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I’m a gamer, always have been.

Interview: Jessica Chastain Talks Poker, Women, and Working with Aaron Sorkin in Molly’s Game

“I’m learning a lot and that’s what a good writer does. Aaron started writing Molly’s Game a few years ago, but of course while he was writing it people were criticizing Hillary every second, and that was part of our society. A good script that also serves good social commentary has layer after layer of meanings. Idris said something that expanded my heart and my mind about what Sorkin wrote when he told how his character Charlie judges Molly when he first meet her and it’s his daughter who reminds him, “You need to look at this woman.”

“Only a woman can understand what it’s like to be a woman,” says Jessica Chastain.

It’s Sunday morning in Beverly Hills and Chastain hits the nail on the head. She is talking here about a scene in Molly’s Game when defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) changes his  attitude towards his client Molly Bloom. Google the name Molly Bloom and “cocktail waitress” and “poker madam” are words that often come up. Molly Bloom is of course a real-life person — or, as the tabloids proclaimed her, “A real-life Poker Princess.”

In Aaron Sorkin’s new film Molly’s Game, the first outing as director by the renowned writer, we swiftly learn that his take on her story is anything but tabloid fodder. Molly Bloom did indeed wait tables, she did indeed have her hand in poker, but in Sorkin’s directorial debut, we get to see a fierce and inspiring woman who empowered herself in a man’s world and rose to prominence within it.

Chastain delivers one of the year’s best performances in this fast-moving world of a woman who plays with fire, a woman who ignores the boundaries set by men who think they should hold all the power. Molly’s Game is one of the best films of the year. I sat down with Chastain to talk about playing a woman who abides by her own moral code to empower herself in a man’s world.

It’s easy for a lot of people to judge Molly Bloom. We see the book cover, we read the headlines, and we make the judgment.

Yes, we all looked at the pictures. We completely judged her because the media puts that out.
Society tells women that they’re valuable based on their sexual desirability. So many women try to become sexually desirable and then the media shames them for the way they present themselves to the world.

They build them up, they knock them down.

It’s all about whether someone is attractive, soft, if they smile enough, they’re not wearing too many pantsuits. It’s like, “she’s sexually provocative or she’s a slut.” It’s the shaming and it makes me nuts.

When is it ever going to change?

I mention in the film that the players tell Molly how to dress and Idris said to me today that Charlie also tells her she needs to “Change your clothes. It’s the cinemax version of yourself.” So she changes and becomes more sexually desirable and then she becomes too sexually desirable. All these men are telling her how to present herself in order to be taken seriously by groups of men.

But she rises above all of it.

At the end of the movie, she says you are all changing the rules on me. She says she doesn’t want to play by these rules.

That’s not the first impression we have of her when we pick that book up or Google her name.

That’s what’s so brilliant about Aaron. He says, “The book is good, but there is a better story away from the book.” Why did she hang out with all these guys in LA and New York.? There’s that scene when Charlie tells Molly, “You stopped writing your book when the best part happened.” Charlie is Aaron Sorkin. Aaron has said he wrote that character and Charlie’s journey as his journey.

What was your first reaction when you read the script by Aaron? Again, it was a judgment thing about Aaron, in that I thought, “He’s going to write this story and direct this story about this woman?”

It’s interesting, right? I’m having an emotional time talking about this film because Aaron Sorkin is the most successful writer in Hollywood. For his directorial debut, he’s a white man who could have told any story he wanted to tell. There are so many filmmakers in our industry, people who have worked for over thirty years who are very successful and can do anything they want. He chose to tell this story and I think that’s because if you look back at his career he is a political filmmaker. He does social commentary and has his finger is on the pulse. There are filmmakers I want to work with and I look at their IMDb and see they’ve never had a female protagonist and they’re such celebrated filmmakers.

That’s shocking.

It is. If you look at it, they’ve worked for thirty years and they’ve done maybe one movie with a female lead. Are women not interesting? I’ve talked to a lot of people before I did this film, and a lot of people’s reactions were, “Wow, you’re going to work with Aaron?” I said, “You guys don’t understand what he’s doing.” What he’s doing is so incredibly admirable and wonderful and it’s what more people in the industry need to be doing. No one was giving him credit for it and that’s what I don’t understand. They were looking at pictures of Molly.

Poker is such a man’s world.

So is Hollywood. So is Wall Street and so is the White House. How interesting for Aaron to write to this film about this man’s world.

And this female within it.

Who is trying to find success, where in her dialogue she says, “The rules changed based on the whims of men.” He actually wrote that line.

He’s a genius. It’s an all-round great directorial debut. 

I don’t say this in front of him because it makes him uncomfortable, but he has a female cinematographer. He decided to tell this story, and when I first got this script, there’s nothing in there that says Charlie is an African-American man. He cast Idris because he was the best man for the role. He didn’t change one word of dialogue, nothing changed just because he cast Idris. He broke all kinds of stereotypes that this industry had.

From the Molly that you saw on the script to the Molly we see in the film, how much did that change in your eyes?

On screen, there’s a lot more about the look of the character. The dialogue where she says, “I went out and bought a dress that made me look nothing like myself” — all of that is there, but for me being a woman, a woman understands what a woman has to do. I talked a lot to Molly. For me, it’s a lot more than just wearing flashy clothes. It’s the transformation to get to that point to say, “How can I not be invisible in this world? What do women have to do to be invisible?”

I’m not judgmental. A woman should be able to wear whatever she wants to wear. She can cover up as much of her body as she wants to. She can show what she wants to show. I am not going to judge that woman. But also, nobody should be telling a woman how she should present herself in this world. Twice in the script, she’s told she’s not dressed appropriately.

What did you say to Susan, your costume designer about Molly’s evolution?

I went to a game in New York and met players who had played with Molly. I saw women in Herve Leger dresses and I saw they were not dressed for comfort.

And, I noticed the heels are severe.

Yes. The games last for hours, I sat there for four hours before leaving. Some of them last for days and I called Aaron telling him we needed bandeau dresses.

When I first talked to Susan, I told her plunging. Being an actress, we all know on social media that if a girl wears a bikini how many likes that gets. If I put a photo of myself on the red carpet or a picture of myself sitting on the bench, I know that picture or the picture of me on the red carpet is going to get more likes than of me sitting in sweatpants and a tank top because that’s what society wants to be fed.

It’s worse when it’s a teenager and you see that someone who is barely an adult has 10,000 likes.

Society is being groomed. If we have people like Aaron Sorkin, people who are artists, thinkers and people who do social commentary say, “This isn’t right. I have been a part of this industry and I’ve been blind to it. How do we change it?”

The media needs to stop doing it too because they have a part to play too. We all do.

Our first day of shooting was after the election and it was so emotional. Aaron looked at me and sent me the email he wrote to his daughter: “I dropped the ball.” It was so beautiful.

What did you learn from meeting with Molly?

I had to keep asking her why. But there was so much about the father.

And that was a great moment on the bench with Kevin Costner at the end because it explained so much.

What’s interesting is that because people, in the beginning, misjudged Aaron’s intentions right? There’s a lot of mansplaining in the movie. How do you make a film about patriarchy without it?

You absolutely can not.

It starts out where you think, the father is going to tell her what’s wrong and she’s going to have an epiphany. He’s telling her he’s a hypocrite. He was the moral authority in the household and everything she thought was wrong about herself isn’t true. It’s a moment for him! At the end of the movie, she’s holding him and telling him that it’s OK.

It was a beautiful scene. What did you have to learn about the terminology?

I Googled everything because “All in,” “Has the nuts.” I went to games, I watched games because Molly doesn’t play.

She doesn’t. She observes and she learns, but she never touches the game.

There was no reason for me to gamble money because Molly doesn’t believe in gambling. She’s a hard worker and she doesn’t believe in chance, so there was no reason for me to do that.

I wanted to thank you for being a strong voice for women on social media and in all you do.

We have to realize there’s a great myth, and when I talk about the grooming that happens from this young age, we’ve all been groomed to think that we are replaceable. We are not. When you look at colleges, you realize how many women are going. There are so many women that are working in the industry and they work so hard. We have to look at ourselves and understand that we are not replaceable because that’s the greatest myth that has been implanted into society. Once we understand that, so when people think they can do things without us, we’ve been working for less money and twice as hard, good luck with that. I think employers are starting to understand the value women are giving their companies.

When I did Zero Dark Thirty, I think the CIA realized how important women were in their search for Bin Laden, so we have to dispel that myth.

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Molly’s Game is screening at the AFI Fest on November 12 and November 14 and will be released on December 25.