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Simon Rex, left, and director Sean Baker on set of the film Red Rocket.Courtesy of A24 / Mongrel Media

It is the middle of a sweltering August night deep in the heart of Texas, and Simon Rex is running down the street naked.

Don’t worry, it’s for a movie. Just ahead of Rex, director Sean Baker and cinematographer Drew Daniels are filming from the back of a rental van. But, actually, maybe you should worry. The crew doesn’t have a permit, the locals are not exactly welcoming and then there is the Lone Star state’s whole “stand-your-ground” thing. And again, Rex is butt-naked.

“It was hiding from cops, hiding from the neighbours, thinking that I could go to jail. That was stressful!” Rex recalls. “But I had to let go of a lot of stuff and surrender. And sometimes, that works.”

Welcome to the production of Red Rocket, a film that works in spite of the many obstacles its creators faced, or placed in their own way. The dark comedy, which was shot guerrilla-style in the thick of the pandemic last year, is the latest movie from Baker (Starlet, Tangerine, The Florida Project) to explore those living on the margins of the American dream. Following a former porn star named Mikey Saber (Rex) as he tries to stage a comeback from his dusty and depressed hometown of Texas City, the film is exhilarating, provocative and filthy in both spirit and content, with Baker daring audiences to attach themselves to a man who is at best a narcissist, at worst a predator.

But more than representing the latest gutter-cinema triumph for Baker, the movie sells the startling comeback story of Simon Rex, the man who dominated MTV for a heady few years in the mid-90s before falling into a loop of Hollywood detritus: forgotten sitcoms, Scary Movie sequels (the later, really bad ones) and jokey hip-hop acts whose humour went over, or under, most everyone’s heads (Rex’s rap name was Dirt Nasty around this point).

So, Red Rocket is not exactly a long-awaited return to form for Rex – there was, strictly speaking, no real form to return to – but instead a startling debut of qualities and talents hitherto unknown.

“He understood the character really fast. I phoned him up and asked for a self-tape audition and he sent one back in 20 minutes,” recalls Baker, who wrote the part of Mikey with Rex in mind. “It was a little red flag, like, are you taking this seriously? But then I watched the clip and he was 90 per cent there with the character already. Most of my directing was just tweaking.”

Rex hopes that his performance as former porn star Mikey Saber leads to more opportunities for roles.Courtesy of A24 / Mongrel Media

Rex simply had no desire to play hard-to-get. By the time that Baker reached out to him in the summer of 2020, he was living alone near California’s Joshua Tree National Park, having exhausted himself with the “human zoo” of Los Angeles. Roles were not easy to come by – Rex’s last onscreen credit before Red Rocket was playing a character named DJ Womp Womp on the 2020 Facebook Watch series The Real Bros of Simi Valley – and the pandemic wasn’t helping. Three days after receiving Baker’s script, Rex was in Texas City, with all of Mikey’s long, profane, rapid-fire monologues already committed to memory.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was hot, sweaty, memorizing so many lines and having to deliver them on film, because it wasn’t shot digitally and film is expensive,” Rex says. “I don’t think I’d be able to handle that 10 or five years ago. I would’ve had a meltdown. But I was able to be calm and collective in the face of the storm, all this chaos around me. You can thrive in chaos. And this movie transfers that energy across.”

If Red Rocket is energizing chaos, then Mikey is its central charge. A conniving and delusional anti-hero whose scheme involves seducing 17-year-old doughnut clerk Strawberry (Suzanna Son) to join him in the adult-film industry, the character is atrocious and reprehensible, yet at the same time demanding the screen’s full attention. But when asked whether he was concerned that Mikey’s toxicity might bleed into his own head space, Rex doesn’t even feign preciousness.

“It doesn’t, because I’m just pretending, man. I’m not a method actor who is staying in character. I respect those types of actors, but I didn’t have time to do any deep character study. I used my imagination and went with my instinct,” he says. “It really is sometimes better than overthinking.”

Since Red Rocket premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer, the film has proven slightly divisive. Some critics appear unsure whether Baker is mocking, identifying or brushing aside certain political themes – the film takes place in 2016, with Donald Trump’s actual and metaphorical voice echoing in half the scenes – and then there’s the age gap between Mikey and his teenage prey.

“There’s this new mentality that certain things shouldn’t even be tackled, and I don’t understand that. We learn more from anti-heroes than heroes,” Baker says. “We learn more from exploring the moral grey.”

Rex agrees – “The movie has political undertones that could be perceived in different ways, and Mikey’s [affair with Strawberry] will piss people off, but you can’t make everyone happy” – though the only reception he truly cares about is the one from people in a position to get him more work. People who, just a few months ago, would have forgotten he had ever existed.

“Joaquin Phoenix came up to me last night at the Gotham Awards and whispered in my ear, ‘I hear you gave the best performance of the year, you’re killing it,’ and then walked away. Everyone at my table was like, what the hell? The same thing happened with Leonardo DiCaprio – I saw him on Halloween in L.A., he rolled up to me and said the exact same thing,” Rex says. “When I have the two best actors giving me love? That’s cool. Way better than a good review from someone I don’t know.” He pauses for a second. “I don’t mean that in a bad way.”

No offence taken. Although maybe a little bit of Mikey has seeped into Rex. Both men, after all, are just hustling for one more chance.

“I just hope the right people see this, and that I get more opportunities,” he continues. “Fame, attention, awards, they’re all great. But I want this to get me more work.”

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