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Suzanna Son, a 26-year-old from Washington state, has been garnering considerable acclaim — and best supporting actress Oscar buzz — since July’s Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of Lolita-like “Strawberry,” a high schooler who works in a donut shop and becomes involved with a has-been porn star (Simon Rex), in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket. Son had never previously appeared in a feature film, but THR’s David Rooney, in his review of the film, called her “incandescent.” That she is, never more so than during a rendition of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” that will forever change the way one thinks about that tune. Here, Son reflects on her journey to the brink of stardom.
What is it like as more people catch up with Red Rocket at film festivals en route to its Dec. 10 release?
When I go to festivals, I’m in this little bubble where everyone knows who I am and they recognize me and it’s insane. I feel famous for a second, and it scares me.
Where were you born and raised? And what did your folks do for a living?
I was born in Hamilton, Montana, but I grew up in Washington state, moving around a lot on different farms with my mom, who worked in the restaurant business.
Growing up, what did you want to do with your life?
I went to Cornish College of the Arts and first majored in classical music, so I was singing a lot of opera and Italian arias and drowning in music theory. I like music, but I’d hear the kids in the hallway for musical theater, and they’d get to dance and take ballet, and I was like, “Wow, that could be my thing.”
At what point did you move to LA?
I didn’t graduate college; I left like Brendan Fraser did — he went to the same college. My heart was still really interested in dance, and I hadn’t seen any of the world yet, so I went to New Zealand and studied Maori dance — I didn’t wear shoes for six months. Then I came back to Seattle and realized, “Holy cow, there’s not a lot here for me, and I love the sunshine, so let’s just go to LA.” I didn’t have any auditions or management or direction. I moved on the 4th of July, three or four years ago. Then I was just trying so hard to get an audition for anything, but it’s hard when no one knows who you are, so I was mostly just puttering around and teaching swimming lessons to little kids.
How did Sean Baker become aware of you?
I had just moved to LA — I’d only been there nine or 10 days — and I wanted to go to the movie theater to see He Won’t Get Very Far on Foot. I’d never been downtown, and I was sitting outside admiring this Botox place — it had neon lights — and holding my friend’s cigarette, wearing a red dress, pouting at this Botox center place. Sean walks up to me and says, “Hey, my name’s Sean Baker.” I said, “Oh, my God, The Florida Project? Huge fan!” He said, “Are you an actor? Because I’m doing something right now in Vancouver. I don’t know if it’s right for you, but we want to save your information for a project in the future. We really like your look.” He gave me a piece of paper with his email on it, which I have to this day.
But it was two years before you next heard from him?
Yes. I was dating this young man and he says, “What do you want to watch on TV tonight?” I’m like, “Oh, can we watch The Florida Project again? I’ve been thinking about Sean.” And he goes, “It’s been two and a half years since you heard from him. I think you should start auditioning for other things. Start putting your eggs in a different basket.” And I was like, “Gosh, you’re probably right. It’s probably not going to happen.” And then eight hours later, I open my phone and have a message from Sean asking me to audition. I mean, I have goosebumps talking about it. Three days later I was cast.
How did you figure out who Strawberry is?
I just dove into the script and Sean told me to watch Goldie Hawn in Sugarland Express.
Strawberry is meant to be 17, the age of consent in Texas. You look that young, but are, in fact, 26 …
I’ve always looked very young. When I was in driver’s ed, I had a car seat because I didn’t weigh 80 pounds yet. It used to piss me off — I used to be such an angry, short, young-looking person. Like, I would be given kids menus and just throw a fit. But now I think it’s a blessing. I’m like, “I wish I was 19!”
What was the most intimidating part of the job?
The singing scene. That was harder than any sex scene — although that was on my first day, too, because we only had that house for one day, so we needed to do all the shots. What better way to break the ice with Simon [Rex, her co-star] than, “Hey, let’s have a sex scene at seven in the morning!”
You arrived at the Cannes premiere on crutches. What happened?
I was sent a secret link to watch Red Rocket. I was all alone in my house, and then that scene comes up that we just spoke about, the singing scene, and I thought, “I need to pause this to get the energy out of me, to do a little dance in the kitchen, to just shake it out.” I start shaking it out, and I shook too much, because I broke my fifth metatarsal and I tore my ankle. I just jumped up and it twisted and made such terrible sounds! I threw up on the carpet, but I kept watching the movie because I needed to see that scene. And then I didn’t walk for 80 days.
What’s it been like seeing your work in the film be so appreciated?
It’s like your dreams coming true, man. I don’t know. It feels unreal. It makes me want to call my mom and hug my family and pray to God or something. It feels great.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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