Simon Rex on playing a washed-up porn star in "Red Rocket": "He's an aging narcissist"

The actor spoke to Salon about his sort-of comeback in Sean Baker's ("The Florida Project") acclaimed new film

Published December 8, 2021 5:34PM (EST)

"Red Rocket" (A24)
"Red Rocket" (A24)

Simon Rex delivers a career-defining performance in Sean Baker's "Red Rocket" as Mikey Saber, a washed-up porn star. He shows up at his wife Lexi's (Bree Elrod) house in Texas City, Texas hoping to crash "for a few days," but Mikey really has nowhere else to go. After wheedling his way into her home — which she shares with her no-nonsense mother Lil (a terrific Brenda Deiss) — Mikey's restlessness sets in with a vengeance.

He tries to find work and ends up selling weed. He soon befriends Lexi's neighbor, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who has a car, and eventually meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old donut shop employee. Mikey thinks Strawberry could be his ticket back into the adult film world in California, and she seems to have a sexual interest in him, too. 

Rex is fantastic as the motormouthed Mikey, a not-so-young man who is looking for a comeback. As he hustles and lies, playing the ends against the middle, Mikey hopes to come out on top. The actor makes this loser not necessarily lovable, but certainly fascinating to watch as he encounters various situations that test his resolve. 

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Rex, a former MTV VJ, who appeared in hit films like "Scary Movie 3," can relate to Mikey's up and down career arc. In a recent Zoom interview, he spoke with Salon about playing Mikey, an aging narcissist with a dad bod, and making "Red Rocket." 

Is Mikey a bulls**t artist, who hopes that folks buy his lies? What do you believe about him? Did he really have success in the industry and win all those film awards or not? We only have his word on that. Why do you think he thinks he can convince other people of his fame and success? 

Whether he's lying or not, he is basically hustling and conning everybody. Whether or not he's exaggerating how many [laughs] — I mean, now that you mention it, [Mikey says], "If you can't compete with someone who f**ked over 10,000 bitches, bro . . . " That's pretty ridiculous. He couldn't be Wilt Chamberlain. But who knows? I just think the guy is so full of s**t that he believes his own lies. I know people who are compulsive liars, who believe their lies and those are dangerous people. We all know those people. We went to school with them, we worked with them. I've probably been guilty of that, too. When I was kid, I was a big fibber. I would lie. I would visit my dad in Hawaii, and I would say my name is Chris because I hated my name, Simon. It's very childish. But yes, that's how [Mikey] survives and operates. He is so full of s**t that he believes his own bulls**t and just talks and doesn't listen. That's a fun character to play.

Mikey wants control and thinks he can control people, like Lexi and Lonnie and even Strawberry. His thinks his charms or his looks will win them over, but they see through him. He's a case of arrested development. How did you find sympathy with a narcissist who torches everything he touches? 

That's why I made the choice to simply make him boyish and charming, and maybe he doesn't know what he's doing. That was to keep the audience on board. If he's just an a**hole, and his intentions are pure evil, it is hard pull off a two hour movie and for the audience to care what happens to him in the end. It is a character study, and he is an antihero.

There are not enough movies like this anymore. And I love these kinds of films, personally. It's a throwback to the movies I grew up watching, like "Taxi Driver" and "Bad Lieutenant" — but this is different because you had to make him likeable — those were murderous, horrible people. But there are little things in the script that give him a glimmer of hope, like when he gets mad at [folks] for doing drugs. Does he care about them, or is he just taking the moral high ground? "Real nice life decision, guys!" It is that oscillating, back and forth teetering, you don't know what his intentions are. It is all about intentions. Maybe he doesn't have bad intentions, and that's enough to make you stay on board.  

What about his body and looks? Mikey is proud of his, ahem, talents, and Lexi and Strawberry both appreciate him, while others, like Lil don't. [Rex laughs] He needs Viagra and sleeps au naturel. But he is bruised and beaten up. What are your thoughts on Mikey's body, and being objectified in the film? 

I think he's an aging narcissist. I can, quite frankly, relate to that. My whole life I floated by being able to be an ectomorph who is lean and in shape and never had to work out and stay ripped. I've been lucky like that — not to sound like a d**k. I've always been kind of lean, and now I'm sort of getting dad bod in my 40s. I can relate to that where it is starting to slip away but he is holding onto the past. That is funny and interesting and relatable and sympathetic and pathetic.

I don't think I gave it much thought. I just had to plow through at 100 miles per hour with this guy and not care about other people's feelings and just survive and hustle and do whatever it takes and not listen and just blah blah blah blah blah. And that's a lot of fun to play. Physically, he's just going, man. You see him working out and he is selfishly hogging the workout [bench] the whole time. He gets beat up. He's sweaty and dirty and wearing the same outfit for the whole movie. It was kind of liberating. I did not have to have hair and wardrobe perfect. We let all that go. He could just be a piece of s**t, and that's fun!

Mikey finds himself at a low point in his life. He wants a comeback. Can you discuss how you identify with his character, from taking risks to make money to the highs and lows of fame? You've had experience with that.

My whole life has been taking risks — sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I definitely have that personality trait. I just would never do it like Mikey does where he is hurting other people in the process. I've only hurt myself in the process. I don't have intentions to ever do wrong to anyone else. That's a big difference, but again, that's why this was so much fun to play. I would never do that. I like to think I'm a self-aware person who isn't trying to f**k other people over. I probably would have had a lot more success in my life if I was like Mikey, because I've seen people in Hollywood who will do whatever it takes to get to the top, sever friendships, be ruthless. Those people quite often make it. Maybe I haven't had more success is because I've not like been like that. 

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His relationship with Strawberry is interesting. Mikey's expression is priceless when Strawberry reveals she knows about Mikey's career. He sees her as a ticket out of town, but she is arguably smarter than he is. How do you see their relationship? Are they each using and exploiting the other? That was one of the ambiguities of the film.

Yes, she does have agency. All the women in the film are strong women. They are not pushovers. Mikey thinks he is taking advantage of Strawberry, but she makes the first move aggressively and sexually on him, and he is taken aback. As much as he thinks he's hustling her, she's one step ahead of him. She is almost like Mikey when he was younger and she is using him to get out of that s**tty little town and chase their dreams and go to Hollywood — chase some fantasy, and that is the American Dream: opportunity! She's a very strong character and she is hustling as much as Mikey is. Maybe, on the rollercoaster, when she says, "I watched your scenes," she could have known earlier. You don't know. And that's good writing because there are all these windows open where you can look back and say maybe this or maybe that . . . it is not forced on you. That is a credit to cowriters Chris [Bergoch] and Sean [Baker].

What are your thoughts on the film's morality? Mikey is not the only one who resorts to doing questionable things. Lonnie is no saint, either. "Red Rocket" is not exactly a redemption tale — or is it?

The morality thing — look, we're certainly not condoning any of this. It's more of a character study. This exists out there. People are struggling and surviving and hustling and doing what it takes. It is sort of like the American Dream — or is it the American Nightmare? There are all these American flag joints, and the political stuff, and it's loaded with that American Narcissistic Big D**k Energy Dream Delusion, right?  Maybe America isn't as great as it seems? I don't know. You can look at it however you want. I've seen the film six or seven times and I'm still trying to figure it out, and I'm in it!

As far as his moral compass goes, he gets mad at them doing drugs, or at Lonnie for pretending to be something he is not. And he says, "You can't do that around me. People know who I am!" So, then it becomes about him. It's a fun look at some of the people out there — take it or leave it — this ain't a Disney movie.  

His friendship with Lonnie is interesting because he buys into Mikey's bulls**t. Lonnie is lonely, and he sees Mikey as an ally.

Mikey is lonely, too. That's why he befriends Lonnie. He is sitting on the porch bored out of his mind, and when he sees that car go by, he sees an opportunity for a ride and someone to spew his bulls**t to because he wants to get out of the house. He can't be around his mother-in-law, his wife is annoying, and he doesn't want to f**k her anymore; that's old news. He's looking for some new girl, a ride, someone to talk to, and to make some money. He is using everybody. He needs an audience. He is the loneliest character in the movie. He shows up with nothing. What I like about "Red Rocket" is that so many movies have a character arc where someone begins somewhere and ends somewhere different, and you watch the transformation. Mikey, you keep thinking maybe something is going change . . .

Early on in the film, Lexi says to Mikey, "Nothing with you is unexpected." Do you think people will expect this kind of all-in performance from you? Are you trying to impress people in a role they wouldn't expect from you?

I don't know that I am trying to do that. That's a byproduct with me doing this movie, which fell into my lap. I wasn't actively calling Sean Baker to prove the world wrong. He called upon me and gave me an opportunity. I knew I had to deliver. I didn't want to let him down. I knew this was my one shot at possibly having another chance in this career. The stakes were high. In that sense, I tried, and I worked my ass off, and I did my job. But it wasn't like I went into it with that intention. I was just lucky to get the job, and I just did my job. Whatever else happens from there, just happens.

It is not like I was trying to prove people wrong. It was more that I always believed in myself. I knew I could do this. Hollywood never gave me a shot. But Sean Baker did, and this is a cool story within itself. America likes a comeback. Though I don't know that this is a comeback because I never made it big enough to call it a comeback like you would say about John Travolta or Mickey Rourke, because those guys were huge and disappeared and came back in a Tarantino movie. I was always floating under the radar and now I have this moment.

At one point, when everything is going his way, Mikey proclaims, "Life is sweet." How is your life these days? What does all the attention you're getting from this performance mean to you? 

I learned a long time ago that money and fame do not make you happy. I know that sounds bulls**t cliché because that is what everyone wants. But that is a metaphor for this movie; that is what Mikey is all about. But I got to the top of the mountain when I was doing studio films like "Scary Movie 3" and making a lot of TV shows and doing late night. I've been there before, and it doesn't make you happy.

If anything, it makes your life more complicated, and brings weird energy at you. You are working, and to everyone else you've made it, and it is magic, but to yourself, I am just sitting in a hotel room, being me. Everything is kind of the same. I'm not thinking that now all of a sudden, my life is going to be magical because I'm working again and I'm going to get some notoriety.

I just want to do good work and do more movies like this and keep surprising people because that's cool. My intention is not fame and money, it's just to do good work. That's the high I'm getting. People coming up to me and saying how I moved them, or how this movie touched them. I just met Nicholas Braun who plays Cousin Greg on "Succession" at the Gotham Awards last night. He said, "I haven't stopped thinking about your movie. It's haunting me." He is someone I look up to as an actor. That's cool. That gives me the juice: my peers and people in the business being moved by my performance. That's what's jazzing me and inspiring me right now.

"Red Rocket" is in theaters Friday, Dec. 10. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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