As soon I started speaking to Molly Bloom over the phone, I had to check my ears — that wasn’t actually Jessica Chastain, doing interviews in character, was it? The breathy, measured tone that Chastain adopts as the infamous “poker princess” in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game was all there on the other end of the line, but as we spoke, it was clear that Bloom herself was under a hell of a lot less stress than the bandage-dress-clad screen incarnation. She’s no longer secretly running multimillion-dollar poker games in the back rooms and hotel suites of Hollywood, for one thing. She’s also no longer on trial for illegal gambling. This might be the most relaxed she’s been in years — even with the occasional inconvenience of needing a waiver from Canadian authorities in order to see the premiere of your own film.
Chastain’s Molly is notably the first front-and-center female protagonist that Sorkin, a pop poet of the male ego, has written. But the film’s source material, Bloom’s dishy 2014 book Molly’s Game, which details her experiences as an underground celebrity poker mogul, is at its core a classic story of hubris, both on the part of the heroine and her rich and powerful clients. And it’s a rare female-driven story of near-psychotic ambition, obsession, and vice that can stand alongside any sweat-drenched Scorsese hero. Sorkin will get the Oscar push, but Bloom’s story, which would be compelling even without all the juicy name-dropping and excess, is the reason why.
I spoke to Bloom about working with Chastain and Sorkin, the bad old days of pre-recession L.A., and what will happen when she inevitably bumps into one of her old clients on the awards circuit.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
First of all, your book. If I hadn’t known it was being adapted by Aaron Sorkin, I probably would have assumed it was going to be.
Would you have?
Yeah! I mean, all the bombast and ego, all these chest-thumping guys. It felt very in his wheelhouse.
I thought so too! But when I was trying to pitch the book in Hollywood, I kept saying, “Guys, I really think Aaron would be great with this material!” and people were laughing at me.
Maybe they’re not self-aware enough to see themselves in the story.
I know! I’m the Poker Princess, and I was like, “I don’t know why we have to keep using that [phrase.]” I mean, I get the alliteration …
Well, “Poker Princess” makes it sound like more of a rom-com. And although you’re the narrator of this story and you’re driving it, in many ways it’s a story that’s very incisively about men.
Yes, I think it’s both. We have a female at the center of it, but it’s a woman in a man’s world.
And as an outsider, you had enough remove to kind of see through these guys and be an observer.
Sometimes! [Laughs] Sometimes I would.
So when you did start working with Sorkin, how did that partnership work? What were you really adamant about, and what did he put his own spin on?
So, I got to him because I was really going to all the agencies and meeting with everyone, asking, “Who can introduce me to Sorkin?” Ken Hertz became my lawyer and he said, “I think he’d love this,” so he sent Aaron the story. Aaron and I met, and then he read my book and got in contact with me again.
Interestingly enough, the character of Idris [Elba] in the movie — how in the beginning he thinks [Molly is] one thing and then realizes she’s another — Aaron had said that was like his journey with it. I was living in Colorado at my mom’s at the time, and just kind of going back and forth with him, answering his questions. And as he asked those questions, it was clear he was trying to find a way into the story in a very different way than other people had. He wanted to know a lot about my athletic career, my relationship with my father. I just casually mentioned to him the video interviews that my Dad did with us when we were little — which are in the film — and he wanted to see all of those. I was just laughing about it because, when I was 12, I had headgear and a back brace, and [in one of the videos] my Dad asks me, “What’s your favorite thing about yourself?” and I sincerely looked at the camera with my headgear and my back brace and said, “Just the fact that I have pretty much everything going for me.” And I meant it! And Aaron was like, “I need to see all of them.” I was like, “Really?”
He was very interested in this person and who she was, as opposed to most people, who were like, “Tell me about the celebrities! What did they drink? What did they eat?” He came at it from a very different angle.
Did you have any input on any of it once it got to production? Just as a consultant, as someone who was there?
No. I worked very closely with Aaron and his team during the research phase, and then, understandably, I didn’t go to the set. I didn’t want to appear heavy-handed or look like I was involved in the actual moviemaking.
I’m assuming that, for legal reasons, you couldn’t name the names in the film that you did in the book, but now it’s kind of an open secret that “Player X” is Tobey Maguire, for example. Have you heard from any of the actual players as the film’s premiere approaches? There’s a lot of visibility now, even if it’s supposedly “anonymous.”
No, I haven’t heard from anyone. I haven’t heard from them for a long time.
It feels like it would be inevitable that you bump into someone at some kind of awards-season event or something.
It does, and that might happen! I hope it’s a situation where it’s a pleasant run-in. It was an interesting time in my life. I had relationships with people and I understood after I got in trouble why no one wanted to get in touch. I got that. But I hope it’s all good now.
Besides the names, there’s a lot in the film that isn’t in the book, and one thing that stood out to me in particular was that it talks about your drug use during this time. You had this chance to tell your story again, with Aaron. What made you feel you were ready to talk about some of these more difficult subjects?
You know, when I was writing this book I don’t think that I had fully … conceded that I was a drug addict or an alcoholic. I think I thought it was a hard period in my life, that that was just contextual, and I came to realize that really wasn’t the case at all: that I really was an addict. I leaned into a 12-step program and I think that helped me come to terms with it, but that was after the book was published. So I was really happy that Aaron did discuss the drug use, because that was a big part of it, and it was also liberating for me on some level. After living your life for so long in secret because of the nature of the game, and the component of doing drugs, and all these things … to be able to live transparently and own it all is a much better place.
It clicks a lot of things into place, as far as the psychology of the story goes.
Yeah, and it’s exhausting and lonely to constantly live in secret! I couldn’t tell my boyfriend’s parents what I did! I could barely tell my parents what I did. You’re as sick as your secrets, and my whole life was a secret, so it’s just … it’s been really healing and I’ve found a lot of inner peace by just owning everything and moving forward from there.
The other thing I like both about your book and the movie is that it’s kind of a weird period piece about a certain era of Hollywood and New York. Do you have any insights on that pre-recession, everything-on-steroids era of bros? Looking back on that, what do you make of it?
Well, the game started pre-2008, which is when everything fell apart, but they continued into … it was like 2003 to 2011. It’s interesting to see both sides of it. I thought the L.A. games became much more affected by the financial crisis than New York, which is interesting because my New York games were all Wall Street guys. But somehow, they had stayed insulated. You’d expect that in 2009, the year I came to New York City, it would be difficult to put together the biggest poker game in the world, but it wasn’t at all.
It’s like a gambling addiction is just a small version of what was happening to the economy — even after that big of a loss, you don’t rethink your behavior, you just go back in.
Exactly. I think that’s really insightful that you say that, because that’s what it was. People ask me all the time, “What was it about this game? What attracted people to it?” I think it’s a couple of things. The guys that played with this much privilege, access, fame, didn’t want things anymore. Things weren’t interesting to them. They wanted experiences. They wanted to feel the concept of scarcity again. But there was also a large component to it that was addiction. This was not hanging out with your buddies after work and playing for a couple of hours with reasonable stakes. This was losing millions and millions of dollars, playing for a couple of days at a time, and that’s unmanageable.
In the book you really paint that picture once you get to the multi-day games, and it’s just like … ugh. Everything’s fueled by Red Bull and cocaine. It’s just too much.
I used to be in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel running these games, and they’d be going on for days, and I’d watch these people walk to work, you know? I’d watch them walk home, and then I’d watch them after work, and watch them walk home again. It was a really dark time for me, because I imagined them walking home to their families and their lives, and I was just in this tower of a degenerate empire that I’d built, and I didn’t feel empowered anymore. I just felt sick.
Jessica Chastain is incredible in the film.
She blew my mind.
Did you spend a lot of time with her developing the character? I guess I’ve never heard an interview with you in person, but it’s crazy because now I realize her voice sounds exactly like yours.
Isn’t that crazy? My family and friends are like, “Oh my god — it’s you!” Jess didn’t have a lot of time to prep for this because she had a lot of projects and we had a short prep time on the movie. So we didn’t hang out that much, but in the time we did, I was like, “I need to be on my best behavior and give her as much as I can.” But she’s so real and disarming that I felt like I was hanging out with a friend. I lost sight that she was even doing her work or processing it. It was just a few times, a few phone calls, and she just went away. I was like, “Wait, doesn’t she need more?” But when I saw her on the screen I was just floored! She’s so brilliant.
Yeah, it’s such an intense performance, even though it’s not really that physical or anguished or anything. It’s just mentally intense.
I think it was incredible how well she communicated, at least to me, the strength underlying her vulnerability. She showed such incredible strength, but you can always see her soul under it. I think she really developed a very layered and compelling character — not because it’s me! It’s always tricky to talk about this, because I am such an incredible fan of the movie. It is such a great movie. But it doesn’t feel like it’s such an incredible fan of …[Laughs]
“It’s my life! It’s so awesome!”
I just want to establish that when I talk about the movie, you know, it’s the artistic interpretation and not, like, what I did!
But you also have to know that you have an amazing story on your hands. You wouldn’t have written the book otherwise!
Yeah, I did know that the story was my best asset to get out of trouble, and I wish sometimes that it wasn’t, that I could land on a different solution. There’s some implications to telling your story and exposing yourself in that way that are uncomfortable. When I took inventory of the wreckage that I’d created, I felt that the best way out, the most monetizable asset, was to write it. It became healing to write, but I was also in crisis-survival mode. My mom had put her house up to bail me out of jail! My criminal attorney had vouched for me with his firm. It wasn’t just my life on the line, a lot of other people were affected, so it made the decision easier.
So now that you’re kind of winding down this multiyear “way out” of your poker life, do you think you’d still be interested in film or writing, or would you want to go to something completely different?
Yeah, I don’t think I necessarily have a huge talent, or any talent, with the film world. I think I just got really lucky with the people who want to tell my story. I think my gift lies in being a startup entrepreneur and creating environments and experiences. But this time around, I’m certain it has to have meaning. I’m very interested in this co-working space for women, and possibly building a digital layer. I’ve seen what power women have in unification, and I would love to create co-working spaces and networks for female entrepreneurs. That’s what I’m looking at right now.