Playing a sleazy former porn star may be the best thing to happen to this actor

Simon Rex portrays a former adult film actor that returns home in "Red Rocket."
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Joshua Tree isn’t known for great cellphone reception. But 47-year-old Simon Rex, who moved to the desert town after his eclectic career as a comedian, rapper, MTV VJ and model had slowed down, was in a particularly receptive mood when he received the biggest call of his life.

“I was just sitting there, staring at my ceiling fan, wondering what’s next in my life, what’s next in my career, what’s next with the planet ... and then I get a call out of the blue from a friend of mine.”

The friend wanted to connect Rex to Sean Baker, the adventurous and critically acclaimed director behind “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project.” Baker had conceived a new project, “Red Rocket,” that could shoot quickly and safely during the height of the pandemic, and he thought Rex could be perfect for the lead role.


Speaking via Zoom from a film festival in Middleburg, Va., Rex recalls the unorthodox audition process.

“So Baker calls me, and he sends me a paragraph. I [video] myself on my phone and read the paragraph cold, in my kitchen, and sent it to him. And he’s like, you just booked the lead in my new movie. I need you to be in Texas in three days.”

Baker rented Rex a car so that he could drive to Texas without having to quarantine for a week.

“I just jumped right into it. There was no time to think, which I like, actually. I think it served this film.”

Rex is magnetic as Mikey Saber, a washed-up porn star who returns to Texas’ Gulf Coast after hitting rock bottom. After wheedling his way onto his estranged wife’s couch and into a gig as a small-time drug dealer, Saber tries to improvise a way back into the business with the help of his new teenage lover (Suzanna Son).

Simon Rex in the movie "Red Rocket."

Coasting on a boyish charm and relentless self-interest, Saber cultivates an air of menace and manipulation while never fully losing the audience’s sympathy. Appearing in just about every scene of the film, Rex pulls off a challenging tightrope walk.

Drawing on antihero influences like Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” and Danny McBride on “Eastbound and Down,” Rex recognized that he had to make Saber charming enough to root for.

“If you just read the script, there’s nothing redeemable or good about this character at all.

“So I just made him boyish and somewhat charming and funny and likable as much as I could considering the dialogue. [Baker] let me improv a bit, and I just kind of wanted to make him silly. Maybe he’s like a little kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing, you know?”

But even while shooting the meatiest role of his career, Rex was waiting for the bottom to drop out. “I didn’t call my agent to tell them I got the job until the last day of shooting,” he says. “Cause I didn’t think we’d get through COVID, and it was very chaotic and the whole thing was just sort of surreal. And then on the last day of shooting, I called my agents and said, ‘I just shot the lead role in a Sean Baker movie.’ They were like, ‘Huh, what are you talking about?’”

Now, after a career defined largely by spoofs and goofs, Rex has an outside shot at awards recognition.


“I’ve had some amazing experiences in show business,” he says. “I’ve been at the top of the mountain, the bottom of the mountain, from studio films to network TV shows to MTV. I’ve had success and then I’ve had nothing. But this is different. I’ve never been in something that is being critically respected, winning these awards at festivals. I’ve never had people look at me like a real actor until now.”

According to Rex, new doors are opening for him in Hollywood, despite the fact that “Red Rocket,” with its early December release, has barely been seen yet. “There are people reaching out to me to have meetings that, if you had told me a year ago, I would have laughed. I mean, I could barely get an audition.”

Rex says he moved to the desert as a kind of surrender, telling himself that he’d be fine whether the phone rings or it doesn’t. So if there’s a lesson to be drawn from his recent success, it’s nothing as simple as “Don’t give up on your dreams.”

And crucially, he doesn’t think the previous incarnation of Simon Rex would have the talent and depth to do “Red Rocket.”

“Back in the day, I think I just wanted to do comedy, because it’s easy to hide behind being a comedian and just doing jokes,” he says. “When you’re in your 20s, there’s not a lot of history and struggle and life experience. Now that I’m in my late 40s, I just have more of my life to pull from. So I think it’s the perfect time to do more dramatic acting. You get older and life isn’t just jokes anymore. You know, life humbles you.”