Simon Rex

Simon Rex, Again and for the First Time

The Red Rocket star proves the path from rags to riches is sometimes laid with porn, poverty, pain and prosperity — and porn again. In 2021, the poster boy of our ’90s fantasies has found a whole new spotlight.

Is Simon Rex famous? We may not all have the same answer to that.

Some of us have not only known his name for over two decades, but were in love with him as prime prey of the '90s heartthrob era, only to absentmindedly forget about him (and Jason Priestley, Joey Lawrence, and Kennedy! Yes, Kennedy) and all the others as we grew up and Simon faded from the once-dazzling MTV spotlight. But today, thanks to his starring role in A24's Red Rocket, and his surprising addition to the Best Actor Oscar race (alongside Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Benedict Cumberbatch, just to emphasize the "surprising" part), the 47-year-old actor has clawed his way from the dusty subconscious corners of our brain to the amygdala, where dopamine runs dangerously hot.

Some of you are just "falling" for Simon for the first time, recently spurred by a tweet here, an IG photo there, all because of a different high-wattage spotlight that's found his face this year. Though to you he's still hazy, peripheral ("Who is this guy again? And why is this guy?")

And then the rest of you have yet to be struck by one of Cupid's sexiest arrows. In that case, prepare thyselves, young ones, to watch a great movie and walk away a dedicated follower of the heady, euphoric Simon Rex Renaissance. Because he is amid a legendary transformation in the model of Marky Mark Walhlberg as Dirk Diggler. Simon is happening. Again, but also for the first time. Make sure your body is ready.

So welcome, newcomers. And hello again, old friends. But still, the question: Is Simon Rex famous?

A few reasons everyone born between 1980-1985 knows exactly who he is:

  • Many an elderly millennial recalls their adolescence (and sexual awakening) being intimately, feverishly, powerfully affected by watching him on MTV every day after school.
  • He was on TV, back when TV was our whole world. MTV was basically TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, all in one. We didn't have Signal, Kik, Telegram, or screenshotting abilities. Our version of secret communication was what's fondly known as a "telephone," with a cord.
  • He was rumored to be dating fellow Y2K-era icons like Paris Hilton and Tara Reid. Tables were danced on, canoodling took place, drugs were taken. And none of it was on social media. It was the final era when people behaved as if no one was watching, and those who grew up drooling over Simon, cutting his face out of magazines, absolutely made the most of that fact.
  • He took Felicity's virginity. Before she cut her hair. When Scott Speedman was right there. Without streaming, we all watched it — at the same time — and just raged alone in our bedrooms.
  • Before all of these mediocre but acceptable gigs, Simon's teenage years look (uncomfortably, uneasily) like those of Eddie Adams, birth name of 1997's Boogie Nights protagonist Dirk Diggler. Both were cis-het-male minors, on the verge of homelessness in California, hiding "something wonderful just waiting to get out" behind their jeans, and wound up in the porn industry. A young Simon starred in titles like Young, Hard, and Solo #2 and #3, with masturbation as the main attraction for a mostly male audience.
  • "Marky" Mark Wahlberg of the Funky Bunch famously reinvented himself by starring as Dirk, proving that boy-band burnouts could be taken seriously by Hollywood with one brilliant performance in one brilliant director's brilliant movie. There is a world in which Simon Rex — like Wahlberg, a former porn star, Calvin Klein model, and '90s flash in the pan — becomes a mogul, multi-millionaire, and offers vanity series on HBO in between tequila launches for $100 million a hit. Acolytes of this era of man know anything is possible, and we are pleased if not surprised whenever the possible comes true for them.

A few reasons everyone is talking about Simon Rex now:

  • Red Rocket, a low-budget indie movie directed and written by The Florida Project and Tangerine phenomenon Sean Baker, has an 85% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and nearly every review of the movie credits the casting of Simon Rex as the reason.
  • The word "magnetic" is used to describe his performance in at least six movie critics' reviews, and around six thousand tweets from armchair reviewers.
  • Photos and videos of Simon in collared shirts and tuxes at various glamorous film festivals (Cannes, London, Telluride, Rome) are scroll-stopping.
  • The movie, and Simon himself, have already won awards on the festival circuit. (Red Rocket officially premiered in theaters on December 10.)
  • His Twitter game is on point.
  • He looks like this, still:
Simon Rex
Eric T. White

In Red Rocket, there's an early scene where Mikey Saber (Rex), a broke, lying, manipulative former porn star returning to his tiny Texas hometown in a desperate attempt to con his pre-fame friends and family, is shaving in a bathroom mirror. The camera slowly zooms in on his eyes, and it's impossible to tell what color they are. They look like shiny globes, green and blue and also spinning.

"They're technically hazel on my birth certificate," Simon tells in a Zoom interview. "But it always depends on what I'm wearing or how light it is out...they look really blue-green, you know? But they're technically green, hazel." Somehow, he's confirmed his eye color, but also confirmed that his eyes contain all the colors. This is just one of many reasons all those "magnetic" mentions come into play.

Simon Rex
Eric T. White

Another reason has to do with how he plays Mikey, a very different role from Simon's previous ones involving sitcom makeup or slick spray tans.

"It was liberating to not worry about my looks," he says. "This was so grimy and real that I could let all that go, and not be, like, narcissistically worried about my hair and my makeup. In this one it was just like, fuck all that." On screen, Rex is visibly dirty, the deep lines in his forehead and neck tainted with grime. You can almost smell his weathered skin, soaked in De Janeiro tanning oil, and his hair, thick with weeks-old Sun-In failing to lighten any trendy blonde tips.

"I always believed in myself," he says, after chatting about whether he's having a "comeback" or not. (Rex prefers not to fantasize about future moguldom, either because he doesn't want to jinx himself or because he genuinely doesn't care. Based on our interview, we're assuming the latter.) "I didn't have a lot of people within the Hollywood industry giving me a chance. I think I've just gotten used to the peaks and valleys that this business has."

Sure, he wore a Thom Browne tuxedo to the CFDA Awards, and now sports Loewe and Paul Smith in photo shoots. We recently got an email with the subject line, "DIOR PRESENTS SIMON REX," in one of the infinite daily late-Covid reminders that we're living in the upside down. "It's cool to be having this moment, I'm getting invited to all these, uh, you know, festivals and winning awards, it's so cool. I'm just not getting hyped up. I'm not getting too caught up in all that," he shrugs.

Simon Rex
Eric T. White

There are scenes in Red Rocket that beg the question: How much of this was just raw acting talent, Simon improvising, and how much was hand-holding, being explicitly directed by a pro? Mikey's most emotional scene, the only time he isn't speaking maniacally fast, bragging about his long-ago XXX-rated hits, is a breakup scene. Mikey's the one leaving and, as Simon puts it, it's "really, like, awkwardly long, uncomfortably slow. Which is the only time he's being somewhat thoughtful and sensitive, showing a little bit of empathy." His hands go from clenched fists to splayed out, to an OCD-like tapping of thumbs and pinkies, all in an unnerving, captivating dance.

"That was just me improv-ing," he says. "And Sean liked it. He never told me, like, 'Yo, can you play with your hands, fidgety, you know?' It was just, he let me just kind of do me." Doing him, by the way, means living as someone professionally diagnosed with ADHD and deciding against any medication. As Rex told Vulture, he would "rather be in my crazy-weird brain."

Simon Rex
Eric T. White

After decades spent trying to spin his MTV moment into serious movie stardom, being told by Gus Van Sant that his 1997 reading for Good Will Hunting was the "worst audition" the director had ever seen, spending the 2000s barely getting parts in Scary Movie sequels or little-watched shows like Everland and Jack & Jill, Simon removed himself from the industry. All the money he had left went toward refurbishing an isolated property in Joshua Tree. Describing his life at the time, Simon says, "You can't get an audition. You can't get your agent to call you back." No one in the world thought Rex had a future in acting, let alone a Marky Mark metamorphosis that strikes once in a lifetime.

Simon Rex

I truly think I'm happiest when I'm barely making any money and I'm free.

— Simon Rex

Speaking of Dirk Diggler, Simon has a nude scene in Red Rocket reminiscent of Boogie Nights' satisfying final shot. But it's not just any nude scene. This is not a quick full-frontal flash like Ewan MacGregor in Trainspotting or Michael Fassbender in Shame (both of which made pearl-clutching waves at the time). It's beyond even the infamous 30-penis episode of Euphoria. And no, there were no prosthetics involved. Shot in a small Texas town without any permits, technically illegally, "in the middle of the night in a bad neighborhood," as Simon puts it, Mikey is running, fully naked, for about three minutes. His entire body is visible, the camera relentlessly, unapologetically, keeping all of it in frame.

"I can laugh at myself, which I think is the key to life: not taking yourself too seriously," Simon explains. "People are so sexually wound-up about nudity and sex that it's funny. This movie, in Europe, nobody really cared. But I'm noticing in American press, everything's, 'Oh my God, you're naked. Oh, the sex.' And it's just part of our culture that we're so, like, as a culture, immature about nudity and sex, that I don't really care. But a lot of people do."

Which is all to say, Simon Rex the person is varsity-level charming. Consider the following Zoom exchanges:

InStyle: What type of women do you attract, by the way? Do you have a type?

Simon: "Uh, yes. Female human beings from Earth."

Okay, got it.

Simon: "Those are, well those are my favorite ones."

- -

Simon: "Can we all grow up a little bit about like, oh his penis is flying around. You know, I was actually born naked. So for me, it's not that weird."

You were? Actually?

Simon: "Yeah. I don't know if you were, but a lot of people were."

- -

Simon: "I don't like dating other actors. I would prefer to date someone who's not in the business, and that's where it gets tricky, 'cause they don't understand what I gotta do."

I have a lot of thoughts about that. But we have, like, two more minutes…

Simon: "I could go a little longer if you wanna talk..."

Simon Rex Polaroids
Simon Rex

Literally "running scared," naked, no big deal. No ex-wives, no children. Just "never kinda subscribed to the social norms I feel we all have, all these pressures from family and society that you gotta get married and get a job and have kids," he says. Sometimes he's up, sometimes he's down. When asked about happiness, whether it's connected to money or love or fame (Red Rocket certainly implies all of the above), Rex is aware of how cliché his answer is, but coming from him, it feels and sounds genuine.

"I remember getting to the top of the mountain," he recalls. "Like in the early 2000s, I was doing a lot of TV shows and movies and making a lot of money and bought a house, and then I realized quickly that, yeah, you're busier and you got some eyeballs on you and you're making money. But I truly think that I'm happiest when I'm barely making any money and I am free, just taking my RV out for two months, and I'm just out in nature and I don't have to run around to 10 things a day and talk about myself."

We hope he forgives us, but we made him talk more about himself anyway. Ahead, he shares the '90s outfit that made him feel like a gummy worm left in the gutter, what makes him cry every time, and why he's not — but kind of is — ready to grow up. Rex's This Guy questionnaire, in the true style of '90s magazines' quickfire Q&As, below.

Simon Rex Polaroids
Simon Rex

What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?

The last thing I do before I fall asleep is drink seven shots of espresso to unwind…just kidding! I take a few deep breaths and I make a loud exhale noise like "ahhhhhhhh." After a few of those, it's lights out!

Favorite villain?

My favorite villain has to be Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. There was never a second of him on camera that wasn't a masterpiece of acting and committing to the role. He was so creepy, disturbing, and unpredictable; constantly keeping me on the edge of my seat. He looked like a demon who was fighting with his inner demons. So many layers — I don't know how he did that.

Describe a memorable dream.

A memorable dream I had was a lucid dream years ago where I said to myself "Wait, I know I'm dreaming so I'm going to fly now." So, up, up and away I went! I remember the feeling of being scared that my superpower ability to fly ended in me coming crashing back down to earth. Then bam! I woke up with a jolt. I tried to go back to sleep and continue the dream, but it didn't work. Do you ever notice how only nightmares continue if you wake up? Never the good ones! What's up with that?!

Simon Rex

Stop being so serious; people just want to laugh.

— Simon Rex

First album you ever owned?

The first album (cassette tape) I ever owned was Michael Jackson's Thriller. I listened to it so many times, I memorized it backwards and forwards until Prince came out. Then that was the tape to have in fourth grade. My stepbrother even got the red jacket with the zippers and would moonwalk around the schoolyard in San Francisco. This was the Sony Walkman era. The kids these days don't know how lucky they have it. We would have to manually fast forward the tape to find the song we'd want. Kids these days are spoiled rotten, I tell ya! Jeez, I sound old but whatever.

Favorite cheesy pickup line?

Best cheesy pickup line is "Excuse me, but I can't do it" and she replies, "Do what?" and you say back "Lunch tomorrow. But I'm free Thursday." It gets a smile and that's really the way to a lady's heart. Make 'em smile. Stop being so serious; people just want to laugh. But it's all in the delivery, you have to say it sincerely. Give it a shot!

If you were required to spend $1,000 today, what would you buy and why?

If I had $1,000 to spend today, I'd buy $999 worth of crypto because I'm not a crypto guy at all and you just offered me $1,000, thank you very much, InStyle. Let's hope crypto isn't some big scam. And with the $1 leftover, I'd buy a Coke and have it with ice and a lemon. Mmmmmmm.

If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?

If I ran for office (which I never would because I dislike politics more than chewing on tinfoil) my campaign would be simple: "DON'T VOTE FOR ME, VOTE FOR THE OTHER PERSON." That way I wouldn't win, and I could continue staying very far away from politicians. Everyone these days wants to talk about politics. No, thanks! I'm so bored even thinking about it. That stuff is too political for me. I just want to laugh and not take myself too seriously, the opposite of a politician. Get over yourself, bozos. BOTH SIDES, YOU'RE ALL GOING CRAZY WITH POLITICS, PEOPLE! LET'S JUST HAVE A BBQ AND REALIZE WE'RE ALL THE SAME AT THE END OF THE DAY! Ooh…maybe that's my campaign approach.

Name one place you've never been but have always wanted to go.

One place I want to travel to is the moon. It's so tropical this time of year and it's not very crowded. The view of Earth is amazing I heard. It might be too cold, so I'd want to stay in the tropical part. And I hear the Chinese food is amazing! But I'd bring my own hot sauce just in case they don't have a plethora of options. I'd love hot sauce on the moon!

Simon Rex Polaroids
Simon Rex

Is there an outfit you regret wearing?

I regret wearing the boxy, sparkly collared shirt (in the '90s) when I interviewed 2Pac on MTV. I looked like a reject game show host, and it was so baggy, and I was so skinny it made me look like a nerd. Meanwhile 2Pac was wearing a Duke jersey and looked cool as heck (pardon my language). But hey, that was the style back then. I really looked like a soggy gummy worm left in the gutter. Just terrible.

Favorite joke? Tell it!

My favorite joke is so corny, but I love bad dad jokes. Here it goes: "What did the dog say when the cat licked his face? ……ROUGH!" (RUFF) …. Get it? Because cat tongues are all rough like sandpaper. I wrote that years ago and it's funnier if I said it to you in person, OK? I told you it was bad….. sorry. Deal with it. I have better bad jokes, but they're too dirty for this interview.

Last time you cried?

The last time I cried was when I read that last joke 4 seconds ago. It's so bad, it made me question who I am as a person. Then I realized I'm just a big corny bad joke writer and I need to stop telling that joke. And grow up. OK but seriously, I think I was watching The Florida Project, a Sean Baker movie from 2017. At the end, the little girl knocks on the door to get her friend and she starts crying. Then I start crying because I can't stand seeing kids cry. Even though it's just a movie, that scene gets me every time. I gotta start crying more. Such an underused emotion. Thanks for reminding me.

Favorite bagel?

My favorite bagel is an everything bagel, duh! It's got EVERYTHING. Why would you just get a plain old bagel with no everything? Are you crazy? But in all fairness, it doesn't have evvverything. There's no gummy bears or tequila or cereal or dog food. Very misleading title for a bagel. But the stuff that is on there is yummy, yummy. Great now I want a bagel. With gummy bears. This interview is over! Thanks.

Photographs: Eric T. White, assisted by Pat Rice. Grooming: Melissa DeZarate. Styling: Dolly Pratt. Polaroid Photos: Simon Rex. Special thanks to Polaroid. Booking: Isabel Jones. Creative Director: Jenna Brillhart. Video direction: Justine Del Gaudio. Visuals Editor and production: Kelly Chiello.

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