Ten days after she moved to Los Angeles, Suzanna Son was wearing a red dress outside a movie theater after having watched Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Then, something all too Hollywood happened. Sean Baker, the auteur director of Tangerine and The Florida Project, noticed her. He gave her a scrap of paper with his email on it and told her to be in touch. Three years later, she was driving to Texas to star in her first feature-length film, Red Rocket, a film as bold and fast-talking as an eight-ball of cocaine that’s produced by A24 and also stars Simon Rex of MTV VJ fame.
Son, 26, plays Strawberry, a 17-year-old who works at a doughnut shop in Texas City, Texas where she meets Mikey Saber, a washed-up, down-on-his-luck former porn star who moves back to his hometown. The two have an affair in typical Sean Baker fashion: amid saturated colors, long shots of empty roads, colorful locals, and nuanced power dynamics. Mikey sees Strawberry’s porn star potential; she sees in him a way out of south Texas.
It’s hard to believe Red Rocket is Son’s first feature film. Over Zoom, she speaks like an accidental ingenue, with a cadence that’s part theater kid enunciation, part Mid-Atlantic accent of old movie stars. She’s precise and forthcoming, and also nervous, like she hasn’t yet caught up with the success she’s about to experience, or still in disbelief that a dream she wanted so badly actually came true. “I always had this huge fear that I’d be on my deathbed like, ‘Sean Baker’s going to reach out to me,’ and still have that hope and it would never go away,” Son told NYLON. “It’s still unbelievable to me.” And it’s only the beginning: Up next for Son is the Weeknd’s upcoming HBO series The Idol, where she’ll star alongside Lily-Rose Depp.
NYLON spoke with Son ahead of the release of Red Rocket, about her wistful cover of *NYSNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” about working with Simon Rex, and about why she thinks her character holds all the power.
I feel really lucky to talk to you at this point in your career because I feel like you’re about to blow up? Is it weird to have people telling you that?
I block it out of my mind; I dissociate. That’s very flattering, thank you.
Do you feel like your life has changed at all so far?
In great ways. I feel like I can finally relax now because I'm where I’m supposed to be. I’ve wanted this for so long. I feel relief and good stress, happy stress.
Can you talk a little bit about how you got to this point? I’m curious when you started acting. I know this is your first feature film and there’s an interesting story around meeting Sean Baker.
I was always very shy as a kid, but very drawn to performing and obsessed with piano and dance, so that’s what first got me into it. Piano’s nice because you don’t have to look at people and your back is sort of to them and I think there was part of me that wanted to act and I would try to, but I was so shy and I just couldn’t commit to anything. Even in high school, I’d do the musicals and get the lead part of the singing, like Pirates of Penzance, I was Mabel but the acting was so lacking and it wasn’t until college that I finally decided to go for it and dare to suck and make mistakes and learn. I’m still terrified, but I do it anyway, because I’d rather do it scared than not do it at all, so I suppose that means it’s a good thing.
I read you were going to see a Gus Van Sant film and Sean Baker came up to you. What happened? What was that like?
I’d just moved to LA hoping that something cool would happen or, I don’t know, anything, and I went to that movie theater and Sean Baker and his partner came up to me afterwards and I couldn't recognize him from his face and when he said his name and The Florida Project, I instantly knew. He gave me his email on a piece of paper that I still have. I think it took like two and a half, three years to actually get the audition and get the part, but once I did it was very fast, drove to Texas. It was a wait until it wasn’t, and the patience paid off I guess.
What did you do in the meantime?
I was puttering around, sending in self-tapes, emailing agencies saying, “Will you sign me?” but that’s not going to go anywhere. I was just puttering around really.
Did you think that anything would actually come from that meeting?
I really hoped and I always had this huge fear that I’d be on my deathbed like, “Sean Baker’s going to reach out to me,” and still have that hope and it would never go away.
How does it feel to have a first film in which you’re the lead in that is so raw and bold and asks so much of you? How did you begin to kind of undertake the challenge of this role?
It’s still unbelievable to me and it’s so beautiful that it’s on film and I’ll be captured that way forever. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m still processing it all, I think.
Are there any characters that you took inspiration from in trying to figure out how to play this role?
A little bit of Goldie Hawn from Sugarland Express. I didn’t try to look too much at other characters. I didn’t want to get stuck in a pattern or something. That, and diving into the script.
When you got your hands on the script, what were your initial thoughts?
I was laughing out loud. It’s hilarious. I was so excited to see how Sean was going to shoot it because I knew it’d be beautiful.
Can you talk about what it was like working with Simon? Did you know him as an MTV VJ at all?
No, but I’d seen his videos on Instagram because he’s quite funny and yeah working with him is quite funny. We’re still friends. I think of him like a big brother and he’s giving me advice for this time in my life. He’s one of the good ones, truly.
I’m curious about Strawberry’s cover of “Bye Bye Bye.” It’s such a great moment in the film. Did you arrange it or have anything to do with the cover itself?
No, I had only received that mp3 file eight hours before we started shooting and bought a piano at Guitar Center 14 hours before that. Sean said, “Can you learn this to the best of your ability?” I think.
And you have a lot of musical training as well, right?
I didn’t finish college, but yeah I guess.
I felt like what was so cool is that it felt like it gave it a different tone than the original song. There’s something wistful and melancholy about it. Is that something you wanted to convey on purpose?
I wanted to give it a softness, a rawness. I wanted the audience to decide if it was happy or sad.
Your character is so naive, but so confident and really bold and smart. Do you think she’s aware that Mikey is using her and is she using him?
She’s super aware of it. She waited on that roller coaster to tell him that because she’s screwing him as much as he’s screwing her. And truly, he’s the naive one. She’s two steps ahead. She might like to play that she is a little bit coy and shy and young, but that’s her weapon. She weaponizes her cuteness.
What did you think of the ending?
Hmm the ending, I like it. It’s like a fantasy, isn’t it? A bit of a dream. It has me so curious about what happens to Strawberry next. Does she go to LA? Does she leave Mikey? Something’s good in her future, I just don’t know what.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.