simon rex in red rocket from writer director Sean baker
simon rex in red rocket from writer director sean baker Courtesy of A24

In the new Sean Baker film Red Rocket, Simon Rex plays a washed-up porn star forced to move home to a Texas refinery town, where he sets his sights on a 17-year-old donut shop employee named Strawberry who he thinks could be his ticket back into the industry.

But she wasn’t always a donut shop employee.

“With a film like this, you take the gifts from the film gods when they give them to you,” says Baker. “In this case we had written that Strawberry’s work was a food truck outside of the refineries. So we happened to be just driving by the Donut Hole… and I just slammed on the brakes and we look at this thing, going, ‘I can’t believe this exists.’ I mean, look at the colors, the proximity to the refinery, the sexual connotations that you might come up with when you think about donuts.”

In another gift from the film gods, it also felt like a nod to Baker’s brilliant 2015 film Tangerine, about transgender sex workers who spend lots of time at a West Hollywood donut shop.

“There was so, so much that was perfect about this location that it would be stupid to deny it. So we quickly rewrote all the scenes in a donut shop. The owners of the Donut Hole were amazing. They allowed us to shoot in there for maybe five days,” he adds. “We had to buy about $1,000 of doughnuts because we had to use our same doughnuts every day and refrigerate them at night. It was wonderful.”

Red Rocket is full of surprises and discoveries — including many of the stars of the film. Rex and Bree Elrod, who plays his estranged wife Lexi, are seasoned actors. But many of the film’s other stars are first-timers, including Brittney Rodriguez, who plays backyard drug dealer June; Brenda Deiss, who plays Lexi’s mom, Lil; and Ethan Darbone, who plays her lonesome neighbor Lonnie. Baker discovered Rodriguez when she was out walking her dog on a day off from her refinery job. He met Deiss outside a refinery porta potty when her car needed a jump. He met Darbone when he came out of the kitchen at a restaurant Baker was using in an early scene in the film, complaining about some frozen shrimp.

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“Strawberry” (Suzanna Son) and Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) discuss donuts in Red Rocket, from director Sean Baker. Photos courtesy of A24

All of the blessings came only in response to problems Baker and his producers needed to solve on the fly. The biggest was shooting a film during COVID-19, sometimes stealing shots without permits.

“It was really real in that Sean likes to put his actors in a real environment,” says Rex, who before Red Rocket was best known for his work as a rapper, MTV VJ, and actor in the Scary Movie franchise, as well as for a very brief, youthful stint in porn.

“We were in a real house that he rented. It wasn’t a movie set. He hired local, first-time actors. I’ve learned to say that instead of non-actors, because they are actors — you saw how good they were.

“And it is real, because we just went into that environment. And you can feel it and smell it. I’ve shot so many movies that are just on a fake set in Burbank with a bunch of actors from all over the world who are doing fake accents. People aren’t tricked by that. I think people don’t buy that anymore.”

Texas City, U.S.A.

The film is set in and around Texas City, a busy industrial port on Texas’ Gulf Coast, about 50 miles from Houston. Its storied history includes a 1947 fertilizer explosion that killed hundreds of people, a 2005 refinery explosion that killed 15, and the horrors of the slave trade: Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union troops arrived in nearby Galveston with news that slavery was over.

Texas City couldn’t be more American. And while the story of Rex’s character, Mikey Saber, can be read as a metaphor for all forms of exploitation, Red Rocket never spells anything out or passes judgment on anyone. It feels like a portrait of a country at its most feral, set just before the election of 2016, when America was about to register massive changes. It shot in August of 2020, as we struggled with their consequences. If future storytellers want to set a film in the distant past of Right Now, Red Rocket is one of the essential films they should watch.

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Simon Rex and Brittney Rodriguez in Red Rocket, from director Sean Baker.

“We were really entrenched,” Sean Baker says. “And it was also at a time — like now — that was definitely a stressful, tense time in our country. But especially right then, we were shooting during COVID, pre-vaccine. The elections were coming up. The murder of George Floyd was very prominent in the news. And all that energy combined. It was just a stressful time to be alive in the United States, but to be shooting something during that, I think we captured the energy of that time, and it somehow got caught on celluloid.”

How did he make it feel so alive?

“We were just in the moment,” he says, “dealing with the day to day. And just trying to keep going. We did not want to get shut down. So there was that constant driving forward. We were running from COVID. It was right on our asses the entire time.”

Finding June

Brittney Rodriguez, 24, was walking her Chihuahua, Rico, near a refinery when she noticed a car slowing down. She had grown up in Texas, enjoyed writing in college, and had worked several refinery jobs, including building scaffolding and driving smaller forklifts.

The car pulled up alongside her, and down came the window. She kept a good five feet of distance as the man inside chatted away: Would her dog like to be in a movie? Would she want to be in a movie?

She had never acted. At all.

“I don’t even take photos of myself on my own phone,” Rodriguez says. “You go to my phone, you’ll see more pictures of food and places I’ve been than you see myself.”

The man had a pleasant vibe. He explained that he was Sean Baker, and that one of his recent movies, The Florida Project, was on Netflix. Willem Dafoe was in it!

“I think he could tell by the look on my face that I was thinking, who’s Willem Dafoe? And he goes ‘Green Goblin.’ Ohhhh!

Baker remembers that when he first saw Rodriguez, he thought, “She’s popping, and I know that if she pops in real-life, she’s going to pop onscreen.”

He cast her as June, who is beyond skeptical of Mikey when her mom, drug queenpin Leondria (first-time actor Judy Hill, who Baker had spotted in a documentary), lets him deal weed for her. As others seem to fall under Mikey’s spell, we’re grateful for June’s willingness to call him on his bullshit.

In one of the scenes scripted by Baker and Red Rocket co-writer Chris Bergoch, June calls out Mikey for losing his Texas accent while away in Los Angeles.

“Sean wanted to figure out how to say, ‘Why don’t you sound like us anymore, Mr. Hollywood?’ to explain to the audience what happened,” recalls Elrod. “And Brittney’s like, ‘Well, I think like we’d say, ‘You sound brand new.’ And Sean’s like, ‘That’s great!’ That’s the beauty of this project — this ensemble of everyone coming together… you just have this beautiful mix of real humans.”

Another of Elrod’s favorite scenes was when June delivered an ultimatum.

“She says, ‘You’ve got a minute to get out.’ And then she counts: ‘1,2,3,4, 30,’” Elrod laughs. “That’s all Britt.”

Rodriguez’s experience with Red Rocket made her think about revisiting her own stories. Besides acting in the film, she also helped out with production.

Red Rocket by Sean Baker

Simon Rex as Mikey Saber and Suzanna Son as “Strawberry” in Red Rocket, from director Sean Baker.

“It’s definitely a life-changing experience, I’ll say that,” she says. “Even after the reviews I would receive in college, I didn’t really think of my writing as anything major. But once I did this, and I was able to be in front of the camera, I was able to do some things behind the camera, it just allowed me to believe that, you know, I could do it all. If I wanted to pursue moviemaking, I could.” She’s now working on a short film — and a film that will tell the story of her life so far.

Also read: Red Rocket Star Bree Elrod on Working (and Smoking) With Locals-Turned-Actors

“I came out to my parents about my sexuality when I was in ninth grade. Eventually, I found out things, like the fact that I was adopted. And then even my mom passed away. So those are some of the major things that really shaped me, because I was in high school, going from my teenage years to becoming an adult.

“There’s definitely someone out there that’s either going through what I’m going through, or went through what I went through, and they can learn from it,” she adds.

“I’ve always felt like my life has been a movie. And now that I’m actually in a movie, that just validates that even more.”

In Sync

Mikey’s main source of hope, Strawberry, is played by relative newcomer Suzanna Son. Baker first saw Son, 26, when she was 23 and had only lived in Los Angeles for nine days. She was standing outside the Arclight Theater in Hollywood.

He was with Samantha Quan, his producing partner and wife, and said: “‘We have to talk to her right now.’ This is a moment where I know that person right there could be a star.”

Two of the most crucial scenes in the film could have gone very differently. One is a moment when Strawberry plays piano and sings a song for Mikey as he looks on.

Baker didn’t know it when he first met Son, but she already had some internet fame as a singer-songwriter. He incorporated her talent into Red Rocket, in which she sings a sorrowful, knowing
version of NSYNC’s bouncy “Bye Bye Bye.” The song appears throughout the film, with different meanings.

“There was a big text thread amongst our crew trying to come up with the right song for a couple of days. And we all settled on NSYNC, saying, ‘This is the perfect one. It’s the biggest one. It’s iconic. The lyrics are wonderful.’” But they needed permission. Music supervisor Matthew Hearon-Smith worked hard to get it. In case he was rejected, Son also sang one of her originals.

“But we were so married to this, and we knew we wanted the song to be the opening credits and the naked run,” says Baker. “So they read the script, they approved, and it all worked out.”

About That Naked Run

The film’s climactic scene, a full-frontal nude run by Rex, was almost stopped dead in its tracks.

“I admit, we just had to steal — what they call steal — that shot,” says Baker. “We tried to do it through the right avenues. But it was COVID, we weren’t getting a lot of proper responses. So we went ahead and we started.”

“The uncomfortable part was actually mostly the bottom of my feet on this kind of rural gravelly road that I had to run on,” says Rex. “So we kind of had to duct tape the bottom of my feet, but I still was running like ‘Ouch! Oooch! Ow!’ because it kind of hurt. So I’m running like I’ve got a stick up my ass. And I think it looks funny. So it kind of adds to the comedy of how I’m running sort of like a dork.

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Suzanna Son in Red Rocket. Main image (above): Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) rides his bike around in Texas City in Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker.

“And also, I was worried that a neighbor would turn on a light. We were in a pretty rural area, we were out at 2 a.m. running through. There were a couple of times where I turned the corner and I was like, ‘Fuck, someone’s gonna come out on the porch.’”

“That’s like guerilla filmmaking all the way: van pulls up, door opens, naked guy jumps out. Then, ‘Get back in the van, let’s get out of here!’” says Baker. “It was one of those.”

Not altogether surprisingly, the cops found out.

“There was a moment where the Texas City police came out of nowhere and surrounded us, and we said, ‘Oh, we’re that independent film crew that approached the department about this,’” Sean Baker recalls. “And they were like, ‘Oh, that’s you guys. OK, yeah, no problem at all.’ And it was at that moment that we realized they’re mostly just concerned about any potential terrorism around the refineries, that’s their number one priority. So we were harmless in their eyes.”

Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker and starring Simon Rex and Bree Elrod, is now available digitally. Photos courtesy of A24.