Passers-by and Professionals Take Big Roles in Sean Baker’s Films

leading man “Red Rocket” He made his name as a comic rapper and an MTV video jockey. His character’s wife is played by a long-time theater actress with almost no film experience. And among the supporting cast are the former owner of a New Orleans bar and a downsized refinery worker. A woman won a role after her car broke down and she needed the jump.

For the film’s director, Sean Baker, this unconventional approach to casting is nothing new. The tradition of bringing together actors with different levels of experience goes back to the ultra-low budget movie from 2004. “Eject,” Acting-trained star Charles Jang was surrounded by non-professionals. Application continued “The Florida Project” (2017), the film examining poverty in the shadow of Disney World and garnering an Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe. But Dafoe wasn’t the lead; She was a child actor named Brooklynn Prince who mostly appeared in commercials. And Bria Vinaite, who played the girl’s mother, then got the role. Baker spotted her presence on Instagram.

Since “Take Out” (directed by regular colleague Shih-Ching Tsou), Baker has been drawn to what he calls the chemistry of bringing artists from diverse backgrounds together. He said a seasoned actor might have a way of influencing the layman; the naivete of non-professionals infects an experienced player.

“I think when people got to know Willem Dafoe on ‘Project Florida,’ they saw that it really stood out,” Baker said. “I’ve been doing this all along.”

Still, it never brought together such an eclectic cast as in “Red Rocket,” which hit theaters on December 10. The movie is about Mikey Saber (Simon Rex, also known for his comic book alter ego), an extremely narcissistic Los Angeles porn star. Ego, Dirt Nasty), who returned to his hometown on the Texas Gulf Coast and crashed with his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). As a liability on her resume job hunt, she begins selling drugs to Leondria (Judy Hill), who controls the local marijuana trade, and starts grooming Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a barely legal donut shop employee for the hardcore movie. industry before asking if you’re interested.

The actors are a mix of professionals who Baker kicked out of the street and somewhat removed from their wheelhouses. Baker said he has followed Rex’s career since the 1990s, and Rex’s appearance in the satire. “Bodied” convinced him that the actor could take on a dramatic role. Elrod, a Brooklyn-based theater actor, played Off Broadway, especially in a one-woman play. “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” but she had never had a major movie role before. “I was kind of learning as I went myself,” he said.

Baker and his wife and close collaborator, Samantha Quan, approached Son to potentially audition for a day at a Los Angeles movie theater in 2018. The son was 22 at the time and had studied music and theater in college. Two years later they had a role for him.

As for Hill, Baker was impressed by her on-camera comfort in the documentary. “What Will You Do When The World Is Burning?” This partly describes his efforts to retain the bar he manages in New Orleans. Hill said the film’s director, Roberto Minervini, tied them together. And Deiss was a former secretary Baker met when he had a car problem. “I took this opportunity to get to know him as he jumped over his car,” she said, “and finally, just before I drive, offer him the part.”

Walking her dog one day for Brittney Rodriguez Walking the red carpet in Cannes. Baker approached Rodriguez, who plays Leondria’s daughter and enforcer June, while she was in Port Arthur, Texas, with Chihuahua, Rico. When the company downsized due to the pandemic, he lost his job at a refinery where he built a wharf. Rodriguez remembered Baker handing him a card through the car window. He wrote to her after watching “The Florida Project.” Baker said that after he started working with Rodriguez, he not only expanded the episode of June, but also asked him for advice on regional accuracy.

“’The helmets do that? Would they say that? Help us with a line here,'” Baker said. “Working with an actor from where you focus can be helpful on many levels.” Rodriguez is now starring in a short film.

Baker likened street acting to speed dating, “because you’re starting to get to know the person and you need to get that person to trust you as well,” he said, adding that he usually pursues hopes that he’s really sure of. “A lot comes out in the first 30 seconds you talk to them. So either you’re at work and keep pushing, or you just give up.”

But it can also be weird, said the director. After his first two films, he carried DVDs of his films. Distributing them “instantly legitimizes me”. Now to potential players, “’Hey, can you Google me? Can you IMDb me?’ He takes an extra small step, and in that little moment, yes, it’s a little scary sometimes.”

For Baker, scripting, location exploration, and casting work together, and some aspects of his characters are taken from life. For example, Strawberry’s name is, Son’s Instagram page. A method that has worked before. Baker and his regular co-writer Chris Bergoch meet for the first time with the eventual star of their movie, Mya Taylor. “Mandarin,” A comedy about sex workers researching for the project at Christmas. He introduced them to his co-star Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Taylor would go on to win the Independent Spirit Award.

Taylor remembers that first meeting: “I think she just hung around and found someone who was really willing to chat with her.”

Quan, the casting and acting coach who produced on “Red Rocket,” said part of keeping the cast comfortable was spending time with them during pre-production; The actors on “Project Florida” rehearsed and prepped with the producers about a month before shooting, and the main cast of “Red Rocket” worked and socialized together in Texas for over a week before the cameras came on. Baker added that the small crew on “Red Rocket” helps fuel this dynamic. Baker also serves as his own editor, which gives him an added level of control over performances.

He is aware that people from different walks of life can expect different things from the film. Some, like the Son He was added to the cast of the HBO series The Idol. and Taylor, who plans to work with Baker on the TV version of “Tangerine,” has acting goals.

Others see the performance as a one-off, and their commitment to a movie can vary. Partly because of her experience of losing actors in her movie, she writes certain roles that can be expanded or dropped depending on how things are going, Baker said. “Prince of Broadway” and even minor roles in “The Florida Project.”

Appearing in nearly every scene, Rex gives a jaw-dropping, stellar performance as Mikey. Although his past contains a brush with porn – a fleeting, hopeless episode from his teenage years, According to Vulture – both Rex and Baker say there is no meta-intention to casting. “Part of the subtext,” Rex said, “Mikey could have been a million things and he could have been that kind of person.”

But there’s at least a hint of documentary element in Rex’s portrayal of a failed actor. “It would be fair to say that I fluctuated on the B, C or D list in Los Angeles depending on when it happened,” he said. “I’ve always been happy to be on the list.”

But for him, “Red Rocket” was “very different because it is appreciated by moviegoers, real film critics and festivals,” he said, adding that “for the first time in my life, I really see myself as an actor.”

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