How would Simon Rex -- the actor (several Scary Movies), rapper (as Dirt Nasty), comedian, former model and ex-MTV VJ -- describe his character, Mikey, in Sean (The Florida Project) Baker's Red Rocket, a role for which he's just been nominated as Best Actor for by the Chicago Film Critics Association? He settles for "a sociopathic, narcissistic, self-involved, unaware douchebag."
Yes, in a season bristling with charismatic yet tastelessly nasty male characters portrayed by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley, Rex's portrayal of an aging porn star heading for Skid Row is the one that will make you most want to immediately shower, at least after the first viewing. After the second, you can just sit back and admire Rex's perfect comic timing, his bonkers energy, and his no-holds-barred on-screen sexuality. He has more lines than Hamlet here, and he has to say them twice as fast, often with far less clothing.
We first meet Mikey on a bus from Los Angeles. After a lengthy, award-winning career in porn, he's heading back to the dreary, small Texas town he'd sworn he'd never return to. With just the jeans on his butt, a few dollars, and a banged-up face, Mikey's only hope to sidestep homelessness is to talk his way back into the good graces of the druggy, ex-porn-star wife he ditched long ago and her ornery mom, who both are far from his biggest fans.
He succeeds in gaining access to their couch by promising to pay rent. Rent? How? Who will hire a chap whose most recent job entries subsist of gangbangs and an occasional ménage a tròis? "I'm famous for fucking," he shares.
Thank the Lord for having low standards for employing drug dealers! Quickly, after making a connection, Mikey is raking in the greenbacks by selling patriotically papered blunts while satisfying his spouse with the help of Viagra. All is going well until the day he walks into the local Donut Hole. There he spots a lovely 17-year-old, ginger-haired, Bargain-Basement Lolita at the cash register. Is this love at first sight with a high-schooler . . . or just slimy opportunity knocking? And will our self-centered hero ever get his comeuppance in this at-times rollicking, subversive comedy, especially after causing his mother-in-law to scream, "You're drinking all of my Ensures"?
The novelist Doug Coupland unknowingly described Mikey best when he wrote: "Your ability to rationalize your own bad deeds makes you believe that the whole world is as amoral as you are."
To find out more about Simon Rex, Red Rocket, his career comeback, and his hundreds of Vine offerings (remember Vine?), but not his bare-chested workout videos, I Zoomed with the star at the beginning of this month. Of course, we discussed his birthplace first.
"Yeah, growing up [in San Francisco] was great," Rex insisted. "I mean I grew up until I was eleven in the city, and then I moved to East Bay, and I lived in Alameda in like the Berkeley area. So I lived in the Bay area until I was 17-18 years old. . . . San Francisco, like New York, has the best and the worst of everything, which is great. You're just around so many different ethnicities. It's like a melting pot. . . You just learn a lot because you're not in just a one-note suburbia-kind of place, but with a lot of flavors."
By the way, how come you have have such a big LGBTQI+ following? Even the author of Lesbianism Made Easy told me she was a fan.
"I don't know," Rex responded. "You know, that’s a good question. My godfather, growing up, was gay. He was basically almost like a father figure to me. So I think I was surrounded, being from San Francisco and having my godfather who's the guy who got me my braces in the fifth grade, and took me to my graduation, and got me a suit, and he was actually Marc Jacob's lover, the clothing designer. So I grew up exposed and around that. . . To me, it's just normal. I don't think I have any phobias that some people may have about the community for some lame reason. I'm just used to it. So I don't know. I'm not sure why. Maybe that's the reason. Does that make sense?"
"Well, I think it’s a mixture of great looks and an engaging personality," I responded.
"Well, I can't say that," Rex laughed, "so thank you.
The dozens of compilations of your Vine antics, now on YouTube, feature your fictional outrageously gay identical twin brother, Steve, who in one sketch wears "I Love Dick" sunglasses and in another tells you to go buy a banana "so I can ram it up your cabana." Where did this all come from?
"Well, that's funny because I remember doing that and my mom saying, 'Honey! You should be careful. You might offend the community,' and it was the opposite. More people are coming up to me saying how much they loved it. Gay guys thought it was hilarious because the joke isn't somehow making fun of gay people. The joke to me was that it was really funny having twin brothers, one's gay and one's straight, and the gay twin wants to fuck the straight one, so therefore he loves himself and he's just a narcissistic brother," Rex laughs. "To me, that's just hilarious, and that would never be on a TV show or in a movie. I just made it innocent and cute and not mean-spirited. I don't like mean-spirited comedy. I don't like when people bully people. I don't like when people prank people. I think that that's cheap comedy. . . . I think in today's climate I wouldn't be able to do that, but this was like in 2010."
The character you created on Vine is not that distant from what you do with Mikey. Both seem like little boys encased in a hot man's body with a sixth grader's sense of self and humor. It's almost like an audition tape.
"Well, that's the good thing about social media. It basically keeps your tool sharp if you are not working, and if you are just posting your own stuff and you are getting people to laugh. . . .It just kind of keeps you moving and grooving. Social media's been actually a good platform because Sean said he's followed my career since MTV, and he would watch my Vines, he would watch my Instagram videos, and my YouTube videos. So I've was in the back of Sean's head for a long time so in a weird way, this did actually get me the job."
You have so many lines here. Were they all scripted?
"Yeah, it's a lot of dialogue. Sean says it's 20 percent improv on the screen at the end of the movie. So we improv-ed about a fifth of the movie. As long as I kept true to the narrative in pushing the story forward and stayed sort of on par with what he wanted, he let me play with it. I would pretty much just give him what was on the page verbatim, which is a lot of those rants where I'm just going a hundred miles an hour, and then there was a little room for improv, too. So it's hard to say exactly where. We'd have to go through and pencil when I improv-ed. That's when a lot of the magic happens because you're saying something for the first time, and then the other actors reacting to that, and it's not as scripted and rehearsed, which we didn’t have much time for anyway. But, yes, it was a lot of dialogue to memorize, and I hadn’t worked in a while. Memory is a muscle, so my muscle wasn't too in shape, so I deleted all my social media off my phone so I didn't spend any time looking at my phone. I just read the script over and over and over, and just pounded the lines into my head because I knew it had to be delivered really fast for it to work . . . . It had to just be motormouth. It was a lot. It was a lot.
You're very free with your body. I interviewed Fred Ward a long time ago for the film Henry and June. It was about the author Henry Miller and sex life. Ward said the reason he didn't show his penis on screen was that a penis was distracting while a woman's parts weren't, which I thought was a bit prejudicial. I guess one of the reasons they hired you was that you are so free with your body. You’re not uptight about sexuality at all?
"Yeah, I think that America is very wound about nudity, about sex," Rex replied. "They need to relax a little bit more. You know you go to Europe and other parts of the world and people are a lot more comfortable with nudity and sex. We're just very immature about it. To me, it's like . . . I don't know but this film in a small way will help people maybe grow up a little bit. That's just how I feel. My parents are hippies. I'm from San Francisco. Free love. Running around. Maybe that's different from most people, but I don't really care."
Here's a must-see video interview by Brandon Judell with Red Rocket's director/filmmaker Sean Baker.