Jessica Chastain is in a good place. To be exact, she’s in Sydney, in the eye of a publicity tornado for new film Molly’s Game, but she has no complaints. The Hollywood actor has built a reputation for playing difficult – some would unlikeable – women, but in person she is warm, attentive and almost radioactively charming. She’s living proof that success and superstardom needn’t make you into a jerk.
This is just as well. Chastain has a zero-tolerance policy in that area.
“There are so many times over the last few years I’ve thought, you know, there are so many talented people in this world who aren’t jerks,” she says. “No-one should ever have to work with jerks.”
Little wonder, perhaps, that disgraced studio mogul Harvey Weinstein once claimed he’d rather go three rounds with Muhammad Ali than get into the ring with Chastain.
Today we’re talking about Molly Bloom, the fascinating real-life character at the heart of Molly’s Game. Forced to abandon Olympic ski-jumping after a horrific accident, Bloom moves to Los Angeles where she becomes hostess for a high-rolling underground poker game. Soon she is running exclusive – and somewhat illegal – games for billionaires, rock stars and famous actors.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, the film breathlessly covers similar territory to The Wolf of Wall Street, but with one notable difference. Where Wolf and its protagonist celebrated ruthless bad behaviour, Molly excels in her corrupt world without sacrificing her basic decency. Yes, she’s a criminal and drug addict, but Chastain has nothing but praise for her.
“I think she’s incredible because she’s an authentic portrayal of a woman. Many times we see male protagonists in films who are flawed and make mistakes but they’re still heroes. Rarely are women afforded that opportunity.”
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Google Jessica Chastain and it won’t be long before the phrase “strong women” shows up. It’s a shorthand for the sort of driven, forthright and capable characters she tends to play, but it’s a term Chastain herself resists. As a jury member at last year’s Cannes, she made headlines after criticising the depiction of women in the programmed films. She prefers “well-written” women who don’t always have to be “strong” to be considered likeable.
“A lot of people will say the characters I play are a bit unlikeable. I take great offence to that. Whenever someone tells me I’m playing an unlikeable character, I hope that what I’m doing is moving society’s image of women forward.”
She says she pushed Sorkin to include details about Bloom’s drug use, which the script originally danced around.
“For me, it’s wonderful to play a character who makes a lot of mistakes. She keeps falling down but she keeps getting back up.”
When it comes to resilience, it isn’t difficult to draw a line from Molly Bloom to the actor playing her. Success as an actor came fast but late to Chastain. Raised by a firefighter and a vegan chef, Jessica started performing aged 9 and trained at the prestigious Juilliard, but didn’t breakthrough into film until 2011, when she was in her mid-30s. Since then she’s made an extraordinary 25 features, won Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe, and has established her own production company dedicated to improving diversity on Hollywood screens. As if that wasn’t enough of a fairytale ending, she last year married Italian count (and wealthy fashion executive) Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo.
Although, like Bloom, she spent a long stretch unemployed in LA, Chastain says she can’t imagine going down a similar wormhole. Bloom, she says, was happy to change everything to fit into her world. Despite working in an industry that’s built on people pretending to be somebody else, Chastain has always had an unusual talent for being herself.
“For the longest time in LA I was getting advice on how to change my appearance – I should dye my hair blonde, all these things – and I just stuck with me.”
“Perhaps that’s why I was getting no luck at auditions!”
Molly’s Game is in cinemas now.