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Red Rocket star Simon Rex is ready to shoot his shot

·11 min read
Red Rocket star Simon Rex is ready to shoot his shot

In a career that spans from '90s MTV VJ to the Scary Movie franchise, Simon Rex, 47, has seen hype come and go. But his breakout as a midlife porn star in The Florida Project auteur Sean Baker's festival sensation Red Rocket (in theaters this Friday) marks a new notch on his résumé: serious contender. Recently, he talked to EW about how he wooed the world's biggest boy band, whiffing his chance with Matt Damon, and letting it all hang out (literally) on the streets of Texas in one harrowing and very nude Rocket scene.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is it true that Sean Baker just cold-called you about the role?

SIMON REX: Kind of, yeah. Basically I was just sitting around in Joshua Tree, it was early in the pandemic, and I get a phone call from a friend of mine who is very good friends with Sean's sister Stephonik, who does set design and the music for his movies. And basically Stephonik had called my friend and was like, "Do you know Simon Rex? We're interested in him for this role. Can you get ahold of him so we don't have to hit him on Instagram and he might miss it in his DMs or something."

So Sean called me and said, "Hey, I'm going to send you one paragraph from one scene of this script I wrote. I want you to read it on your phone and send it to me right now." So I did, and he said, "Okay, I need you in Texas in three days. You need to drive here immediately. Because if I fly you here I have to quarantine you for a week, and we're ready to shoot." They rented me a car and I just drove three days straight to Texas. And you saw the movie, it's a lot of dialogue. So I basically just started working on memorizing the material really quickly.

Was it all scripted? Because it has such a loose feeling, but it's also so well constructed.

Sean said it's about 20 percent improv in the movie in the end. A lot of the stuff had to be what's on the page for the story to move forward obviously, but he would let me riff here and there. He trusted me.

You're a California kid. How was it to be so deep in Texas?

It couldn't be more opposite than San Francisco, New York, L.A., where I've always lived. Texas is like its own country. But I think Southern folk are just kind of good nice family-oriented people. And they opened up their doors to us. They opened up their lives to us, because Sean works with real non- or first-time actors, it just made it that much more authentic and real and fun.

And the backdrop was so beautiful, the oil refineries and the dilapidated world that it's in, mixed with the Gulf. It's kind of like tropical Texas. It's just a trip, but I loved it.

Red Rocket
Red Rocket

A24 Simon Rex in 'Red Rocket'

Was there a scene you really struggled to nail down, either emotionally or logistically?

Well, obviously the running nude scene is physically challenging because we were hiding from police officers and neighbors. We were kind of just shooting guerilla-style, and it would be in the middle of the night. We would have to check that the coast is clear and then I would start running, and there would be a cop. And I'd have to go jump in the back of a van and put a robe on, and the cops would come up and knock on the window and look in the back. And I'm sitting there in a robe. It just looked so shady. [Laughs]

And then on the acting level, there's one scene where I'm leaving my wife basically. I don't want to give away too much of the movie, but it's like a three-and-a-half-minute one-shot no-cut breakup scene. Everyone can relate to that, or trying to get out of a situation. So that was tough on an acting level because it just had to be really grounded, and there's no comedy to it. It was just very real.

I love the chemistry between you and Suzanna Son who plays Strawberry, the teenage donut-store employee you seduce (or is it the other way around?). But obviously, she's a first-time actor, and you've been doing this for nearly 25 years. How was that, to be throwing her into the deep end of this thing where she's so physically and emotionally exposed, and she's got such a big part to carry?

I just really tried to make her feel at ease and comfortable. And then the cameras would roll, and she would just light up and murder it every single time. And then we'd cut, and then she'd be like, "Oh geez, maybe..."

I don't think she realized in the moment how good she was. So I was surprised at how much of a natural she was, but I'm not surprised, because Sean has a really good knack for finding talent, and just knowing that they're going to kill it. It's a weird thing he has. I don't know how he does it.

One of my favorite things in the movie is the use of the NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye" and the role it plays throughout the whole story. Was it hard to get the rights for that? I can't imagine NSYNC comes cheap.

[Laughs] Yeah. So basically Sean shot it and was like, "Fingers crossed we get them to sign off on this." And sure enough, after the movie was done and the producers had seen how great it was, they said, "Okay, we're going to give you more money to get the NSYNC song."

I don't want to say how much it cost, that's probably not up to me to say. But they paid a pretty penny. And all of the NSYNC members had to watch the scenes that it's in and approve it. So they all watched it, they all loved it, they all said okay. And thank God it worked out, because that song is so important to the movie that it's just, like, synonymous with it.

I'm picturing Joey Fatone sitting down with his family to watch Red Rocket, that is a visual. Alright, so you've had a pretty crazy festival ride with this movie. Was there a moment where you were just like, "Pinch me?"

Cannes was the first one we did, so it was kind of crazy for my first-ever festival to start at the pinnacle. Then not only that, but we were in the Palme d'Or category. And then not only that, we got a standing ovation for like five minutes. So that moment of just walking the red carpet at Cannes, getting the adoration of the French — who will be quick to let you know if the movie's no good. They'll boo you, they'll walk out. And we got an over-five-minute standing ovation. That was just, I can't even explain.

We didn't win, but I did get to have dinner there with Bill Murray. I was like, "I can't be bummed. We're in Cannes, we just got really close to winning. And now I'm having dinner with Bill Murray," so that was pretty much the highlight. And I'm wearing Bill Murray socks right now! I'm looking at them. They're not Bill Murray's personal socks, they're socks with Bill Murray's face on them. So. [Laughs]

I read this story online and I don't know if it's true, but that years ago, you auditioned for Good Will Hunting and it went terribly.

Yes. I was working at MTV, and Gus Van Sant saw me as a VJ and goes, "I want to read him for a movie." So this is landline days, before cell phones. And he had got my phone number, called my apartment. My roommate never told me that Gus Van Sant had called, he wrote it on a piece of paper that was like, under the TV. And weeks went by, and I looked one day under the TV. I'm like, "What's this?" And he said, "Oh, some dude Gus Van Sant called for you." I'm like, "Really?"

But I called and he brought me into read with Matt Damon for the small role of a bully that gets beaten up in a basketball court at a schoolyard. Couple of lines only. And I read with him and Matt, and he goes, "Simon, I got to stop you. This is a bad audition. You're not ready for this, but you have something. I see it in you. So I want you to go to acting class. There's really good ones here in New York, go and study." So he kind of sent me on my path, and I went and started studying acting. I didn't do that movie, obviously. But the rest is history.

So we can thank Gus Van Sant for Red Rocket, in a way.

Yeah, you could thank him for my whole life…. And 25 years later, I'm like, "I think I'm ready now." [Laughs]

You have a pretty long resumé at this point. What do people approach you for most, do you find?

Usually Scary Movie, those are so big. They still run all the time, and they're such a part of peoples' childhood. A lot of times people will kind of come up to me and they'll look at me like, "Where do I know you from?" And usually it's just this very awkward moment when you start rattling off what you've done.

Your IMDb page, basically.

Yeah. And I had moderate success with a rap, a comedic rap character called Dirt Nasty that I did for a while, a certain demographic knows me from that. But this movie is different, because now I'm getting respect and attention from auteurs and filmmakers and European film critics and all those people. I was never on their radar before.

So it's really kind of cool to have these people, these cinephiles and movie snobs coming up to me and really giving me credit and saying, "Bravo, well done."

Simon Rex
Simon Rex

Tiffany Rose/Getty Images

Does that mean you're getting more offers now?

Yeah right now I'm having a moment, I guess you could say. Which a year ago, I would have killed for any of these offers. But now I'm in a position where I'm sort of sitting back, and I'm not jumping in and committing to anything right now. Because it's... that little window of time is really important, to not be tied into anything. Since nobody's even really seen the movie yet, this is all just from the trailer and word of mouth.

I also have a couple other great movies coming out. I did a movie called Down Low with Zach Quinto and [White Lotus's] Lukas Gage that's really funny. That's another Filmation movie that I just shot. I got another movie called My Dead Dad, which is an independent film, that's in some festivals. And I also have a movie called Mack & Rita where I got to improv with Diane Keaton which was amazing.

I've got more movies coming out in this window of time than I've had in a decade. So it's kind of all happening at once, and it's great.

What about your parents, have they seen you in Red Rocket yet? There's a lot to unpack there.

Funny you ask. I'm not allowed to get a link for it to show anyone, but I'm going to the Mill Valley Film Festival this weekend, so my mother and my stepdad and some of my high school friends are all coming. And obviously this movie has a lot of heavy content that's not going to be easy for my mother to see, right?

So it's kind of like, I know — I'm 47 years old and I still want to sit next to my mom and cover her eyes. But she's used to my shenanigans over the years, she'll just laugh and roll her eyes. And the good thing is, I'm accepting an achievement award for my acting there, so at least that will diffuse it. [Laughs] At least I'll get an award.

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's December issue, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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