Monday, November 28

‘I was running naked with a fake penis’: how Simon Rex found redemption playing a washed-up porn star | movies


What must it be like to have a penis the size of a draft excluder? “I wouldn’t know, dude!” says Simon Rex. The one the actor models in the new comedy Red Rocket, in which he plays a disreputable middle-aged former porn star named Mikey Saber, is in fact a prosthetic. Rex’s actual penis is there for all to see in several porn videos he made as a callow, cocky 18-year-old back in the early 90s. Until this week, though, he was being coy about whether that was really him in Red Rocket’s nude scenes. Now, as he puts it, “the dick is out of the bag.”

Having established that the recording of our video call won’t be uploaded anywhere – “Cos I look like I just got thrown off a balcony,” he says, running a hand through scruffy hair – he relaxes into a chatty, chipper mood. He is speaking from his Los Angeles hotel room on the morning after he was named best male lead actor at the Independent Spirit awards. Kristen Stewart presented her prize, then looked on admiringly as the 47-year-old reflected on a career that was “in the toilet” before he got the call from Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project, inviting him to come to Texas to make Red Rocket.

That was September 2020, and the film was to be shot guerrilla-style: shoestring budget, Covid restrictions, a skeleton crew of 10, no permits. That seat-of-the-pants scrappiness suits the material. In the opening scene, Mikey arrives in his old Gulf Coast suburb after many years in LA. Battered, bruised and on his uppers, he begs to spot on his ex’s sofa, starts dealing weed, and proceeds to groom a 17-year-old for possible porn stardom.

“When I read the script, I thought: ‘Why is anyone going to care what happens to this guy?’” says Rex, popping a grape in his mouth. “I knew my only job was to get the audience to like him. I had to make him boyish and charming.” This he does in abundance, leavening the character’s toxicity with an indefatigable vim and optimism. It helps that Mikey is often a happy figure. In one scene, he flees naked down the street in the middle of the night, draft excluder flapping comically. “We were in a very bad neighborhood in Texas, the cops driving by. I’m sitting in a van at two in the morning, naked except for a robe and a fake dick, going: ‘Is the coast clear?’ It was crazy, man. But it all helped. When you see me running down the street scared, I really was running down the street scared. That wasn’t acting.”

Beaten to the punch … Rex with Anna Farris in Scary Movie 4. Photograph: Dimension/Allstar

Mikey is a kind of Peter Porn: the stud who never grew up. “Usually in a movie you’re watching a character arc,” says Rex. “They begin somewhere, they change, and that’s what is interesting. But Mikey is going in circles. Not too many movies have a despicable lead character who you root for, but who doesn’t change. We all know this person: we’ve dated them, worked with them. Maybe we are them.”

Some even voted for one: Red Rocket is set during the 2016 presidential campaign, with Mikey something of a minor Donald Trump. “They’re both delusional American narcissists. Trump is a byproduct of the problem, which is America and capitalism and greed. It’s not like he came out of a vacuum. Mikey is the same, he just doesn’t have Trump’s success.”

Rex’s performance would be audacious by any measure. Even more remarkably, though, he has done nothing in his decades-long career to suggest he had it in him. A former model, rapper and MTV VJ, he is the missing link between Paris Hilton (he swears they never dated), Meghan Markle (ditto), Adrien Brody (who encouraged him to rap), Mark Ronson (who DJ’d while Rex strutted up and down the catwalks of Paris and Milan) and Charlie Sheen (who took Rex under his wing).

He went on to be an agreeable clown in US sitcoms and web series, although quality control has not been his strongest suit. “I wasn’t killing it,” he says. He was paid handsomely for three installations of the execrable Scary Movie franchise, where slapstick was his stock in trade: he gets kicked in the balls by an alien, throws a small child into a ceiling fan, and tries to rouse a corpse in an open casket, having misunderstood the word “wake”. In The Karate Dog, since 2005, he teams up with a computer-animated mutt; they pee side-by-side at a urinal. In one of his last gigs prior to Red Rocket, he is the green-haired villain Dark Jokester in the Marvel parody Avengers of Justice: Farce Wars; other characters include “Tony Starch” and “Beaverine”.

Did he ever suspect he was capable of something as good as Red Rocket? “Yes,” he shoots back. “I always believed in myself, but I don’t think anyone else saw it in me. You’re so lucky in this town to get a shitty bad job. The phone just wasn’t ringing.” That has changed now. “I’m getting, like, Steven Spielberg auditions. It’s very rare that this sort of thing happens. I don’t want to put myself with John Travolta or Mickey Rourke, because they were A-list movie stars and I wasn’t ever that. But they had comebacks too. I think we Americans like a comeback story.” Ask him how he got here and he will respond with a shopping-list of happy accidents. “Everything has always failed into my lap. My philosophy is: no plan is the best plan.”

The only sons of Bay Area hippies who divorced when he was two, Rex weathered a turbulent childhood with an alcoholic stepfather, then went straight from high school into a forklift job at a potato sack factory. He met a Penthouse model and moved in to a one-bedroom apartment with her and her two-year-old child. To pay his half of the rent, Rex agreed to appear in a handful of solo porn videos. “At the time, I was so young and dumb that I thought it was cool,” he says. “At 18, you don’t make good decisions.”

He is accustomed to people mentioning those videos, and you concede it has all fed helpfully into the marketing of Red Rocket. “Sean told me, ‘I cast you because of your talent but there’s definitely a meta thing happening with your backstory.’ I’m OK with that.” Though he is sanguine about the whole affair, he hopes it will “dissolve” the more he keeps working. He looks surprised, however, to learn that the continuity announcer at the Independent Spirit awards made a reference to it (“Rex got his start in pornographic films…”) while he was walking up to collect his award. “Oh, they said that?” he asks, not quite concealing his disappointment from him. “I didn’t know that.”

Accompanying that same girlfriend to a modeling audition, Rex got a rather luckier break: the agency snapped him up instead. “I would never be dumb enough to try to be a model, but they sent me to Milan, then to New York and Paris.” MTV executives invited him to be a VJ. “I told them I had no journalistic experience, had never been on TV. They said, ‘You’re hired.’” Tupac Shakur complimented him in the middle of an interview – “I’ve been watching you, you’re good,” the late rapper told him – and the director Gus Van Sant invited him to audition for a part in Good Will Hunting. “I go in and sit down with him and Matt Damon. We’re doing a reading and then Gus stops me in the middle and says: ‘Simon, this is really bad, you’re not ready.’ Matt Damon is laughing and I’m embarrassed. Gus says: ‘But don’t worry, you have something. Trust me. Go to acting school.’”

Even once the money was rolling in from sitcoms and Scary Movies – “I made tons in the early 2000s, bought a house in the Hills, bought a Porsche” – the quality jobs were not. Disenchanted with the business, he started a rap project with two friends as a joke, and christened himself Dirt Nasty. The concept was that the group would “turn everything on its head. So instead of rapping about selling drugs, we rapped about buying drugs. That was the joke. We were the customers.”

Their fans were “white, mostly female. When we started, we were like: ‘Everyone’s always rapping to other dudes about being tough and cool. What about if we were rapping to girls?’” They supported Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour, and had a platinum-selling hit (“A million fucking units!”) with the song My Dick. The lyrics were comprised of one boast after another: “My dick cost a late-night fee / Your dick got the HIV … My dick, size of a pumpkin / Your dick look like Macaulay Culkin.” Mikey Saber would have approved.

There were two downsides to this tomfoolery. First, everyone kept confusing Rex with his character onstage. Second, it capsized his acting prospects of him. “My agents would phone about an audition and I’d say: ‘I’m in Poland with the Chili Peppers.’ Once you leave your seat at the Hollywood table, it’s hard to get it back. It’s a small table.” With few acting roles on the horizon, I found it hard to decline the offers he was getting for gigs, even once he felt too old to be a rapper. My Dick had become a pain in the butt.

There were other distractions along the way. Several UK tabloids offered him $70,000 to claim he had slept with Markle, with whom he appeared in a 2005 episode of the sitcom Cuts; their off-screen interactions never got further than one platonic lunch. “I was broke as fuck! I really needed the money. But I’ll be on food stamps before I do that.” Markle wrote him a thank you letter. “She said: ‘It’s nice to know there are still good people.’” He has it framed in his home out in Joshua Tree.

Red Rocket
Simon Rex and Suzanna Son in Red Rocket. Photograph: AP

Perhaps few events in his life have been as bizarre as youhe time he accompanied Charlie Sheen on his 20-date live tour (My Violent Torpedo of Truth) in 2011. “That was a weird one, man. That was a fucking circus.” Sheen, with whom he became friends on Scary Movie 3, “was up on stage every night talking shit. Then a pro baseball player would come on and play catch with him, then I’d do a Dirt Nasty song. It was a shitshow.” When did he first realize it wasn’t going well? “When the crowd starting chanting: ‘Refund! Refund!’”

Despite that, he marvels now at the memory of flying from gig to gig on private jets, staying at Ritz-Carltons and the like. “Charlie would tell me: ‘Order everything on the menu. Lobster, steak, whatever. Use the spa every day, get a facial, get a massage.’ I said: ‘I don’t want to waste your money.’ He said: ‘Simon, I make more in one day of Two and a Half Men reruns than you could possibly imagine. Spend all of it.’”

He talks admiringly of Sheen being “the last of the Hollywood bad boys” and seems torn between lamenting the end of that public wildness and profligacy, and recognizing that “society has moved on, and it’s a good thing that it has. Even though I don’t approve of cancel culture and virtue signaling and all of that.”

Rex has moved on, too. It would be poignant to hear him talking about missing his “young, athletic” physique from him if he did n’t look so trim and taut, and if he was n’t now in receipt of something which had eluded him for so long : respect. “When people used to ask me what I did, and I told them I was an actor, I always felt like I was bullshitting,” he says. “For the first time now, I can say it and feel proud because I think I did a good job.” The old Simon Rex may be dead but the new one is killing it.

Red Rocket is in cinemas from 11 March


www.theguardian.com

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