A suitcase pimp, explains Sean Baker, director of the brilliant new Red Rocket, is a man in the adult film world “who lives off of female talent in the adult film world. So they’re often performers themselves, but they’re also usually the boyfriend, partner, husband, manager of female talent.” Not every male adult film actor is a suitcase pimp, of course, but some are — including Mickey Saber, the washed-up porn star played by Simon Rex in Red Rocket.
The film follows Baker’s 2015 Tangerine, a Christmas movie about transgender sex workers, and 2017’s stunning The Florida Project, about a mother and daughter on the brink of homelessness outside Disney World. It continues his and co-writer Chris Bergoch’s exploration of people who are on the forgotten margins of society, and sometimes turn to sex work to survive.
This time, the focus is firmly fixed on the man doing the exploiting.
“It really reminds me of Star 80, one of my favorite movies ever,” says Rex, recalling the 1983 Bob Fosse film about the murder of Playboy model Dorothy Stratten. “Eric Roberts plays basically version of it. … He basically is just, you know, living this lifestyle via his young, beautiful girlfriend who he’s pimping into Playboy magazine. He is going to the Playboy Mansion, and he’s reaping all the benefits of her career.”
Red Rocket begins with Saber returning to his Texas hometown and begging to move in with his wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother-law Lil (first time actor Brenda Deiss). His soon develops a secret long-term plan: to groom Strawberry (Suzanna Son) into helping him break back into the porn industry.
Like Mickey, Baker has a talent for street casting, or convincing non-professionals to agree to be in his films. Of course Sean Baker and Mickey Saber make very different movies: Baker is one of the most acclaimed directors working today — there’s Oscar talk for Rex, and Dafoe earned an Oscar nomination for The Florida Project — but the people Baker stops on the street don’t always know that.
How does he convince them he’s not another Hollywood creep?
Baker and his producers, including his wife, Samantha Quan, make sure their prospective actors do their own research to verify their legitimacy.
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“It used to be easier because there used to be physical media,” Baker jokes. “When everybody had a DVD player, it was quite easy just to whip out a DVD and go, I made this. I mean, it immediately legitimizes you. Now it’s like, can you, you know, IMDb me? Oh, do you know what IMDb is? Oh, just Google.”
Baker and Kwon met Son years ago when they spotted her at Hollywood’s Arclight Theater and liked her look and presence. Son, a musician, had moved to Los Angeles to break into the entertainment industry, and it turned out she already had an impressive online presence for her music videos.
Baker met other stars in and around Texas City, the setting of the film. Elrod says he found Deiss while coming out of a porta potty near an oil refinery:
“And Brenda is standing there with a cigarette and she’s like, ‘Is that your car?’ And he’s like, ‘yeah,’ and she’s like, ‘Can you help me jump my truck’? And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I can. Do you want to be in a movie?’”
Baker met Brittney Rodriguez, a refinery worker, when she was walking her dog. She ended up shining as backyard weed dealer June. And he met Ethan Darbone, who is heartbreaking as Lexi, Lil and Mickey’s lonesome neighbor Lonnie, when Darbone was working in a local restaurant.
Baker says he takes his time with first-time actors and is careful not to rush them into anything.
“You walk on eggshells. But you also put it into their hands. You put it in their court. You go, you know, look us up. If you’re interested, you know, reach back out to us. And you know, you need that step.”
It isn’t just essential to prove he’s for real, but also to make sure a potential actor is truly interested.
“You want to know that they have the enthusiasm. They need to have the interest, because if not.. I’ve heard horror stories,” he says. “There are some people who have cast first-timers as leads who don’t really have aspirations to act, don’t really care, don’t have that enthusiasm, and they lose them halfway through a shoot which is, you know, not ideal.”
Red Rocket, an A24 release, is in theaters now.
Main image: Simon Rex and Suzanna Son in Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker.