“Best Oral three years in a row,” Mikey Saber brags yet again to a disinterested stranger. As if the thirtysomething, out-of-work porn star’s unprompted self-aggrandizement isn’t tasteless enough, consider that his trophies are for receiving the oral and he thinks they’re well-deserved. It would be easier for the people of Texas City to shoo him away if he wasn’t brandishing the most disarming puppy dog demeanor a person could possess. But that’s what makes Mikey such a rich, complicated character: he’s a livewire of charm and disgrace, a manipulator that’s mastered the art of falling upward, an unforgettable installment in the canon of cinematic grifters. Like most of them, he’s utterly unconscionable. Simon Rex, on the other hand, is quite the opposite.

Rex—who you might recognize from his VJ days on MTV in the mid-90s, or as the mock Marshall Mathers from Scary Movie 3, or as the comic rapper behind fuckaround hits like “Baby Dick” and “Fuck Me I’m Famous”—is the kind of guy that outs a tabloid for baselessly offering him $70,000 to say he slept with Meghan Markle just so the public knows what she’s dealing with. He’s the kind of person that moves to the Mojave Desert to strip his ego, the kind of actor that works gratefully through two decades of undesirable roles all the while knowing he has much more to offer. Little did Rex know Sean Baker was taking notice. And when it came to casting Red Rocket, the writer-director’s first film since 2017’s The Florida Project, Rex was the obvious choice.

It’s Rex’s real-world lovability and charisma (sans con-man motivations) that pre-mint him to play someone like Mikey: a narcissistic anti-hero, a blue-collar Jordan Belfort without the wit who, instead of playing the stocks, plays his broke, estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss) only to hang them out to dry when he develops a sudden fixation on an unsuspecting 17-year-old donut shop girl named Strawberry (Suzanna Son). But it’s not a romantic fixation. It’s much worse: exploitative. He sees Strawberry as a means to an end, a stepping stone to finding new success in his washed-up porn career.

Consequently, Mikey is the center of the film’s controversy, a stake in the heart of the Disneyfied sense of pop morality that demands either shining role models or explicit villains and rears its ugly head at anything in between. The false sense of virtue leans on a futile parallel between the ethics of the character on screen and the person watching the film and suggests a dystopian future of mild, thoughtless filmmaking that fails to reflect the difficulty and complexity of the human condition. But Red Rocket is, among other great things, proof of what characters like Mikey Saber can teach us about ourselves. We sat down with Rex to talk about the career-changing role, the production, and the imminent backlash.

The Film Stage: In a recent Vulture profile you talked about how, historically, you haven’t got roles you’ve prepared intensely for, but you tend to lock down parts you could care less about, the auditions you just stroll into. How did you get this role? And how did you prepare for it? 

Simon Rex: I think what I said there was true most of the time, not every time. But often, the more you try, the less you get things. The more you want it, the less it comes to you, right? I remember when I played basketball in high school the coach would say, “Let the game come to you.” I didn’t understand what he meant, but as I got older I’m like, “Ah, I get it. It’s like some Jedi shit. Like, ‘Don’t try. Just let it happen.’” So that’s kind of what I meant. And in this case, it came to me when I moved out to the desert and was like, “Maybe the Hollywood dream’s over,” and I’m just chillin’ in the desert during the pandemic wondering what the fuck I’m going to do with my life.

I get a phone call from Sean Baker—very unorthodox way to get a movie. Normally, it goes through your agent and you go to an audition, dah dah dah dah. So he calls me and he asks me to put myself on my phone. I put this phone up on my kitchen counter and I did a cold read of a scene in the movie, the opening scene, and he loved it. And he goes, “Dude. Yeah. You’re perfect for this. I need you in Texas right away.” 

I recently interviewed Baker and he was talking about how the shoot was pretty guerrilla and barebones. Did you like that? How did it affect you as a performer?

I mean, I like shooting like that honestly. Like, we had no luxuries, no trailers with air-conditioning. We didn’t have all the things. We were basically just a student film with a ten-person crew. And everybody was just in it to make a good movie. And it wasn’t like everyone was just going through the motions. Everybody cared and everybody was a family. It was a very good group of people who all wanted the same thing: to make a good movie in really extreme circumstances—COVID, the low budget. Yeah. 

It’s special when that happens, because it’s just about making a good movie, not people just showing up to work wanting to go home, you know? I prefer it, actually. I would rather do a movie like that and not have the big trailer with the A/C, making more money, and then the movie comes out and it’s whatever. I would rather make less money and sit in my rental car between takes and shoot on location and make a movie that’s special. So this is a very unique project. I wish more were like this, but unfortunately not a lot of filmmakers are like Sean Baker.

Is the day-to-day more grueling? Even if it’s more gratifying in the end.

It was definitely challenging. But I think that is why it works. Because we’re just riding on this edge the whole time. We had to race through, we’re shooting on film, you’ve got to get the lines right. We had COVID protocols. We were working with first-time actors who had never been on set before. And it was chaos the whole time. So, it was very stressful. But that energy comes through on the screen, I think. And that intensity which is this movie—which feels like the pace of, like, Uncut Gems. It’s going and going and it doesn’t stop, and it’s just building. And I think that edge that we were actually riding on in real life, it comes through. So I think it serves the piece and I’m glad it happened. But yes: it was stressful. Very challenging.

How much of the performance did you improvise?

He said 20% of what’s on the screen was improv. 15-20%. So there’s the math of what it is. He let me improv a bit, you know. But for the most part it was on the page, or I kept it pretty close to what was written. As long as it stayed on course of what they wrote, they were happy. So there’s a lot of reaction and real authentic improvisational moments where magic happens, you know? It’s not over-rehearsed and over-thought-out. It just happens.

You play a very complex character. He’s utterly despicable, but he carries a magnetic charm through it all. What do you think the societal value is of that kind of character in a film? What do we gain personally or communally from a story like Mikey’s?

I think it holds up the mirror to yourself. It kind of makes you look at yourself like, “Why am I feeling this way right now? Why do I kind of root for this guy? Does that mean I’m a bad person? Maybe we need to be more forgiving and not judge, because we’re all hypocrites and we’re all slobs.” And that kind of thing. 

It seems like a wing of the Internet will come at Red Rocket from a very misunderstood point of view—reading it as surface-level endorsement, for example. What are your thoughts on cancel culture? 

Yeah, that’s gonna happen. It’s already started happening, and there’s nothing I can do about that. You know, to speak on cancel culture is a little risky right now, because within itself people are waiting for you to say the wrong thing, so I want to be careful with my words. But I feel like, you know, sometimes coloring in the lines sacrifices comedy and art. And I know a lot of comedians are struggling right now with it, and, you know, you gotta be very safe and not offend people. And I understand that. I get it. You know, everything’s changing. We’re growing and evolving and the world’s changing so fast, and a lot of people don’t like change. I understand all that. 

But sometimes, in making a movie, you gotta take chances and push the envelope and take risks and not worry about hurting people’s feelings. And I know that this movie is maybe going to do that. But I mean, I don’t know. Sometimes good art might piss some people off. And we’re not condoning any of this. We’re not saying this is good! We’re only saying this exists. This is really real. This happens. This is out there. So you can’t make everybody happy. Whatever will be, will be.

What’s next? Do you want to keep working with filmmakers like Baker who are approaching their work more thoughtfully?

Well, I’m hoping this gets me to play in the NBA, but I’m 47, so I don’t know if I’m gonna be too old. I’m 6’2”—I got a chance. 

Don’t write it off.

I would love to do more movies like this, but unfortunately there’s not a lot of people out there like Sean Baker. I’d love to work with him again. We’ll see what that looks like. I want to do more indie, cool movies like this. I want to do big-studio comedy films. I want to do it all, you know? Really, I just want to do interesting roles and stuff that I’m proud to say, “Go see this movie.” For the last 20 years, I can count on one hand the amount of movies that I’ve done where I’m like, “Yeah, go see it!” Because most of the time, it’s like, “Eh, I shot this movie. Don’t waste your time.” And you’re not proud of it.

So I just want to do stuff that I actually want my friends and family and people to go see and enjoy. So, whatever that looks like, I don’t know. It just depends on the script. Like Bob Evans said in The Kid Stays in the Picture: “What are the three most important things in a movie? The script, the script, and the script.” So, I want to get good scripts and go from there.

Is there anyone in particular you’d love to work with? 

Well, yeah—I mean, I could sit here and tell you Tarantino and Scorsese and the big dogs that made the movies I grew up on, you know? Or Mike Mills, a cool indie director. The Safdie brothers. It would be fun to go do a movie with Adam Sandler and be a silly goose. I don’t know, there’s so many! The exciting thing is I don’t know what it looks like on the other side of this. But the phone’s ringing again and that’s nice. We’re getting offers. It’s the unknown that’s so exciting. But yeah, there’s so many amazing filmmakers out there that hopefully will see this movie and be like, “Woah, Simon! Really? I didn’t know you had that in you,” and want to work with me. Hopefully. 

Will you keep living out in the desert? Is that a permanent shift for you after living in the city for so long?

It’s a balancing act. I want to spend some time there and some time in the human zoo, which is New York City out my window, or LA, or San Francisco—all the cities I’ve lived in. I want to balance it out. It’s not all or nothing. It’s not binary. It’s both. I want to spend half of my time in nature—you know, whether that’s in Costa Rica, Bali, or in my desert compound—and then half of my time in the city. I don’t think it’s healthy to be in either too long.

When I’m by myself in the desert days on end, you kind of go crazy, and I think sometimes it’s good to break down and breakthrough and go through some shit. But we need each other, and isolation is good in small doses, so I think I’m figuring out the balance of it. It’s good that I have that place out there to retreat to, because all of this is a lot and it’s good to go chill out and dissolve the ego a little bit.

Red Rocket is now in theaters and expanding.

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