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AFI Fest Interview: Idris Elba On Working with Jessica Chastain and Starring in Aaron Sorkin’s Directorial Debut In Molly’s Game

Idris Elba is sitting in a Beverly Hills Hotel on a Sunday morning recalling the time he saw A Few Good Men and thinking how lucky Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson were to recite lines like those. Theat 1992 screenplay by Aaron Sorkin is filled with memorable quotes, perhaps the most memorable being, “You can’t handle the truth.” 25 years later, Elba can now add a Sorkin project to his body of work.

We’re talking about his role in Molly’s Game as Charley Jaffey, the lawyer hired by Molly Bloom to defend her case when she faces federal prosecution. It is a stunning, show-stopping performance and Elba delivers the piercing Sorkin dialogue with ace precision. He tells me that prior to his ten days in Toronto filming Molly’s Game, he had been kickboxing for a documentary he was working on. Though the two films required a completely different mindset, when he wasn’t fighting he was memorizing his lines at Sorkin’s instruction. In between takes, he and co-star Jessica Chastain would rehearse in front of the crew, and the end result is a brilliant and razor-sharp performance.

Molly’s Game will screen at the AFI this weekend and will be released in December.

The thing about Molly Bloom is we are so fast to judge who she is. How did you first hear about her?

Google. If I’m really honest. I didn’t know that much about her, but I had some preconceived notions about who she was.

The script came in and it was Aaron Sorkin sending me a script and I was really excited by that, so I looked her up. I think the first thing I noticed about her was that she looked like a very glamorous girl. I used to live in LA and knew that circuit a little bit. It was glamorous and I’d get messages about a secret party. “Come over.” I read the script and then was really inspired. I didn’t read the book because my character isn’t in the book. I wasn’t as judgmental of Molly Bloom because she sounded like she was pretty smart as far as what she was doing. In the movie, she is also depicted that way.

Your character has such sharp dialogue and that pivotal scene is something I think only Sorkin could write and only you could execute. What was it like learning all that lingo given it was a super tight shoot for you?

It was a bottleneck for me. It was a real challenge, but a good one. It was one actor’s work their ways towards and having that Aaron Sorkin moment. I remember watching A Few Good Men thinking, “What? Who gets to say these words? Tom Cruise of course.” I had a short window to make this film because I committed to making The Mountains Between Us.

So you went from Toronto to 10,000 degrees above sea level?

Yes. Right after making Molly’s Game, I went there. Aaron was very clear about memorizing the work. I’ve seen actors try not to do it and they think they can wing it and it doesn’t work. For me, I saw it as a challenge because, at the time, I was doing this documentary about professional kickboxing and I was surrounded by professional fighters. We had a fight in Thailand and then we moved to London and this was in the five days leading up to seeing Aaron Sorkin. I was training twice a day, on this crazy diet, and I was having moments wondering what I was doing and asking myself why was I having this fight when I’m 45 years old. I had Aaron on the phone asking if the guy who was doing the fight was okay, the whole time I was doing that fight, I was reading the script, memorizing it and I got to set and worked immediately and it was great.

Talk about that diverse mindset, of going from fighting to being a lawyer, to the mountains.

I moved from Thailand to London because the Thai king died and we couldn’t fight there. I had a week of training in London, I fought, and I flew to Toronto, landed that same day and the next day I was doing Sorkin dialogue, and the day after I finished I went straight up a mountain with Kate Winslet. I was fried.

What was it like being on set when you’re saying those Sorkin lines and working with Jessica?

It was theater. It felt like that. We rehearsed the scenes in front of the crew. They watched and we shot that and we’d go off and do it. Jessica and I used every minute to memorize and go back and forth and that was the key.

Charlie and Molly were getting to know each other in the same way that Idris and Jessica were getting to know each other. I didn’t know Jessica too well and she didn’t know me, and even though we were having to trust each other on the words, that environment felt like I was back at college and this was my exam study partner. Aaron was our teacher, that’s what it felt like.

What was your way into Charlie?

I completely trusted the words. I knew what Aaron was saying, this was me, this is my point of view of the story. You’re playing a defense lawyer, and that speech is me. This story is incredible, but this woman is more incredible and you can not send her to jail for this shit. I have a daughter and I related to Charlie and Stella’s relationship. I could also the duality of Molly and her father. I didn’t have much time to do it and I asked a lot of questions.