Sean Baker: ‘Suitcase pimps live off female talent in the adult film world’

The American director’s latest film, Red Rocket, is a ‘roller-coaster of tones and ethics’

Simon Rex and Suzanna Son in Red Rocket (2021)

Sean Baker cuts a unique figure in American cinema. His films concern the marginalised, the disenfranchised and the downright tragic, carefully framed with dignity, understanding and – oh, yes – merriment. It’s kitchen sink but not as you know it. The kinetic, dynamic ne’er-do-wells who inhabit Baker’s milieu are not figures of fun, but they are figures who frequently have fun. In this spirit, the filmmaker hangs out with the communities he depicts.

Film-maker Sean Baker at his home in Los Angeles. Photograph: Emily Berl/The New York Times

“I think my films are a reaction to what I’m not seeing enough of in film and television, and also against the representation that does exist out there already,” says the writer-director. “I know if I was portrayed in the ways I see, I wouldn’t be happy with that kind of representation. There’s a stigma that’s applied – whether it’s the underground economy, sex work, homelessness, drug use or just poverty in general – to marginalised people. The more stories that are told about marginalised people and the more stories that are told in a way in which there are universal themes so that people can connect with these stories wherever you are around the world, the better. I think that just helps chip away at the stigma. How many stories have we seen about white suburbia, white metropolitan areas, or New York and LA? We’ve seen these people a million times, but we never see the others. I hope that I’m striving to change that.”

Suitcase pimps are often performers themselves, but they're also usually the boyfriend, partner, husband, manager of female talent

Red Rocket, Baker’s seventh feature film, is typical of the film-maker’s milieu. Long-time fans will recall Take Out (2008), in which a Chinese immigrant has only one day left to come up with the money to cover his smuggling debt, and Prince of Broadway, a drama concerning a Ghanaian immigrant selling knock-off merchandise in Manhattan. Tangerine, Baker’s 2015 breakthrough hit, concerns transgender women hustling around Hollywood. Red Rocket was inspired by Baker’s research into the grim business of pornography for his 2012 feature Starlet and by that industry’s “suitcase pimp” phenomenon.

“When I was on the set of Starlet 10 years ago I remember my director of photography at the time saying, ‘Hey, there’s a whole other movie with one of these guys,’ ” says Baker. “And I completely agreed. We were meeting these gentlemen. A handful of them that were considered suitcase pimps and suddenly realising there was even a term applied to them. And an archetype that exists. And I realised afterwards, reading about Jenna Jameson, a porn actress that became a really big star, that she mentioned suitcase pimps in her autobiography. Her first boyfriend that brought her into the industry was considered a suitcase pimp. These men live off of female talent in the adult film world. So they’re often performers themselves, but they’re also usually the boyfriend, partner, husband, manager of female talent. And this was an archetype that I was very interested in some day exploring and doing a character study on because I found them and their way of thinking just very captivating and compelling. So that idea was just there on the back burner for ever.”


As Red Rocket opens, Simon Rex’s Mikey Saber, a former porn star, is running away from some unnamed terror towards his hometown of Texas City. He just about ingratiates himself with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), and local weed dealer Leondria (Judy Hill), when he falls for 17-year-old doughnut shop employee named Strawberry (Suzanna Son). We say falls for: we mean he has convinced her that she should run away to LA with him and become a porn star in his projects.

We also had consultants on the film – five sex workers, four of them being from the adult film industry – and each one of them said, 'We want her to have agency'

The film treads a delicate line, simultaneously lampooning Mikey’s predatory male gaze while allowing Strawberry her own, albeit misguided agency.

“I have to have faith that this is the most honest way of approaching the subject matter,” says Baker. “I mean, the fact that I’m making a film about this man, and this particular time in his life, means that, yes, there is a certain amount of judgment. But I try for the most part to stay objective. And I had to make the decision to actually try to get the audience in his head a little bit. And how do I do that without condoning his behaviour? It was a balancing act. I knew that tackling this sort of subject matter in this day and age, you’re very aware of how it will be perceived in the multiple ways it will be perceived. From the very beginning we’re calling it a roller-coaster of tones and ethics. That’s why we have a roller-coaster scene in the film. It’s literally like a visual metaphor of what we were doing. We could have had a simple black-and-white approach and make the main character a big bad wolf. We’ve seen that a million times. I wanted to make something that was way more complex because life is way more complex. And that also stems from well, first off Susie [Suzanna Son] herself. Her instincts are impressive. She was the one who was saying, ‘I want this character to be fully dimensional.’ Maybe Strawberry is using Mikey as much as Mikey’s using Strawberry. We also had consultants on the film – five sex workers, four of them being from the adult film industry – and each one of them said, ‘We want her to have agency.’”

It’s a tour-de-force performance from Simon Rex, who got his showbusiness start as an adult performer in the mid-1990s before becoming one of MTV’s name stars. Since then Rex has been nightclub investor, the star of later Scary Movie instalments, a rapper, and Paris Hilton’s sometime boyfriend, before settling off-grid in Joshua Tree. Before Red Rocket brought him to Cannes, Rex was offered $70,000 to “lie about dating Meghan Markle”, his former co-star. He turned down at least two British tabloids. The talented ensemble around Rex, meanwhile, are typical of Baker’s casting process. Baker cast Brittney Rodriguez, a refinery worker, when she was walking her dog around Texas City, where the film is shot. The director met Brenda Deiss when she asked for jump cables for her car. He found Ethan Darbone, who plays Mickey’s neighbour Lonnie, at the local community college.

“He was wonderful,” says Baker. “I mean, he was absolutely a pleasure to work with. I want to try to figure out how to work with him again. Because he’s not only professional and obviously a wonderful actor, but he’s also just a fun guy to hang out with. He had no diva qualities in any way, shape or form. We got him to drive himself to Texas because this was one of those productions where we had very little money and he was being fed like pizza every day and was okay with it. He was really patient having to work with first-timers; he was always there for them. And his comedic improvisation is impeccable. And I relied on that. I said, you know, I encourage improv. And if you look at the script we wrote, compared to the final product, and you broke down the dialogue, you would see that it ends up being about 25 per cent comes from the actors. And Simon delivered even more.”

Simon Rex and Suzanna Son in Red Rocket (2021)

It’s been five years since The Florida Project, a child-centred drama concerning the long-term residency hotels situated in and around Orlando’s Walt Disney World, became the hottest ticket at the Cannes Film Festival. That film earned Willem Dafoe a nomination for the Academy Award for best supporting actor. Baker might have parlayed that success into bigger budgets and studio offers. In fact, Red Rocket, a contender in Cannes’ official competition last year, was made on an even smaller budget than its predecessor.

I want to be able to cast whoever I want to cast. Even after working with Willem, if it doesn't fit with the film, I'd rather not cast an A-lister

“It was more exciting to be back there in the main competition,” says Baker. “It was surreal that I was in competition with directors who directly influenced Red Rocket, like Paul Verhoeven and Bruno Dumont. I think maybe I’ve been in talks for big projects. But I’ve never got any official offers from Marvel or anything like that. I’m not really sure. I’ve kind of put myself in a place when I’ve been kind of vocal about those kinds of films. So it’s not like they’re knocking at my door. I think they know I want to produce on my own. And I want to own the IP. I want to have the final cut. And I want to be able to cast whoever I want to cast. Even after working with Willem, if it doesn’t fit with the film, I’d rather not cast an A-lister. And I know that that obviously affects box office, and that’s Hollywood when it comes down to it. It’s all about the bottom dollar. I think I’m appreciated in that world. It’s just not for me.”

He laughs: “But I can’t wait to see The Batman this weekend.”

Red Rocket opens March 11th