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Idris Elba on Being Aaron Sorkin’s Surrogate and the Career Highlight of ‘Molly’s Game’

Written by on December 22, 2017 


Whether he’s in the projects of Baltimore, the fantastical worlds of Asgard, or, when it comes to his latest role, in an office with Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba always brings a fierce, commanding presence to his characters. In playing Charlie Jaffey–a fictitious character Aaron Sorkin created in Molly’s Game–Elba charts new territory as this lawyer is defined by his virtues, acting both as a sounding board for Molly Bloom’s troubles and a guiding light in helping her climb out of a legal hole. To top it off, Elba is also given one of the most impressive scenes of his career, a sentiment he agreed with during our conversation.

With Aaron Sorkin’s writing, scenes can be more intense than an action setpiece. What was it like to see that come to life on set?

Yeah, Sorkin is so particular that you are overly aware that you are in a Sorkin movie. I was overly aware that I didn’t want it to seem like I was doing a caricature of typical Aaron Sorkin dialogue. There is no caricature of it, but we do know what we are going to get. What was really great is that I had the sort of advantage of Aaron Sorkin directing his own work, which was really a double whammy for me, a really pleasurable experience. You have to memorize the words. That’s important and he tells you that. There’s no sort of improvising around these words. You have to say them and memorize them. Then the emotional content that he’s written into those words comes alive and that was true. I had to really trust that. Jessica and I both trusted that. And Aaron trusted us, which was incredible. I thought he was going to be very pedantic as a director, in terms of the words and such and such, but he really wasn’t. Fortunately we didn’t need to improvise or anything like that, because the words were there.

Jessica Chastain’s character’s relationship with her father is a big part of the film and the relationship your character has with your daughter is kind of a mirror for her. Can you talk about the fatherhood aspect of the film?

mollys-game-2That was one of the most attractive things to me: this duality of that. I have a teenage daughter. I can relate to Charlie Jaffey. It’s really key to notice that if it wasn’t for his daughter, he may not have taken on the Poker Princess. He may not have taken on Jessica Chastain’s character, because he didn’t have the vision. His daughter had the vision. His daughter read the book and could see she’s actually a hero and he couldn’t. He judged her. So that was a really interesting discovery for me, reading the script, and then how cleverly Aaron had juxtaposed it against Kevin Costner and Jessica Chastain’s characters, all of which, by the way, are true dynamics in Molly Bloom’s life. These are real dynamics. My character is fictitious and actually I think a lot of who Aaron Sorkin is and what he thinks of Molly Bloom is in my character. Aaron has a daughter that is the same age and there’s an interesting duality there so it was definitely one of the most interesting parts for me on this film. Obviously the key is that this is about a woman who keeps her integrity intact even against the odds, which I think is a thing that… shit, we need to see more in films to some degree for any character, male or female.

I won’t spoil it, but you do have a pretty epic monologue in the third act of this film that almost felt like Sorkin going back to A Few Good Men territory, where you can’t help but cheer after it. What was it like to read then execute that?

It was a simple process if I’m really honest. There’s a lot of memorization, like I said, and a lot of rehearsal. Aaron was kind enough to shoot the other actors first before we got into that speech because he didn’t want to tire me out. I’ve never done a speech that long ever in my life in anything I’ve ever been in, so it was pretty daunting to me, but it was also a gift. We as filmmakers when we did that scene–that scene is a 10-page scene–and we practically all collapsed. Not just at my speech, but at the achievement of getting that out and making it a dynamic scene. So it was great. It was probably one of my finest moments in acting, only because I got to work with Aaron Sorkin, the director. The speech is what it is, but it was the fact that I could remember all those words. Jesus.

Yeah, it was amazing. You don’t appear in the flashbacks in the film. It’s kind of funny that you’re in the same film as Michael Cera, even if you don’t share any scenes. What was it like seeing that entirely other part of the film for the first time?

That was great, man. I got to watch it as any moviegoer would. I didn’t see any of that stuff and all the cameos were amazing. It was a real pleasure. I was so impressed with the skiing sequences in the beginning of the film. I was like, “Wow! He really went to town.” I think the edit was fantastic. It was a really, really good edit. Good job. The soundtrack was incredible. The music really helped the film. I was really, really happy. Some of the cameos were absolutely incredible. The actor who played Brad (Brian d’Arcy James) was just hilarious. It was such a good ensemble cast.


The film is filled with flaw characters, but you have a certain moral backbone–almost like a Jimmy Stewart type. I haven’t seen you play that a lot. It seems like a new stepping stone for you. What was it like playing the most morally upright character in a film?

It’s a privilege. I do tend to play characters that have complexity, but this guy was pretty much straight down the line lawmaker, pretty articulate, stand-up guy. It felt like a very clever device the way that Charlie Jaffey was used in this film because essentially in the film, those scenes with Jessica are the spine of the movie. So when you are watching the movie, you come back to appreciate Charlie’s office and you learn a little more about them. So, yeah, it was great. I agree with you to a degree that it was a sort of page-turner in my career because I don’t get to play those roles very often.

Molly’s Game opens on Monday, December 25.

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