It’s not always easy to place an actor you recognize in a movie, but it’s even more challenging when that actor turns out to be recognizable from their “work” in a documentary. Judy Hill first made an impression when she appeared in Roberto Minervini’s 2018 nonfiction film What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, which followed her and her community in the aftermath of Trump’s election and the murders of several Black people in the South in 2017. A moving portrait of people striving for justice and peace, it also revealed the extraordinary presence that Hill naturally possesses—in the film’s most stirring and complex scene, she tearfully shares her own difficult past to help a young woman with an addiction, and a conversation that began as a painful confession turns into an embrace. So it both is and isn’t surprising that Sean Baker cast her in his latest film, Red Rocket. Known for his predilection for raw, new talent, Baker reached out to Hill after seeing her in Minervini’s film; soon after, she was playing a drug dealer in a movie about a washed-up porn star returning to his native Texas City.
As is typical of Baker’s films, the result is refreshing and odd. The main protagonist, Mikey Saber, is played by professional actor and entertainer Simon Rex, who’s best known for his appearances in the Scary Movie franchise, his turns on MTV, and his dalliances with the adult film industry. Although he’s acting, he also brings real-life experience to the character. Besides Rex, however, Red Rocket is populated by first-timers who are at once themselves and portraying a character. Hill plays Mikey’s boss, for whom Mikey sells weed, just like he did before his departure for Hollywood years prior. As in Minervini’s film (and, therefore, in her life), she is a businesswoman and a beloved figure in her neighborhood, and her naturalism helps build the film’s uplifting and absurdist tone: juxtaposed with Mikey’s wild energy and incompetence, her ease and authenticity make Mikey seem real and yet outside the norm. Her presence, in both senses of the word, enhances the suspension of disbelief.
Film to film, Baker has progressed toward a more narrative-driven and entertaining kind of cinema, but from the beginning, he’s always directed his camera toward people living on the margins. “I think it’s a reaction to what I’m not seeing enough of in U.S. film and TV, and also, it’s my way of exploring, of discovering my own country,” he said during a Q&A at the Viennale earlier this year. From documenting the immigrant experience in 2004’s Take Out to the lives of NYC counterfeiters in Prince of Broadway to producing a nuanced story centered on Black trans sex workers with Tangerine, Baker has achieved a level of Hollywood prestige by making films about traditionally overlooked groups. And instead of casting well-known faces to portray the members in those groups, he’s leaned on people who actually belong to them in real life, achieving an unusual level of authenticity in the process.
In his earlier films, Baker’s usage of non-actors brought him even closer to a documentary style. While Take Out, about a Chinese immigrant delivering Chinese food around Manhattan, is hard to find, its making and principles are closely related to Baker’s following NYC-set film. The protagonists of Prince of Broadway (2008) were all portrayed by non-professionals, and its plot was directly inspired by them and their real lives. Ghanaian Lucky (Prince Adu) makes a living in New York City by selling counterfeit luxury bags and sneakers, and finds his life upended when an ex-girlfriend tells him he’s the father of her child. With little means and handling the camera himself, Baker achieves a similar sense of urban chaos that the Safdie brothers did in Good Time and Uncut Gems, but with more heart and hope for his characters. That kindness extends to his performers too: They are always leading the way, in control perhaps not of their destiny but at least of their decisions. Realism isn’t achieved at the cost of the actors’ sense of themselves but rather through, and thanks to, it.
With its unpredictability and concentration of people, New York City is a perfect setting for Baker’s experiential cinema: You almost don’t need a script, things just happen on their own. This pandemonium recurs throughout Baker’s work, continuing in 2012’s Starlet, in which the quieter streets of Los Angeles belie a more hidden mess. When 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) finds $10,000 hidden in a thermos she bought at a yard sale, she decides to pay back Sadie (Besedka Johnson), the old woman who sold it to her, in any way she can, which inevitably leads to confusion. While Hemingway is an actress, Johnson was not, and the script requires her almost solely to react to what her costar does: Sadie has no idea why this young woman suddenly insists on driving her to the grocery store and joining her for bingo on Friday nights, and the camaraderie that very slowly builds between them appears all the more genuine because it is made of small gestures, discreet moments when Johnson lets her guard down a little and Hemingway finds her way into her world. The audience is watching a relationship evolve, in a story but also in real time.
All of Baker’s films climax with a chaotic scene of conflict and revelation, where actors often improvise and inject their own anxiety and disorientation into their performances. Starlet comes to a head when Jane’s broke housemate Melissa (Stella Maeve, an actress) confronts her friend about spending all the money she found on plane tickets for herself and Sadie, and the screaming match that unfolds seems uncomfortably real. Baker’s following film and breakout hit, Tangerine (2015), meanwhile, starts with a conflict, or rather with a protagonist determined to have one, and the audience is left waiting for the impending blowout. Led by first-time actresses Mya Taylor in the role of Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodrigez as Sin-Dee, the film has the quality of a dramatic Instagram Story (or series of Stories), years before Zola. Shooting on three iPhone 5s, Baker (again the film’s cinematographer, together with Radium Cheung) translates the energy and anger that drive Sin-Dee with dynamic tracking shots, diving into the scene and coming up close to his characters to capture their telling facial expressions as well as Los Angeles’s mad rhythm. The phones’ lenses, combined with an anamorphic adapter, give the film a digital and fluid quality that fits with the actors’ charisma and quick wit, and an almost fish-eye look that helps equalize the performances of actors and non-actors alike: They all appear caught up together in this mad fishbowl, twirling around each other more or less aggressively.
When the big face-off does occur, actors and first-timers all work together in a cacophony of American slang and Armenian shouts: Sin-Dee and her boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), are joined by taxi driver Razmik, played by Baker regular Karren Karagulian. With his De Niro–like face and his accent, Karagulian feels realer than the real thing, always at ease when acting opposite non-professionals and subtly helping them do their best work by doing his. Ransone, too, is a recurring cast member, and grounds the film with his almost parodic performance.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest actor that Baker has ever worked with may also be the least “Hollywood” performer in the industry. In 2017’s The Florida Project, Baker cast Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the manager of a motel right outside Walt Disney World, where low-income residents live for weeks or months at a time. Dafoe acts as the film’s anchor as he fixes faulty appliances and keeps an eye on the misbehaving children who live on the premises, played by non-actors. The film’s breakout star, Brooklynn Prince, playing Moonee, had acted before, but being only 6 at the time of shooting, she was still natural and unchanged by years of training. Like a more modern and American version of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, The Florida Project focuses on children and their hijinks, letting their spontaneity enrich each narrative beat. The relationships between the kids and their parents also take center stage, in particular the one between Moonee and her young mother, Halley, played by newcomer Bria Vinaite. In her scenes opposite Dafoe, Vinaite stands her ground and holds our attention as well as his, and seeing Dafoe react to her never gets boring. Every moment is exciting.
As Baker’s films get funnier and higher in production value, he’s maintained his awareness and interest in social reality. Red Rocket continues Baker’s exploration of the lives of sex workers, in particular porn actors, and studies them with curiosity and understanding. Mikey brags about his now-defunct career because it gave him a sense of accomplishment and identity, and took him far away from Texas. Forced to go back to live with his estranged wife, Lexi (an exceptional Bree Elrod, whose only other credit is as “female patient” in Scorsese’s Shutter Island), he’s facing up another reality. Baker also continues to imbue his work with realism through his casting, not only with Rex but also with Brenda Deiss, an elderly non-actor with an emaciated physique who plays Lexi’s mother, Lil. Hiring a Hollywood actor for that part would have required some extensive makeup work, but more to the point, it simply wouldn’t have worked. Deiss’s mannerisms and spaced-out attitude make her memorable and credible. In her body and its movements, we see her history, the same way the unusual location of Texas City evokes a story of poverty, struggle, and isolation.
Casting real people to play versions of themselves is the opposite of relying on method acting: There’s no life experience to gain, only to channel. It also allows the professional actors Baker does cast to do something other than pretend to be who they’re not; liberated from the need to reinvent themselves, they can act in the literal sense and live in the present moment with their cocreators, reacting to their personalities authentically and being inspired by them as people, rather than as characters. The results can be perplexing, and ethical questions arise, but they’re only alternatives to the usual ones we have about representation and performance. Who should play the outcasts in films about outcasts? Sean Baker’s answer to that question differs from that of his peers, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.