A version of this story about Simon Rex first appeared in “Dark Horses We Love” section in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
If you’ve seen Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket,” it probably won’t surprise you to know that when Simon Rex checked in for a Zoom interview with TheWrap, he was doing so from his car, which was parked on a residential stretch of Hollywood Boulevard near the Walk of Fame. It would also make sense that he’d driven into town from his home in Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert, and that he was crashing with a friend in L.A., and that he was a bundle of energy as he sat fidgeting in the driver’s seat, bobbing and weaving and running his hand through his hair.
And you’d absolutely expect that Rex would be thoroughly engaging and charming as he held court from the front seat – because in “Red Rocket,” he plays Mikey Saber, a hyperactive hustler and ex-porn star who returns to Texas to try to get back with (and bum off) his ex-wife, and who also begins grooming a local teenage girl for porn stardom — but somehow, he finds enough humanity in the character that we don’t always hate the guy, and sometimes we even pull for him.
Rex has been an actor, a rapper (as Dirt Nasty), a comedian and a former MTV VJ. But when he got an unexpected call from Baker, he was at a low point in his career, and a low point in the pandemic. “I was just sitting out in Joshua Tree, staring at the ceiling, wondering what’s going on,” he said. “This was in July of last year and there was no work on the horizon. And Sean called me up and explained that they’re doing this movie last minute and they’re ready to shoot, and could I be in Texas in three days?”
Before landing the role, though, Rex had to send Baker an audition tape of the opening scene from the film, which he quickly did on his phone. “I lived in L.A. for 20 years,” he said. “I was surrounded by a bevy of narcissistic, sociopathic assholes who aren’t self-aware and will basically do whatever it takes to get to the top. I know that guy.”
And no, he’s not bothered by the fact that Baker has said he wrote the part of a narcissistic sociopath with Rex in mind. “He told me he’s been following my career since MTV 25 years ago and was always a fan,” he said. “I’m not offended that he thought of me for this. I just think that he believed in me and thought that I had comic chops and that somebody needed to give me a chance at some dramatic roles. I was over the moon that he gave me a shot when not too many people would have believed in me.”
But Rex admitted that the role carries a built-in challenge. “This guy is a horrible person,” he said. “Who’s going to root for him and care about the outcome for his character? So I basically made the choice to make him boyish, charming and likable, and maybe he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“I liken it to a cute puppy that’s chewing up the newspaper and s—ting on the rug — you can’t get mad at him ‘cause he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. There’s just that little window where the audience is like, ‘Why am I rooting for this guy a little bit?’”
And even when the part called for Rex to run down the street stark naked, he didn’t hesitate for long. “At first, it was like, ‘Oh, boy,’” he said. “But it felt like the world was ending, and I was at a point where I really had nothing to lose. So let’s go. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t worried about how I looked.”
“Red Rocket” has now taken Rex from Joshua Tree to the Cannes Film Festival to nominations for the Gotham Awards (where he lost to Olivia Colman for “The Lost Daughter” and Frankie Faison for “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain” in a tie) and the Film Independent Spirit Awards (where he’s got a very good chance of winning). “It’s head-spinning,” he said. “It’s already weird enough for all of us to collectively coming out of this weird isolation back into socializing and interacting with other humans. Everybody’s still a little rusty, socially.
“And now I’m going to events and festivals, and I have to go back to my hotel room sometimes to decompress, because it’s so overwhelming. But it’s good, because I’ve never had this respect from filmmakers and actors. It’s a trip, it’s a trip. It’s double weird.”
He squirmed a little more in his seat, then shrugged. “And I hope you understand me doing this out of my vehicle. It’s just what it is. I don’t think it matters.”