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Arts + CultureDirt Nasty rides the 'Red Rocket': local star Simon...

Dirt Nasty rides the ‘Red Rocket’: local star Simon Rex’s spectacular ascent

The actor brings a lifetime of experience to his acclaimed turn as a washed-up porn star.

San Francisco native and Alameda High School graduate Simon Rex, now a Film Independent Spirit Award nominee for his role in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, made a triumphant return to his roots in October when the Mill Valley Film Festival not only screened the movie but feted the actor with one of its MVFF Awards in front of a crowd that included family and friends.

“That was a magical night to receive that honor, and in front of my mom,” Rex says, basking in the afterglow the next day. “She said she thought I did a great job at being a horrible person.”

He laughs. “That’s great. That could be the other poster, with a review from my mom.”

There is a tiny echo of Rex’s real life in Red Rocket. In his early 20s, under the name Sebastian, he appeared in a few porn videos but soon left that path behind, first segueing into modeling for Tommy Hilfiger, Versace, Calvin Klein, and others. It has been an adventurous career: Sent one day to MTV to act as another model’s stand-in during a rehearsal for an interview, he came away with a job as a VJ. 

He spent two years at the network, where director Gus Van Sant spotted him and invited him to audition for Good Will Hunting. It didn’t go well—”horrible” is the word Rex uses—but the filmmaker urged him to take acting classes, advice Rex heeded. A new career was born with roles on Felicity and in the Scary Movie franchise, leading eventually to this moment. (And all this is in addition to Rex’s other careers as rap artist Dirt Nasty and standup comic.)

“It’s been a very fortuitous path for me,” Rex says. “I don’t think I could ever have imagined that I could make it. It seems like a lottery, like going to Vegas. And I never really wanted it. It sort of found me.”

Now, after years of working as a journeyman actor, Rex is having his moment, one that points to the 47-year-old suddenly on the cusp of a major career. In Red Rocket, he is Mikey Saber, a user who appears to have hit rock bottom when he returns to the small Texas oil town where he grew up, years after leaving for the bright lights of Hollywood.

While insisting he is a big-time porn star, all he owns are the clothes on his back as he moves back in with his meth head ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her disapproving mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) and starts selling pot. When he meets 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at the donut shop across from the refinery, Mikey is thunderstruck, erotically obsessed and taken by the notion that his nymphet lover could be his ticket back to LA and the porn big time.

“I basically just connected with the fact that I know a lot of people like that in show business,” says Rex. “There are a lot of people that have those delusions of grandeur. I don’t know how to diagnose it, if that’s narcissistic, sociopathic, whatever it is. And I’ve been around enough people in Hollywood over the years to be able to say,’ Oh, I got I totally know how to play this guy.'”

Mikey is a bottom feeder who hurts everyone he touches, even while saving the biggest hurt for himself. He has no filter, no impulse control, seemingly no conscience, and only a tenuous grip on reality.

“On the page, that’s exactly what he is,” says Rex. “I needed to make this guy somehow likeable, otherwise, the audience won’t care what happens and stay interested in the movie for two hours. So, I decided to make him boyish and charming. And maybe he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t have bad intentions. He’s sort of just going through life, burning bridges, and hurting people, but he knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing. There’s a little bit of innocence because if he’s just doing it with malice, and he knows what he’s doing, then it’s hard to root for him.”

As in prior films like Tangerine and The Florida Project, Baker draws most of his Red Rocket cast from non-actors who live in the community. The only experienced actor on set, Rex found himself explaining things to his costars, like why they couldn’t wander off their marks on the floor. But he relished Baker’s guerrilla shooting style; working in real locations, like shooting in a drug house that the production rented from a drug dealer; and acting opposite the locals.

“There wasn’t the ego you see with a lot of actors,” Rex says. “There wasn’t the self-entitlement. They were just good old Texas folk and it rubbed off on me. It was fun. It made it like new again.

“I was just immersed in that real world,” he adds. “You feel the despair and the socio-economic struggles of the place. It’s tough, especially around those refineries that become a character in the movie. There’s a lot of bad history and you can feel it.

“You’re in Texas and you’re smelling the smells and you’re in the humidity and you’re hearing the accents. I got to play in the world that Sean found and it just made my job that much easier because I was immersed in it.”

RED ROCKET opens in Bay Area theaters on Fri/17.

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