The only one the world will ever need, anyway.
Sean Baker’s newest, Red Rocket, has many of his signature identifiers: gritty locations, non-traditional actors, and amazing dialogue. Viewers of The Florida Project and Tangerine will know the score. But this time, instead of WeHo or Orlando, we’re taken to Houston, with refineries and chemical plants dotting the landscape.
During a recent trip through Austin, Baker, first-time actor Brittney Rodriguez, and lead Bree Elrod sat down for a conversation with Cinapse. There were donuts involved.
Rod Machen: I want to first start with the person that’s not here, because I saw Simon [Rex] in a movie at the Austin Film Festival just two weeks ago, called —
Brittney Rodriguez: My Dead Dad?
RM: Yes. I had not seen him in forever. I haven’t kept up with his career, but I remember him from MTV back in the day.
Sean Baker: Did he shoot that just before Red Rocket?
Bree Elrod: I think he must have.
RM: Yeah, I think it might have premiered at Austin Film Festival. But I was like, “I recognize that dude!” What is it about him and his energy and his whatever-that-is that makes Simon Rex the perfect Mikey?
SB: We’re approximately the same age, and I’ve been following him since the beginning and seeing his very interesting career with these peaks and valleys. BJust always entertaining me and always continuously making me laugh. When the social media era came around, he was present on Vine, doing his stuff with King Bach, I was like, “You know, this guy is really good.” In six seconds, he’s making me laugh, but I can also see that there’s more than just his comic skills. His delivery is making me realize that he can do a dramatic role. I saw him in that movie Bodied, Joseph Khan’s film about battle rapping, and he had a bigger cameo in that.
RM: I think I saw that, the white academic guy who becomes a rapper? He was in that?
SB: He was in that, and I even wrote in a Letterboxd review of it, “Someone should just give Simon a dramatic role,” and that was at the time I was just coming off of The Florida Project, and we were thinking about what to do next. Red Rocket was this idea that came from research in that world, and so it was a very quick sort of “figure it out.” Beginning, middle, and end. I remember even texting one of my producers saying, “If we ever make Red Rocket, it’ll be this guy.” I sent them one of his Vine videos, they laughed, and it was cool. After that, we totally forgot about it. This film was put on the back burner, and we were focusing on something else. He was in my head from the beginning, but he didn’t even know about it until pre-production. We were just about ready to go when we reached out to him.
RM: And Brittney, you talked about being friendly with him off camera, and then the camera turns on to switch it [to Mikey]. I’ll ask both of you what that relationship was like?
BR: It was interesting. I felt bipolar for a minute; just with his character and who the character is, it was a genuine aggression towards the character. So, the minute he’d yell, “Cut,” it was also a genuine excitement to be doing what I was doing with Simon. So, it was a conflict of emotion.
RM: I like it. What about your interactions with him in y’all’s tense relationship on camera?
BE: Yeah, I think the playfulness added to those moments of tension, because when we did have to do the scenes that were a little bit more intense or maybe not quite as funny, we’d have to balance it with the other part, which I always think is more interesting, and why I think some people really skilled at comedy are also some of the most dramatic actors as well. Like Bill Murray or somebody who is really able to do beautifully funny things, which Simon can. Some of these moments in this film are just beautiful, and I think it’s because he can do the other so well. He can access the other side so well, too.
RM: Yeah. It hit me by the end of it, “How am I being pulled here?” He is so likable, he’s also annoying in certain ways, but we all have friends that are annoying, right? By the end of it, I keep on being given thing after thing that on paper, he’s a scum ball. He’s grooming this girl, all this sort of stuff, and so thinking of toxic masculinity and as women interacting with him, did you have to manifest a repulsion towards him? Or manifest an empathy or something?
BE: I think for my character, I just relied on our history because we grew up together, that’s kind of our backstory. We grew up together, we moved to LA together, we got into the porn world together, so there’s that familiarity that I think was easier for me to let him in, even though she despises him and doesn’t trust him. I think what Sean does so well in this film is that he does focus in on the women’s emotions and their faces and feelings. With Strawberry walking on the beach, Strawberry’s like, “I’m not sure I want to do this,” and you see me reacting to his monologue in the kitchen. I think it really is a fun exploration of how this man is affecting these women specifically.
BR: For me, we have this one scene in the movie where he’s like, “Yo, I remember you when you were — ” and I’m like, “Motherfucker, I don’t know you.” [Laughter] It’s interesting to see that play. In the time being, I can’t see my own facial expressions; I go off of what I think it might be. The fact that the audience connected with it so well, I’m glad I was able to bring it across the way I pictured I was doing it. It’s nice.
RM: So I’m a native Texan, I come from the other part of the world, I come from Amarillo. But I want to talk about the details of the place, I want to talk about using locals and those houses, those backyards. I was looking at the house you’re in, and it was like my grandma’s house in Brownfield, Texas. The stuff on the walls, like the necklace on the wall, I was like, “Oh man.” These are obviously real locations.
SB: Yeah, real locations.
RM: Did you say, “We’re in the middle of the real deal, here?”
BR: I’m from Beaumont, so I’m not too far from that area, and so walking through this, I was trying to figure out what was missing from it. I think y’all got it!
SB: My sister is the production designer on the film, her name is Stephonik. She was literally taking these real locations and enhancing them a bit for stylistic purposes but embracing a lot of what was already there. There was a dishwasher, just hanging out in the backyard, so let’s show that.
BE: Yeah, I thought that everything was so very well thought-out and meticulously placed, down to lipstick on the mirror she did in Lexi’s room, which she also did in Strawberry’s room. I thought that was really special. The way she wanted the colors in Mikey’s world were kind of red, white, blue, whereas Strawberry’s world was more pastel, more dreamy. I thought it was really nice.
RM: I’m going to take a point of privilege and tell you before this, the only movie of yours I had seen was The Florida Project. I just started Tangerine. I love that [concept], that we’re going to drop you in a place and you are going to feel like you’re in scuzzy Orlando. Wherever it is. I was also noticing the tension; all throughout The Florida Project, you’re just waiting for shoes to drop. Here, the shoe isn’t so much of a kick in the pants. Tell me about that decision, that simmer. How’d you decide how hard to kick the audience, and in what way?
SB: This one was more about a character study, less of perhaps a — well, it was a plot-based film. We had the beginning, middle and end worked out —
RM: You have a certainly climax!
SB: We knew there was going to be what he calls “a sabotage.” We knew that was coming, and so this time around, the big difference between this film and the last three or four is that, whereas I was intentionally avoiding the male gaze at all costs with these other films, I had to embrace it with this film, or at least sort of flirt with it in sections of the film to get us into the head of Mikey, into his psyche. Even if it brought the audience to an uncomfortable place, especially in 2021 we’re told, “We’ve had enough of the male gaze!” Unfortunately, I did it again. [Laughter] But it was important for me because for example, the end. I don’t want to spoil the end, but I almost truly embraced it. I could have had a very normal ending, but there was only so many things that could happen. He either goes to LA with her or not, or what he does outside that house doesn’t truly matter. For me, it was about just getting into his head space at that moment. So maybe that’s the answer. I had to embrace that even though I knew it was a little risky.
RM: So, one thing about filming in Texas that I’ve noticed even back from Reality Bites, is that you can’t convey heat. You can make snow, you can make cold, but heat just doesn’t work. I don’t think y’all necessarily filmed in a hot time of year, but man, that is a hot place to live. But that’s part of their starkness. I wanted to wrap up by talking about that place, and what the place does to the people. Those people have sat and baked metaphorically in that culture, in whatever it is: hopelessness, striving. They’re all being affected by their environments.
SB: They’re all survivors. That’s how I see it. Mikey himself is a survivor. That’s part of the reason why people have, I think, they question the depiction of Mikey. There is a little bit of empathy applied to him, as well. They know he probably came from poverty and went into this industry because that was one of his few choices. That’s something that I applied to that character because I saw him as a survivor, as well. Every choice he makes is — he’s in survival mode, always.
RM: Did y’all feel like survivors, thrivers, something from being a person in the middle of that environment? I mean, it’s your environment, right?
BR: Truthfully, it’s a little bit of both. You have your ups, you have your downs. Like, how one family is living more off of assistance checks and my family is just like, “We’re going to eat.” Everybody kind of found their own lane, their own means of getting it. That’s still happening now, you know? Everyone finds their own lane if they feel like, for them, that’s how you choose to make your money.
BE: I think one of the gifts on this film was working with first-time actors who are of the area. I feel like, no matter how much research I did into it, it wasn’t nearly the gift that I was given when arriving and working with Brit and working with Ethan [Darbone], who played Monty, and with Brenda [Deiss], who plays my mother. She’s incredible, and the stories she was sharing between takes, about growing up there and what she’s faced, it really was so eye-opening for us. It helped us create this world so that you can feel it coming off the screen.
RM: Ultimately, these movies are all about survival, but you know what? Going to get that ice cream cone in The Florida Project is awesome. Going to get donuts is awesome. I don’t care how poor you are. In Tangerine, too, hardscrabble environment, but man, we’re going to make the best of it!