For Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, the notoriously verbose screenwriter tackles something new: a female-driven story about a woman who traded on her wits as much as her own words. Featuring Jessica Chastain in the eponymous lead role, “Molly’s Game” is based on the fact-based book of the same title, penned by skier-turned-high-stakes-poker-maven Molly Bloom. The film is classic Sorkin — a chatty, fast-moving offering that doesn’t let up on its audience or its stars. Chastain, as ever, was up for the task.
But first she needed to do something that the film itself aims for: discover that Bloom, who rose to the heights of Hollywood’s secret poker society only to be nailed by the FBI and nearly ruined in the process, is not just likable, but genuinely sympathetic. At a press conference held today at the Toronto International Film Festival, mere hours after the film bowed at the Elgin Theatre in a covetable Friday night berth, Chastain admitted that she struggled with that from the beginning.
“I absolutely judged Molly before I met her,” Chastain said. “I found out that Aaron was doing this film about Molly Bloom, I googled Molly Bloom, and I thought, ‘Okay, all right, I see what this is.’ I read the script and I talked to Aaron, but I felt, ‘There’s something else going on here.’ And [then] I met Molly.”
Sorkin also met Bloom early on in the process, and found the experience so engaging that it inspired him to tackle the project. Chastain was similarly charmed by her, but she also discovered how much the two outspoken women had in common.
“The more time I spent with her, the more I really started to understand the position that she had been forced to be in,” she said. “She went from competitive sports, where the rules are very clear — if you’re fastest, you win — to, all of a sudden, an industry that is traditionally male-dominated, and they made all the rules. They told her how she needed to dress… her livelihood is dependent on whether or not they feel she’s giving them enough attention on their egos. I had a lot of empathy for her because of that.”
Split over the course of two time periods, the film tracks both Molly’s rise to the big leagues (after learning the ropes from a boss who initially dominated the Los Angeles poker scene) and the fallout when her game is exposed to the authorities. As her life changes, so does her look, with the once-plainly dressed Molly kitting herself out in glamorous dresses, dazzling heels, and major makeup. Yet she maintains that the film, frequently interspersed with Chastain in voiceover, doesn’t lean into the sex appeal of her character, instead telling the tale from her vantage point.
“One thing that I really respect about this film, and what Aaron did and what [cinematographer] Charlotte [Christensen] did with Molly, is we listen to what she has to say. Even though she is wearing this persona, the camera doesn’t fetishize her,” Chastain said.
She added, “In the past, whenever we see a sexy [character] like her, the camera runs up her leg, or you see Molly Bloom as her body, not as her person and what she’s actually saying. In this film, because it is a voiceover and because we are with Molly the whole time, who she is and what she says are the most important elements of the film and of the person.”
Over the years, Chastain has become known not just for her onscreen portrayals of strong women, but for her outspoken approach to an industry that often doesn’t value women, both in front of and behind the camera. When asked about the process that goes into picking her projects, she was blunt about why she goes for the parts she does.
“I’m really aware of what I am putting out into the world,” she said. “If I’m part of the society and I’m part of the industry, then I’m part of the problem, right? So what am I doing to contribute in a positive way? To move the needle in a positive way? That, to me, means playing characters that are complicated, playing women that are complicated. Playing women that aren’t just this angelic persona of perfection or just this sexy object of desire.”
Those kind of characters clearly include women like Molly Bloom, and more.
“I’m interested in playing characters, women, authentic women that I know in my life, who make a lot of mistakes, who are noble sometimes, who are competitive sometimes, and who can get quite messy sometimes,” Chastain said. “That to me, right now, [are] the most interesting roles, because I think when we can accept those roles, then women will know that they don’t have to try to force themselves into an old-fashioned stereotype.”
“Molly’s Game” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. STX will release it in theaters on November 22.