Director Sean Baker is playing with fire in Red Rocket. His feature turns its eye on a depressed community in Galveston, Texas, where former porn performer Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) returns to crash with his heroin-using ex Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). They have little; Mikey has less. He starts selling weed and soon meets a 17 year old named Strawberry (Suzanna Son), whom he starts grooming for porn work. This is all risky territory that, in clumsy hands, could come off as exploitative. In a previously published interview with Jezebel, Baker said that he considers himself an empathetic filmmaker “and usually, I’m working with incredible actors who have fleshed these characters out even more than I had on the page.” We talked to two of his Red Rocket actors—Elrod and Son—regarding the challenges and joys of helping put such a story on screen.
“In reading the script, I thought there were themes that people might have a lot of opinions about, but it’s so well written and we added so much I feel like through our improvised scenes,” said Elrod, a theater vet who’s done some film work here and there (including appearing as a “glorified extra” in Martin Scorsese’s 2010 movie Shutter Island) but has never had a role in a film as large as hers in Red Rocket. “I feel like we were just trying to flesh out the stories of these opinions and I thought that might be more important than maybe the overall kind of themes.”
One of those themes is the relationship between Mikey, who’s in his mid-to-late 40s, and Strawberry, who’s 17.
“I knew because of Sean’s filmmaking that it was going to be done in the right way and there was a reason for it,” Son told Jezebel. “He’s not just being exploitative and gross. There’s a reason: We should talk about it. What better than to have a 25 year old play a 17 year old? That’s how we should do it. That’s how we should examine those relationships.” Son said that rather being judgmental regarding Strawberry’s relationship with Mikey, she was curious. “I know that Strawberry is extremely calculated and she’s two steps ahead of him. It may not be what it seems to be at first… She knows what’s going on. Mikey’s the naive one.”
To prepare for the role, Son said that she started a diary “where I gave my character a full past of what I thought a 17 year old in Texas would have.” She was 25 in 2020 when Red Rocket was filmed, so to play a teen she said she tried to stay “up and light on my toes.” “There’s a lot of rocking back and forth with Strawberry,” she explained. “When I would do that to my body, my voice would change too and I would get into that accent and I just felt younger and lighter and smaller.”
For her part, Elrod said she prepared for Lexi by watching Soft White Underbelly, Mark Laita’s interview series with sex workers and drug users on Skid Row. Playing a former porn performer also meant watching porn and documentaries about the industry, as well as talking to a friend who works with sex workers in Brazil. Elrod said that she did not have contact with any of the sex workers who advised Baker on drafts of his script. Nonetheless, she said, “I learned so much about the industry that I had not known before. It really is fascinating that a dirty little secret has make so much money. We just have such a cynical view of sex in this country. It was just like, nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s there.”
Son was effectively discovered for her role at the Arclight movie theater in Los Angeles—she said she had been in town for just nine days when Baker spotted
her and approached her. “I was just puttering around and hoping and I got really lucky,” she said. In addition to being an actor, Son is also a musician and performs a solo cover of Red Rocket’s de facto theme, NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.”
For the role of Lil, Lexi’s mother, Baker recalled street-casting Texas City native Brenda Deiss when she asked him for a car jump after he was leaving a porta potty. “While we were jumping her car, I pitched her this whole thing. And she says, ‘Yeah, I’m totally down for it. Let’s do it!,’” said Baker. “She’s been through it. She’s had her fair share of hardship. And yet at the same time, a survivor, somebody who we bonded with, and she had so much fun making the film.”
“I learned so much from her,” said Elrod, who plays Deiss’s daughter. “She’s had a hard life. There have been many things that she experienced that you don’t want anyone to have experienced. But she was so open about it and sharing it, and talking about what it’s actually like to live in that community. You live in a refinery town. It’s really dangerous. There are these ominous smoke stacks all around. There’s power, there’s money, and that’s her world. She has a glossy eye and I asked, ‘How did that happen?’ She said, ‘They usually put the sirens on but there was a chemical spill in the air and now I’m blind.’ Just hearing those stories from her was almost haunting. But she was great. She was so fun and playful and we were kind of just like, ‘Let’s see where this scene goes.’”
The script called on both Son’s and Elrod’s characters to have sex with Rex’s Mikey. Son said her scenes were “clinical and very fast,” though at times “kind of awkward.” Elrod said hers were comfortable. “We had a very closed set,” she explained. “Only the people who needed to be in the room were in the room and each of those sex scenes is telling a story... None of it is a gratuitous.” For example, during the scene in which Lexi is on top of Mikey, “she has all the power,” according to Elrod. “She’s letting him in to her world. She’s owning it.”
Baker set his movie in the run up to the 2016 election—at one point, Lexi, Lil, and Mikey watch Donald Trump speak while campaigning. Lexi and Lil are nodding off while high on heroin and Mikey’s rolling joints to sell as Trump proclaims the U.S. a nation of doers and go-getters. “I just was like, ‘That’s that’s genius,’” said Elrod. “Obviously there are some politics involved in it, but I think it’s more just the politics of our country—where we are now as humans, what we want, and how divided we’ve become.” Elrod said that she thought that Baker was “really hoping to appeal to both sides,” via his framing. It plays opaquely—the irony is clear, but how much the characters care about Trump (or are even absorbing his rhetoric) is not. Did Lexi, Lil, and Mikey go on to vote for Trump, a billionaire who touted himself as a champion of the working class (while doing little to help poor people), if they voted at all? At least Red Rocket offers another opportunity to examine the seduction and absurdity of it all.
But what of the smaller-P politics of doing something as relatively rare as telling the story of poor people in a poverty-stricken area? “I think that Sean wasn’t trying to exploit their lives,” said Elrod. “I think he was trying to show how they were living. What we all want is to live some sense of a happy, good life. That’s no different from these characters. They’re just trying to live a life that they can find some moments of joy in. I think it is hard and there is a darkness that sits in the air. But then you see them at the donut shop together and you’re like, ‘This makes sense. This is a family.’ And largely not a dysfunctional family. They seem like they just kind of get each other. That’s what I love about Simon’s performance is that he’s able to walk that line where he’s so different with each person he interacts with.”
Of course, the sexual politics are particularly vivid—Mikey uses and manipulates the women in his life, most especially Lexi and Strawberry. I wondered aloud to Son if she at all interpreted this as a way of interrogating patriarchy’s pervasiveness, that even within a relatively powerless population, men tend to find their way into power.
“That’s interesting, I never thought about it that way,” responded Son. “I like that.”