How did a former New York model who gave what Gus Van Sant once called “one of the worst auditions I’ve ever seen” start winning breakout actor prizes at age 47? For Simon Rex, it entailed sinking his life savings into a property in the desert in Joshua Tree and contemplating flipping houses for a living. Now he’s nominated for a Gotham Award.
On October 23, 2020, the former MTV VJ heard from Sean Baker, a director he did not know, who wanted Rex to send in an iPhone audition for the lead role in his upcoming movie. Baker was ready to shoot “Red Rocket” (December 10, A24), his follow-up to “The Florida Project” (which landed a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Willem Dafoe), and wanted Rex to read for down-on-his-luck porn star Mikey Saber. “I knew before I even read the script, I was in no position to turn down the Sean Baker movie, no matter what the content of the film was,” Rex said in an interview. “I just knew I had to do something. Otherwise, I was going to keep disappearing. And I would never get this opportunity.”
Rex sent in his audition. Baker responded: “You got the job. I need you here immediately.” The movie started shooting in Texas three days later. With no time to prep or even think about what he was doing, Rex committed to the role and put his trust in Baker, who asked him not to involve his reps. (They heard about it after wrap.) “I could tell from his movies, he operates from the heart, and he’s an empath,” Rex said. “And he’s a sweet person. You just go with your gut.”
Less than a year later, “Red Rocket” was invited to the official competition in Cannes. It’s a two-hour-and-eight-minute movie, and Rex commands the screen for two hours and five minutes, carrying the film on his shoulders from the opening sequence, when Mikey arrives in town with only the shirt on his back and somehow cajoles his resistant ex, Lexi (Bree Elrod), to let him stay with her and her mom (Brenda Deiss) in rural Texas. We watch with fascinated horror as Mikey builds his life back by selling marijuana to the locals, and just as Lexi starts to believe in him again, he falls for an underage waitress (Suzanna Son) at a local donut shop. He sees porn potential in Strawberry. We see disaster. Somehow, Rex gets us to root for Mikey to turn toward the light, even as we know he just can’t. He’s that hustler, from whatever industry, who will do anything to get ahead.
Rex had never played a dramatic role. “Then I read the script, like, ‘Whoa, there’s some heavy shit in here.’ And I just didn’t give a fuck. I hit this point where I was living in the desert, nothing was going on, surrender. I don’t care anymore. Let’s just do it and have fun and throw caution into the wind. And it worked.”
Filmed during COVID, “we were running the whole time on a high-wire act,” said Rex. “I let my guard down and was vulnerable. Before, I might have been, ‘I’m bullshitting right now.’ I got thrown into a world of amazing actors in a real environment, the smells, the sights, and the sounds. It wasn’t a Burbank set with a bunch of extras and fake, with the perfect wardrobe. I was sweating, no makeup, just grimy. I liked shooting a low-budget indie, pushing the limits. It was not comfortable. There’s no trailer, I’d go sit in my little rental car between scenes with the AC on.”
The worst sequence to shoot took place at night as Mikey runs naked and barefoot in a bad neighborhood. “That was scary because we’re doing it with no permits,” said Rex. “We’re running butt naked through a dangerous neighborhood at night, hiding from police. It was a lot, I don’t think a lot of people would have done it. I had a lot of moments like that where I just had to push through. But that one on the physical level was very challenging. They taped the bottom of my feet because the old Texas street was gravelly.”
Rex’s acting chops are on full display throughout, despite the lack of prep time. But as Rex points out, “I’ve been around enough sociopathic narcissists in Hollywood for the last 20-plus years that I knew exactly this type of person. It didn’t matter what his career was, he could have been a Wall Street exec, he could have been an actor, he could have been a lawyer, whatever. That type of person will cut anybody’s head off to get to the top and doesn’t have any awareness of what they’re doing. Those people often make it. That’s why I haven’t had more success: I’m not that type of person. But I know that type of person, and they just blindly walk through life hurting people and they don’t care. L.A. is a really toxic place. And I’m hypersensitive to a fault.”
Michael Buckner for PMC
The actor donned a tux to walk the red carpet at the Palais, absorbed the standing ovation, and watched the rave reviews roll in. (Here’s IndieWire.) Telluride, Deauville, San Sebastian, and other festivals followed. At Telluride, “Belfast” star Jamie Dornan, who had starred in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” was impressed, telling Rex: “Man, I saw your movie, and I was so blown away by your performance. I never could do what you did. Bravo.” Rex was surprised and touched. “To have all these talented filmmakers and critics genuinely giving praise, I’m not used to that,” he said. “I’m used to being the guy from ‘Scary Movie’ and doing comedic stuff. And, ‘Oh, you’re funny.’ But it’s never been like, ‘Wow, what a great film. Great job.’ This one’s a different experience for me; I never quite had the praise and respect from peers and people that are the cinephiles, and it feels good to get validated for what you do.”
Rex never intended to be an actor. He started out as a male model in New York, whose agent sent him to stand in for supermodel Marcus Schenkenberg at an MTV rehearsal. That’s when he landed the MTV VJ gig. “I said to them, ‘I have no journalism experience. I’ve no television experience. And I have no broadcasting experience.’ They said, ‘Perfect, you got the job.’ They gave me a job based on me, because you’re just on live TV. You got to be sharp.” He was good on his feet and did a lot of improv.
That experience was the perfect segue to get into acting, thanks to Gus Van Sant, who reached out to MTV to audition Rex for a role in “Good Will Hunting.” After two sentences the director said, “Stop, stop. Simon, this is one of the worst auditions I’ve ever seen. You’re not ready for this.” Van Sant advised Rex to take some acting classes. He signed up immediately, knowing that he’d have a short shelf-life on MTV.
After the network fired all the VJs on the same day, and his roommate committed suicide (he died in the hospital when life support was removed), Rex abruptly left New York. He moved to L.A. to start fresh off his MTV buzz. “I just started booking everything,” he said, “because I didn’t care. I really was just like, ‘whatever.’ I had confidence and hubris. And I was young and naive and cocky, and it worked. And I just walked in and started booking all these WB shows and movies. The Warner Brothers network gave me six figures to not audition for other networks. I bought a house in the hills. I was doing great. And like anything else, it comes in waves and I wasn’t the shiny new guy after a while. And work slows down and then goes back up, up and down.”
The “Scary Movie” series was hugely popular, but had a downside. “It was an interesting conundrum because it got me a lot money, and a lot of fame. But then within Hollywood everyone’s like, ‘Oh, he’s this ‘Scary Movie’ guy. He’s not a real actor.’ Because you’re just slipping on a banana peel, which is its own thing.”
Somehow Rex never felt like he belonged. “I feel that way everywhere I am,” he said. “I feel that way with actors. I felt that way when I pursued my music. I felt that way when I was a model. I felt that way when I was a VJ. I feel like this leaf going through all these different worlds that I end up in, but I’m really not attached to any thing. I never was considered a real actor. And I don’t know if I thought of myself as one until very recently, because this movie gave me the confidence and the platform to show something more than just comedy. This movie had a lot of grounded real moments in it that I don’t think I could have done 10 years ago, because I haven’t gone through the life experiences that I’ve gone through to pull pain. It was going to the depths of being vulnerable.”
While Rex did do some notorious, NSFW solo videos early in his career that prevented him from getting work at family-friendly outlets like Disney, he said he didn’t use that experience to play Mikey Saber. “Everything that happened led me to this now in my life,” he said. “This was 30 years ago that this happened. I was just a kid. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about it. It’s not like it was my career for years, and that’s what I did. It was just something that happened. It’s not about Mikey’s career, it’s more about the type of person that he is. It’s not just about what he does for a living. So there’s nothing that I pulled from my life that I applied to Mikey. There really isn’t a connection truly in my life.”
If anything, he’d like “Red Rocket” to open up a discussion about sex in movies. “Hollywood needs something like this,” he said, “a little bit gritty, uncomfortable, sexual, dirty, something that just maybe can open up the conversation in America, which is so sexually wound up compared to other parts of the world. But it feels like in our culture and our society, there’s a lot of shame around sex, and around nudity, and all these things. And it’s like, who cares? Especially after the last year and a half. What’s important anymore? What are we talking about? So I hope that this movie can make people chill out a little bit and laugh and have fun and relax about these things that are so taboo. Because it’s like, we got to grow up.”
Up next: Rex now has a manager and a publicist to make the most of what is both a comeback and a discovery. He’s moving back to New York in the spring. He shot the comedy “Down Low” with Lukas Gage and Zachary Quinto. “My Dead Dad” played the festival circuit. And on Katie Aselton’s comedy “Mack & Rita,” costar Diane Keaton told him, “You’re good, kid!”
Things are looking up. “These little moments are happening,” he said. “So I’m enjoying it. I’m not getting too caught up in the ego. I’m thrilled that I’m getting, like, respect and adoration. And it’s giving me the confidence to keep working and doing good stuff. And yes, I’m having my pick of the litter and a year ago, I couldn’t get arrested. Let’s see what happens.”