"The more I heard of the real story, the more I wanted to write this right now," says Aaron Sorkin, talking about his exhilarating new film Molly's Game. It's no surprise: the acclaimed screenwriter – who makes his directorial debut – has often been drawn to fascinating real-life figures for his scripts, whether it's the young Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (which won Sorkin an Oscar), the eponymous co-founder of tech giant Apple in Steve Jobs or sports guru Billie Beane in Moneyball.
Now he’s taking on American entrepreneur Molly Bloom, a former competitive skier who started organising high-stakes poker tournaments in Los Angeles and New York. “This was a unique heroine found in an unlikely place, and this was a story about many things, including doing the right thing,” says Sorkin. “It appealed to my sense of romanticism and idealism.”
Bloom, who grew up in Colorado, rapidly became a woman riding high in a very masculine environment.
Sorkin was originally given Bloom's memoir Molly's Game by an entertainment lawyer, who represented her. Sorkin, who calls the book a "wild ride", admits he had tabloid-fuelled preconceptions about Bloom when he first met her. Then he got hooked. "The book was the tip of the iceberg. There was much more to this story and it was a much bigger, deeper and more emotional story than how she became the biggest game runner in the world," he says.
While her exclusive underground card games attracted Hollywood celebrities, sports figures and Wall Street financiers, they also caught the attention of the FBI. In April 2013, the so-called "poker princess" was arrested and charged, along with 33 others, as part of a US$100 million (Dh367 million) money laundering and illegal sports gambling operation. It was a crushing blow for a woman who had arrived in Los Angeles with nothing to her name after a skiing accident left her sports career in tatters.
Sorkin spent hours with Bloom, exploring every aspect of her story. “She immediately struck me as brilliant, as strong as a tree, with a very sly sense of humour. And she’s built out of integrity.” It’s probably why – despite writing a bestselling memoir – she never considered it was fodder for a film. “That was one of the very many appealing things about her. She didn’t see herself as a movie heroine. Not the way I did. She was surprised to be painted that way.”
With a cast including Kevin Costner and Idris Elba, taking centre stage is Jessica Chastain, the two-time Oscar nominee who has already carved a career out playing powerful women (a CIA suit hunting Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty; a political lobbyist in Miss Sloane). The story "explores our society as we are right now," says the 40-year-old actress, who admits she plastered pictures of reality TV mega-stars, the Kardashian family, all over her trailer to inspire her portrayal of Bloom.
“For me it was very much a Kardashian story,” she explains. “I was thinking, ‘Who are the most powerful women in this society we live in and how did they get their power?’ And it was the Kardashians.” Like Kim Kardashian and her sisters, Bloom lived a luxurious lifestyle, although she was never one for celebrity or the limelight. In fact, while actors like Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck are said to have attended her games, she largely kept the identities of her players a secret.
Sorkin had no wish to expose people either. “I didn’t want to name anybody,” he says. “I knew there was going to be no avoiding ‘Who is this supposed to be?’ But I was hoping to minimise the detective hunt, because it’s not what the movie is about. As far as naming anybody, that’s not something I’d want to do under any circumstances. I’m not up for gossip. But certainly in a movie where your heroine is heroic because she’s unwilling to name people, the movie that she’s in can’t then go ahead and name people.”
Nor is the film really about the allure of gambling; in fact, it takes a dim view of its addictive nature (at one point, Bloom is seen to pull one player aside and send him packing because he's on a neverending losing streak). Rather, Molly's Game is a film about the male-female dynamic.
“I think I knew it was going to be about gender politics before I started writing it, just talking to Molly,” says Sorkin, who adds that his heroine moved in circles where men could crush you if weren’t paying enough attention to them.
In an era when issues ranging from pay inequality for actresses to widespread accusations of sexual misconduct have resonated throughout Hollywood, Molly's Game suddenly feels unerringly prescient, with its protagonist something of a feminist icon. "The movie, it turns out, is even more relevant than we expected it to be," says Sorkin. "[But] I would happily trade the fortuitous timing of this for a world in which it wasn't as relevant."
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Chastain sees the film’s themes – and Molly’s desires – as wider than simply related to Hollywood. “In reality, she wanted to have power over her own life. She wanted to have power over her body. She wanted to have power over industry. And I think we’re living in a society where women are now speaking to that. It’s not about having power over men; it’s about having power over our own agency. And so for me the film is very timely.”
Already the film has seen Sorkin nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, while Chastain has gained a nod for Best Actress in the drama category – the fifth time she’s been up for a Globe. It’s a credible end to a story that began with Sorkin assuming his subject “was someone who was just going to be cashing in on her decade-long brush with celebrity”.
Those preconceptions are made to be challenged, it seems. “Little by little, as we got more comfortable with each other, I discovered who Molly really was. I wanted to dramatise that.”
Molly’s Game opens in UAE cinemas on January 4