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July 19, 2018 — By

Evening Standard

In just over 10 years, Margot Robbie has gone from Neighbours to Oscar nominee and one of the most sought-after names in Hollywood. Now, as Gavanndra Hodge learns, she is focused on using her high-powered status for good.

For much of her life, Margot Robbie has been addicted to fear: to the electric adrenaline that surges through her when she is sure she can’t do something, but forces herself to try regardless. ‘I love feeling terrified, I love it when I think I can’t pull it off this time,’ she says. It is this compulsion that made her — then a 23-year-old unknown — unexpectedly slap Leonardo DiCaprio in the face during her screen test for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (the slap got her the job).

It is this determination to push it just a bit too far that made her insist on doing most of her own stunts when she stole the show as Suicide Squad’s baseball bat-wielding psycho with a heart, Harley Quinn. It is this refusal to stay within the limits of what might be expected from a ‘toothpaste model’ (her words) that led her to set up a production company with her now husband and two best friends when she was 24, and to produce and star in I, Tonya. ‘People said, “That will never get made,”’ she says of her film about the controversial, tenacious, domestically abused US Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding. ‘It gets to me when people say that. So I was like, “Let’s give it a go.”’

I, Tonya was a critical success. Allison Janney won an Oscar for her portrayal of Harding’s ruthless, nicotine-addled mother and Robbie was nominated for an Oscar (and a Golden Globe) for her interpretation of the DIY diamanté Harding. The film was also a financial success — costing around £8 million to make and grossing £35m. Not bad for its producer and lead actor.

I, Tonya was the second film produced by Robbie. The first was Terminal, which has only just had its theatrical release. And it is to discuss Terminal that we are here, inside a suite at The Soho Hotel in London, eating chocolate biscuits and drinking Darjeeling tea. Robbie, who has just turned 28 (she went to Soho Farmhouse for her birthday), is wearing a peach-coloured silk vest and thin gold necklaces, which she fiddles with as she talks.

I was drawn to how odd and dark the script was,’ she explains. Terminal is indeed an odd film, a revenge-noir gangster flick visually inspired by films such as Brazil and Blade Runner. Robbie sparks and sizzles as a pole-dancing, tea-serving hit woman for hire with Wanstead vowels (‘you should try my sticky buns, handsome’). It was written and directed by first-timer Vaughn Stein, a former assistant director and a friend of Robbie’s British husband, Tom Ackerley, also a former AD who she first met on the set of 2013’s Suite Française. One senses that it was an act of friendship that made Robbie push to get Terminal made.

He [Stein] wanted to do it so badly and no one would put the money behind him, which is the case for so many talented creatives. So it was really nice to give him the chance to get his vision out there. At the same time we got the chance to learn how to produce.’ The film, which also stars Simon Pegg, was made over 27 relentless days and sleepless nights in Budapest. It cost £3m and Robbie says it makes her ‘swell with pride’.

Robbie grew up in the mountainous hinterland of Australia’s Gold Coast, kangaroos bouncing outside her bedroom window. Her days were spent on the beach, making rope swings, plunging into mountain rock pools. ‘No one thought I would be an actress because where I grew up it wasn’t a job you could do — I never met anyone who had so much as made a cup of coffee on a film set.

Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother, a physiotherapist, raised Robbie and her three siblings single-handedly. ‘She is such a saint; she is amazing, I love her. She held it together and always put everyone else first.

It was a chaotic, crowded and noisy childhood. ‘We weren’t easy kids, we didn’t make it easy for Mum.’ Not least Robbie herself, who was determined to assert her independence from a young age. ‘When I was five I was watching my mum put spread on my sandwich for school and I was saying, “It’s not going to the edges”, and she was like, “If I am not doing it right, do it yourself. So I started making my own lunch from five years old. If I wanted something a certain way I just did it myself. Mum says that sums me up. I’m still trying to make it up to her.’ (One of the first things Robbie did once her career took off was to pay off her mother’s mortgage.)

When Robbie was 17 she moved to Melbourne, and when she wasn’t working in a Subway restaurant she was badgering the production team on Neighbours. Her persistence paid off and in 2008 she won the part of Donna Freedman, who she played for two and a half years; but all the while she was seeing a dialect coach, perfecting her American accent so that she could make the move to the United States. Again, determination won out. Robbie’s second Hollywood film role was opposite DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Robbie says that she does not regret any of the parts she has played, but she is becoming more aware of the social impact of the roles she chooses. ‘It is a weird thing, having a profile,’ she says, becoming quiet for the first (and only) time during our conversation. ‘It is hard because I would never have got to this position if I was trying to censor everything I did. I would never have an impact on anyone if I played perfect characters.’ She does have some compelling roles coming up: as a pox-ridden Elizabeth I in Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan; and as Sharon Tate, the actress who was bloodily murdered by Charles Manson’s followers, in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with Brad Pitt and DiCaprio. These are substantial, high-profile roles that explore the power and vulnerability of women ‘that seems to be the contradiction that I am most attracted to’, she says. And films that she is developing include Marion, a feminist retelling of the Robin Hood story; and Gotham City Sirens, for which she is reprising her role as Harley Quinn, but this time uniting a posse of DC Comics’ deranged heroines. ‘If I was going to play Harley again, I wanted it to be in the kind of movie I wanted to see. So it’s about a girl gang.’ The film is due to start filming early next year.

Robbie has been vocal in the #MeToo movement. Last year she was asked to give a speech at a Hollywood event celebrating women and film; she prepared by asking all her female crew member friends about their experiences in the industry, creating a collective narrative that was more powerful than one person’s experience. ‘Of course I knew the problem existed. I just hadn’t viewed it as a problem we were allowed to be angry about. Because no one spoke about it, no one said, “I am not putting up with this any more.” It wasn’t called a problem, it was called a fact of life. That is such a terrible mindset. If we just accept things like sexual harassment as a fact of life, it doesn’t get fixed.

This collective approach is one that comes naturally to Robbie. ‘I never do anything on my own. I don’t see the purpose of doing anything if I don’t do it with my friends. I go mental when I am on my own; my thoughts are so loud it drives me insane.’ On set she says she is never found in her trailer, but always chatting to cast and crew. She made such good friends with the crew on the set of Suite Française that a group of them decided to rent together in Clapham, squeezing seven people into a four-bedroom flat. ‘Those were the best days of my life,’ she says of the nights spent in Clapham’s bars, and the days on the Common with a football and booze. One of those flatmates was Ackerley, who she married in 2016 in Australia, wearing her mother’s old wedding dress. ‘It was lovely, just chilled, you didn’t have to wear shoes.

Her hen night at a friend’s house in Australia, however, was ‘absolute carnage’. There were at least 45 women, including Robbie’s gang of school friends, the ‘Heckers’. ‘There are 16 of us, we have been called that since we were at school.’ Her Neighbours friends were also invited, as were her British gang from her Clapham days: ‘They are a rowdy bunch, too, and the combination was explosive.Robbie is a big fan of fancy dress, always forcing it on other people at parties, so her friends dressed her up in various wigs and massive sunglasses for the surprise finale. ‘They hired a Harry Potter-themed stripper for me; he had all the Harry Potter phrases and innuendoes. I was so touched, it was really such a thoughtful thing to do. They know me so well.

Robbie has been reading the Harry Potter books on a loop since she was eight years old. ‘Right now I am on the fifth book. I know what’s coming next when I turn the page. I can’t meditate and this is what I have to do to fall asleep. Vaughn [the director of Terminal] told me that if you have trouble sleeping, which I do, you should read something that you are very familiar with to calm you. If I read something new before I go to bed, my brain goes 1,000 miles an a hour. Reading Harry Potter makes me happy and calms me. I read for about an hour to two hours every night. My husband hates it.

She also loves magic tricks and has spent many an evening at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, where she and Ackerley have moved. ‘They always call me up on to the stage because I am always the one in the audience screaming. I give the best reactions.

Otherwise you will find her on the Warner Bros lot, where her production company is based, but despite the many projects she has in development, the thing that is getting her most fired up right now is her desire to do theatre. ‘I didn’t go to drama school and I didn’t go to university. I just really want to do theatre. The idea of doing it absolutely terrifies me, and I love that.

Determination has not, traditionally, been considered an attractive female trait. Women are told to be like the swan: graceful on the top, paddling like mad under the surface. Margot Robbie is exciting because she is happy to own her determination, happy to let the world see the beauty and the effort. ‘You can’t wait for it, you have to make it happen,’ she says, shaking my hand firmly.

‘Terminal’ is in cinemas now, and will be released on digital, DVD and Blu-ray on 6 August

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