NEW YORK — Simon Rex, in town for the recent Gotham Awards, where he was nominated for outstanding lead performance in “Red Rocket,” was comparing today’s pandemic-scarred New York with the city he knew in the 1990s as a VJ on MTV.
“Times Square was like pimps and sex booths and then it became Disneyland. Now it feels kind of sketchy again and I kind of like it,” Rex says, smiling. “Maybe I shouldn’t say that.”
However much New York has changed in the last 25 years, it’s got nothing on the fluctuations of fortune for Rex. The 47-year-old sometimes actor, sometimes rapper, regular social-media prankster and Los Angeles nightlife fixture is drawing not just the best reviews of his life for his performance as Mikey Saber, a down-and-out adult film star — “a suitcase pimp” one character calls him — who returns home broke to East Texas. It’s not just acclaim that’s new to Rex — it’s being taken seriously, at all.
“So much is happening that I’ll just sit in a hotel room to gather myself for a minute and I’m like, ‘Wait,’” Rex said in a recent interview. “And I just laugh.”
Everything about “Red Rocket” (in theaters Friday) is unlikely. Director Sean Baker, coming off the celebrated, Oscar-nominated “The Florida Project,” had spent years prepping another film that he had to abandon when the pandemic arrived. One of his producers called him up and said he could get enough money together for something small. Baker turned to a script he had from several years ago — a character study that emerged from research into the pornography industry. He had always envisioned Rex — who was then churning out outlandish Vine videos — in the role.
“This guy can improvise, he’s funny, he’s really great with delivery. And he’s proven even in those six-second Vine videos that he has dramatic capability,” Baker says. “It was actually Joseph Kahn’s “Bodied” (in which Rex played a rap battle promoter) where I was finally was like, ‘All right, enough already. Someday.’”
With a modest budget of $1 million, Baker set up “Red Rocket” in Galveston, shooting on 16mm and — as he prefers to do — often casting people off the street. With a small crew including his producer wife, Samantha Quan, and production designer sister, Stephonik Youth, Baker (“Tangerine”) makes grittily realistic movies that have a touch of fable to them.
Concerned about being shut down by COVID-19, Baker readied the production before reaching out to Rex less than two weeks before shooting began. He told him to send an audition video within minutes. Then Baker gave him the part, but said to keep it a secret from his agent.
“Sean just said, ‘Do you trust me? You’re not going to make any money — I’m not, either. We’re just going to make a cool movie,’” recalls Rex. “I had nothing to lose.”
Rex’s career has always been driven by serendipity. A girlfriend’s audition led to his start in modeling. Then MTV, looking for unconventional TV hosts, called him up. Gus Van Sant asked him to audition for “Good Will Hunting.” He bombed the audition but Van Sant’s advice led to acting classes, and those led to films like the “Scary Movie” series. Rex launched a goofy rap persona dubbed Dirt Nasty that scored a record deal with Interscope.
“There’s been no design or plan. I never had any dreams of making it in show business. Everything kind of came to me,” says Rex. “If I did anything right, when these windows of opportunity presented themselves, I jumped through them. It’s a lot of right place, right time. A lot of the right attitude and not being too safe, which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing.”
When Baker called, Rex was starting to give up on Hollywood. He had bought some land and an off-the-grid, self-sufficient shipping container home in Joshua Tree, a few hours outside Los Angeles.
“It was definitely me putting one foot out the door,” says Rex. “If the phone ever rang, I could go back. I had a feeling that it wasn’t over but I was OK with it if it was.”
Rex’s hustling, up-and-down career also meant he instinctually understood Mikey Saber, an opportunistic porn star using his sleazy charm to scavenge for sex, money and a place to stay. Rex, himself, had a brief brush with pornography as a young man, and his most popular song exalted his own genitalia.
“It almost reminds me of someone from, like, high school. He’s very boyish. But living in LA the last 20 years, do you know how many delusional, narcissistic, self-involved people there are?” says Rex. “I must have a part of me that’s like that. When I was younger, I was probably more like that. Then you get older and eat the humble pie.”
Hollywood looms in the background of “Red Rocket” much the way Disney World did in “The Florida Project,” as a fantasy and an industry that’s both sustaining and exploitive. In Mikey Saber, Baker crafts a Trump-era huckster — a modern day antihero in the mold of those found in movies like Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo 66” and Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces.”
“I always loved antiheros in films, we’ve just veered away from it at late because of the sensitive environment we’re living in right now,” Baker says. “Audiences can say: ‘That’s a human. That’s a human I see on screen there.’ They’re not perfect in any way shape or form. We’ve gotten to a place where everybody’s a saint. Everybody’s perfect and doing the right thing. That bores me. I don’t need to be preached to that way.”
It took Baker by surprise when “Red Rocket,” then unfinished, was accepted into competition at the Cannes Film Festival this summer. He called Rex with the news. “We’re going to Cannes, baby!”
Since then, it’s been a fairly constant whirlwind of festivals and awards banquets. “Red Rocket,” made on the fly in the midst of the pandemic, has ended on many year-end top 10 lists. In a crowded Oscar field of A-listers like Will Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch and Denzel Washington, Rex is in the best-actor mix. It’s a long way from some of his recent credits. Two years ago, he played Dark Jokester in “Avengers of Justice: Farce Wars.”
“I always believed in myself but I don’t think Hollywood did. I would sit there like, ‘Maybe I’m just a completely delusional narcissist,’” says Rex. “Deep inside, I knew there was something else out there like this. I just didn’t think it would be this. I would have been happy landing a TV show that shot in LA for six years.”
Now, Rex — who will co-star in “Down Low,” with Zachary Quinto and “Mack & Rita,” with Diane Keaton — finds himself doing something unfathomable: Saying no.
“The phone is ringing. If you had told me a year ago that I’d be turning down legitimate offers, I would have laughed in your face. How quickly things change,” Rex says, shaking his head. “When there’s no expectations, the magic happens. Right?”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP