Few actors could pull off what Simon Rex does in Red Rocket. He plays Mikey Saber, a needy, narcissistic, marginally successful porn star who is forced to move back to his dusty hometown in Texas, where he attempts to wring every last drop of money and energy out of anyone foolish enough to give him the time of day.
By any and all standards, Mikey is a scumbag. His every action is idiotic, if not evil, and Rex runs the risk of the audience dismissing him altogether at any given moment. But Rex manages to pull us through, making Mikey charming and entertaining enough to be watchable–and even borderline likable–for the film’s duration.
“When I read the script I was like, ‘This is the worst guy ever. How long can the audience stay tuned in?'” Rex tells PopMatters in an exclusive interview. “You’ve got to root for the lead at least a little bit, or else it’s hard to stay on board with the movie for two hours. I had to make him a boyish, charming asshole. So at least that way the audience can still have a little window of, ‘Well, he’s making me laugh; he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he’s like a kid.’ That was the objective for me, to make him a likable asshole.”
A former ’90s MTV VJ and star of multiple entries of the Scary Movie franchise, Rex has seen it all throughout his career. “This business is full of peaks and valleys,” he says. “Hot, cold. It’s hard to stay working the whole time at a certain level. I’ve been at the top, I’ve been at the bottom, I’ve been in the middle.”
Rex has never quite attained household-name status, but Red Rocket could be the breakout role he has been waiting for all these years. Directed by visionary filmmaker Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project), the film features Rex in virtually every scene and allows him to flex his comedic muscles while also exploring darker, dramatic territory. And with surging independent studio A24 presenting the film, he’ll be exposed to a whole new set of eyes.
“This movie feels different in that it’s getting this recognition from auteur filmmakers and critics,” says Rex, slightly bowing his head in gratitude. “Before, I’d get street love. Like, ‘You were funny in Scary Movie,’ or, ‘Dirt Nasty is hilarious!’ But now I’m at the Cannes Film Festival getting standing ovations. I’m lucky that Sean Baker saw something in me. I’m sitting here because of him, and I wanted to deliver for him.”
According to Rex, some A-list actors had jockeyed for the role of Mikey before Baker decided to give the lesser-known comedian an opportunity to tackle a richer role than he’s ever been offered before. Mikey’s complex relationships with his estranged partner, Lexi (Bree Elrod), her protective mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), and a flirty teenage girl at the local donut shop named “Strawberry” (Suzanna Son), gave Rex ample opportunity to flesh out Mikey’s personality. As an actor, Rex says he’s never felt more gratified.
“Mikey is a complete maniac, and that’s more fun to play,” Rex explains. “He’s an anti-hero. Mikey doesn’t care who he hurts. He’s a narcissistic, delusional, sociopathic guy who doesn’t care who has to get hurt in the process of him getting what he wants. I’m the opposite. I’m really self-aware. I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
While he’s not looking to offend people in his day-to-day life, Rex believes films should push people to their boundaries. For him, Red Rocket harkens back to eras in cinema that were rougher around the edges. “It feels like we need a movie like this,” he says. “I want to be offended. I want that raw shit back. I want to feel something. I want an anti-hero in the lead role, like in Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. I feel like that’s been lost. We’ll see if Hollywood embraces our movie or not, but people are going to feel something about it either way.”
Indeed, there are few working directors that are bolder or as uniquely adept as Baker at portraying misery in an elegant way. “I don’t know too many people who go to a Sean Baker movie, walk out, and go, ‘meh,'” says Rex of Baker’s work. “You’re going to feel something [watching his movies], whether you’re grossed out or stimulated by the colors.
“It was amazing to watch him work and spend a lot of time with him off-set. He’s a really sweet, sensitive, nice person. He has a vision, and he executes it very well. He’s doing work that nobody’s really doing in America. He’s the best independent auteur, I think.”
Baker frequently casts real people he meets on the street to be in his films (most of Red Rocket’s cast members were hired this way) and he films in real-life locations (the house Mikey stays in was an actual drug house the crew found in Texas). There’s a tangible authenticity and grittiness to Baker’s films, which drew Rex to the role.
“I prefer it because I feel like I’m in this environment that Sean puts me in,” says Rex of working with first-time actors as opposed to industry professionals. “We’re in a real dope house, with real people, with real Texan folk that actually work at the oil refinery. He just pulled in the real world, which made my job easier because I’m surrounded by the real world as opposed to a bunch of actors pretending in fake wardrobes on a fake set in Hollywood. And you get these first-time actors who are happy to be there, not these egotistical actors who are acting entitled.”
In a lot of ways, it makes sense to cast Rex as the lead in Red Rocket. The film opens with NSYNC’s smash 2000 hit “Bye Bye Bye”, evoking the era of entertainment Rex blossomed in himself. And a hilarious scene that sees the actor running through Texas buck-naked wouldn’t have felt out of place in many of the raunchy comedies he starred in years ago.
But this film calls for him to deliver on a deeper, more nuanced level than ever before, and he rises (or lowers, if you will) to the occasion. It’s one of the most memorable character portraits of the year, and Rex has been receiving positive reviews from audiences and critics alike. There’s even speculation that he could be nominated for Best Actor come awards season.
“Awards possibilities are really flattering,” says Rex of his glowing reviews. “It’s also really strange. I’ve lived through all these other experiences to get where I am now. It’s an unpredictable business…but this is right where I’m supposed to be.”