The luminous Jessica Chastain has a talent for playing strong female characters, like CIA agent Maya in Zero Dark Thirty and Washington power-player Elizabeth Sloane in Miss Sloane. In her latest film, Molly’s Game, she plays real-life  ‘Poker Princess’ Molly Bloom, the former freestyle skier who built a multi-million dollar empire hosting underground poker tournaments for the rich and famous.

During her recent visit to Sydney, we spoke to Jessica about bringing Molly to life onscreen, and working with renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who makes his directorial debut with Molly’s Game.

What did you know about Molly Bloom prior to becoming involved in the film? 

I didn’t know anything about her before I got offered the part. I had googled her after I read the script and was surprised that it was all a true story. I thought that Hollywood had juiced up the facts to make it more interesting, but no. It was shocking to me to discover how much of it was true.

What preparation did you do for the role? 

I met with Molly and people who knew her, and also people who had played in her games. They took me to a poker game that was happening in New York and I got to observe it.

Molly’s Game is a very assured debut for a first-time director. How did you find working with Aaron Sorkin – does he direct like he writes? 

[Laughs] Yeah. It’s his directorial debut, but he absolutely is a filmmaker, and now he’s finally starting to do this. I guess the thing with Aaron is he’s very confident. After a couple of takes he’d be happy and usually it was the DP or someone else who would say, ‘Can we have a few more takes?’ But he’s very confident in his directing style, and I imagine he must be that way with his writing as well.

From an acting perspective, what advantages are there when the writer is also the director?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with writer-directors multiple times, and I love it because whenever you’re working and developing the character, they’re there to make quick changes to the script – add a line here and there – and that allows you to delve into what you’re discovering each day as you’re playing the character. I love that kind of flexibility.

I’m happy to work from an instinctual place, but also a technical place, and I think you can also get that from someone like Aaron. As a writer he’s not precious with his words, but he’s very clear about what he wants.

Do you have a desire to direct?

If a script finds its way to me that makes me feel like I need to tell the story, absolutely I would be drawn to that. But I’m not out there seeking a story to direct; I have to be moved that it’s an important story to tell.

It’s mentioned in the film that Molly doesn’t want her story turned into a movie. What convinced her otherwise?

I think Molly was definitely looking to have her story turned into a film or television show, but what she was pushing against was how they were going to focus the story. There were a lot of people interested in telling her story, but they were focused on the shiny objects – the movie stars, the poker, the money, the sex…

I think she responded to Aaron’s take because it was such a multi-layered take on society and on this woman’s journey.

What did Molly Bloom think of the film?

She was very happy. It was very emotional. I was nervous of course to understand she was going to be in the audience and see the film for the first time. She’s very proud of it.

Molly is the real power player in a world of powerful men, and remarkably resilient. What do you admire most about her?

I really admired that she’s a person who no matter how many times she falls down, she gets right back up. I think it’s so inspiring to see that; to know it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s ok to fail, because we learn more when we fail. It doesn’t matter how many times we fall down, it matters that we get up each time.

There has been a resurgence in great roles for women of late, including yourself as Molly Bloom, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Has Hollywood finally woken up and realised the appeal of a strong female protagonist?

This year is an incredible year for women. Not only in terms of the critically acclaimed and award films. If you look at the United States, the top three films at the box office were films with female protagonists. I think people have begun to understand that stories about women are just as interesting as stories about men, and they’re also realising that making a story about a female protagonist is good business – they make money!  

Do you have a personal favourite character that you’ve played, or film you’ve done?

A personal favourite film I’ve done would definitely be The Tree of Life, because for me, it goes beyond what the film is. It’s not a film that follows any formula that we’re used to; it’s more like a visual poem. Also, as unique as it was, it was very important for my career because I was a complete unknown actress starring opposite Brad Pitt.

It was important to me in terms of my emotional life, because to work with Terrence Malick and that group of people was one of the best times of my life. It was so collaborative and loving. To play the embodiment of grace was a wonderful thing to wake up to every day.

Molly’s Game is in cinemas now. Check out our review.