she remembers, there used to be a good sofa upstairs, past the table-football table, near the fireplace… Here, she says, pleased, settling in.

Robbie left London about a year ago, around the time she married her husband, Tom Ackerley, and moved to Los Angeles. She has flown back in to attend a screening of her new film, I, Tonya, ahead of its UK release. In a few hours shell be at a posh cinema, sitting in the dark and evaluating the audiences every response. Robbie stars in this dark, low-budget comedy-biopic about the wayward American figure skater, Tonya Harding and also produced it. This means having more skin in the game. It means daily emails, saying what percentage were up or down in what cities, what demographics are responding in what way, what the reviews are saying. Robbie collapses back on the sofa. Super nerve-racking. Super exciting. I hadnt been involved in this part before.

She shucks off layers: an overcoat belonging to a girlfriend, a scarf she pinched from around the throat of her husband. About 36 hours ago, Robbie was on the east coast of Australia, visiting her mum; her piecemeal outfit was assembled early this morning after the actor opened her suitcase and realised shed flown to wintry Europe without remembering to pack any warm clothes. Tanned, with Oz-sunned hair, she is by some distance the healthiest-looking person in the bar. Waiters ferrying brunch plates put some extra dash in their stride; the guy bringing her a cup tea gets flustered arranging the sugars; the one dog in the place seeks her out. Only a slightly dazed, finger-clicky energy gives away the fact that Robbie is trying to outrun some pretty serious jet lag, pinging everywhere and anywhere around the world, trying to give her movie its best chance of success.

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Margot Robbie practises her Oscars face video

Dont jinx me! she says, when its pointed out that early indicators have been promising. But they have. At the Oscars in March, Robbie will be up for the best actress award against the big guns: Meryl Streep; Frances McDormand. Judges for the Golden Globes liked I, Tonya enough to give it three big-category nominations, and one win: for Allison Janney, in a supporting role as Hardings mother LaVona. With the director, Craig Gillespie, and screenwriter, Steven Rogers, Robbie has managed the very delicate trick of presenting a subject who is both ridiculous and utterly sympathetic; a victim were not encouraged to patronise and a culprit we dont much feel like condemning. Harding herself, now living in happy obscurity, gave the finished film her blessing.

Margot Robbie as infamous US figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Photograph: Entone

I, Tonya is especially successful when dealing with the central contradiction of Hardings life. She is infamous for a single, shocking act of violence an attack, in January 1994, on a rival American figure-skater, Nancy Kerrigan, that was orchestrated by Hardings ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Gilloolys notion had been to hospitalise Kerrigan and so further Hardings sporting chances. The crime, quickly exposed, made news worldwide; it made Harding notorious, reviled, an easy joke. What was never so well understood was the violence that underpinned her own life. Harding was beaten by an abusive mother and beaten by Gillooly when they were married. The new biopic crystalises this essential irony with a daring, show-stealing joke thats delivered direct to camera by Robbie. Nancy gets hit once, she drawls, summoning Hardings wry humour, and the whole world shits.

Rogers script for I, Tonya had been doing the industry rounds for a while when Robbie and some colleagues secured the rights. Domestic violence featured heavily from its earliest writing, the portrayal of it sometimes on the border between seriousness and silliness. Was Robbie ever uneasy about this particular strand of humour? Oh, from the get-go, from the second I read the script, Robbie says. I worried about the handling of the domestic violence and how we would achieve a specific tone.

Though she did not meet Harding herself until a few weeks before the shoot, Robbies instinct was that to leave out the violence in her home life would have felt like a kind of censorship, a disservice to Tonya and to anyone who suffered from domestic violence. At the same time, they were supposed to be making a comedy. Gillespie came up with the idea of breaking the fourth wall in those moments to look at the camera. And that made sense to me, because Tonyas emotionally disconnecting from what happens to her in those moments. You can see the character has accepted it [the violence], as just the way life is, as she put it. It was a repetitive cycle, so regular for her she could speak about it matter-of-factly.

To be a part of dicey decisions about tone, to have a greater stake in artistic risk: this was why Robbie wanted to produce. Not just, she says, to be the face of the film with oh well! no say in how it was written. Or rewritten. Or directed. Or budgeted. Or marketed. Or who it was sold to. Or how.

As Donna Freedman in Neighbours, with Jackie Woodburne as Susan Kennedy. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Its not a coincidence that this is the first time in a five- or six-year movie career Robbie has played the lead. Shes been in superhero flicks (2016s Suicide Squad) and Oscar worthies (a cameo as herself in 2015s The Big Short); there are some fascinating supporting roles coming up, not least as Elizabeth I in Josie Rourkes Mary Queen Of Scots.

But this is the first time shes been able to ring home and say: Mum, Im the main part. Previously, Robbie says bluntly, shed been bet-hedging. Its a big step, playing a lead, a step Ive been hesitant to make. All the weight of the film rests on your shoulders. And if it doesnt work? Its that much harder for you to get a lead role again especially if youre a woman.

Robbie leans forward and bunches her fingers, a characteristic gesture. I feel like guys get a few more chances to be the lead in a flop. If youre a woman, and it flops? Good luck getting another one.

The third of four siblings, Robbie grew up in an Australian city called Gold Coast, a train-hop south of Brisbane. Her mother is a physiotherapist, her father worked in farming; they separated early in Robbies life, an event that shaped a large part of her adult character, she says, though shes loth to talk about it in detail. Robbie was sporty, competitive, took part in school plays, got especially good grades in legal studies. When she graduated she was 17, and everyone said I should go to university, study law.

But shed noticed, growing up, that whenever her mother spoke of her own youth she zeroed in on the exciting stuff the adventure, the backpacking, never the study. I decided I didnt want to spend money I didnt have, on a subject I didnt want to do, only to be paying back debt for the rest of my life. Why abide by that invisible rule?

She went south to Melbourne instead, and took a day job in a Subwayfast-food restaurant. Her medium-term plans were to get work acting, or to travel, and in the end she managed both, fitting in a backpacking tour of Europe in the middle of a two-year, 327-episode run as a regular on Neighbours. When her soap contract came to an end she was offered a renewal, but instead chose to get on a plane again, this time to America. She was cast in a new TV series, about 1960s cabin crews, called Pan Am.

Robbie in Pan Am, the US TV series about 60s cabin crew. Photograph: Sony Pictures

Some actors start out at a Rada or a Juilliard, others set themselves to follow the example of a Brando or a Day-Lewis, but Robbie had trained at the Ramsay Street school and it was there that she learned a professional technique that has always served her well: lets call it the no-trailer method. On Neighbours there were no trailers, she says, you just, like, sat with everyone. Karl and Susan, the sparkies, the assistant directors, they all sloshed around together in a big room during lulls. You shared the kitchen. You hung out.

When Robbie got her gig in Pan Am, which was broadcast for a few months before its cancellation in 2012, she found it lonely. You were supposed to be all segregated into different departments, which felt weird. I remember knocking on other peoples doors and saying: Uh, do you want to hang out? She liked the informal nooks where the runners and makeup deputies and third-rung assistant directors (the third ADs) killed time. I dont know, I was closer in age to them. They seemed more like my friends from back home.

Soon after the shows cancellation, Robbie, gutted but unchastened, angry-auditioned herself into some big movies. I would go in thinking: You fucking wait, look up from your papers, watch me, Im going to blow your fucking mind.

Scorsese cast her in The Wolf Of Wall Street, as Leonardo DiCaprios wife, the director especially impressed that shed had the guts to thump an unprepared DiCaprio, mid-reading. She was in a Richard Curtis movie, About Time, and then supplemented a star-rich cast adaptation of Suite Franaise, shot on location in Belgium. The sets had scaled up, so had Robbies pay cheques, but she kept finding herself gravitating to the circles of folding chairs where the runners and teamsters gathered. On Suite Franaise, the troupe of third ADs were drawn mostly from London. We became really close. You spend so much time with your crew I mean, if you want to.

With Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street. Photograph: Allstar

The Australian accent had stuck with her from home, as had her Australian appreciation for a good nickname. The new gang did not disappoint on this score. I got called Maggie, Margz, Mags, Maggles Suite Franaise was ultimately a forgettable film, but the drunken nights out were memorable, and a tight friendship group formed. Promises were made to stay in touch, and a little while later, in January 2014, when Robbie was coming through London for the premiere of Wolf Of Wall Street, the gang regathered. Paramount had put her up in a ritzy hotel room. Everyone packed in.

We were like: Wouldnt it be funny if we all lived together? Someone said: But you dont live in London, and I said: I dont live anywhere. Ill move. Three days later we signed a lease in Clapham. I didnt even see the place I had to fly out to the Golden Globes [where Wolf Of Wall Street had been twice nominated] three hours after we made the decision.

Obviously ADs get paid like shit. So we had to, ah, Robbie chuckles, fit quite a few people in to a small place. Five ADs, a rising movie star, an old friend from Australia, Sophia Kerr, now working as Robbies assistant. That made seven, all crammed into a three-bedroom home. Robbie had booked a job in London for a year, a CGI-heavy remake of The Legend Of Tarzan that was eventually released in 2016. At around the same time one of the housemates, Tom Ackerley, was third-ADing on a Mission: Impossible sequel.

At the start of their relationship, Robbie recalls: We kept it a secret. Because we werent really taking it seriously. Oh, whatever, were just mates, were just mates. And then everyone found out.

Was that awkward, two of the seven coupling up?

Robbie draws out a long: Ummm. Shes thinking about how much she wants to commit to the record here. It was dramatic. Im not going into the details, but shit hit the fan. Our house turned into The Jerry Springer Show for a moment there. But then the dust settled, and it was all good.

The wider friendship survived? Everyone was, like: No! This is going to ruin our group! And then it didnt. It was fine.

Robbie and Ackerley married in December 2016, on the beach in Australia, around the time she started her intensive ice-skating training for I, Tonya. A great picture of the event was put up on Instagram, the antithesis of an OK! wedding shot: the newlyweds enjoying a snog on the sand while the bride thrust out her ring finger at the camera. The suggestion of profanity (Fuck you, were married!) fit Robbies character pretty well. In conversation, she swears as frequently as an irate sports fan. Its from working on film sets, my God. I try and control it. My mum gets so upset. She favours life on the boisterous side, something she puts down to growing up in a loud house, very loud. Its one reason Ive always lived with roommates quietness is deafening to me, I hate it so much.

With husband Tom Ackerley at an ice hockey game in New York in 2015. Photograph: 6-C Images/Getty

In fact, she says, when she and Ackerley were first married, it was our roommates who told us: You guys had a wedding. You have to live on your own now. It honestly hadnt occurred to us. We were, like: Hm? What? Just the two of us? Thats gonna be weird. And the first time we were in a house, the two of us, it was weird. Nice. But we missed having heaps of people around.

Ackerley is a co-founder of Robbies production company. So is Kerr, the childhood friend, and another member of the old Clapham crowd, Josey McNamara. All are co-producers on I, Tonya. They named their company LuckyChap, which Id guessed must have some sly secret meaning. Ha! says Robbie. No, we were just drunk. We were here when we came up with it. And nobody can remember why. I think we were talking about Charlie Chaplin

Until they founded LuckyChap, Robbies Hollywood career had only rarely required that she actually be in Hollywood. And Ive still never made a movie there. As fledgling producers, though, Robbie and her co-founders at LuckyChap decided they needed to be closer to the inner cogs of the machine. They moved en masse to Los Angeles in November 2016, just before the presidential election. That must have seemed…

Interesting? Robbie cuts in. Five days before Trump became president? Yeah. It was an interesting time to move to America.

In her particular industry, we now know, the larger convulsions were still to happen. The Harvey Weinstein scandal blew up in autumn 2017, and in those first weeks many prominent actors have spoken out in protest at the primitive sexual politics of Hollywood. Some told personal stories about mistreatment, others offered a more general take.

Every conversation is a productive conversation, says Robbie, who favours the general take. Because once that conversations happened it can alter the next one.

Did there come a moment where she saw what was happening, and had to ask herself: will I contribute? Its tricky, she says. Its that thing where, like Who am I to speak on this topic? Who wants to hear from me?

How she dealt with this sense of trickiness was interesting. In October, immediately post-Weinstein, Robbie was asked to speak at an event in celebration of women in film. These were the stormy beginnings of the #MeToo movement, and the tendency at the time had been a top-heavy focus on celebrity on the perpetrators and victims of sexual harassment whose names and faces we knew. Before she sat down to write her speech about women in film, Robbie turned to those other women in film who until then had been overlooked: the runners and deputies and assistants, the lower-rung employees with whom shed sat in circles on folding chairs for hours on set; with whom shed lived.

I went on our girl group [on WhatsApp], my London girls, who are all crew members. She asked them: what have you been through? What do you feel like saying that hasnt been heard? My phone went fucking nuts. They were angry. I was surprised by how angry they were. I was overwhelmed by how much they felt theyd been bottling up. Together on their phones these women wrote Robbies speech, and when she delivered it at the event, she did so in the first-person plural of the chat group.

Being a woman in Hollywood means you will probably have to fight through degrading situations, Robbie said that night. Struggle for the right to earn a living, the right to be heard, even the right to be safe from harm [Be] in the shadows of big trees, constantly reminded that we only grow in the sunshine they allow us… When you take away Hollywood, the speech concluded, we are all just women. All facing the inequalities that being a woman brings with it.

Five days before Trump became president? Yeah. It was an interesting time to move to America. Photograph: Christopher Anderson/Magnum

On the sofa in the bar, Robbie shrugs. The speech came and went, subsumed by the onslaught of sensational news. But shes proud of it. I didnt feel fake, saying it, because I knew I was speaking on their behalf. That felt more important than my sole opinion. She can see theres a hunger for individuals like her, prominent actors in the thick of things, to offer opinions about the past and present and to say that everythings likely to get better after the upheavals of 2017. But, look, who am I to say? Ive got no idea. All I can speak to is what it looks like from my point of view.

From her point of view, so far, its been a case of smaller, incremental epiphanies. Robbie gives an example. There was a conference call she was on, recently, to discuss a film she had in development. Robbie and a friend, a screenwriter, were the only two women on the phone call. And wed really had to stand our ground, to fight for something specific on this project. Afterwards we messaged each other, to ask: Hey, was I a bit too pushy there? Did I sound like a bitch just then? We sent each other pretty much the exact same message, at the exact same time.

Robbie widens her eyes. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Because do you think any of the men on that phone call texted each other, after, to ask if they sounded like a bitch? For putting an opinion forward? No. None of them would have thought twice about any of the things they said. You have those epiphany moments and this was one. And thats not just our industry. Thats every industry.

She climbs inside her borrowed coat again; wraps on the scarf. A car is waiting, to nip Robbie to the I, Tonya screening. Our conversation has reminded her of a bit in the film, when Harding is moved to comment on the outdatedness of competitive womens figure-skating, its tutus, its sequins, this old-timey vision of what a womans supposed to be. The skaters response is to glide over to the judges table at a competition to face the arbitrators of this dated industry directly, and to stick up a middle finger at them.

Just an awesome moment, Robbie says. And, sadly, pretty relevant right?

  • I, Tonya is released on 23 February.
    Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazines letters page in print, please email

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‘Remember the steps. Remember your training. Do not embarrass us.’

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