Red Rocket star Simon Rex prefers to steer clear of discussions of his own longtime brush with the adult-film world if he can help it. But his character, Mikey Saber, is only too happy to talk about his tenure in the porn industry. To kick off their Vulture Festival panel last month, Rex and Red Rocket director Sean Baker brought a clip from the film that showed Mikey, having made a less-than-triumphant return to his Texas hometown, trying to talk around the blank years on his résumé with prospective employers before finally breaking and telling them — not without some glee — about what he’d really been up to that whole time. Baker, director of low-budget indies featuring first-time actors, and Rex, a former MTV VJ and Scary Movie star, make for an unexpected pairing, and they talked about the beginnings of their creative partnership, which came together suddenly during the pandemic, as well as their thoughts on anti-heroes, a filmmaker’s responsibilities when depicting sex workers onscreen, and why they bet big on a certain ’N Sync song.
Watch the full panel:
Alison Willmore: I wanted to ask off the bat about “Mikey Saber” as a performance name. There’s a Mikey in Starlet, if I recall, which is another movie that dealt with people who work in the adult-film industry. But where did the name come from?
Sean Baker: I was doing research in the adult-film world for that film you just mentioned, Starlet, with my co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch, and we met a handful of Mikey Sabers. And there is actually a term applied to these gentlemen within the adult-film world: “Suitcase Pimps.” It doesn’t represent all the men in the adult-film industry, but it is a certain type. And they had similar character traits and a psyche that I found incredibly complex and fascinating, because when I was hanging out with them, I was entertained by them, enjoying my time, interacting. At the end of the night I’d be driving home, thinking about everything I had just heard, being like, “Why was I laughing at that? Some of these men are reprehensible. I’m very torn about how I’m feeling right now and how I feel about myself.” So I wanted to actually tackle a character study of one of these men that would almost, in a way, put the audience in the position I was when I was hanging out with them. So that’s how he came about!
Simon, you have had one of the most unique careers. You started as a model, you were an MTV VJ, you’ve acted on some sitcoms, you were in Scream —
Simon Rex: Scary Movie. They get mixed up all the time because of the red font.
My fault. You also had a music career under the name Dirt Nasty. So tell me a little bit about when you got a call like, “Hey, we’re gonna shoot this movie during the pandemic.” How did it sound to you?
SR: It’s crazy. This normally doesn’t happen this way — at least, it hasn’t happened for me this way. I was, as all of us were last July 2020, sitting around wondering what was going on in the world. It was a strange time. I live out in the desert. And I get a call from Sean’s sister’s friend, who’s my friend. His sister is Stephonik Youth, who works on his films—
SB: She does production design on my films.
SR: A good friend of hers calls me and says, “Hey, Simon, what are you doing the next month?” “Hmmm, nothing.” “Well, do you know who Sean Baker is?” I’m like, “Yeah.” “Well, he’s possibly interested in you for a role. Can I connect you guys?” So Sean gets my phone number, reaches out to me, and sends me one paragraph from the opening scene, where I come back to my wife’s home to beg to be let in. I just did kind of a cold read on this phone right here. I put it on my kitchen counter and I recorded in selfie mode and I sent him a 30-secondish clip. And I guess Sean thought that I had the essence for what he wanted and basically said, “I need you here right away, but I don’t have time to deal with agents and managers. Can you drive here? Because if we fly you here, we have to quarantine you for a week and we need to get going.” So they rented me a car, I drove right there. I read the script pretty much as I was driving to Texas, but in a safe manner, and I was blown away. The whole thing happened so fast. I didn’t have much time to think.
SB: There are lots of Mikey Saber monologues in this film, rants. And he came three days later with all of these memorized. I was like, “Who drove?” But also, we waited until the last minute to reach out to Simon because we just wanted to know that the production was real. It was a scary time shooting during the pandemic; we didn’t even know if I had a false positive at first that delayed us a month. But honestly, I knew Simon was right for this role over five years ago when we broke this idea, Chris Bergoch and I. When we had a beginning, middle, and an end, I remember texting one of my producers one of Simon’s Vine videos, saying, “If we make Red Rocket, it’s gonna be this guy.”
SR: Vine! You guys remember Vine?
Rest in peace!
SR: That was a fun app for a while. Six seconds of pure … comedy? [Shrugs.]
SB: In those six seconds, you convinced me you could do a dramatic role. I’d been following your whole career, but it was in that time where you were like, “Goddamn it!” I was like, “Somebody should give him a dramatic role!”
SR: Thank you, and I usually last about six seconds. Oh no, not that.
People often assume there is a lot of improv in your films, Sean, because they have this very natural feel. I’m thinking of one of the earliest scenes in Red Rocket, when Mikey shows up at his not-quite-ex-wife’s doorstep and he charms and wears her down until he’s staying on the couch. How much of that is all on the page?
SB: Well, I always encourage improvisation with all of my films, and I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with actors who have that incredible gift of improvisation, and even more importantly, comedic improvisation. But in this one, if you break it down in the final edit, it probably lands to around a 75-25 or 80-20, meaning 75 percent being on the page, 25 percent coming from the amazing improv that they gave me. And I have to say, some of my favorite lines in the film come from my incredible cast.
Simon, what was it like to be thrown into this with relatively little notice but also to get turned loose and help fill out this character through improv?
SR: I feel that I prefer it, to be honest with you. I think that’s when reacting happens, so the other actor doesn’t know what you’re going to say, and therefore it’s not robotically overrehearsed, which I find gets tricky. In the comedic stuff, I feel the more you rehearse, the more it gets flat. We were shooting this on 16-mm. film, so that was an added sort of pressure that I felt, even though [Sean] didn’t make me feel that way. I just knew that we were burning film, and you want to nail it so you don’t waste money. Shooting during COVID, it was a smaller budget, very small crew. There were a lot of factors that made it a little more hectic than most shoots, but I think it works for this movie and I kind of like the chaos.
SB: There were all these limitations imposed upon us, but in hindsight, those limitations helped us in so many ways. They led us to happy accidents and things that we didn’t have the time to throw money at. Instead, we would just pivot and take advantage of whatever was in the moment. And that led to this spontaneity that was just, I think, really captured the energy of the moment.
Sean, your films have been really grounded in a sense of place: Tangerine on these particular blocks in Los Angeles; The Florida Project in an area outside of Disney World; and this one is set in Texas City, Texas, which is a Gulf Coast town that has a lot of oil refineries. Why was that the setting?
SB: Well, for many reasons, mostly that I would like to leave up for interpretation by the audience. But I wanted to shoot in an industrial town, and especially [amid] the oil and gas industry. And we came across Texas City and learned about the history of this city and the surrounding cities. We were already dealing with the theme of history in this film: the history between individuals. We just thought it would complement the actual personal story. There was a tremendous explosion in Texas City at one of the refineries in 1947 that killed 581 people; in Galveston next door at the turn of the century, 1900, there was a terrible hurricane, the worst natural disaster on U.S. soil. So this area has that sort of dark cloud over it, and the story of Mikey and Lexi has a dark cloud over them. It was complementing.
Mikey is in some ways a very dark character, but he’s also this very likable character. He’s really charismatic; he’s funny and charming. How much did he remind you of maybe people you’ve met in your travels in Hollywood?
SR: That’s a good question. Like Sean said before, he’d been working and doing research in this space for a long time, so he had archival footage of interviews he had done. He showed me one of the gentlemen and was like, “Okay, now don’t do an impression of this guy, but this is the archetype.” And after a few minutes of watching it, I’m like, “Okay, I don’t want to see anymore because I don’t want to do an impression, but I totally get it.” I know this type of person. I lived in L.A. for 20 years; I’m surrounded by sociopathic, narcissistic actors who have delusions of grandeur. It’s very common. But I’ve said this before: I don’t think it’s just in Hollywood or the adult-film industry. I think that dangerous type of person who will do whatever it takes to get to the top and hurt friends and hurt people and do it without any emotion, it exists everywhere. I think everybody watching this movie knows this type of person. If they don’t have them in their family, they’ve certainly met them or had them as a friend.
SB: I think there was also a moment early on when I said to Simon, “He’s a man-child.” And he got that, he understood that. I’m not making a comment about you!
SR: I have Peter Pan syndrome. It’s okay.
SB: But he got that, and he not only has it come across in the film in his behavior and his interactions, but honestly, even in the physicality. There’s physical comedy in this film, which I wasn’t really expecting. And he delivers on that.
SR: Thank you.
Simon, my colleague Nate Jones wrote a great profile of you, and one of the things he mentioned is your particular bike-riding technique.
SB: You gotta watch out for grown men on bikes. And I can say that because I ride a bike around L.A.
SR: Yeah, it added to the boyish thing about him for sure.
But the way you get off the bike, was that something you came up with together?
SB: Oh, that’s how I disembark from my bikes.
SR: Was it scripted or did I just do that?
SB: I asked you to do that.
SR: Oh, yeah, or maybe it wasn’t in the script but you told me, “Just fling the bike into the wall.”
SB: No, it was in the script.
SR: Okay. I didn’t read that thing. Just kidding.
This movie feels like a way of challenging our innate desire to root for comeback stories. Mikey is an underdog, and yet you’re just filled with dread because the things he does in his attempt to get back to California and chase his dream are sometimes really disturbing. Was that part of the plan?
SB: Yeah, most definitely. As I said earlier, I was in a place with these men where I was on a roller coaster about how I would feel about them, so I wanted to put the audience on that roller coaster. I think we even have a visual metaphor; we have a roller-coaster scene in the film. It was an intentional thing. I think, though, there’s also another aspect to that. It’s been a while since we’ve seen an anti-hero up on the big screen in a way where we’re not judging. These days, you put an anti-hero up and you’re going to say, “What he’s doing is bad!” And yes, but I’m not condemning or condoning. It’s important for me to allow the audience to do that, to bring your own ethics into the auditorium and your own politics. I hadn’t seen this sort of character in a while, and I knew it would be a little risky, especially in 2021, to do that sort of thing. But some of my favorite films are about incredible anti-heroes. When I’m in the theater watching these characters, it’s engaging me. I’m so conflicted, I’m learning from these characters. I look back at Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, David Thewlis in Naked, Vincent Gallo in Buffalo ’66. Are these films being made these days? No, not really. And so I wanted to take a crack at them.
Sean, sex work has been kind of an element in all your films: Tangerine, Starlet, and in this you have Mikey, and then his wife, who left the industry earlier and clearly in a sadder way. Can you speak a little bit to your interest in portraying people who are involved in sex work onscreen?
SB: I think all of my films are reactions to what I’m not seeing enough of in U.S. film and TV, and how aspects of the underground economy or cultures, microcosms, communities in general are being represented. And especially when it comes to sex work, you’re right. Four of my seven films have aspects of sex work in them. And hopefully, by having three-dimensional characters, by making sure the representation is responsible and respectable, I’m slowly chipping away at the stigma that’s applied to sex work. I think that sex workers deserve respect, sex work is work, and that’s what I’m trying to do with this movie. This one tackles an aspect of the adult-film world that might be … you know, it’s a negative character. It’s a reprehensible character. But that’s part of the large world of sex work. It’s important for me, if I’m doing this, to tackle all aspects. We had five amazing consultants on this film, four of them from the adult-film world, one of them a sex worker from outside the adult-film world. And they really helped me in many ways. They looked at the script that Chris and I wrote and they gave us notes, especially on the way that the women were portrayed in the film and fleshing their characters out. So making sure that the industry I’m focusing on sees this film and says, “Okay, we accept this, the representation is respectful.” That means the most to me.
Simon, your character has significant relationships with two women, one of whom he’s still technically married to and the other, played by Suzanna Son, is this young woman he meets in town. There are a lot of vulnerable and intimate scenes with both of these characters, both physically and emotionally. Can you speak a bit to how you developed that rapport?
SR: Well, we jumped in it pretty quick. There’s intimate lovemaking scenes where yes, there was a lot of communication, and Sean really made sure that we were all comfortable. We were basically naked minus covering our certain areas, but it was all done respectfully with the camera angles set up in a way where Sean was like, “I don’t want to make you guys uncomfortable at all, so I’m just gonna walk you through exactly how this is.” And really, at the end of the day, the sexual scenes and everything added up, it’s like a minute and a half of screen time? It’s really not gratuitous at all. So it wasn’t like some long, uncomfortable process to do that with my co-stars. If anything, it kind of made us … I guess there’s no way to say this without sounding weird, but we got closer and more intimate and bonded. Therefore that made our chemistry on-camera maybe more believable throughout the rest of the movie.
SB: We had to shoot a lot of those scenes first, for whatever reason. Films are scheduled, you never know why, just logistics.
SR: But I think that might have been a good thing in the end. It helped us to have a little on-camera chemistry. The movie is a love triangle. There’s a movie called Heartbreak Kid, same kind of story.
SB: That’s another great example of an anti-hero. We haven’t seen that Charles Grodin character in quite a while.
SR: Right. I saw the Ben Stiller one first and then I rewatched the original after, which I loved, so it reminded me, parts of it, of that. And also another movie called Star 80 that I’d like to compare this to. Bob Fosse directed it. It’s very similar to this character, bringing it back to those old ’80s movies where the lead guy is an anti-hero.
We don’t get a lot of cads like that, really.
SR: Cad? What’s a cad?
I think just like that, like the kind of guy who’s —
SR: C-A-D? What does that mean?
No, just that kind of character.
SR: Is that short for something? Is that an acronym?
SB: I usually think it’s “cad,” like a hip cat?
Just like a guy who’s not nice, who’s not great to work with.
SR: Oh, I like that word! I just wanted to know. “Cad.”
Mikey’s kind of like a cad on steroids, almost.
SR: He’s a dog.
He is a dog. Well, Red Rocket takes place against the backdrop of the 2016 election. It’s not something that the characters really talk about, but it’s always playing on TVs in the background, characters watching the news. Why was it important for you to ground it in that particular moment in time?
SB: Again, it was about themes that we were dealing with. I’m not trying to make any kind of statement. It’s up to the audience whether they want to liken Mikey Saber to a certain political figure. But for me, that election really politicized everything, and yet it was a reality-television show. That’s the way it was absorbed by the public. And I just wanted to show that in the film. These characters are absorbing the coverage of the 2016 election the way they would be observing the courtroom reality show seconds later. Dealing with the themes of division and what was going on in the country at the time (and still is) and likening that to the division between our characters.
Did you see anything Trump-y in Mikey?
SR: Me? I didn’t. Thank God we didn’t have this conversation prior. It would have planted something in my head. I guess that’s why I think Sean’s so brilliant: He leaves it open for you to decide and have your own thoughts. Sure, you could make that comparison. I think it could even be the other party. I don’t know. But I’m not educated on politics enough to know that, nor do I care to.
SB: We’re very divided right now. I wanted both sides to be able to talk about this movie and enjoy this film, and maybe even apply their own politics to it, so we stayed pretty politically neutral in the clips that we show from that time so that it can be left open to interpretation.
I think the reality is also that people don’t always talk about politics all the time in their day-to-day life.
SR: And there’s enough actors talking about politics! We don’t know what we’re talking about! Jeez! Gosh! Remind me to never act like I know about politics, because I don’t care.
There is a particular song that plays a large part in this, and for a low-budget movie, I was curious about the inclusion of this certain boy-band classic.
SB: Yeah, the price on that track was negotiated after the fact! It wasn’t part of our initial budget. It’s “Bye Bye Bye” from ’N Sync, and we were so incredibly lucky to have this song as a part of the movie. It all came about because Suzanna Son, who plays Strawberry in the film, we discovered that she is a musician. She can sing, perform, and she teaches piano. And so we thought, Let’s display this wonderful talent in the movie. We wrote this scene in which she performs “Bye Bye Bye” on her keyboard, and she does an incredible job at it. I can’t wait for people to hear her rendition of this classic, and I also have to thank ’N Sync for allowing us to use it.
SR: Yeah, didn’t they have to approve it?
SB: They did. Well, they approved the script, and then there’s a certain scene they had to approve. All members had to sign off on it! So Justin has seen part of this movie!
Simon, as one who has ridden a lot of career ups and downs in Hollywood, is there a part of you that felt any kind of empathy for Mikey?
SR: Yeah, that was fun to play, honestly, because he’s just out of control … You know, there’s a couple moments in the movie where his moral compass is actually, “Okay, maybe he’s not such a horrible person.” “Maybe he’s a good guy,” and I think those keep you onboard enough that you stay interested. Because if he’s just an unredeemable asshole for the whole movie, who cares?
SB: Can I speak to what you just said?
SB: We’re about the same age, Simon and I. I’ve been watching Simon throughout his entire career. I remember watching him back on MTV in the ’90s, and what always impressed me was he would always find a new platform throughout his career. I hadn’t seen Simon in a while, and suddenly the Scary Movies come out. Cool! All right! He’s entertaining me again! And then Dirt Nasty, and then when social media rolled around, I was so impressed by Simon surviving in this very difficult industry. I think that’s where Simon and Mikey meet. That survival instinct and moving forward and that drive. That was something that told me Simon is right for this role from the very beginning.
SR: Thank you. You can’t just wait for the phone to ring in this business. You’ve gotta adjust to the times. It’s kind of like NFTs and crypto. I don’t know anything about them, I’m scared, I don’t know what they mean, and I haven’t invested in them yet — but I know I need to adapt to the times because I’m getting left behind!
I am excited for this as another kind of addition to your storied career.
SB: Somebody messaged me and asked me, “Would Mikey Saber be into crypto?” And I was like, “Yeah, he probably would be!”
SR: But he’d be into some dodgy one that lost money and he’d hustle and lie to someone and sell it.
Simon, I’ve heard you have some movie projects coming up now. But also, what do you want to do next? Where would you like to see this take you?
SR: That’s a good question. This movie isn’t even out yet and it’s already getting amazing buzz, the phone’s starting to ring again, which is nice. But I don’t know what it looks like on the other side. I just want to continue to do stuff that surprises people and work with good filmmakers like Sean, and do cool indie movies and other things as well. I’m not really after money — money always comes. I just want to do good work. This project is very special. I’m very aware that this is a unique one in how it happened. And it would be naïve of me to think, I’ll be doing more of these! So I’m just enjoying this moment right now. I want to do more comedy. I want to do obviously some more dramatic stuff as well. This movie shows that, which I don’t think a lot of people expected, so I like to surprise people.