Life Minus Expectations Equals Happiness: Simon Rex’s Next Act
Simon Rex never really had a plan. He didn’t set out to become a male model by the time he was 19, or an MTV VJ at a time when those were still a thing. His acting career, which included roles in more than one Scary Movie, kind of just happened, and his stint as the rap star Dirt Nasty was basically a goof. So when Sean Baker, the very indie filmmaker behind Tangerine and The Florida Project, called up the 47-year-old reformed party animal out of the blue to ask him to star in Red Rocket, his new movie about a washed-up porn star, it wasn’t so much a “Yes” as a “Fuck it, let’s go.” The rest, as he tells the actor Zachary Quinto, is history.
SIMON REX: Can I lay back while we talk like I’m in a therapeutic session or is that weird?
ZACHARY QUINTO: That’s all good for me, let’s do it. So, how does it feel to be back home in Joshua Tree? Because this is the first time you’ve been back there for a minute, right?
REX: Yeah, I was doing the math and I think I’ve only slept in my own bed seven or eight nights in the last 12 weeks. I’ve been pretty much on the go, living out of a bag, waking up in hotel rooms, not knowing what country I’m in. And that isn’t complaining, by the way, I’m so happy to be doing all of this. But coming out of the pandemic and having not worked this much in a very long time, it’s head-spinning. I’ve been doing the festival circuit and I feel like a politician because you have to go meet people and shake hands and that whole deal.
QUINTO: I actually know your house because when I learned that you were coming to work with us on Down Low—a movie that we shot earlier in the fall, which is how you and I met—I went onto your Instagram, where you gave a tour of your house, so I know a little bit of the story behind it. And part of what you talked about was that you had made this decision, not quite to drop out, but to pursue a different kind of lifestyle for a while—to get out of L.A. and find yourself in this beautiful but somewhat isolated place. And then this movie happened, right?
REX: I moved to Joshua Tree right before the pandemic hit, not like, “I’m quitting the business,” but more like, “I’m putting one foot out the door and I’m just being realistic about the fact that maybe the Hollywood dream might be winding down, so let me go see what else is out there, but still be close to L.A. in case the phone rings.” It was me exploring the unknown and wanting to be in nature. I bought an RV a few years ago and I realized how healing nature is for me. I’ve lived in San Francisco, New York, and L.A., and I think I hit the wall of living in a human zoo. As soon as I got this place, the pandemic started, so it was very fortuitous that I got it when I did, because I live in the middle of nowhere. It was also really weird sitting out here in the desert during the pandemic, not knowing what was going on in the world, much less my career. And then I get a phone call that Sean Baker’s interested in me for his new movie. I didn’t even need to read the script. He had me audition on my cell phone—I just put the phone in my kitchen and did a cold read of one paragraph and sent it to him. He goes, “I need you here in three days, but I can’t fly you here because I’d have to quarantine you for a week and we need to shoot right away.” So I had three days to work on the script and drive to Texas. And he also said to me, “I don’t have time to deal with your agent or your manager. Do you trust me? You’re not going to make a lot of money. Neither am I. No one is. Just come out here and let’s go.” I did trust Sean— my gut said that he’s a good person. So I went out there with nothing to lose. It felt like the world was ending. I was like, “Fuck it, let’s go.” And it came out pretty magical.
QUINTO: The movie really is magical. Do you feel like what’s so unique about it was partly that you did just dive into it? That you didn’t have time to think about it or prepare as much as you might have otherwise?
REX: A thousand percent. I think life minus expectations equals happiness, and happy accidents happen when you don’t plan anything. I always love being surprised. That was part of the impetus for me buying my RV—I call it the “No Plan Van.” I’ll just take off and drive up the coast, no idea where I’m going, and trust that everything will somehow magically happen. And it always does. You end up pleasantly surprised all of the time because you’re not overthinking it. So doing this movie really applied to my life philosophy. It drives my mother crazy.
QUINTO: You bring such charisma and magnetism to a character who could be considered loathsome. You’re rooting for him, even though he can be this manipulative scumbag, depending on the lens that you look at him through. None of that residue washes over an audience. It’s truly wonderful to watch. Cannes was a pretty significant introduction to your work in this film. Now, there’s been this whirlwind. What does it feel like to have had one foot out the door and then get completely pulled in and embraced by the industry?
REX: I’ll go backwards a little bit to the first part of the question, which was, I tried to make this unlikable character likable by simply making him boyish and charming, like he’s a kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing. So the audience roots for him even if they feel conflicted about it. He’s a narcissistic sociopath, but he knows not what he does. And yeah, it’s been overwhelming to come out of years of not working, and all of a sudden have all of this attention and be winning awards at festivals. Before, I wasn’t even privy to how these festivals worked. In 25 years in show business, I had never had a movie in a festival, much less Cannes.
QUINTO: Sean Baker’s unique style of filmmaking includes working with non-actors and first-time actors, and you dive in as an actor with many years of experience. And I’ve known Bree Elrod, who you play opposite, for a long time, and she is a phenomenal actor. What was that experience like?
REX: It was interesting because Bree Elrod has a black belt in acting. On the first day I worked with her, I was like, “Oh shit, she’s going to make me raise the bar.” So I have that on one end of the spectrum. Then on the other end, my second love interest in the film was a first-time actor, and she was incredible. And everybody else in the film were first-time actors Sean found in Texas. We shot it in southeast Texas, and he would use local people. Their accents, the smell of the house that we rented, the temperature—it wasn’t like we were shooting a movie in Burbank with a bunch of extras and other actors who were pretending to be from Texas. We were in that authentic world. So if anything, it made my job easier. On sets where you’ve got 15 actors, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of egos. This was very refreshing.
QUINTO: Your career has been pretty comedic and you have such a gift for comedy. Your character in Red Rocket is funny, but there’s also a depth and a pathos and a complexity to him. Is that something you want more of moving forward?
REX: I think so. This movie proves that I’m capable of doing that. I always believed in myself, I was just never really given the opportunity. I got stuck on Scary Movie island. Anna Faris told me that would happen when I did Scary Movie 3, 4, and 5. She was like, “This is a great job, you’re working with a top studio, but what’s going to happen is, within the industry, casting directors and other filmmakers are going to be like, ‘Oh, Simon? To read for this dramatic role? He’s the Scary Movie guy. We don’t even want to see him.’” So I got a lot of resistance. But yes, I want to do more independent, dramatic roles like this one. This was a dark comedy, but there was a lot more grounded reality than humor in the movie.
QUINTO: There’s an anchor to the ground in this movie that must be so refreshing for you and open up a whole other realm of possibilities in your career.
REX: Sean saw something in me. Not too many people would’ve given me the chance.
QUINTO: Aside from all the critical acclaim and press attention, have you noticed a difference in your working relationships and the people that you’re sitting down with and things that are getting sent to you in relation to the movie?
REX: It’s starting to happen. Tastemakers and filmmakers are just starting to see it, and the trailer just came out, so even based on that, my management and agent and publicist are getting some interest. There’s a buzz, and hopefully once it comes out, that will broaden. It’s exciting to think who’s going to see this that might want to work with me, that I’m a fan of.
QUINTO: Somebody said that you have a good story about auditioning for Good Will Hunting?
REX: Yeah, so my whole acting career happened, again, with no plan. I was working at MTV, which also happened totally randomly. I was in the right place at the right time in the ’90s when I lived in New York, and they hired me with no experience whatsoever—they just liked my energy. So I’m on MTV as a VJ, and I got thrown into the deep end interviewing all these big celebrities live on TV. Gus Van Sant saw me and called me in to read for him and Matt Damon, for this small role in Good Will Hunting. It’s just a couple of lines, and as I’m reading, Gus Van Sant, god bless him, says, “Simon, I have to stop you, this isn’t going really well. You’re not ready for this.” I appreciated his honesty. He basically said that while I wasn’t ready yet, I had something and I should start taking acting classes. He recommended a couple of theater workshops in New York, so I started doing Stanislavski theater and improv classes, because I was like, “Well, if Gus Van Sant’s calling, maybe there’s something here.” That’s how I became an actor.
QUINTO: What’s something you haven’t done yet that you really want to do?
REX: One thing I haven’t experienced as a guy my age, and I struggle with this a lot—I don’t know if it’s society making me feel this way or if it’s biology—is settling down and having a family. I’m really torn. Having kids scares the shit out of me, but I’m also like, “That might be exactly what I need.” And in our business, you basically live out of a bag for half the year, so it’s hard to have structure and a healthy relationship. But if I was laying on my deathbed, maybe the one thing I would say I missed out on is the experience of what it’s like to be a dad, to be in a family unit. I don’t know if it would be the worst thing for me or the best, because I love my independence and my freedom. I have a hard time subscribing to the idea of marriage. Like, “I love you, let’s involve the state of California and sign a contract.” I just feel like a lot of things we’re force-fed are bullshit, not to sound like That Guy.
QUINTO: No I get it, I’m just a couple of years younger than you and we have similar experiences in that regard, where I’m like, “What do I want, and is settling down part of it?” I understand that desire. So we’ll see. Maybe this will be our year to find our forever friends.
REX: Yeah, who knows? I think that marriages should be broken down into five-year contracts, like an NFL player. You could renew.
REX: Yeah. Or three-year contracts, depending on how you met, how long you’ve been together. So many marriages fail. Maybe there’s a new way to look at it outside of the box that could work. But it feels like a natural progression to eventually not be alone into your 50s and 60s, because that’s a scary thought.
QUINTO: Maybe you’ll meet a lovely lady at the Oscars or Governors Ball.
REX: Am I going to the Governors Ball?
QUINTO: Something tells me you might be. I think this is the beginning of a new chapter for you.
REX: Thank you! For so many years, I was intoxicated with the Hollywood stuff, the beautiful women, the parties, and I chased those things and made them my priority. But now I think the real pleasure would be doing good work that I’m proud of.
QUINTO: I’ll be in L.A. for the rest of the year starting next month, so hopefully we’ll see each other out there.
REX: Let’s do a hike and be those L.A. guys drinking healthy juice and talking about acting. I don’t care. I surrender. I’m an actor now.
QUINTO: You sure are.
Grooming: K.C. Fee using Kevin Murphy and Jaxon Lane at Forward Artists.
Fashion Assistant: Annie Lavie.