A Q&A with Bria Vinaite of Sean Baker’s Magical 'The Florida Project'

A conversation with one of the breakout stars of the year.

Florida Project

A conversation with one of the breakout stars of the year.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is remarkable for its small-scale humility yet epic emotional scope on the lives of motel residents.

At the core of the film is young Moonee, a rambunctious 6-year-old residing with her young mother Halley at the ironically-named Magic Castle motel, a run-down pastel-colored establishment situated only a few miles away from the opulent Magic Kingdom. Despite the proximity of Disney World, Moonee and Halley are not among the upper-class who can afford tickets into the land of dreams.

There’s a certain poignancy of the Florida Project: Although it encapsulates the whimsy of childhood imagination and adventure even in impoverished circumstances, there’s also a candid and crude naturalism that comments on the shabby reality of its characters. Halley and Moonee are based on real-life residents in run-down motels, locked in a cycle of poverty and surviving off the compassion of charity.

The raw performance of newcomers, Brooklyn Prince as Moonee and Bria Vinaite as Halley, helps illuminate the struggles of the characters. Baker, who was adamant about avoiding star-powered casting for the leads, discovered a yet-to-be-known star in Vinaite through her Instagram account.

I reached to Vinaite to ask her about the acting process.

Sean Baker discovered you through Instagram and you had no prior professional acting experience. What was it like getting a crash course in acting? What new aspects and challenges about acting did you learn?

The classes were helpful. We did a bunch of character development and did practice with the kids to get to know them better and build a relationship with them. I built a backstory for my character. I did exercises where an acting teacher would walk me through the different emotions and have me do scenes in a bunch of different ways.  She did a good job at teaching methods on how to get the character.

While you and Brooklyn were newbies to acting, you were acting alongside veteran actor Willem Defoe, who played the Magic Castle manager Bobby. What was it like with him on set?

He was very kind, a good person. I really respected him because he treated us like we were equals. He was invested in the role and helpful to all of us. He really believed in the film. Anytime I needed advice, he walked us through everything.

He was a joy to have around. He was great with the kids and with Sean and he was the perfect person to play Bobby.

What was the most useful advice Dafoe has given you?

To believe in myself, to be confident, to have fun, and really immerse myself. He’s been giving a lot of good advice lately.  He knows exactly what to say at the right time when I’m overwhelmed. He tells me to be in the moment.

The role of Halley is quite an intense role because she’s in a state of flux. One moment she’s passionately hollering and shooting middle-fingers, but then another moment, she’s a determined mother with understated moments. How did you navigate Halley?

With the help of the acting coach and Sean. We did classes onset for a long time before we did filming. I really understood Halley as a person. It was an immersive experience. I got to hang out with women that lived at the motel and they would tell me about their experience and struggles.

By the time we started filming, I understood the situation and stress Halley was under. And having a bond with Brooklyn, it made it personal because I really cared for her. Being in acting classes, being onset, being at the Magic Castle brought it all together.

To accommodate the naturalistic delivery of his movie, Sean Baker reportedly allowed improvisation. Did you do a little improv? What were some of your favorite improvised moments for you?

My lines were mostly scripted. The only thing that was improv for me was the perfume selling scene. Sean gave us a few basic lines. But I had an earpiece in my ear and he was all the way down at the end of the parking lot and people didn’t know we were filming. And I was walking to random people that Sean told me to walk up to and ask them if they wanted to buy perfume. It was funny because it wasn’t scripted. It was really fun to shoot it.

Any onset challenges you encountered?

My biggest concern was if I remembered all my lines. I think that I did. So I felt good about that. Out of everything, that was my biggest concern.

You’ve interacted with the motel residents. What have you learned from them that helped you throughout the production?

They told me a lot about their struggles. But no matter what they were going through, they were still happy. They just were really open and I hung out with them and asked them questions about their life at motels. They were helpful and awesome people.

There was this lady. Her name was Patricia. Her daughter was actually a stand-in for Brooklyn. Her name was Rebecca, she’s super cute. There were these days where the kids will be filming scenes and I just be sitting around with Patricia.

Patricia and I would just talk about life and laugh all the time. It was just nice to have someone to talk because everyone is just running around filming.

What was the most difficult scene for you?

The fighting scene. It was really intense. There was a lot of energy in that. It was a horrifying thing. It was really emotional. It definitely was a hard thing to take off.

What was it like to see yourself onscreen for the first time?

It was very bizarre. I thought it was crazy to film it but to actually see it, I don’t even know to describe the feeling. I was in awe. I didn’t know what to think. I know we filmed it and we all knew the scenes, but I never knew what it would look like in order and everything beautifully edited.

I watched it with Brooklyn, Sean, and Dafoe. It was an emotional moment. We were all proud to see the finished results.

It was a very surreal moment, definitely one of the best days of my life.

Now that The Florida Project has given you a place in the acting world, what do you hope to do next in the future?

I definitely want to make films that are impactful like this film was. Sean is a really special director. I hope to work with directors who I can have a similar bond with. I really appreciated Sean’s filming process. I really hope to make films that tell special stories that are impactful because this project meant a lot. I want to have that same love for a character that I had for Halley.

Contributor for The Script Lab, The Mary Sue, and Birth Movies Death.