How Simon Rex Went from MTV VJ to Receiving Praises from Leonardo DiCaprio for 'Red Rocket'

"After seeing this movie, I now believe in myself more," Simon Rex tells PEOPLE about his new film Red Rocket, for which he has earned awards season buzz for his performance

simon rex
Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Simon Rex didn't see awards attention in his future.

The 47-year-old star has always believed in himself, but his movie career didn't take off in the same way his late-'90s MTV VJ gig did or modeling before that. Not to mention his decidedly irreverent rap career as Dirt Nasty. (Does his song "My D---" ring a bell?)

"In the last decade or so, I think I kind of fizzled, and that's my own fault," Rex tells PEOPLE. "I went off and did a music career and turned my back on Hollywood for a while. Quite honestly, I never wanted to be an actor, it kind of fell in my lap. I had success when I was young but I never really felt like an actor. Even when I was working a lot, I'd be around these other actors like, 'I'm not one of them. I don't feel like one of these actors. I just am a guy who got lucky and is here, and I'm just playing around.' "

In his new movie Red Rocket, that imposter syndrome appears to have fully faded. The actor plays Mikey, a burnt-out adult film star who returns to his hometown and his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) after hitting rock bottom, only to find his form of hope in a young woman with a bright future named Strawberry (Suzanna Son).

Rex carries the dark comedy for its entire run time, clearly giving it his all — and scoring accolades and praise from A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio because of that commitment.

"After seeing this movie, I now believe in myself more. I don't think I ever had a platform like this, a beautiful art house, indie, incredible film like this. I never had that before," he says of the film, directed by The Florida Project filmmaker Sean Baker.

simon rex
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At the 2021 Gotham Awards last month, Rex says Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix approached him to congratulate him on Red Rocket and the buzz surrounding the film.

"The highlight was when Joaquin Phoenix came up to me, which was almost better than winning an award. He's arguably the best actor on the planet. He walks by and he notices me, and I don't even say hi because I just don't want to bother anyone. He kneels over to me and he's like, 'Hey man, I just wanted to say, I'm so happy for you. I'm hearing so many good things, congratulations. I heard you killed it.' He basically just gave me props."

He adds, "And, not to drop names, but it's kind of the same thing that happened to me in L.A. the other night. I was out on Halloween, and Leonardo DiCaprio runs up on me, who I kind of know just from being out, and he says the same thing. He comes up in my ear and he's like, 'Dude, everyone's talking about your movie, so happy for you. Congrats, can't wait to see it.' "

"To get that co-sign from the two best actors on the planet is surreal and weird," says Rex. "It's cool, because people are rooting for me, I didn't think this was going to happen. The whole thing's bizarre."

simon rex
Simon Rex at the MTV Movie Awards in June 1996. Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

While he doesn't discredit his popular stints in sitcoms like What I Like About You and gross-out comedies like Scary Movie 3, Rex is happy to be able to "bring some real acting chops and show some vulnerability" in Red Rocket.

"It's just a different thing," he says, adding in defense of the brand of comedies from his résumé, "I think those movies need to come back, actually. We've lost those comedies that are just so silly and fun, and sort of just put your brain under your seat for an hour and a half and you don't have to think too much. Everything's gotten so serious, and comedies are hard. That's why I love Red Rocket, because it is a comedy but it's also got some real dark, serious s---. It's got a lot of range. But yeah, we need more comedies."

Simon Rex accepts the Spotlight Award onstage during the 24th SCAD Savannah Film Festival on October 26, 2021 in Savannah, Georgia.
Simon Rex accepts the Spotlight Award onstage during the 24th SCAD Savannah Film Festival on Oct. 26, 2021, in Savannah, Georgia. Paras Griffin/Getty

Rex says he was happy to bare all of himself (literally and figuratively) in the film since, in his mind, he "really had nothing to lose."

"It was actually kind of cathartic and therapeutic. I didn't care how I looked. I wasn't as vain as maybe I was in the past about my looks, I just wanted to look dirty and sweaty and grimy, and it wasn't about looking cute," he explains. "No one really took me too seriously [before this], and that's okay; I don't take myself that seriously."

How is he handling being in the mix for awards season? "Part of it scares the s--- out of me, because it's just like, oh God, what comes with that is another level of fame," he admits. "I still want to be able to go to the store and not be harassed all the time. So it's partially scary, partially flattering and partially funny to me."

Red Rocket is now playing in select theaters.

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