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Interview: Simon Rex on Playing an Antihero and the Wild West Shoot of Red Rocket

Simon Rex discusses his disillusionment with Hollywood, his Red Rocket character’s similarities to him, and more.

Simon Rex on Playing an Antihero and the Wild West Shoot of Red Rocket
Photo: A24

Adult entertainer. VJ. Indie rapper and producer. B-movie actor. Instagram sensation. Simon Rex is a renaissance man for the Hollywood underground, and his charisma and talent are such that you’d be correct in thinking that he’s never gotten his long-deserved due. But the 47-year-old San Francisco native’s much-buzzed-about performance in Sean Baker’s new film, Red Rocket, might just change that. And just in time, as before Baker asked Rex to audition for Red Rocket via Instagram—a signature casting strategy of The Florida Project director—the actor had one foot out of Hollywood’s revolving doors.

Red Rocket’s Mikey, a washed-up porn actor, allows Rex to unabashedly reflect on his past lives, as well as show the world a side of him that it’s never seen before. Baker saw slivers of it through Rex’s Vine and Instagram accounts as early as 2015 when he was making Tangerine, around the time that Rex’s acting work was drying up. As Rex lamented his career, Baker secretly concocted a script that would resurrect it. Indeed, Baker’s neorealist tendencies, from hiring non-actors to hitting the ground running with little prep, resonated with the hardworking, pound-the-pavement mentality of the Hollywood that Rex was used to. The end result is another one of Baker’s beautiful, unconventional snapshots of the lumpenproletariat.

At the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, during which Rex received the MVFF Award for what the festival calls a “career-defining moment,” I had a chance to sit down with him on his former stomping grounds at the San Francisco Fairmont. Our conversation covered Baker’s casting and production methods, Rex’s disillusionment with Hollywood, his Red Rocket character’s similarities to him, shedding his Dirt Nasty persona, and more.

The film had a very small, 10-person crew and was shot guerrilla-style. I thought it was funny how you guys had to hide the camera from the oil refinery security and police.

We did a lot of that kind of shit. We had to hide from cops. We had permits in certain areas but not others. It was like a student film, which lends the film its grit. And it worked because we were riding from the edge. The whole time we were shooting, especially considering pandemic restrictions, the budget, the lack of permits, we were just running and gunning and hiding from the law. It was like a lawless Wild West shoot. And not to sound like a San Francisco hippie, though I am, you feel everyone and everything’s energy through the screen. If you’re watching some overproduced blockbuster—which is great, but that’s a different thing—you’re often not feeling anything. And that energy is coming through here because we’re all kind of like, “We’re going to get shut down any minute. Go, go, go. What the fuck are we doing?”

That mentality keeps you on your toes.

Yes. It was chaos. And in chaos sometimes good things can come out of it.

How did this production compare to some of your others? It hardly even seems like there was a set, but rather just an unadulterated location.

It made my job easier in the sense that I’m around real, local Texas people in a real house that was rented in a bad neighborhood, and the world was there. Sean put me in this real world with real locals, so I didn’t have to use my imagination on set in Burbank with a bunch of extras dressed like Texans. It wasn’t bullshit. I was in a real environment, and I got to play in this world that was very authentic. So it made my job easier because then I could focus more on just my lines and really responding, and listening, and smelling the smells, and being there. It was hot and muggy, and fucking grimy, and it was fucking awesome!

I’m thinking about you sitting in your underwear with Lil on the couch, who’s a first-time actor. Lil is a character who fits perfectly into Sean’s wheelhouse, depicting a part of society—the underclass—that Hollywood doesn’t usually show on screen.

Amazing. On some drug dealer’s couch with a woman that he found the week before walking the streets. Like, “Dude. Thank you. Give me that.” I feel that I owe a lot of my performance to that. Sean put me in that world, which is so authentic, and [he understands that all these] people aren’t dumb. It just worked, man. It’s his formula. And it works.

And I imagine that acting in front of a 16mm camera must have been different than the rigs that you’ve worked with before on film sets.

Yeah. And it was with special anamorphic lens that are usually used for music videos. It’s a certain type of camera lens that was from Japan that was used on a 16mm camera, so yeah, not only were we running and gunning, we were shooting on film, so it’s like, “You better get your lines right because we’re burning film.” Ain’t like it’s digital where I could fuck up every other line, pardon my language. There was that pressure, too, of like, “Fuck, dude. We’re burning film right now. You better get your lines right. Ain’t no fucking up. It’s expensive mistakes if you keep messing up,” and I had these long monologues. It would just be like four pages of dialogue without taking a breath or listening to another actor, just “vroooom.” So yeah, I had to nail it. I just wanted to deliver for Sean. He gave me this opportunity when not a lot of other people would. He could have chosen any big actor—I won’t say who were up for this role and wanted it—and he chose me. And I was like, “Okay. Well, I gotta deliver.”

Aside from shooting on film, where did this need to deliver for Sean come from?

Look, this sounds crazy, but I looked at it like a golf game, and I had to at least par every hole. I had to show up every day and just do my job. And I looked at it like a game. Every single day is a mini objective. Don’t look at the whole thing, just micro-compartmentalize it. So every day I got home from work, and I made my life all about memorizing my lines. I deleted my social media off my phone, and I just gave it everything. I just had to. Didn’t have a choice. This is like my one chance. I was already halfway out the door with Hollywood when this came. I was not quitting the business, but I was partially letting go of the Hollywood dream. And I moved out to the desert, and I was sitting out there going like, “I had a good run. I had a good 20-year run. I did some cool things. Maybe it’s over. Maybe it’s not. I don’t know. I’m not holding on to it anymore.” And I think the letting go pulled me back in.

Simon Rex on Playing an Antihero and the Wild West Shoot of Red Rocket

Simon Rex and Sean Baker on the Set of Red Rocket. © A24.

And your character in Red Rocket and you both have a history in the adult entertainment industry, obviously, the character more so. Did that aspect make you apprehensive about the role, initially, or was it more liberating?

Kind of liberating, if anything. Yeah. Because I could laugh at myself. And I don’t take myself too seriously. For me, it really isn’t about Mikey’s career because Mikey could have been a Wall Street maniac, he could have been a tech guy—it’s that personality type. It doesn’t really matter about the career. It’s just that type of person, and they’re everywhere. And so, really, it wasn’t like playing any stereotypical thing from that world—it was more just that personality type. And it was just a subplot. And it was really just about this awful person and how he walks through life hurting people. And yeah, it was fun to play. And I didn’t have any reservations because, like I said, I was sitting around like, “I got nothing to lose. I gotta jump in the deep end and just go for it because at 47 years old, I ain’t getting any younger. Maybe my best days are behind me.” I don’t know. But as a guy, a lot of the best actors started in their 40s.

True. So now that you’ve put in the work and come out the other side of this project to overwhelming applause, has Hollywood regained any of its glitz and glamour in your eyes since you put it in the rearview mirror? Are you reinvigorated about acting?

Look, I got more movies coming out at once—four of them—than I have had in 10 years. So I’m just happy to be working again and grateful to be here. I like to believe that if I play my cards right, this could steer me down a second half of my life to do some really cool acting jobs, because I don’t want to do the Dirt Nasty rapping anymore. I was doing that to pay the bills for the last 10 years. I don’t want to have to do that anymore. It was fun and cute while it lasted.

Do you still want to produce rap behind-the-scenes for artists like Living Legends?

I will continue to produce music for fun and for my friends who rap and all that stuff because I love those guys, and they’re amazing rappers, and they’ll do it forever, and that’s their destiny, and I just explored it for a while. I just gave Sunspot Jonz a bunch of beats, so he has a new album coming out that I helped produce. I’ll always work with those guys and other Bay Area rappers. That’s in me. To produce music. That’s one of my favorite things to do.

But I also want to work with more cool directors, do more movies, and explore fun characters. I think people will see Red Rocket and hopefully give me a chance. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all unfolds, but I’m just really happy to be here with this movie right now. It’s cool to just be like, “Okay, this movie is great. Let’s just step back and see what happens.”

For sure. I 100% think that this will open more acting doors for you. In my opinion, this performance is Oscar-worthy.

Oh, thank you.

As you mentioned, Mikey talks a mile a minute, sometimes to the point where you’re out of breath. It’s reflective of your character’s almost aloof, distracted, ADD, hardwired personality. What were the conversations like with Sean about your character?

Yeah. Well, I felt like my instinct when I read it was like, “The pace of this can’t be slow. There’s so much dialogue. He reads just like a maniac who doesn’t think before he talks.” So we did one afternoon of rehearsal before we shot. And I remember getting to the rehearsal and just giving what I thought the energy of the character was, and Sean goes, “Dude, you got it. That’s it. Done. Your instinct is right. That’s how I heard this guy also.” So there wasn’t too much talking about it, because it just clicked. Sean had done a lot of prep work down in Texas. But for me, I just got thrown into it and just went with my instinct and had fun. I’d like to say I did some amazing character research and method acting and all that bullshit, but I didn’t.

Sometimes over-preparation can backfire.

That’s my theory on life. It’s almost like anything. Like, I got a RV, right, and I take off in my RV, and I’ll just drive without any plan. And every single time magic happens. You meet cool people, you find amazing places. I just drive off into the sunset and magic happens. And that’s the way to live life. I’m not trying to sound like some Buddhist monk, but the less planning, the better, because you have no expectations, so you won’t be let down. So, for Red Rocket, there were no expectations. We weren’t overthinking things and that made it work.

Was any of the dialogue improvised?

About 20% of what’s on screen was improvised in the end. Sean definitely gave us all room to improv, and he would ask us, “What would you say in this moment? How would you say this word to the locals?” The locals would say, “We don’t say that here in Texas. This is what we say.” He’s like, “Great. Say that.” So he was open to all that. And he let me improv a good amount. That’s a pretty good chunk of the movie. As long as I kept it close to the story and the narrative moving the story forward, he let me play with it, but some of it was pretty specific. And there was a lot of magic moments that happened in those improvisations. Because then the other actors were surprised and their [responses were natural]. That’s a real exchange.

And speaking of the locals, there were lot of the non-actors among them, and that’s what Sean Baker likes to do. It creates a very honest, neorealist tone. What was it like working with non-actors? Was it difficult, or was similar to your VJ days for MTV?

There were times where it was challenging if they didn’t understand the technical things like how to stay on their mark. There’s little things that they wouldn’t know because they’ve never been on a set before like, “Okay, you need to stand on your mark because the lighting is on your face and the camera’s focus right here, and if you start wandering around, we have to cut the film.” So I would help Sean with the actors, with the technical things like that, but that was it. Besides that, it was actually more fun to work with these people than real actors who come to work with an ego, an attitude, acting like divas. I’m not saying anyone specifically, but almost every job you’ll do, you’re going to deal with some nightmare actor’s bullshit. So, to me, it was the best because I was just around real motherfuckers and not a bunch of Hollywood creeps. And I like Hollywood creeps, but sometimes they could be difficult.

Where does Mikey rank on a scale from remorseful empath to egomaniacal sociopath?

Way toward egomaniacal sociopath. Yeah. I don’t think he has any remorse. I don’t think he has any self-awareness. He’s way on that side. And I’ve had to commit to it being that full-on. I just had to commit completely to him being that guy. So definitely way more on that side. I don’t think he’s capable of empathy whatsoever, which is fun to play. As an antihero, I just wanted to make him a likable asshole. That was the whole point.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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