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'It's not about having power over men, it's about taking control of our lives'

 

Hollywood star Jessica Chastain and writer Aaron Sorkin talk to Laura Harding about Hollywood in the wake of the sexual harassment scandal, the new code of conduct brought in by the Academy and the timeliness of their new film, Molly's Game.

Jessica Chastain is a warrior. She might not be wearing armour or brandishing a weapon, but make no mistake, she is a warrior.

There is a battle going on, not just in Hollywood, but across the wider world, and Jessica is fighting in it, with a poised but driven passion.

She is fighting on the side of the numerous women who have spoken out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, sharing their stories on her social media, but also arguing for pay parity and gender equality.

"This year is going to be written about," she says passionately. "Especially in terms of gender. Just look at Time magazine - the people of the year (are in) the #metoo movement.

"Let's talk about this, let's get this in the art. Great art and artists, whether it be paintings, musicians, dancers, playwrights, screenwriters, filmmakers, are people who actually look at where we are today and where are we going in our future."

Jessica's own piece of art is her new film Molly's Game, the directorial debut of The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, about real-life champion skier Molly Bloom, who suffered an injury and began running high-stakes poker games.

The story of a woman navigating gender politics with the men in her life - her cheating father, a disgusting boss who won't pay her for the work she does, the A-list actors who frequent the game, the Russian mobsters who bring the FBI to her door - bears a particular resonance now.

"It turns out the movie is even more relevant than we expected it to be," Aaron affirms.

That might not be surprising from the man also responsible for writing A Few Good Men, The Newsroom and The Social Network, but he would prefer it if it didn't feel quite so prescient.

"I would happily trade the fortuitous timing of this for a world in which it wasn't as relevant as it is," he says.

Chastain, who is sitting next to him in a London hotel, adds: "It's not about having power over men, it's about having power over our own agency, so for me the film is very timely.

"I'm so proud to be a part of this and so proud to be alive right now in this time, where so many women are coming forward and so many men are allies in creating gender equality."

Chastain has been a powerful voice for women speaking out about sexual misconduct, but she has also been a vocal advocate for gender equality across her industry, pushing for the hiring of more female directors and crew, looking for better representation of women on screen and turning down roles if she is offered a fraction of the salary of her male co-star.

But she is keen to stress that it's not just actresses she wants to speak up for.

"I think there is a lot of attention right now on actresses in Hollywood just because the media is focused on that," she says.

"I think it's also really important to recognise that what is happening in Hollywood is not only Hollywood - it's a problem that is happening in society in terms of wage equality and harassment.

"Whenever I discuss wage equality, I'm not talking about trying to get more money for people in Hollywood because, let's be honest, we are all over-compensated - we are paid very well.

"But if there are two people working a job and one man is making $10 an hour and the woman is making $3, it's not right, so it doesn't matter what industry it is, there needs to be some sense of equality."

She is clearly frustrated that the issue persists. "I just don't understand ... it's 2017, why are we even having this conversation?" Chastain asks.

"For me, I have definitely taken a stand and I've been very proactive.

"I ask my agents what other people are getting paid. If an actor is bringing me on to a film, I will ask him what his salary is. I think there should be more transparency. If they want me to do the film, then they will tell me."

While Molly's Game will be released at a time when issues around gender are the hot topic of the day, Chastain emphasises that none of the topics are new.

"My perspective on the film is only different now in that there is attention on women coming forward," she says.

"What has been going on and what is going on today has been going on for a long time - this is just the first time that it's been discussed.

"That is why Aaron Sorkin is such a great writer - he's a political filmmaker and really is present and has such a great sense of social commentary.

"When this was being written, think about what was going on in the news in the United States, with Hillary Clinton and all those double standards, so I'm sure some of that had to infuse the gender politics that we find in this script."

Aaron agrees. "It was always political, it's just now it's more obvious," he says.

"I think the two people in the world least surprised by what is happening right now are Jessica Chastain and Molly Bloom, both of whom have lived in a patriarchal world and at least observed the worst of it."

Be that as it may, it has not dampened Chastain's energy or made her angry.

We meet on the same day the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces a new code of conduct to battle sexual harassment, and she seems invigorated and inspired by the changes sweeping through her industry.

"I'm a very optimistic person," Chastain says. I find that anger is something that really just stops change."

Molly, she suggests, shares similar qualities: "No matter how many times she gets knocked down, she is getting up, she is moving forward, and we see that a lot in this film.

"That is something that I can relate to - there is no sense of wallowing.

"(It's more) 'What can we do? Let's get up and let's move forward into this great new world that we are creating.'"

Molly's Game is released in cinemas on January 1

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