Simon Rex: ‘I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’

'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House

The model-turned-MTV VJ-turned rapper is now Hollywood’s hottest property – discover the extraordinary reinvention of Simon Rex

Friday 17 June 2022   By Martha Hayes   Direction of Photography by Ilja Maran   Photography by Juan Veloz   Video Editing by Brecht Vanthof and Oscar Trenam   Styling by Joanie Del Santo   Grooming by Maria Castro

Simon Rex finds it hilarious that he is currently one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood. ‘I’ll get a phone call that Steven Spielberg wants me to audition for him and I just laugh,’ he says, ruffling his short brown hair and leaning back on a plush pink daybed on the rooftop of Holloway House, the newest Soho House in Los Angeles.

‘A couple of years ago nobody was interested. I’m the same guy, nothing has changed, but now all of a sudden everyone wants to work with me. It’s so flattering, but I find it comical. You’re really hot and then you’re really not. This business is crazy.’

He has a point. Directors might be suddenly falling over themselves to work with Rex after his critically acclaimed performance in last year’s cult hit Red Rocket (the latest movie from The Florida Project director Sean Baker), but at 47 he couldn’t be further from a rising star. He is more like a cool cat who has lived nine lives – and, more impressively, lived to tell the tale. 
To recap, Rex’s career started more than 25 years ago. He was a model in the early 1990s for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. He was an MTV star (memorably interviewing the legendary late rapper Tupac while stoned). He was a low-key TV and film actor in the 2000s (peaking with three movies in the Scary Movie franchise). And then he reinvented himself as a rapper and signed to a major record label. But more on that bizarre trajectory later. 

Top: shirt, Brain Dead; sunglasses, Acne Studios

'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House

Jacket, Boohoo Man; trousers, Moth Food Vintage; trainers, vintage

'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House

Gloves, Sword and Stone

By 2020, Rex was so convinced his career was ‘in the toilet’ (to quote the phrase he used when accepting the Best Male Lead award at the prestigious Independent Spirit awards earlier this year), he bought a house made out of shipping containers in Joshua Tree and moved out to the Californian desert. It was the middle of the pandemic and Rex was staring aimlessly at his ceiling fan when he got a call from the audacious Sean Baker, who, it transpires, had long been an admirer of his varied, but always entertaining, work. 

‘We’re not going to make any money, we’re just going to make a cool movie,’ Baker told Rex, who didn’t even bother telling his agent when he got the part. Exactly a year later, Red Rocket received a five-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and all eyes were on Rex’s magnetic and surprisingly poignant performance as a washed-up ex-porn star hustling his way back into his hometown. 

Doors have been opening and offers flooding in ever since. Today, Rex finds himself in the coveted, and frankly rare, position of turning work down. ‘For the first time in my life I’m saying no to a lot of stuff. It’s a very empowering feeling,’ he nods, his piercing blue eyes widening in disbelief. There have been a lot of meetings. So many in fact that for Rex the opening of Holloway House, a sanctuary for industry power lunches in the heart of Los Angeles (located a short drive from the original West Hollywood club) probably couldn’t have come at a better time. 

'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House

Cardigan, No Maintenance; T-shirt, stylist's own; trousers, Moth Food Vintage; trainers, Converse  

'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House

‘I’m being very selective about what I want to do,’ he continues. ‘I don’t care about money, I don’t care about the fame; I’ve been down that road. I want the 20-year plan. We’re in a rare window of time where good filmmakers are reaching out, so we’re doing a very good job of picking the right stuff.’

As a result, Rex’s forthcoming roles are as colourful as can be. He’s playing a ‘sleazy art dealer’ in crime drama National Anthem (which co-stars Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney and Eric Dane), a ‘male prostitute crackhead’ in Down Low, a comedy co-written by The White Lotus star Lukas Gage, and a ‘fake new age shaman’ in Mack & Rita, a rom-com co-starring Diane Keaton. ‘I got to improv with her,’ gushes Rex with the enthusiasm of a newcomer. ‘At the end of our first scene, she pulls me aside and she goes, “you’re good, kid”. That was a feather in the cap!’

Days after we meet, Rex is due to fly to North Carolina to shoot murder-mystery comedy Providence with Lily James and then go straight to Mexico to film Zoë Kravitz’s directorial debut, Pussy Island. ‘Channing Tatum is the lead and I’m his co-lead,’ he explains. ‘I’ve heard nothing but good things and I’m a fan of his. I’m excited to work with Zoë. They just seem like really good people. When you’re living with others all day every day for a month, you form a deep bond really quickly, so you want to work with nice, cool, fun, creative people. It’s basically like going to camp.’

It might sound like all of Rex’s acting dreams have come true, but there is still one box left to tick: working with Gus Van Sant, who he auditioned for when he was first starting out.

'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House

‘I think it’s a good life lesson that sometimes you shouldn’t hold on too tight; you should just let it happen’

Jacket and trousers, both Bode

‘I bombed an audition for (1997 film) Good Will Hunting because I’d never acted before and he said, “you need to go to acting school, you’re not ready”,’ Rex explains. ‘Twenty-five years later, he sees me doing press for Red Rocket and reaches out to me, like, “Simon, this is so cool for you”. So, I think in a fun, full circle way it would be cool to work with Gus Van Sant a quarter of a century later. We’ve been discussing maybe doing something one day, so who knows.’

To fully appreciate the significance of the actor’s current success, it’s necessary to go back to those heady early days in the 1990s when Rex – the only child of 1970s San Francisco Bay Area hippies Paul and Zoe Cutright – moved to New York on a whim after being spotted by a model casting director. ‘Those were simpler times. Pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-cell phones... I miss those days,’ he laughs, recalling the catwalk shows that paved the way for his big break as an MTV VJ in 1995. 

‘It was a very fun time to be in New York. I was good friends with Mark Ronson and he’d be DJing at the coolest clubs. I look back on those days as carefree times when I wasn’t really thinking about the future or staying in good shape; when you’re young, you can go out drinking all night and go to work the next day. Now I’m older, I’m fully aware of my age. I’m not going out partying anymore. I’m not chasing girls. I’m not chasing anything.’

By the end of the decade, Rex – having taken Gus Van Sant’s advice to do acting classes – moved to Los Angeles to pursue TV and film work, making his money predominantly from the popular Scary Movie franchise. But as a jobbing actor there was a lot of downtime. That’s how he ended up reinventing himself as the rapper Dirt Nasty in the 2000s.

'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House
'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House

It started as a hobby, as well as a bit of a laugh, after his friend, the Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody, taught him how to produce beats. ‘I was rapping about really juvenile stuff – partying and drugs,’ he says, visibly cringing. ‘It was definitely a character I played, but people couldn’t separate the persona from the real person.’ Before long, Rex – along with fellow rappers Mickey Avalon and Andre Legacy – signed to Interscope Records and were touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

‘I remember my agent called me and was like, “hey, we have an audition for you”, and I was like, “I’m in Poland with the Chili Peppers”, and he’s like, “what are you talking about?” I guess the narrative here is that I’m an agent’s worst nightmare,’ he laughs. 

‘I made that choice. I wanted to experience that life. I went on the road and did the rock star thing, but then I realised years into it, “I don’t want to be doing this until I’m 70, but I could have acted until 70... did I f**k up?”.’

Does he wish he had done anything differently? ‘That’s an interesting question. But if anything had been different, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now.’ Neither is he bothered when anyone mentions the ill-advised porn videos he shot to pay the rent when he was just 18 (making his role in Red Rocket surprisingly meta). ‘It just rolls right off my shoulder at this point,’ he shrugs. 

'I’ll get a phone call that Spielberg wants me to audition and I just laugh’ | Soho House

There was never a grand plan. ‘Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but I’m a big fan of having no plans and life will surprise you. When I was younger, I would have been more after the money or the notoriety or the attention. Once I didn’t care about those things and I moved to the desert, it came to me,’ he explains.

‘I think it’s a good life lesson that sometimes you shouldn’t hold on too tight; you should just let it happen. I think I’ve put in the work over all these years that now it’s time. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, it just feels right, like it was always meant to be this way.’

It says a lot about Rex that he is still friends with the same people from back in the day, like Mark Ronson (‘I just saw him last weekend’), Paris Hilton (who he was once linked to), and Charlie Sheen (who he met on the set of Scary Movie). ‘I remember meeting Paris in LA at a club on roller skates; she was this caricature. Then I got to know her and I was like, “she’s really funny and really cool”, and we’ve been friends ever since. She is someone who is very misunderstood. Not unlike Charlie Sheen who is very intelligent and thoughtful, and sweet.’

Rex must have more than a few stories of his own. Has he ever thought about writing a memoir? ‘Years ago, I started writing down crazy stuff that had happened in my life. So many of my stories are about celebrities I’ve hung out with. But I don’t want to be a rat. I’ll wait until everyone is dead. We’ve got a good 20 years or so left,’ he smiles. ‘I’m just kidding.’

Rex was right. He is the same guy, he’s just in a different league these days. And he’s certainly having the last laugh. 

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