Movies

‘I Guess I’m Back In The Game, Huh?’ — Simon Rex On Novelty Fame, ‘Red Rocket,’ And Redemption

It’s fair to say that I was excited to speak to Simon Rex. The former MTV VJ’s breakout turn in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, about an aging ex-porn star returning to his Texas hometown, isn’t just one of my favorite performances of the year, it’s one of my favorite stories. There’s so much more to Red Rocket than just what’s on-screen, even if what’s on-screen is legitimately great.

Simon Rex: Oscar Winner. Can you imagine? Awards voters are probably way too lame for that to ever happen but I want to bask in the glow of the possibility for as long as I can.

Rex seemed to define novelty fame in the aughts, having gone from model to MTV VJ to a recurring role in the Scary Movie franchise. He used to party with Paris Hilton and Joe Francis (the scummy dude from Girls Gone Wild, ‘member that?), and later became a reasonably successful novelty rapper, performing under the name Dirt Nasty†. Later on, he was pretty successful on Vine, but more recently he’d been in a kind of showbiz purgatory. Rex had reportedly bankrolled a vacation in Asia by making personalized videos for money on Cameo, and before getting the call to do Red Rocket, had been living in a fancy trailer home in Joshua Tree that he originally envisioned as a rental property. Thus there was a cosmic synergy to the idea of Rex playing “Mikey Saber,” a squirrely ex-porn star trapped in an outdated shtick of his own making.

And oh yeah, there was also the matter that, near the height of his fame as a VJ, a few mainstream columnists, including the Village Voice’s Michael Musto, discovered some porn videos Rex had made for easy cash as an 18-year-old living with his girlfriend and her child. Later distributed as “Young, Hard, and Solo” among other titles (they were solo masturbation scenes, if you want to get technical), they all stemmed from just “two video sessions for gay-porn impresario Brad Posey” Rex had made. At the time, he was a handsome guy with a big dick who needed money, and porn videos were things you found in the backrooms of video stores, not images anyone could pull up on a device in their pocket with a few key strokes. Why wouldn’t he? Of course, that didn’t stop rags from referring to him as “ex-gay porn star Simon Rex” for years to come.

Neither Rex nor Saber can quite help being defined by their pasts, and in some infinitesimal way I felt like I could relate. Back in the mid-aughts, in my last job before my first writing gig, I’d accepted a position mastering DVDs for a porn company. One too-early hungover morning around the time, I was in a cab with an overcaffeinated driver who had probably just begun her shift and was feeling extra chatty. She peppered me with questions, about what I did for a living and so on. “Video editor,” I told her, attempting to elide through omission and deter follow-ups through my groggy voice. Instead, she only seemed inspired.

“Oh, really?!” she immediately fired back. “What kind of videos?!”

Annoyed, both with her for digging and with myself for not being able to conjure an effective lie, I gave up. The truth takes less effort. “Porn,” I told her after a pause. The driver, with her permed bangs and Mickey Mouse sweater, went silent, and didn’t speak a word to me until the end of the ride. When I tried to pay her, she refused my (presumably dirty?) money. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life!” she managed to huff before driving off, bangs a-jouncing.

In some extremely small way, I felt like I’d gotten a taste of what it was to be judged for something I hadn’t wanted to reveal in the first place. I envisioned telling Rex this story, asking him what it was like to basically live it every day of his life. He basically shut me down as soon as I brought up porn. “I’d rather just talk about this movie as that was 30 years ago,” Rex said. “I mean, we could talk about Exxon Valdez too, or we could talk about the Iran-Contra thing, but I don’t want to go backwards.”

I probably should’ve known. Why would he suddenly want to talk about that now, just when he was making the rounds of film festivals and awards shows, on the cusp of mainstream acceptance and getting his first taste of respect from the art world after 20 years of good-naturedly playing the clown? It also jibes with most of my experience interviewing porn stars. People who, if you’ll permit a broad generalization, seem to be largely ingratiating folks who generally crave acceptance. And thus are perhaps naturally loathe to dwell on the parts of their lives that have kept them from being accepted. Not that Simon Rex qualifies as a porn star, necessarily, but he seems to be of similar type.

And that’s partly what makes Red Rocket such a perfect vehicle. It affords Rex a fictional framework to explore real parts of his past he might not otherwise be able to without risking further ostracism. And while he may never win an EGOT, you have to grant that Simon Rex has been more successful in more wildly different ventures than most of us could ever dream of.

Are you at your place up in Joshua Tree?

No, no. I’m in New York City, we just had the Gotham Awards last night. Didn’t win, but we got nominated, so that’s a win.

Was it fun? I mean, you’ve been to a lot of awards things and film festivals and stuff this year, I imagine.

This one was a treat just because it was actually a little different. We’ve been to a lot of festivals, but this was like an actual proper award ceremony in New York. But yeah, just being in the same room, in the conversation with all these other actors is just awesome.

I haven’t had a chance to look at the awards. Who did you guys lose to?

Oh man, I should know this. I could look it up for you right now, or you could look it up later. I’m so out of the Hollywood loop, I need to start getting back in and start being more familiar with my peers now, because I guess I’m back in the game, huh?

Speaking of that, tell me how you got this part. Did it feel like it came out of the blue?

I mean, it literally did come out of the blue. I was sitting in Joshua Tree where I moved — right before the pandemic hit I bought a little off-grid property in the middle of the desert, sort of as a stepping of LA and seeing what else is out there and maybe not quitting show business, but exploring what else could be out there for me thing. So I move out to the desert, and I get a phone call out of nowhere from a friend who’s friends with Sean Baker’s sister. He wants your phone number, so of course give him my number. He calls me and he says, can you put yourself on tape? I need a lead role for this movie, you’d be great. So I put myself on my phone. I sent him the cold read and he’s like, you’re perfect for this. I need you in Texas in three days. He sent me the script, I was like, holy shit, this is a lot of dialogue. Okay, so I deleted all my social media, drove to Texas because if I flew there he would’ve had to quarantine me for a week and it would’ve fell into production, so I had to drive there in three days. And I just pounded the lines into my head and we just did it.

Did that make it feel like you were mirroring the character’s journey, driving halfway across the country to do the part?

I didn’t think about that until afterwards, but yes. Pretty similar to Mike, but instead of taking a bus, I drove. “I took the bus, it took me three days to get here.” When I say that in the movie, I’m thinking, yeah it really did take three days of driving almost.

Were you familiar with Sean Baker at all before you got the part?

With Florida Project, but then I later went and saw Tangerine and Starlet and the other ones, but that was the extent.

So I mean, you’re not entirely a stranger to the porn industry yourself. Can you tell me about your sort of run-in with that world?

I’d rather not because I’m so bored with that. I mean, quite frankly it was something that… I was 18 years old and right out of high school and… basically I’ve told the story a million times. I’d rather just talk about this movie as that was 30 years ago. I mean, we could talk about Exxon Valdez too, or we could talk about the Iran-Contra thing, but I don’t want to go backwards. I want to look forwards, which is a lot more interesting, or just talk about this movie. But I understand bringing that up. It’s just kind of been beaten to death. I understand the comparison, obviously. But truly, this guy, Mikey Saber, he could be in any field. He’s just a maniac, an asshole. I see a lot of these people in Hollywood as actors. They’re everywhere, I’m sure they’re in your field. Everyone knows this guy. So it’s really about the personality type. Whatever, how you would diagnose it, a sociopathic, narcissistic, delusional, asshole, whatever he is. So that’s what I think connects with people.

Was there anybody in the real-life film industry or music industry that you were drawing on?

More the archetype. Because there are so many of them. I live in LA, I’m around so many of these people all the time. On every movie set I’ve ever done there’s been this person, in high school we knew this guy or girl, they’re everywhere. It’s the same guy that when you land on the airplane, he immediately turns on his phone and you’re sitting two feet away from him and he’s surrounded by people, and he’s like, hey honey, I just landed, blah blah blah and you’re just like, dude, are you not aware that there are people around you? They’re everywhere. And I’m a sensitive person who’s self-aware, or at least I’d like to think I am, and I’m the kind of guy who if the phone rings, I’ll be like, hey I’ll call you when I get out of the plane, I don’t want to be rude and talk louder. You know what I mean? It’s that simple.

When you accepted the role, did the thought cross your mind that you were going keep getting asked about the thing you don’t want to talk about for an entire press tour?

Of course! It’s a very easy comparison and I get it, but I didn’t really care because I was like, I had nothing to lose at this point. I was sitting around, my acting career was not happening too much, I didn’t know what was next, so I had to roll the dice and go for it and just take a chance and be vulnerable. And say, fuck it, and put my ego aside. It just what it is.

Do you think this role is maybe an audition for things to come, do you see yourself doing more sort of dramatic roles like this going forward?

I would like to. I mean, hopefully people will see that I could do that now. I always believed in myself, I just don’t think Hollywood was giving me the shot. It took Sean Baker to stick his neck out for me. Sometimes that’s all it takes. I really didn’t want to let him down. He gave me a huge opportunity, I took it very seriously. I don’t take myself that seriously, but I do take the work seriously. And I thought that it was something where I just had to hit a home run, because I don’t know if I’d ever get this opportunity in my life again.

You’ve talked about casting directors maybe not being able to see you as different things, but at this point you’ve modeled, you’ve been an MTV VJ, you’ve rapped, you’ve done comedy, you’ve done drama. Do you see this movie maybe making people realize how many different things that you’ve been able to do?

Yeah, sure. I mean, I think so. I think that’s already happening and again, it’s not even out yet, this is just people like you who have seen it inside the industry and people at festivals. So yeah, I think that it’s kind of the perfect platform for me to show my… I’m sorry, I hate just talking about myself, like an actor-y guy…

No, I set you up for it, it’s okay.

…but my “range.” To go from really funny comedy to really grounded, realistic fucking moments, and that’s the best. So I think this movie shows that range of like, oh, there’s really funny comedy writing in here and some improv and some fuckin hilarious shit that happens, and physical comedy, whether I’m getting hit in the head from a fuckin painting on the wall, or crashing my bike into the wall, to breaking up with my girl and it being really uncomfortable and cringing. It’s all of that.

Did you come up with that crashing your bike into the wall bit, or was that something that Sean had a specific idea about?

I think Sean had that. That was like an ongoing thing, wherever I’d pull up to go anywhere I would crash the bike, it was just sort of a Mikey thing. But in the end, in the movie it just happened once, so I think Sean had planned that.

There’s a theme in Red Rocket, obviously, about how the porn industry can sort of have a tendency to chew people up and spit them out. Do you think some of that is true about the regular movie industry? Do you see the parallels there?

Absolutely. There’s a shelf life. When you’re not the shiny new object, your stock goes down. It’s show business, it’s a business and it’s very youth-driven, just like our whole society is in America and probably the world. So when I was really young, I was killing it. I was just fuckin booking everything, and I didn’t give a fuck and I could go out drinking the night before and show up to an audition hungover and barely know my lines and book it. You know what I mean?

That was how it was for me. And then you get older, and there’s not as many parts, and you can’t be going out drinking the night before and it just gets… I don’t know if it’s necessarily that it spits you out, but I think there’s less and less opportunities, maybe as you age. I mean unless you’re a really good actor, unless you’re fuckin Meryl Streep or Willem Dafoe, there’s not too many people consistently working. A lot of times you’ll just be like, hey, whatever happened to that actor? They’re just gone. But there’s a million reasons why, it could be self-destructive, it could be ego… I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of elements at play.

Similar to porn, have you been surprised by people’s willingness to sort of define you by a thing that you did like 10, 15 years ago that seemed fun at the time? Is it weird to exist in certain people’s mind as an MTV VJ, even though that was, whatever, 15 years ago?

Well, that’s funny, because when people come up to me and they’re like, hey where do I know you from? I gotta look at them and know their age and figure out what they might have seen, do they know me as Dirt Nasty? Do they know me from Vine? Do they know me from Scary Movie? Do they know me from MTV? I gotta figure it out, and then it’s kind of awkward, where I gotta start listing off my resume. And they’re like, No, not that… No not that… And I’m like, This is just uncomfortable, can I just go now? I just wanted a coffee. It’s weird.

So have you come up with a good answer for the where do I know you from question so you don’t have to do that?

Yeah. I say “Tom Cruise! I get it all the time.” And then they go no, and I laugh and then I run away.

What was being a VJ like? I’ve talked to other people from my generation, where MTV was sort of like the be-all, end-all of things that were cool, and then they ended up being sort of disappointed by the reality of it.

I mean, for me it was great. You meet everybody. MTV was before social media and the internet, so everything came through MTV. All the rappers, all the rock stars, all the athletes, all the actors promoting their movies, it was the one place you’d go, and I was there meeting everybody. I interviewed Howard Stern live for Private Parts, his movie in 1996. I interviewed Madonna on the red carpet. I interviewed Tupac, Jackie Chan. I met everybody at the time. And then you kind of just become “in the world.” You’re in. So then all of a sudden, it just was easy to parlay into show business because I was in, I was at the table. That kind of was the perfect segue in a weird way. I didn’t get pigeonholed and stuck in the hosting world, because… I’m kind of glad that I didn’t stay there more than two years. One day I got the phone call, they fired four VJs at once, they always clean house and do that. So we all got canned, and it was a blessing in disguise because then I didn’t get stuck as a host. And then Gus Van Sant had seen me, so he auditioned me for Good Will Hunting. Gus had me come read with Matt Damon for this little part, and I did a horrible audition. He’s like, you’re not ready to act, but you should go to acting school because you have something. And I did.

Well, it seems like it paid off. I really enjoyed this movie and I really enjoyed you in it.

Thanks, Vince, I’m glad you liked it, man. I think you got a special one here, it’s a good one, I’m proud of it.

‘Red Rocket’ is available in theaters December 10th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.

†Claiming to have been taught how to make beats by his friend Adrien Brody (!!), Rex’s most famous track was probably his 2006 collaboration with Mickey Avalon and Andre Legacy, “My Dick.” In 2012, 24-year-old named Nora Lum’s response video, “My Vag,” went viral on YouTube. Which I suppose makes Rex tangentially responsible for Lum’s wildly successful later career as an actress, still performing under her rap name, Awkwafina.

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