As he makes his directing debut, top screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talks Hollywood shame and career anxiety with Ben Lawrence.

The hotel suite in which I meet Aaron Sorkin is light and airy, but the man himself is a bundle of anxiety. This, I think, is because he is not only Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter ($5.6 million a script), but also its most scrutinised.

Television hits such as The West Wing and The Newsroom (as well as the occasional flop, such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) are pored over by those enthralled by his acute gift for dramatic structure and his big-hearted liberal sensibilities wrapped up in elegant dialogue. But there is also criticism: notably that female characters in shows such as The Newsroom are given little personal agency.

In these days of Hollywood harassment charges, any man facing questions about how he treats women has reason to be nervous. Luckily for Sorkin, this particular gripe is, by and large, effaced by Molly's Game, his new feature film starring Jessica Chastain, which marks his directorial debut. It's based on the memoir of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who recalibrates her life after a near-fatal accident and ends up running the world's most exclusive poker game before being arrested by the FBI.

Sorkin, tall and slightly bookish, with the look of an academic who has just come back from a sabbatical in sunny climes, was aware that the stakes were high. "I was maxed-out on stress," he says. "I live and die with these things. There is maximum pressure when a studio takes a bet on you."

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Molly's Game is more than a film about poker, of course. Much of it focuses on Molly's relationship with her overbearing, fiercely pushy father (a fine, mercurial performance from Kevin Costner). So it's a surprise that much of this is Sorkin's invention.

"In the book there is no strain between father and daughter, but the relationship really lit me up when I started talking to Molly."

He adds a little defensively: "I am not a journ-alist reporting the facts, I'm not just pointing a camera at the book. I didn't give Molly any veto power or approval, but I ended up showing her the scenes between her and her father before I showed anyone else."

Isn't it slightly unethical to essentially reinvent a real person? Sorkin laughs drily. "You have to have a moral compass. It's one thing to paint your picture, and it is another thing to hurt real people who are innocent bystanders in this whole thing. I wouldn't have done that."

Sorkin forged a close relationship with Chastain — she later praised him for being the first industry figure to email his support when she gave her backing, early on, to Harvey Weinstein's alleged victims.

"I am proud of Jessica every day," he says. "All the complaints that actors are loudmouths, that they should stay in their lane when it comes to politics, well it is silly and insulting. Most actors don't speak up because they don't want to alienate anyone, and cultural politics can be alienating.

"Actors want to be loved by the entire audience and I appreciate anyone who recognises there is something more important than that, who speaks up for anyone who doesn't have a voice."

We are, of course, skirting around the real issue: the culpability of Weinstein and those who claim ignorance of his alleged crimes. (Sorkin has stated that he knew nothing.)

The fact is that this man at the heart of liberal Hollywood knows that he now has to shoulder part of the burden of responsibility, to help reconfigure the industry as one of trust and provide a safe space that is also artistically rigorous. He believes that all he can do is keep writing.

"The most powerful delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story. We should keep telling stories. I am looking forward to seeing The Post (Steven Spielberg's thriller about the Pentagon Papers), for example, which I hope is a celebration of the free press. I hope that Molly's Game reminds people of simple decency — what it looks and sounds like."

Sorkin's interest in supporting the underdog is easy to trace. He was born in New York in 1961 to a family of lawyers and cut his teeth in the right-on atmosphere of fringe theatre in the 80s. His breakthrough play, A Few Good Men (1989), was based on his sister Deborah's defence (she is also a lawyer) of a group of marines who came close to killing a colleague in a hazing ordered by a superior officer. The play was later turned into a film, starring Tom Cruise.

This was a test piece for his larger, more baroque work for television, notably The West Wing, which imagined America under the rule of a president with a genuine belief in the essential goodness of humanity. It all seems a very long way from the US in 2017. I presume that he would resist creating a Trump-like figure because it would be tantamount to unleashing the devil.

"It's more than that," he says. "He is not an interesting character. There is no nuance to him, no layers. I think he is exactly what he looks and sounds like. I want to write romantically, idealistically and optimistically and Trump is the opposite of that — he is never going to surprise you."

Last year, two of The West Wing's stars — Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe — fell out very publicly on Twitter regarding the President's travel ban on refugees. I wonder whether Sorkin was keen to wade in.

"If I had a Twitter account I wouldn't be able to resist but I don't have one, and that's not a protest. The reason I have never been interested in social media is that it just feels like a very cheap way of communicating. It's just kids passing a note in class and it doesn't seem like a conversation. It's just throwing 140 characters at each other, and to have a press that communicates in that way — boy, it's depressing."

Words tumble out of Sorkin in a way that is antithetical to Twitter. They seem spontaneous but well-crafted at the same time, and so it's a surprise to learn that he feels constantly in a state of creative paralysis.

"I envy people who can get up every morning and write from nine to six but that's not me. I am unable to come up with an idea most days and writers' block is my default position. The difference between page two and page zero is between life and death. I try to have a sense of humour about it, but the truth is I am probably not that much fun to be around [when I'm] on page zero. I don't scream and shout and break things — but there is not a lot that makes me smile."

Sorkin is currently trying to write a script about 50s comedian Lucille Ball and her volatile relationship with her husband Desi Arnaz. It will star Cate Blanchett and examine another dark period in Hollywood, when Senator McCarthy's hounding of suspected communists ripped through the heart of a creative community. I ask if Sorkin ever imagines himself working in that time of febrile paranoia.

"I would have been on a list. I am a Jewish writer who, from time to time, writes about politics and who criticises the government. I like to think that I know what I would have done had I been hauled in front of the committee.

"It's a funny thing about the blacklist: we remember the people who were blacklisted, we remember the people who named names, but why have we never vilified the network heads and studio heads who executed the list? I would like to know their names."

It seems as if Sorkin is mulling over a possible future film script as he talks, a dark morality tale with percussive modern resonance. I suggest this might get in the way of the Sorkin superhero movie that has been rumoured.

He laughs: "I haven't heard that rumour, but it's not true. My guess is that he would be a chattier superhero than we're used to, but no, it's not happening. I prefer writing about superheroes who don't have capes or superpowers."

Molly's Game is in cinemas from February 1.