In His Films, Big Roles Go to Passers-by and Professionals Alike

The leading man in “Red Rocket” made his name as a comic rapper and an MTV video jockey. His character’s wife is played by a longtime theater actress with almost no film experience. And the supporting players include the ex-proprietor of a New Orleans bar and a downsized refinery worker. One woman won a role after her car broke down and she needed a jump.

For the film’s director, Sean Baker, this unconventional approach to casting is nothing new. His custom of blending actors with different experience levels dates to the 2004 ultra-low-budget feature “Take Out,” in which the star, Charles Jang, who had studied acting, was surrounded by nonprofessionals. The practice continued through “The Florida Project” (2017), which examined poverty in the shadow of Disney World and garnered an Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe. But Dafoe wasn’t the lead; it was a child actress, Brooklynn Prince, who had mainly appeared in commercials. And Bria Vinaite, who played the girl’s mother, was cast after Baker saw her presence on Instagram.

Ever since “Take Out” (directed with his regular collaborator Shih-Ching Tsou), Baker has been drawn to what he calls the chemistry that comes from combining performers from a range of backgrounds. An experienced actor, he said, might have a method that influences the nonprofessionals; the rawness of nonprofessionals rubs off on a seasoned actor.

Suzanna Son in a scene from the film. She first met the director at a Los Angeles cinema.Credit…A24

“I think people saw it really stand out when they recognized Willem Dafoe in ‘Florida Project,’” Baker said. “I’ve been doing this all along.”

Still, he has never put together a cast as eclectic as that in “Red Rocket,” which opened Dec. 10. The film follows an outrageously narcissistic Los Angeles porn star, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex, also known by his comic-rap alter ego, Dirt Nasty), who returns to his hometown on the Texas Gulf Coast and crashes with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). With his résumé a liability in the job hunt, he starts selling drugs for Leondria (Judy Hill), who controls the local marijuana trade, and begins grooming a barely legal doughnut-shop worker, Strawberry (Suzanna Son), for the hardcore-film industry before even asking if she’s interested.

The actors are a mix of people Baker cast off the street and professionals removed slightly from their wheelhouses. Baker said that he had followed Rex’s career since the 1990s and that Rex’s appearance in the satire “Bodied” convinced him that the actor could take on a dramatic part. Elrod, a Brooklyn-based stage actress, had performed Off Broadway, notably in the one-woman play “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” but had never before taken a significant film role. “I was kind of learning as I was going myself,” she said.

Judy Hill, above in “Red Rocket,” first came to Baker’s attention when he saw her in a documentary. Credit…A24

Baker and his wife and close collaborator, Samantha Quan, approached Son in 2018 at a Los Angeles cinema about potentially auditioning one day. Son was 22 at the time and had studied music and theater in college. It wasn’t until two years later that they had a part for her.

As for Hill, Baker was impressed by her comfort on camera in the documentary “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?,” which partly chronicles her efforts to hold onto the bar she ran in New Orleans. Hill said the director of that film, Roberto Minervini, connected them. And Deiss was a former secretary Baker met when she had car trouble. “I used that opportunity, while we were jumping her car, to get to know her,” he said, “and then by the end, just before she was driving away, offer her the role.”

For Brittney Rodriguez, walking her dog one day led to walking the red carpet at Cannes. Baker approached Rodriguez, who plays June, Leondria’s daughter and enforcer, while she was out with her Chihuahua, Rico, in Port Arthur, Texas. She had lost her job at a refinery, where she built scaffolds, when the company downsized because of the pandemic. Rodriguez recalled Baker handing her a card through a car window. After watching “The Florida Project,” she wrote him. Baker said he not only expanded the part of June after beginning to work with Rodriguez, but also sought advice from her on regional accuracy.

“‘Would hard hats be doing this? Would they say this? Help us with a line here,’” Baker said. “Working with an actor from the location that you’re focusing on can help on multiple levels.” Rodriguez is now acting in a short film.

Baker likened street casting to speed dating “because you’re getting to know the person, and you have to also get that person to trust you,” he said, adding that he usually pursues prospects he’s really sure about. “It reveals a lot in the first 30 seconds in which you’re talking with them. So you’re either on board and you continue to push, or you just give up in the moment.”

Brittney Rodriguez won her role after Baker spotted her walking her dog.Credit…A24

But it can also be awkward, the director said. After his first two films, he carried DVDs of his movies. Handing them out “would instantaneously legitimize me.” Now he has to tell potential cast members, “‘Hey, can you Google me? Can you IMDb me?’ It takes that one extra little step, and in that little moment, yeah, it’s sometimes a little creepy.”

For Baker, scripting, location scouting and casting run together, and aspects of his characters are drawn from life. Strawberry’s name, for instance, is inspired by Son’s Instagram page. It’s a method that has worked well before. Baker and his regular co-writer, Chris Bergoch, first encountered Mya Taylor, the eventual star of their film “Tangerine,” a comedy centered on sex workers at Christmastime, when they were doing research for the project. She introduced them to Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who became her co-star. Taylor would go on to win an Independent Spirit Award.

“I think he just made his way around and found somebody who was actually willing to have a conversation with him,” Taylor recalled of that initial meeting.

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Quan — an actress and acting coach who is a producer on “Red Rocket” — said that part of getting the cast members comfortable involved spending time with them during preproduction; the actors on “The Florida Project” rehearsed and prepped with the filmmakers for about a month before shooting, and the principal cast of “Red Rocket” worked and socialized together in Texas for more than a week before the cameras rolled. Baker added that the small size of the crew on “Red Rocket” helped foster that dynamic. Baker also serves as his own editor, which gives him an additional level of control over performances.

He is conscious of the fact that people from different walks of life might expect different things from the film. Some, like Son, who has been added to the cast of the HBO series “The Idol,” and Taylor, who plans to work with Baker on a TV version of “Tangerine,” have acting ambitions.

Mya Taylor, left, was cast in “Tangerine” when Baker was researching the film. She introduced him to her eventual co-star, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Credit…Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures

Others see performing as a one-off, and their commitment to a film can vary. Baker writes certain roles that can be expanded or excised, he said, depending on how things are going, in part because of his experience losing actors on his film “Prince of Broadway” and even, in minor roles, on “The Florida Project.”

Appearing in nearly every scene, Rex gives a motormouthed, star-making performance as Mikey. Although his past includes a brush with porn — a fleeting, desperate episode from his teenage years, according to Vulture — both Rex and Baker say there was no meta intention in the casting. “Part of the subtext,” Rex said, is that “Mikey could have been a million things and been this type of person.”

But there is at least a hint of a documentary element in Rex’s portrayal of a down-and-out performer. “It’s safe to say I fluctuated around L.A. on the B, C or D list, depending when,” he said. “I always was just happy to be on the list.”

But for him, “Red Rocket” has been “very different because it’s being admired by cinephiles and real movie critics and festivals,” he said, “and for the first time in my life, I really consider myself an actor.”

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