Bree Elrod is an NYU-trained stage actress who has appeared in Angels in America, cites Alan Rickman as a mentor, and made such an impression in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island that the director once had Leonardo DiCaprio move over so he could see more of her acting. But in her latest film, Red Rocket, Elrod’s co-stars include plenty of small-town locals, including a refinery worker, a guy who worked in a restaurant, and a woman who director Sean Baker met outside a porta potty.
Elrod loved it.
“Some of the joy is actually just being with people who were just being people, because as actors, that’s all we want to do, that’s what we’re striving to do, and that’s what’s so hard,” she told MovieMaker. “We train and we go to schools, but actually, you just realize, oh – just get into the world and say the lines. Just live truthfully, and honestly, and big in the world that you’re living in, and you’ll find it. You don’t have you don’t have to try so hard.”
Not that Red Rocket was easy. The film was shot late in the summer of 2020 on a tight budget under strict COVID-19 protocols, stealing shots without permits at times in the Lone Star State refinery town, Texas City, where it takes place. In the film, washed-up porn star Mickey Saber (Simon Rex) returns home after a rough time in Los Angeles, and begs his wife Lexi (Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) to stay with them.
Elrod’s biggest scenes are with Rex, who was best known for comedy before yielding Oscar buzz for his compulsively watchable turn in Red Rocket. Her other biggest scenes are with two of the first-time actors: Deiss, who plays her mom, and Ethan Darbone, who plays Lexi’s neighbor, Lonnie.
Baker recounted how he discovered Darbone: “We were talking with the manager of a restaurant that we use for those interview scenes in the beginning of the film. Suddenly, Ethan walks into the room and starts complaining about some frozen shrimp, and then just storms out. And I’m like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ And the manager said, ‘Yeah, I’ll introduce you.’ I talked with him and within 30 seconds, and he’s like, ‘Hey, man, I have a Chucky tattoo on the back. I love movies.'”
And here’s Elrod explaining how Baker met Deiss: “Sean had gone to use a porta potty because there’s a bunch of porta potties outside of the refinery area. He comes out of the porta potty, 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?'”
His instincts were good. Elrod bonded quickly with Deiss, closely watching her screen mom to better play her daughter.
“I started to kind of study her as we were working and trying to pick up her kind of mannerisms — trying to look at the way that she holds a cigarette and kind of say, okay, maybe Lexi would have seen that over the years. And maybe that’s how she holds a cigarette, you know? And some of her cadences, some of the things she said. I would say something, and I’d say, ‘Does this sound like something someone would say?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, that sounds right.’ I felt like she was such a gift.”
She also shared some very Hollywood advice with Deiss, who tried to smoke real cigarettes in take after take. “She’s like, ‘I like cigarettes. But this is too much.’ I was like, ‘Just smoke some of my herbals.'”
They also just talked.
“In between takes, she would just tell us these stories about what it was like to live in the area and like, and she’s had such a hard life. And honestly, hearing her talk about everything really was— no matter how much research I did, nothing compares to what I got from the people that I met in the community.”
One of the hallmarks in Red Rocket is that every character feels fully formed. One of the only scene that doesn’t feature Mickey is a backyard talk between Lexi and Lonnie that gives insights into both of their wants and needs. It also shows that Lexi isn’t a guileless victim of Mickey’s schemes, but a talented soft-sell artist.
“That was an added scene that day,” says Elrod. “That was not originally in the script. And Sean really wanted to have a scene where you saw Lonnie and Lexi’s relationship.”
Elrod grew up in Topeka, Kansas, went east to New York University, and then appeared in roles across the country, including Boston, where she appeared in a production of Angels in America. One night some people from Shutter Island were in the audience.
“Some of the casting scouts just came to see that show, and afterwards came up to me and they were like, ‘You are so good at playing a mentally unstable person,'” she laughs. “And I was like, ‘Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you, my parents would be so proud.'”
They enlisted her to play what she calls “a glorified extra,” but she still drew Scorsese’s attention.
“I kind of started talking to Marty through the process. And it was really fun. We had this really playful relationship. There’d be like razor blades on the floor and he’d be like, ‘Keep those away from Bree! She’s crazy.’ You know, we had this kind of very playful interaction.”
One scene stood out especially.
“One day I was sitting behind them, kind of like insanely rocking behind Leonardo and Mark Ruffalo,” she said. “Because I was having an episode. And they kept moving. They kept shifting Leo and Mark over. And then the A.D. came out and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know — back in video village, Marty was like, can you just tell Leo to move over? I can’t see Bree.’ And I was like, ‘That’s pretty great.'”
Her other roles included an Off-Broadway production of the one-woman show My Name is Rachel Corrie, directed by Alan Rickman.
“He became one of my biggest mentors until he passed,” she said. “I wish he was here today, because I honestly feel like he would be so excited that this was happening. And he I just think I would love for him to watch this film.”
She moved back to Topeka for a while to help take care of her mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer, whose cancer in now in remission. While there she was reminded of the strong theaters and film community in Topeka and nearby Kansas City.
“That is a cool thing that I’ve learned over the years — there are thriving artistic communities all over the country. And it’s not just New York and LA that have these beautiful enclaves of artists,” she said.
Elrod was working on a play in Portland, Oregon when COVID hit. Baker had been in British Columbia, working on another project. Both her play and his project had to pause, and Baker decided to try to instead pursue an old idea about a suitcase pimp. His wife and producing partner, Samantha Quan, knew Elrod and thought she would be perfect for the part of Lexi.
“I got a call from Sammy,” said Elrod. “And she said, you know, ‘We’re doing this passion project. We were supposed to be doing this other show, but because there were so many people involved, we needed to do something smaller. … I was working out this morning with Sean I dropped my barbell and I thought Bree Elrod would be perfect for this. And I was like, Well, what is it? And she’s like, ‘Well, she’s a heroin addicted former porn.’ I was like, ‘Yes, please.'”
Red Rocket, starring Bree Elrod and Simon Rex, is now in theaters.
Photos: Bree Elrod photographed in New York City on September 29, 2021 by Stephanie Diani (@stephaniedianiphoto). Stylist: Ryan Young. Hair: Josue Perez. Makeup: Gita Bass.