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Only ‘Red Rocket’s’ Simon Rex Could Play a Washed-Up Porn Star and Maybe Win an Oscar

Mikey is at a job interview at a greasy spoon in rural Texas City, Texas. It’s going well. His fast-talking charm, like a turbo jet fueled by a petrol cocktail of desperation and hubris, is working on the hiring manager, just as it works on just about everyone he meets. That is, until it doesn’t. There’s one hiccup to all this babbling, hustler-like magnetism: that 17-year gap in his résumé.

Mikey doesn’t skip a beat, delivering his bombshell revelation like a wrecking ball, with no qualms or unease. “I’m going to be straight with you,” he says. “I’m an adult film star. Porn. I’m a porn star.” He goes by the name Mikey Saber, he continues. He then, proudly, has them Google his work.

It takes the entirety of Sean Baker’s new film Red Rocket, released by A24 this Friday, to determine if Mikey’s on a charm offensive or obnoxious disaster course when he returns to Texas from Los Angeles, bruised after a fight and with only $22 and his gray tank top to his name. He had belly-flopped to rock bottom when his porn career fizzled—not that he would ever admit it.

He talks his way back into the house he shared with his estranged wife (and former adult film scene partner), Bree Elrod’s Lexi. He talks his way into a gig dealing drugs for a neighbor, of course breaking all of her ground rules. He talks his way into an inappropriate affair with a young, impressionable teen who works at the local donut shop (Suzanna Son’s Kaylee, who goes by “Strawberry”).

When his neighbor recognizes him while washing his car, Mikey sees opportunity. He uses him to drive him around to errands and, mostly, as a receptacle for rambling, ego-stroking stories about his glory days: The AVN Awards, the “Oscars for porn,” he won—and the categories in which he was robbed. The 800-900 subscribers he accrued on Pornhub. The devastation that he couldn’t film sequels to the porn parody of The Fast and the Furious he starred in because Paul Walker had died.

Maybe Mikey’s a megalomaniac. Maybe he’s a grifter. Maybe he’s delusional. But, goddamn, is he irresistible. And, when it comes to his past, he is unapologetic, unashamed, and ravenous for another chance.

That 47-year-old actor Simon Rex plays Mikey is perfect casting. Except that it’s a surprise to everyone—audiences, the industry, even him—that he was cast at all.

For anyone who was familiar with the star, a Y2K-era mainstay known for being a MTV VJ, clubbing with Paris Hilton, starring in shows like Felicity, Jack & Jill and What I Like About You, and playing a lead in the Scary Movie franchise, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role… especially when you think about those nude photos and masturbation videos that leaked at the height of his career. (More on that later.)

Audiences that have seen Red Rocket during its acclaimed film festival run might be forgiven for confusing Rex’s natural delivery for playing a version of himself.

“There’s obviously a lot of parallels you can draw, but if you really think about it, this character could be a Wall Street maniac with this personality, a sociopathic narcissist, and it would be the same kind of guy,” Rex tells The Daily Beast in a recent Zoom interview.

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Actress Jaime Pressly, actor Simon Rex and actress Paris Hilton arrive at the premiere screening for Rex at Cinespace on June 8, 2009, in Hollywood, California.

Michael Buckner/Getty

It’s not that he’s playing a version of himself or his own personality—though a ticker-tape manner of speed-speaking is a common trait. It’s that Red Rocket allowed Rex to finally be himself as an actor. It let him actually do his thing.

“I was at a point where I just had nothing to lose, like at my age and with my career,” he says. “I don’t mean to say ‘I don’t care,’ but I truly was just like, ‘Fuck it. I’ve got nothing to lose.’ I could just go for it and not worry. In the past, I might have worried about how I looked, or what people thought. I don’t care about that shit anymore.”

Now he’s playing a washed-up porn star and toxic male manipulator, fully nude in a small indie that has taken him all over the world—from Cannes to New York—and has earned him the best reviews of his career. Rex has been many things over the last 25 years. A model. A paparazzi favorite. A MTV VJ. A sitcom star. A film studio lead. A tabloid scandal. A rapper. A Vine comedian. And woefully unemployed.

Now, in an unexpected turn, he might be an Oscar nominee, too.

Rex estimates the last time he was this busy was about 10 years ago, while filming and then promoting his final turn in the Scary Movie franchise. “I moved to the desert a couple years ago, and it’s very remote,” he says. “I live off-grid in this shipping container in the middle of nowhere. It’s like I live on Mars.”

The two shipping containers that make up his studio, sitting on five acres in Joshua Tree, was a peaceful place to be as the offers and auditions dried up.

Of course, once the pandemic happened, it proved to be a prescient move. Now it’s a safe haven amidst a globe-trotting festival tour for Red Rocket and awards campaign for his electrifying performance—at least on the paltry days he’s able to return to the refuge and “just sit in the stillness.”

Before COVID brought the world to a screeching halt, writer-director Sean Baker was basking in the critical glow of back-to-back indie hits: 2015’s Tangerine, about a transgender sex worker who discovers that her boyfriend (and pimp) was cheating on her, and 2017’s The Florida Project, about a 6-year-old girl living among the hidden homeless in the shadow of Disney World. The next move was supposed to be a romance filmed in Vancouver, but the pandemic shut that down.

When Baker’s producer gave him money to make a smaller film that could be shot under extreme COVID-safety guidelines, he knew where he’d pivot: to a story inspired by a suitcase pimp from the adult film world he had met on set while shooting his debut feature, Starlet, nearly a decade ago. He had been noodling about it ever since.

“We started collecting stories that we had heard from some of these men and they always talked about how they were the victims and they were being sabotaged,” Baker tells the Beast. “That word ‘sabotage’ comes up a lot. They always feel that they’re being sabotaged by outside forces, outside people. We had a beginning, middle, and end worked out pretty damn quick.”

He knew who Mikey, the character in Red Rocket, was going to be. And believe it or not, he knew pretty much from the start that Simon Rex should be the one to play him. “The closest character trait that I see between Simon and Mikey is that survivor mode, that never giving up,” Baker says.

He and Rex are roughly the same age, and he remembers watching Rex as a VJ on MTV. While he admits that he wasn’t exactly an avid viewer of Rex’s work in the 2002 Amanda Bynes-Jennie Garth sitcom What I Like About You, he watched all of the Scary Movie installments. More than that, he was intrigued by the unorthodox pivots Rex made in the years after, when his acting career wasn’t exactly flourishing.

The closest character trait that I see between Simon and Mikey is that survivor mode, that never giving up.

In 2007, he made his debut as the rapper Dirt Nasty, which Rex bashfully referred to in New York magazine as “rap music for white people.” The music and lyrics were a joke—“My dick, size of a pumpkin / Your dick, look like Macaulay Culkin” is one choice line from the track, “My Dick”—but it was also extremely listenable, going viral on MySpace.

Then Rex started playing around on the short-video content app Vine, which is what really got Baker’s attention. “This guy has continued to be consistently entertaining, and I can see even in six seconds that he understands delivery,” Baker says. “He’s great at comedic improvisation, and I had a real faith based on everything that I’d seen that he’s also a great dramatic actor, because he just understands timing.”

Everything came together last-minute, which is the way of an indie film during COVID. By September 2020, Rex was renting a car and making the days-long drive from Joshua Tree to Texas.

“When I read the script, I was like, God, who’s gonna stay tuned for two hours to see what happens to this asshole?” Rex remembers. He summoned the advice he received from director David Zucker when he was doing the Scary Movie films: “Simon, if you lose the audience, and they’re not rooting for you, the movie is over. If you’re just an asshole, no one’s gonna care.”

But Rex immediately saw how instilling Mikey with some of his own boyish time could be a weapon to fight that inherent douchebaggery. He came up with the idea of Mikey being well-intentioned, but hapless in spite of himself, like a puppy dog. “When a cute puppy pees on the rug, you can’t be mad at him.”

The casting of Rex, however, left an elephant in the room to address. Well, an elephant trunk, if you will.

Back in 1993, when he was 19, Rex agreed to be photographed nude for “renowned,” if that word applies, gay-porn photographer and filmmaker Brad Posey. A year later, scrapped for cash and needing to pay rent for him, his then-girlfriend and her baby, he agreed to film solo masturbation scenes for two of Posey’s videos: Young, Hard, & Solo 2 and 3.

When Rex made it big on MTV a decade later, the videos, as they tend to when stars make it big, resurfaced. Village Voice columnist Michael Musto published stills of Rex nude in the paper, selling it as a “delicious” scandal: “[Rex] is apparently just as adept at j/o-ing as v/j-ing.”

“I remember the unfortunate leak of those photos,” Baker says. “And when I say unfortunate, I mean the way that the press handled it and the public handled it. The Village Voice published nude photos he had done before his MTV career in a way that wasn’t nice. I’m sorry, but we all know the stigma attached to that sort of stuff. Putting it out there was a way of really sabotaging Simon’s career. It definitely did not help at the time.”

When it came to Red Rocket, it would be inevitable that audiences would connect Rex playing Mikey, an adult film star, to those photos from his past. Baker broached the subject with him over the phone while Rex was driving to Texas to the shoot. He said he knew about the photos and that there was no need to get into the details of them, but he could see a situation in which everything plays out on a meta level once the film is released. Or that people might think he was cast in the film because of that background.

Rex’s response: “Yeah, whatever works, works,” Baker says. “He goes, ‘But I don’t know that world at all.’ He wasn’t pulling from that world to help flesh out the character. He said that he knew plenty of people in Hollywood that were narcissistic sociopaths. But that was the extent of it. It was literally like a 30-second back-and-forth on the phone where we’re like, yeah, this could come up and if it does, we’ll tackle it.”

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Sean Baker directs Simon Rex on the set of Red Rocket

A24

Rex has as healthy a perspective on this as one could probably have. He knew that everyone would talk about it when the film came out. And, in fact, they have, in nearly every interview he’s done to promote it… including this one.

“That’s just been my whole life,” he says. “It’s always been there. I feel like it’s just too easy, but I get it. That’s obviously a parallel that’s going to be brought up, and it’s something that’s always sort of the elephant in the room for me. I’ve been dealing with it for 25 years, so this isn’t anything new.”

He likens his approach to handling this to the famous interview Hugh Grant gave on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno after being caught with a prostitute in 1995 while he was dating Elizabeth Hurley—a massive celebrity scandal at the time. He got through it by admitting it and talking about it in a remarkably candid manner.

“That stigmatized him and it’s like, this is what we do as humans,” Rex says. “You could do all the greatest things in the world, but you have one little thing that’s a negative on your rap sheet. That’s always going to be what people identify you as. I just don’t think it’s fair, but that’s what we do. I’m probably guilty of that, too. It’s just human nature. But as long as people aren’t shaming me, I don’t really care that people do that. I’m just happy with this movie.”

You could do all the greatest things in the world, but you have one little thing that’s a negative on your rap sheet. That’s always going to be what people identify you as. I just don’t think it’s fair, but that’s what we do.

In many ways, enduring conversation about his own scandal—over and over and over again—throughout his career has somewhat relieved him of the burden that others might shoulder if they carried shame about it. He was free enough and unselfconscious enough to deliver a radical performance in Red Rocket, one that features, for example, an extended sequence of him running fully naked in a panic down a street while NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” plays.

It helps, sure, that we’ve all seen pictures of what’s flopping around before. There’s the fact that Rex, at 47, is still movie-star, leading-man handsome, but, in a refreshing twist, not in the “Marvel hired me a trainer, put me on steroids, and now I eat 18 chicken breasts a day” way. It’s in the “he works to stay in great shape and probably also has great genes” kind of way. Then there’s the fact that, after everything he’s been through, he’s just not taking himself so seriously that he would balk at the idea of a movie climax that features him on a naked jog.

“So many people, especially actors, they really take themselves so seriously, and it’s like we’re just here fucking entertaining people,” he says. “We’re not splitting atoms. We’re not fucking changing policies of fucking politics and the world. It’s like, all we’re fucking doing is just playing.”

Rex knows that he’s good in the movie. And he knows that not many other actors would have taken the part—and if they did, probably wouldn’t have pulled it off as well as he did. There are echoes of Mikey in that confidence, but it’s all draped with the humble self-awareness of someone who’s waited his entire career for an opportunity like this.

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Suzanna Son and Simon Rex in Red Rocket

A24

“I always believed in myself and I always had this weird feeling that my career wasn’t over,” he says. “Maybe that was just a little bit of delusion or narcissism. But deep inside, I was like, I’m not done. Even though the phone wasn’t ringing very much.”

He knew, even if the industry didn’t. But now, he says, it feels really good, maybe even right, to be with Jeffrey Wright and Harvey Keitel at a film festival, as they come up to him to say, “Hey, kiddo, we can’t wait to see your movie.” Or Bill Murray slapping his leg at a dinner and saying, “I heard you killed it.”

He tells a story about Jamie Dornan, who became a household name thanks to the kinky Fifty Shades of Grey films and now this year might be a supporting actor nominee for his work in Belfast. Dornan shook his hand after seeing Red Rocket and said, “That was the best performance I’ve seen in a long time and I never could have done that. Bravo.” This was an actor who spent three films performing S&M sex scenes in a red room.

“I think a lot of people would have read the script and ran the other way,” Rex said. “But again, I had nothing to lose. It’s not like I had his career. I was just sitting in the desert staring at the ceiling.”

https://www.thedailybeast.com/only-red-rockets-simon-rex-could-play-a-washed-up-porn-star-and-maybe-win-an-oscar?source=articles&via=rss Only ‘Red Rocket’s’ Simon Rex Could Play a Washed-Up Porn Star and Maybe Win an Oscar

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