Margot Robbie is becoming a bit disagreeable. Deliberately.
She graduated from soap opera actor in her native Australia to global movie star in 2014 with her first major role in a feature, hilariously intimidating an overmatched Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s hit “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Her sidesplitting turn as a sociopathic investment hustler’s glamorous, shrewd and stronger-than-expected spouse won raves as a smutty, funny standout.
Robbie has been impressing fans, critics and film studios ever since by playing quirky, formidable, not entirely admirable women. She has had ambitious turns as Will Smith’s larcenous love interest in the dark crime comedy “Focus” and as the flirtatious DC Comics supervillain Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad,” a role rumored to have launched her toward reprising the role in several spinoff films.
She’s now in theaters as Daphne Milne in “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” playing the wife of popular English author A.A. Milne and mother of the boy who inspired his Winnie-the-Pooh novels. The movie, which opened Friday, follows the family in the years between World War I and World War II. Daphne is a socialite with a fair degree of wit but no gift for the dull duties of home.
She repeatedly leaves her husband and son in the English countryside to return to the high life in London. She is essentially a visitor until she is drawn back by a degree of late-arriving maturity — not to mention Pooh’s surprising popular and financial success. Robbie takes a character that could be purely alienating and relentlessly selfish and makes her flamboyantly elegant and quite funny.
Daphne is partly based on the real person and partly a dramatic creation, Robbie said.
“There is not so much documentation on her as there is on Christopher Robin, obviously, and on A.A. Milne,” she said. “There is a book that the real Christopher Robin wrote as an adult that I was reading to help me adapt Daphne. Then I stopped reading it because his description of his mother was becoming more of a hindrance than a help.”
She credited prolific screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (“Welcome to Sarajevo”) with putting “an incredible character who was quite dimensional on the page.”
That she would be playing a woman imperfectly dealing with the demands of marriage and motherhood didn’t scare her off the role. On the contrary, it attracted her to it. Although Christopher Robin is shown being drawn to a much warmer relationship with his devoted governess than with his mother, “I don’t think she was a bad mother because of the amount of time she spent with the child,” Robbie argued.
“One of the things I had to educate myself and get my head around was that in those days for an aristocratic woman living in England, to spend a half-hour with her child at the beginning of the day and half an hour in the evening was commonplace. The rest of his time he would be with his nanny. So I don’t think she was being a bad mother in that sense.”
What hurt the mother-and-son relationship was the way that the immensely celebrated Pooh books changed the whole Milne family’s life for good and ill. Christopher Robin’s boyhood became a marketing device for the books.
“Giving the world Winnie-the-Pooh and the Pooh stories and Christopher Robin as a character along with them, I think she thought that was a nice thing to do without realizing that it was damaging her son’s childhood,” Robbie said. “In that sense, she made a mistake as a parent. For Daphne, the priority was always very clearly her husband and supporting him, being loyal to him, pushing his career forward in any way possible. Her child was very secondary to that.”
No firsthand experience
Although she’s worked professionally as an actor since she was 17, Robbie said she never had to deal with that sort of crush of publicity as a youth.
“I got to live out my childhood completely,” she said.
She moved from home on the family farm in Queensland to pursue acting in Melbourne “before becoming famous. So really my childhood, very outdoors, untouched by Hollywood, had a very clear end to it, and my adult life had a very clear beginning to it. I’m really fortunate it worked out that way.”
Robbie, 27, is in demand beyond her work on-screen. She has developed a deal with Warner Bros. to develop and produce female-centered feature films through her LuckyChap Entertainment production company. It has two films completed and ready for release and a third that she will star in beginning preproduction.
“It’s a lot more demanding than I ever imagined, and a lot more rewarding than I ever imagined,” she said. “I can’t just sit around waiting for roles and hope they’ll land on my lap.”
She will appear in theaters shortly as the star of LuckyChap’s “I, Tonya,” playing another difficult woman. She stars as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, the two-time Olympic champion who was accused of hiring a man to break competitor Nancy Kerrigan’s right leg, knocking her out of the 1994 Olympics.
Being just 3 ½ years old when the celebrated case occurred, Robbie said she first thought it was an edgy fictional satire. Once she learned it was a real story, the actress found its allure irresistible.
“Each role I play is very special and personal to me and has taught me a lot. Exploring Daphne taught me a lot about the time period. Every time I play a role I get to learn about this time or this place or this person. I learn so much I didn’t know.
“I didn’t go to university and I didn’t go to drama school. I’ve done a lot of educating of myself through the roles I’ve played. So now I play Tonya and then Queen Elizabeth the First [in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’]. They’re very different women, but playing them one after another is such a gift.”
While there is no official statement available about the upcoming Quentin Tarantino drama about the Manson Family murders, Robbie has been rumored to be part of its cast. While she disclosed no classified information, she said with hint-hint enthusiasm, “I am such a Tarantino fan. The biggest Tarantino fan. And at some point of my life I would absolutely kill to work with him.”