The story of how Bria Vinaite came to star in The Florida Project is about as unconventional as they get. After being discovered on social media by co-writer/director Sean Baker, she had landed the character of Halley, her first ever acting role. A well-meaning but troubled mother, Halley lives with her daughter, Mooney (Brooklynn Prince), a precocious, unpredictable six-year-old who runs loose with her friends between a handful of run-down, pastel-colored hotels in a one-time tourist-friendly neighborhood in Orlando.
We got the chance to sit down with Vinaite during her first-ever solo press tour (Baker was slated to come along, but had to bow out at the last minute), who shared her unconventional path to acting, what it’s like to see herself on screen for the first time, and how she’s dealing with her newfound life as a celebrity.
You ended up landing the role of Halley in a pretty unconventional way, didn’t you?
Yeah, it’s still so crazy to me when I think about it. Somehow, magically, Sean had stumbled upon my Instagram, and at the time, I had just moved to Miami. I didn’t have any friends there, and I had a clothing line, so I worked from home. I was just home, bored all the time. To entertain myself, I just started making all these videos of me just dancing around, being weird, and just having fun, to kind of take my mind off being bored. Sean found one of the videos, and just really liked the energy, and how carefree I was. He contacted me through Instagram direct message, and was like, “Hey, I sent you an email about a film opportunity.”
I get so many creepy messages that I was just like, “Okay, whatever.” But then I checked my email, and it’s this really articulate, serious email. I’m like, “Wait. If this is a joke, it’s a really good one,” because it just seemed so believable. I got on the phone with him, and he asked me if he could fly me out to Orlando to audition. I was still kind of unsure, because it just seemed so surreal and random, and I flew to Florida. I was there for two days. I met Brooklynn, who plays Moonee, and we hit it off. A month later, we were filming.
Once the reality set in, how did you react to the character you’d be playing?
I really liked the story, and I really liked her as a person. I feel like everyone could relate to just trying to make something out of nothing, and no matter what sort of struggles you’re going through. It’s just a relatable situation. And [when] you have someone to take care of, whether it’s a child, or yourself, or whatever the case is. I just felt like I really liked the fact that through it all, she was so strong. She never put her stresses on her daughter, and she kind of just kept it to herself, and really tried to keep a positive front, and I really respected that. I really fell in love with the character, and I was so happy to be able to bring her to life.
Did you feel like you knew the character a little bit going in?
For sure. I flew in two weeks early and did a whole bunch of acting classes, and I remember one of the first days, I was doing this exercise where I was just laying down with my eyes closed and we were kind of going through the last scene, and I just started hysterically crying, because I really just put myself in that situation, and it just made me feel so terrible. It really just connected me to her so much, because I just felt so bad for what she was going through. It just really hit me.
How was it being on set with so much of the film spent with the character of Moonee and her friends, who are all very young kids?
I feel like the kids definitely got more opportunities to improv than I did. I definitely stuck to the script. There were a few scenes where I would add in some extra stuff, but for the most part, I pretty much stuck to it. There were a few lines, for instance, that I would tell Sean, “I feel like Halley would say this different,” or, “She wouldn’t use this word, but she’d use this word.” He kind of let me make those little changes, but it wasn’t anything major. It was always just a little word here and there that I kind of tweaked a little.
Was it any different when you were sharing the screen with Brooklynn vs. someone like Willem Dafoe?
Brooklynn’s definitely way more hyper, but it’s crazy to me, because she was six when we were filming, but she had acted before, so it wasn’t her first time on set, and she was so professional that it kind of threw me off. I didn’t expect that from a six-year-old. There would be times that we would be on set and they’d be like, “Rolling,” And Brooklynn would just be like, “Everyone be quiet. They’re about to say ‘action!'” She just knew the whole deal already, and her being six and being that professional and prepared was so crazy to me. And Willem was just so nice. I didn’t know what to expect with him, and I really appreciated the fact that he really just treated us all equal, and like we were all on the same level, which was really unexpected. He just was always there and ready to talk and help out, and just made us feel so confident in our roles, and we all just connected so well. It really felt like a family the whole time we were filming.
Did he give you any pointers along the way, about what to expect or anything like that?
There would be times that I would be a little nervous or something, and he would just come up to me and be like, “What are you nervous about? You’ve got this. You’re fine. You’re here. You’re doing it. Everything’s fine. You’re gonna do great.” Just to have someone like him believe in you so much just kind of makes you believe in yourself more, because you’re like, “If he believes in me, I guess I can do it.”
When it was all said and done, what was your reaction the first time you saw the completed film?
The first time I saw it was in Cannes. I cried so hard, and it was so insane for the first time for me to watch it, to be with such a special audience. We literally got a 10-minute standing ovation, and when the lights came on, everyone in the theater was crying, and to have that be the first reaction and the first time I watched it was honestly one of the most special days of my entire life. It was such a feeling that I’ve never had before, and I literally wish I could just bottle it and keep it in my pocket. It was so amazing.
Has it gotten easier the more times you’ve seen yourself on screen?
For sure. Last night was my fourth time watching it, and it was the first time I didn’t cry at the end. I feel like I’ve seen it enough that I can keep it together, and I know it’s coming, but I had to kind of tell myself not to cry, because the end just always gets me. I can’t help it. Even knowing it’s coming, in my head I’m like, “Don’t cry, Bria. Stop it.”
Were you still in Florida when you got the part, or did you have to go back?
I was there for eight months, not even a full year, and I moved right back to New York, and I was like, “I’m never stepping foot in Florida again.” And then a month later, they’re like, “Hey, you want to come for two months to Florida?”
I feel like growing up in New York… and I don’t know, Miami’s just such a different vibe, and I had just wanted a change of scenery, but it wasn’t the change of scenery that I was comfortable with necessarily. I feel like it’s way more of like a party town. I just didn’t really connect with it, so I did a little bit of time, and then I moved back.
Did knowing the lay of the land a little bit help prepare you for the role? It’s the kind of story that could really take place anywhere, but there’s so much here that feels really specific to this neighborhood in Orlando.
I flew in two weeks early to take workshops, and I also had the chance to hang out and meet with a lot of the women that lived in these motels, and kind of hear their stories. It was really helpful to me, because they just really welcomed me with open arms, and any questions I had, they answered, and it was just a really big help to hear the firsthand experiences from the people who actually lived there, because it made me understand Halley’s character so much more.
There’s a lot of pretty downtrodden stuff that happens here. Was it ever hard to shake off the character or the story at the end of the day?
Yeah. There would be days where the scenes would be kind of heavy, and after we would wrap, I would kind of have to remind myself, “Okay, snap out of it. You’re not really angry. You were acting.” It’s hard to drop such heavy emotions, but I constantly just had to remind myself that I’m acting. I don’t really feel like this.
Was that made more difficult with this being your first role?
For sure. It was also really interesting because there was days that I would just be in such a good mood, and so happy, and I would have a scene where I’m like crying and fighting, doing all this stuff. I’d be like, “Fuck. How do I get angry right now? I feel so good.” It definitely made me respect actors a lot more, because I had never realized how intense of a job it is to kind of just play with your emotions so deeply and make it look real, and just drop it at the end of the day. It’s really a bizarre kind of thing to do.
I feel like certain scenes that I watch, I always cringe a little, because I’m like, “Oh, that got so rough.” It got so hard to watch. Even for me, seeing it a few times already, I still am a little taken aback at some of the really crazy scenes. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch it and not feel those emotions. It’s a crazy feeling to even see yourself on screen, never having acted before. I think the first time I watched it, I was like, “That’s what my voice sounds like? That’s what I look like from this angle?” It’s crazy weird, because I guess you always sound different to yourself than you do to other people. And you can’t see what you look like. Even in a mirror, it’s never the same as how other people view you, so to watch it on a screen is really weird.
Now that you’ve seen it a few times, is there anything you’re hoping people walk away from after watching it?
I feel like what I want people to take away from it is to be less judgmental of people in situations that they might not necessarily understand, because even in Halley’s case, someone from the outside looking in might be like, “Oh, she’s a bad mom.” Or they say all these crazy things, but when you really get to know the actual situations that people are in, you can kind of understand more why they do the things they do, and at the end of the day, I just feel like people should watch this and kind of be grateful for what they have, and realize that their stresses might not necessarily be a big deal compared to other people’s.
What’s next on your plate? Are you going to stick with acting for a bit?
I actually have a role already that I’m filming at the end of October, an indie film called The Disenchanted. It’s going to be with me, Sheila Fernandez, and directed by Brad Gilbert, and I’m definitely very interested to be on a set without children, because I’ve heard it’s completely different. I’m very excited to pursue it and just see if I could continue doing it, because it’s really fun, and it feels really rewarding. I really just want to give it my all and kind of see where it could take me, and all the different roles that I could get in the future.
Has it been hard to adjust to the lifestyle change, going to screenings and talking to people like me about your character and all that?
My whole life is upside down. Every day I’m confused, I’m traveling so much. It’s a lot to process, and my whole life literally changed overnight. I’m still trying to figure out how to go about all the changes, and not lose my mind in the process.
The Florida Project opens in limited release Friday, October 6, before expanding.