In Sean Baker’s ‘Red Rocket,’ a porn star’s fall and rise | AspenTimes.com
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In Sean Baker’s ‘Red Rocket,’ a porn star’s fall and rise

‘Red Rocket’ plays Tuesday at Academy Screenings


IF YOU GO …

What: ‘Red Rocket’ at Aspen Film Academy Screenings

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Tuesday, Dec. 14, 8 p.m.

How much: $25

Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com

Filmmaker Sean Baker works miracles of casting in his films, finding non-professional and first-time performers to craft wholly original characters in “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project,” his breakout films about Americans on the margins.

For his latest, “Red Rocket,” Baker worked some slightly different magic with Simon Rex, an established celebrity and performer but one with a spotty b-movie filmography that wouldn’t appear to make him a candidate to lead an awards season movie from Baker and indie tastemaker A24.

Rex here stars as Mikey Saber, a washed-up porn star who rolls into his hometown in Texas refinery country with a bruised face and little more than the shirt on his back. He weasels into couch-surfing with his ex-wife and XXX scene partner, sells weed, bums rides and begins to plot his comeback.



Rex is best-known for his time as an MTV host, and later took on the rap persona Dirt Nasty and appeared in the “Scary Movie” franchise.

Baker has followed Rex from his MTV days to more recent runs as a content creator on Vine and YouTube. He sensed Rex could embody the antic demeanor and the comic mix of charm and smarm he needed for Mikey. Baker saw in them shared DNA as entertainment industry survivors.




“Even though I think the industry hasn’t given Simon amazing breaks, he’s been making the breaks happen by just continuing to do it,” Baker said in a recent video interview from Los Angeles. “He never gives up. … I was like, ‘OK, enough is enough. Somebody has to give him a dramatic role!’ Because he consistently entertained me over the years made me laugh.”

“Red Rocket” began a limited-release theatrical run over the weekend and plays Tuesday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings.

In the film, as Mikey leaches off his ex, her family and neighbors, he meets a 17-year-old behind the counter of the local Donut Hole who he sees as his ticket back into the Los Angeles porn industry.

The girl, who comes to be known as Strawberry, is played by Suzanna Son in her first film role. In classic Baker form, he met Son in the lobby at the ArcLight Hollywood and, based on her freckled and redheaded look and her vibe, identified her as a future star.

“It was really one of those things where you see somebody and you just know in that moment that they have potential to be a star,” Baker said.

Two years after that meeting, as he and co-writer Chris Bergoch finished “Red Rocket,” Baker called her and offered her the part. She had come to Los Angeles with hopes of acting, so Baker intuited she could co-star with Rex.

“I wasn’t breaking in a non-professional,” he said. “There’s already aspirations there and I followed her for two years on Instagram. It was a no-brainer, I didn’t even have to think about it. She was our Strawberry.”

Set in the summer of 2016, “Red Rocket” has Donald Trump and that year’s watershed election looming in the background. The candidate appears on television and his name is on billboards around town in the film. And though nobody discusses politics or the election in the film, it is a conversation-starting portrait of this fraught era.

“We never wanted to really be beating the audience over the head with it,” Baker said. “The time period, I think, is much more interesting if it’s left up for interpretation.”

Many viewers will see Mikey as a Trump figure — a grotesquely self-interested egomaniac who leaves human wreckage all around him but who is also oddly charismatic and who you can’t stop watching.

He’s funny in a guileless Trumpian way, especially early in the film when Rex plays Mikey mostly for laughs. A quick-cutting montage of job interviews in Texas is particularly memorable, where Mikey tries to evade his adult film past but eventually relents and starts telling prospective employers to Google him, detailing his awards and best scenes (and, unsurprisingly, not getting a job).

As the film goes on, though, it grows darker and the pain resulting from Mikey’s selfish behavior is more evident, leaving viewers queasy if they’re still rooting for Mikey.

Baker made his reputation as the master of working with what others would see as limitations — making “Tangerine” with an iPhone, casting non-professional actors, working with tiny budgets. But he did not welcome the limitations of shooting a movie during the COVID-19 pandemic in fall 2020.

It was arduous, he said, to keep the cast and crew safe following the compliance guidelines set by the Directors Guild of America (the more stringent Screen Actors Guild compliance rules proved too costly, Baker said, and he made the film with non-union actors).

“In the moment, I’m having a pity party and beating myself up,” he recalled. “Why did I decide to do a film with a quarter of the budget of the last one during COVID? But In hindsight, all those limitations imposed upon me created so many happy accidents and serendipity that you know that I am blessed once again.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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