By Kirsten Coachman
Ain’t no lie; it has been a year for actor Simon Rex.
In Sean Baker’s newest film, “Red Rocket,” the actor plays a down-and-out adult film star, Mikey Saber, who’s in the midst of figuring out his next play. After a bus ride trip from L.A., he winds up on the doorstep of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss)—two people who couldn’t be less thrilled to see him back in their Texas small town. Mikey manages to talk his way into securing a roof over his head, under the guise that he’ll contribute to the household, as he manically shares how he wound up back in town.
Without a dime or good word to his name, Mikey manages to suck people into his world of self-absorbed chaos—including Strawberry (newcomer Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old he crosses paths with working at a local doughnut shop, who soaks up his attention despite their difference in age. Though the nature of their relationship is unsavory, Mikey can’t help but see dollar signs and his ticket back into the industry.
Rex initially found success as a model and an MTV VJ before making a foray into film and television in the late ’90s and early aughts. Some of his early credits include “Scary Movie 3,” “Felicity,” and “What I Like About You.” And now, at the age of 47, he’s drawing critical acclaim for his breakout performance in “Red Rocket.”
“I’m just happy that Sean Baker chose me and that I guess I delivered for him because everyone seems to like the movie,” the San Francisco native said this past October. “As an actor, you’re lucky to get any work at all, much less something of this caliber, you know?”
And Rex is well aware of this. Though he’s continued to work on various projects involving acting, comedy, and music over the years, “Red Rocket” has put him back in the conversation. He’ll be appearing in the upcoming film “Mack & Rita” alongside Diane Keaton in a role he describes as “a new age huckster shaman.”
“[F]or the first time in 20 years, I’m actually in a position where I’m getting scripts sent to me, and I can kind of pick what I want to do,” shared the San Francisco native this past October. “That’s very rare. So, I’m just thankful that I’m in this position, and I want to keep surprising people with fun roles.”
At this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, Rex received special recognition for his work in “Red Rocket.” While in town, Art U News had the opportunity to sit down with the actor during a roundtable interview to discuss his performance, working with Sean Baker, and the fun of playing an anti-hero.
Congrats on the Mill Valley Film Festival recognition. How’s the whole film festival experience been for you?
It’s been a roller coaster. I’ve never done this before, and starting at Cannes, which is like the top of the festival world, was cool. And since then, going to all these other different levels of festivals, you know, it’s all a new experience for me. … It’s the coolest thing ever. I love it. I’d be lying if I said the traveling wasn’t exhausting. I think I slept in my own bed five nights now in 10 weeks.
I thought your performance, in particular, was very layered. Mikey’s a little bit manic in the beginning, especially when he shows up on his wife’s porch. But he’s also very charming, and he’s a hustler. I know you didn’t have a lot of time to prepare prior to filming, but how did you quickly figure out how to balance him out as he interacts with the people in his world?
Yeah, I basically just made the choice that he had to be a charming boyish likable, a–hole, really. Because if he was just an a–hole, then I don’t think the audience cares what happens to him, and then you’re not invested in the movie. So, you have to kind of be rooting for him just a little bit, considering the horrible things he’s doing. So, I made it almost like he was a little kid that doesn’t know what he’s doing. There, you might find a little bit of, oh, he knows not what he does. So, you’re more connected to the outcome of the film instead of just writing him off.
How was it working with Sean Baker?
To work with him was amazing. He’s a very sweet, nice man, so that’s pleasant to be around. It’s not too often you get to work with somebody who’s the writer, the director, and the editor. That’s unheard of. … So, when he is on set, he’s directing, and he knows what he wants, and he’s already editing the movie in his head. That doesn’t happen. That’s very rare. I mean, there’s only a handful of directors that are allowed that freedom to do everything. He even chooses the font in the movie. Like, he does everything. … For me, that really lets you just relax and be like, “Okay, I trust this guy, and I’ve seen his movies. He has a formula. He knows what he’s doing.” That’s really special and rare, and he’s a very thoughtful director. He’s always asking, “Hey, what would you say in this moment?” Or there’d be like local Texans that are in the movie, and they would say, “Hey, we don’t say that down here.” He’s like, “Oh, what do you say? Okay. Say that instead.” So, he is just very open to ideas.
At any point while reading through the script, was there anything that Mikey was doing that kind of gave you pause?
No, because it’s just a movie. I mean, look, you know, this isn’t real. This happens. There are people like this out there, but this is the kind of role, as an actor, you want to play. I mean, just like playing a murderer, like what a horrible person—he’s killing people—but that’s fun to play. … But no, there was nothing that I read that made me think, “Oh God, I shouldn’t do this.” It’s like, it’s Sean Baker. As soon as I knew it was Sean Baker, I didn’t even need to read the script. I was going to do it. But yeah, if anything, you want to be challenged, and you want to do stuff that’s pushing the envelope, and you want to do stuff that’s going to maybe make people feel a certain way. And I think this movie does that. We’re not condoning this at all, but this is real life, you know, it kind of shines the light on real people, real situations. So, it’s fun to play that—it’s fun to play the anti-hero.
Being that the production was happening in the thick of the pandemic, how did working on this film differ from films that you’d previously worked on?
Just shooting a movie on a very low budget like this is already really ambitious enough with a 10-person crew. It’s hard enough to even make a movie like that, but then you add a pandemic and these COVID regulations and being tested all the time. At any minute, if one person tested positive, we’d have to shut down production. So, it just made it really stressful, actually. It made it kind of hectic the whole time. You’re just like, “Alright, someone’s going to test positive and show up to work and shut this thing down.” And somehow, we got through the whole thing. We definitely did sort of a bubble together, where we all stuck together and didn’t go out of bounds too much and stayed safe with the COVID stuff so that we wouldn’t have the movie shut down, but it added another layer of stress for sure. Like everything in life during this last year and a half, it just made it more stressful. But I think that helped the movie because that kind of comes through on the screen—this edgy, hectic vibration that we are all feeling shows. I think it works.
Outside of acting, you’ve done music, and you’ve done comedy. Do these other experiences kind of impact you as an actor, in the sense of being able to draw from them?
I think just getting older, you know, I’m 47 now, and when you’re younger—I heard a comedian say once [when] he was talking about other comics—he’s like, “I see these young comedians on the scene, and they’re, you know, 20 years old,” and he’s like, “You know, they might be funny, but they don’t have any life experience to pull from to talk about.” And I feel that’s the same with an actor. In the past, when I was younger and all the work I had done, I didn’t have any life experience. And I think now, at this age, you know, I’ve eaten the humble pie, I’ve been at the top, I’ve been at the bottom, I’ve been everywhere in between. … Doing all these other things, like the music career and the comedy, it all lends to everything. And I think just getting older and humbled makes you work harder and appreciate things more and just have more of an arsenal [of experiences] in you that you can access.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film and your character in particular?
That’s a good question. You know, I never really thought about what I want them to take away. I guess, if anything, with all of Sean’s movies, he wants people to walk away having a conversation. Whatever that conversation is, he leaves the endings of his movies very open to interpretation. He likes to hear what people say, “Oh, I think this,” “Oh, that’s cool you thought that.” Sean will say, “I never thought that, but that’s great that you had that experience.” So, I think the whole point of his movies is that it’s open to interpretation, and whatever experience [you have] or thought—that’s amazing.
“Red Rocket” is now playing in San Francisco. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.