GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File / Mike Coppola
Jessica Chastain struggled initially to relate to Molly Bloom, the former ski champion turned "poker princess" hostess to the rich and famous at Hollywood's most exclusive high stakes card tables.
It wasn't until Chastain met Tinseltown's goddess of gambling as part of her research into playing Bloom in upcoming biopic "Molly's Game" that she began to understand the high-rolling impresario's motivations.
Growing up in Colorado, Bloom seemed destined to follow her Olympian brother Jeremy into elite level skiing, until an injury brought a halt to her dreams and she turned her attention to underground poker.
She earned a fortune hosting illegal gambling for Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, as well as politicians and Wall Street titans, taking eye-watering stakes from her illustrious clientele, fueled by cocaine.
At her height, Bloom claimed to be making $4 million a year, but things fell apart when she made the mistake of insisting on a cut of the pot, rather than just making her living from tips, which pushed her activities into the bracket of organized crime.
Her dealings also came to the notice of Mafia mobsters, who began demanding their own share, before one of her games was raided by FBI agents and all her possessions were seized.
"To understand how she got trapped by these people, this was hard and I think I was guilty of some judgment," California native Chastain told AFP.
"We as a society have fallen to the pattern of blaming women for things, the way they look, dismissing them, shaming them for revealing their bodies. I absolutely had that judgment before I met her."
- Uncompromising -
Chastain, 40, nominated for a best actress Golden Globe for her turn as the hostess, said she came to see Bloom as "a creation from this patriarchy" who did what was necessary to "be visible, to be heard" in a man's world.
"It comes from her childhood. Her dad made it clear that he made the rules," the actress said in an interview in Beverly Hills.
"She would have to follow them until she makes her own money. So she goes for an industry where she feels she can get that liberty."
Valued for her discretion and able to earn millions of dollars a year at her peak, Bloom was privy to some of the darkest and most valuable secrets of the rich and famous.
The movie, due for release on Christmas Day, does not name or represent onscreen any specific personalities, but Bloom's 2014 memoir shocked and amused Hollywood with its tales of A-list poker parties.
Charmed by Ben Affleck -- "he's nice to everyone," she says -- Bloom was less impressed by Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire, describing him as "the worst tipper, the best player and the absolute worst loser."
Bloom wrote that the "Seabiscuit" star once told her to "bark like a seal who wants a fish" for a $1,000 chip. She refused.
Dressed simply in stylish gray pants and a white shirt, her porcelain features a study in placid composure, Chastain exudes a personal style that is the antithesis of the brash outfits and thick makeup Bloom wears in the film.
- Iron-willed -
The flame-haired actress, who already has a Golden Globe for military thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" and two Oscar nominations, made her name in 2011 with "The Tree of Life" and "The Help."
She has been one of the most vocal proponents of the #MeToo social media campaign against sexual assault, set up after veteran producer Harvey Weinstein was brought down by more than 100 allegations of misconduct.
Sweetly-spoken but iron-willed, the tenacious graduate of prestigious New York performing arts conservatory the Julliard School says she learns her lines methodically until they flow "like music."
Chastain says "Molly's Game" director Aaron Sorkin, celebrated for his sharp, back-and-forth dialogue in "The West Wing," "A Social Network" and "Steve Jobs," may well be the best screenwriter in Hollywood.
"I studied the classics -- Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen -- and he has this way, he has a rhythm just like Shakespeare had," said Chastain.
"Aaron's dialogue is like that. So if you drop the ball on that pace, you lose it. So I wanted to be word perfect on his script."
At the heart of the "Molly's Game" is the relationship between Molly and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who encourages her to cooperate with the police and give up her celebrity former clients.
"She gives away piece after piece of who she is and she goes to Charlie Jaffey's office and you kind of see this shell of this person: 'They took all my money so they could give it back to me for all this gossip,'" said Chastain.
Bloom stopped cooperating but avoided jail time when she was sentenced in 2014 to a year probation after admitting to being a key player in an illegal $100 million gambling ring.
"She goes, 'My name is Molly Bloom -- this is who I am --' and it's the first time in the movie she does that," said Chastain, explaining Bloom's change of heart.
"I don't see it as protecting others, I see it as, for the first time, protecting herself and her integrity."
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