Actor Simon Rex talks ‘Red Rocket,’ Sean Baker, playing the antihero

Photo of film starring Simon Rex
A24/Courtesy

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Actor Simon Rex is done taking a break. 

The breakout star of director Sean Baker’s dark comedy, “Red Rocket,” Rex has been praised for his nuanced and hilarious portrayal of a veteran porn star plotting his comeback in his Texas hometown. 

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Rex discussed this unique point in his career. “I think now at this age, I’ve eaten the humble pie,” Rex said. “I’ve been at the top. I’ve been at the bottom. I’ve been everywhere in between.” 

A large part of the film’s success is due to the creative direction and conceptualization of Sean Baker, director of “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project.” “It’s not too often you get to work with somebody who’s the writer, the director and the editor,” said Rex about Baker. “There’s only a handful of directors that are allowed that freedom to do everything. He even chooses the font on the movie, he does everything and he’s like I don’t want anyone telling me what to do — trust me, I got this. And for me, that really lets you just relax and be like, OK, I trust this guy. I’ve seen his movies, he has a formula, he knows what he’s doing. That’s really special and rare.”

The film’s subject material straddles careful lines. Most of Sean Baker’s films are about sex work and its nuances, but where his other films are poignant and serious, “Red Rocket” takes the route of an extreme, dark comedy — one that might not have worked if it hadn’t been for the film’s stylistic choices. 

“As soon as I knew it was Sean Baker, I didn’t even need to read the script,” Rex said. “If anything, you wanna be challenged and you wanna do stuff that’s pushing the envelope and you want to do stuff that’s gonna maybe make people feel a certain way. I think this movie does that.”

The film, while putting forth controversial subject matter, doesn’t portray Rex’s character as particularly admirable or aspirational. “We’re not condoning this, at all,” Rex clarified. “This is real life, you know, it kind of shines the light on real people, real situations. It’s fun to play the antihero.” 

Rex plays Mikey, a guy you love to hate. One of Mikey’s most complicated plot threads is his affair with an underage girl, Strawberry — the film follows his wait for her to turn of legal age. 

On playing Mikey, Rex explained, “I basically just made the choice that he had to be a charming, boyish, likable asshole, really. Because if he was just an asshole then I don’t think the audience cares what happens to him and they’re not invested in the movie, so you have to kind of be rooting for him just a little bit, considering the horrible things he’s doing, so I made it like he was a little kid that almost didn’t know what he was doing. So there you might find a little bit of, I don’t know if sympathy is the word, maybe just a little of ‘oh he knows not of what he does.’ So you’re more connected to the outcome of the film instead of just writing him off.” 

After the undeniable success of “Red Rocket,” Rex has an array of options ahead of him. When asked if he wanted to continue working or bask in the success of the film for a bit, Rex replied “I want to just continue to work and do more cool characters, uh, stuff like this. Obviously Sean Baker is its own thing, but I would love to continue to do edgy, independent movies. I just want to do interesting work. I’m just thankful that I’m in this position and I want to keep surprising people with fun roles.”

Rex also finds himself in small roles in other films this year. “I got another movie coming out with Diane Keaton, where I play a new age hustler, shaman. I got to work with her, which was amazing. I have another movie at the Mill Valley Film Festival called ‘My Dead Dad,’ which is a small role again, but nice.”

Rex’s careful yet somehow unrestrained portrayal of Mikey is both refreshing and exciting, complementing the characters around him while shining in his own right.  As the focal point and strongest driving force of the film, Rex has established himself as an actor that can do it all. 

“Red Rocket” premieres in theaters on Dec. 17.

Contact Megha Ganapathy at [email protected].