A little nudity. A knockout song. Why ‘Red Rocket’ breakout Suzanna Son will get you talking

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A woman with red lipstick and red eye makeup holds her hands to her face.
Suzanna Son stars in Sean Baker’s new film, “Red Rocket.”
(Celeste Sloman / For The Times)

Suzanna Son had been living in Los Angeles for just nine days when she was discovered.

In 2018, having moved to L.A. to try to make it in show business, Son was standing outside the ArcLight Hollywood movie theater one evening when she was approached by director Sean Baker. Hot off his 2017 indie hit “The Florida Project,” Baker, who has a penchant for casting nonprofessionals and unknowns in his films, handed Son a card with his email address on it.

”He just said, ‘I like your look — have you ever acted before?’” Son, who is 26, told The Times recently over Zoom from New York. “It took two years to actually hear from him again.”

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One evening last year, still clinging to hope, Son suggested to her then-boyfriend that they rewatch “The Florida Project.”

“He was like, ‘I think you should give up because it’s been so long, and I don’t want you to be disappointed,’” Son said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m kind of obsessing over this pipe dream, aren’t I?’ Then, like magic, eight hours later I opened up my phone and there was a message from Sean saying, ‘Do you want to audition?’ It was the best ‘I told you so’ ever.”

Son’s patience paid off. Impressed by her audition — as well as her Instagram account, with its artistically composed self-portraits and video clips of her performing haunting, melancholy songs at a piano — Baker cast Son in his raucously grungy new dramedy “Red Rocket,” which is now playing in limited release.

Simon Rex plays an adult entertainer trying to get back on his feet in this latest lower-depths odyssey from the writer-director of ‘Tangerine’ and ‘The Florida Project.’

Son plays Strawberry, an innocent-looking but sexually adventurous 17-year-old from rural South Texas who enters a romantic relationship with a washed-up 40-something former porn actor named Mikey Saber, played by Simon Rex. Since its premiere in July at the Cannes Film Festival, “Red Rocket” has drawn critical acclaim, with Son’s sly yet vulnerable performance earning her a nomination for breakthrough performer at last month’s Gotham Awards.

Even before the film’s release, Son’s career had been getting a rocket boost. Headlines in the trade magazine the Hollywood Reporter and alt-fashion magazine Nylon have proclaimed her “The Next Big Thing.” And Son, whose musical talents are also on display in “Red Rocket,” was recently cast as a series regular opposite Lily-Rose Depp and the Weeknd in an upcoming HBO drama called “The Idol,” set in the music industry.

“I could see her having an Emma Stone-type career,” Baker said. “Her instincts were dead-on, and she has such range. I’m really excited to see what happens.”

A woman in a leather jacket sits on a chair with her combat boots propped up on a wall.
Suzanna Son waited two years before she got the call to audition for Strawberry in A24’s “Red Rocket.”
(Celeste Sloman / For The Times)
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Growing up in rural Washington, Son never quite felt like she fit in and was drawn to performing from an early age as a way to counteract her innate shyness. “I always felt like a dachshund raised by dalmatians,” she said. “I think I attributed a little bit of that to Strawberry as well.”

With little professional experience under her belt, Son — who had studied classical voice, piano and acting at Cornish College before dropping out — found herself thrown straight into the deep end on “Red Rocket,” which, like Baker’s earlier films, explores the messy lives and stubborn dreams of people living on the margins. For inspiration, Son watched Goldie Hawn’s turn as a small-town Texas woman on the run from the law in Steven Spielberg’s 1974 debut feature film “The Sugarland Express.”

Son’s first day on set involved shooting the film’s most intimate scenes, in which Strawberry has sex with Saber — who harbors visions of turning her into a porn star — and performs an emotionally raw rendition of ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” while naked. (The film’s distributor, A24, recently released the performance as a single.)

“Seven in the morning — ‘Let’s do a sex scene,’” Son said dryly. “Great way to break the ice.”

“You could tell Suzy was nervous,” Rex said. “But as soon as it was ‘lights, camera, action,’ she relaxed and nailed it every time. I was like, ‘Where the f— did that come from?’ I just knew she was a star. She just had that thing.”

A woman in a yellow shirt smiles at a man as she stands behind the counter of a doughnut shop.
Suzanna Son’s doughnut shop employee Strawberry enters into a wild relationship with Simon Rex’s washed-up porn star Mikey Saber in “Red Rocket.”
(A24 Films)

The first time Son watched the finished film, alone in the kitchen of her L.A. home, she was so anxious about how that sequence would play that she paused it to shake out her nerves with a little dance and ended up breaking her foot.

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“The movie is there paused on my breasts, staring at me,” she said. “I threw up on the carpet and kept watching, man. That tells you how much I needed to see it.”

Five days later, Son was on the red carpet in Cannes for the film’s premiere in a cast. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the moment this movie is being unveiled to the world, and I’m in a wheelchair with a broken foot, taking pain medicine that made me feel very unwell and vomit-y,’” she said. “But I was trying to be grateful — and I guess France is a good place to be miserable.”

“Red Rocket” wasn’t actually Son’s first time dealing with sexually charged material. Prior to the film, her sole professional credit was in a 2019 risqué low-budget short called “Secret Escort.” Asked about the project, Son said she is hoping to get it removed from her IMDb page.

“It was like a one-day shoot that I did for money,” Son said. “It was just talking to the camera: no sex, no kissing. There wasn’t a script. [The director] said, ‘Just talk as you would as a secret escort.’ It was …” She trailed off with a laugh. “Not very good.”

While 17 is the legal age of consent in Texas — and Son herself was in her mid-20s when shooting “Red Rocket” — some viewers are bound to find the film’s depiction of a sexual relationship between a middle-aged former porn actor and a high schooler, even one as self-assured and whip-smart as Strawberry, inherently distasteful.

A woman in a leather jacket leans out a window and lifts up strands of her hair to blow in the wind.
Suzanna Son’s upcoming projects include an HBO drama series in which she’ll act opposite the Weeknd.
(Celeste Sloman / For The Times)
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”I haven’t seen any overt attacks, but I’ve seen words used like ‘creepy’ and stuff like that,” said Baker, who co-wrote the film with Chris Bergoch. “Of course, that is to be expected — and that’s part of the reason we wrote this. I think a lot of people expect a very black-and-white morality tale of a little lamb being taken advantage of by a big, bad wolf. But I wanted to make it more complex than that because life is more complex than that, and people are more complex than that.”

As Son sees it, Strawberry is very much in control of her sexuality and her relationship with Saber. “She owns it, that’s for sure,” she said. “She is always two steps ahead of Mikey. He is the naive one who’s sort of put Strawberry in this box of what he thinks she is, but she’s so much more than that. She’s quietly focused, quietly calculated. That’s what’s beautiful about it: all her hope.”

Son has her own hopes for where she can go from here in her career, but, after a whirlwind few months, she is trying not to get ahead of herself. “It has been one thing after another, but it’s been nice,” she said. “People that I admire like the Weeknd telling me they liked my performance — that’s insane. It hits me across the face sometimes like, ‘Wow, that really happened.’”

As for Strawberry, whose destiny is an open question at the end of “Red Rocket,” Son said, “I’d like something big for her. I’d like to think she makes her dreams come true.”