There are helicopters flying over the actor Simon Rex’s Los Angeles hotel room. He thinks some sort of crime has been committed, and so he’s periodically, apologetically distracted by the commotion, while I am reminded of the boyish, A.D.H.D. energy that makes his performance in Red Rocket so engaging.
In the A24 film, Rex, 47, plays Mikey Saber, a former porn star who, run out of Los Angeles by a mix of bad decisions and financial burnout, returns to his hometown of Texas City. He charms his way into his ex-wife’s home, sells weed to local construction workers, and courts a 17-year-old girl named Strawberry, in whose beauty and sexual openness he sees a ticket back to the porn industry.
Mikey is not a good guy. His wolfish schemes regarding Strawberry make the depths of his self-interest particularly apparent. It’s not, the film suggests, that pornography is inherently exploitative of young women—it’s that Mikey is. But Rex manages to keep audiences rooting for his character. “When I first read the script, it just jumps off the page that this guy is just a piece of shit,” he says. “So I thought, I’ve got to make him charming and boyish and likable.”
Since his performance in Red Rocket, which received Oscar buzz but did not end up landing the actor a nomination, Rex is now, for the first time in a very long time, turning down offers, posing for glossy photo spreads, and getting calls from directors he never dreamed of working with.
That said, Rex tells me he never really dreamed of being an actor, either. At age 18, after following a girl to Los Angeles, he starred in a couple of porn films, which gives Rex’s character in Red Rocket the patina of stunt casting. He then began modeling, which led him to a career as a V.J. for MTV.
Then he caught the attention of Gus Van Sant. “[Van Sant] called MTV and said, ‘I want to audition Simon for Good Will Hunting,’” Rex tells me. “I went in, and I read with Matt Damon.” Rex says Van Sant stopped him and said, “This is one of the worst auditions I’ve ever seen.” Still, Van Sant saw enough potential in Rex to recommend an acting school.
From there, Rex signed a contract with the WB and spent a couple of years waiting while the network tried to turn him into a bona-fide television star. But it wasn’t until 2003 that Rex would get his first big break as an actor, in Scary Movie 3. “That’s the last time I was proud of something I did,” Rex says.
It was around this time that Rex introduced America to his musical alter ego, Dirt Nasty, whose first hit, recorded as a feature with Mickey Avalon, was the 2005 novelty single “My Dick.” (The song is pretty much what it sounds like.)
Red Rocket could not have come at a more fortuitous time. He was tired of playing Dirt Nasty, and of waiting for his agent to call. In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, he’d purchased a five-acre property in Joshua Tree, where he lived off the grid, in a home made of two shipping containers, with an idea to reset.
A few months later, he got a call from the director Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project), asking for an audition via iPhone recording. Rex got the part and immediately drove down to Texas to begin filming Red Rocket.
Baker often casts first-time actors in his small-budget films. Brenda Deiss, who plays Lil, Mikey’s former mother-in-law, in Red Rocket, was cast right out of Texas City for her film debut. Suzanna Son, who plays Strawberry, was spotted by Baker in L.A., outside of a screening of Gus Van Sant’s 2018 film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. The house in which much of the film is centered had a dog living beneath it, Sophie, who became part of the story.
At first, Baker’s unconventional style made Rex nervous, but ultimately he found the director’s chanciness refreshing. “It was just these real local folk that lived in the town that he street-cast who were so cool,” Rex says. “There weren’t the typical egos you get on sets.”
By the time Rex had decamped to Joshua Tree, he’d grown tired of Hollywood egos, even his own, satirized in the persona of Dirt Nasty. “I often meet people they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re nothing like Dirt Nasty.’ And I’m like ‘Well, yeah.’ It’s a joke.”
Then again, the persona prepared him for Red Rocket. “There’s a lot of Dirt Nasty in Mikey Saber,” he says. “So it was easy for me to tap into that scumbag character.”
Red Rocket is available for streaming on Amazon Prime
Clementine Ford is a Brooklyn-based writer