Bria Vinaite now has over 52,000 followers on her Instagram page. It wasn’t that long ago that she was posting selfies of herself for a small circle of friends — and for anyone else in the world who might discover her. One day such a discovery occurred. She received a direct message from Sean Baker and her life would change. Baker approached her to star in his new film, The Florida Project. Vinaite first assumed it was a joke and even after he had messaged her the storyline, she still didn’t think it was serious.
Soon she was on a plane to Orlando to be the onscreen mom to Moonee, played by another newcomer Brooklynn Prince. The film revolves around 6-year-old Moonee and her young mother Halley who live in a rundown motel block called The Magic Castle — though life in the motel is anything but magic for its residents. Locked in a cycle of poverty, they are among the forgotten people on the edge of destitution who don’t get to go to Disney World. They’re homeless and are lucky to find shelter at the Magic Castle. Among its other essential messages, Baker’s film sheds light on the importance of affordable housing in this country.
In her acting debut as Halley, Vinaite gives a raw performance. She tells me that despite her lack of acting experience, Baker believed in her. We’re lucky he did since the film is winning the hearts of everyone who sees it.
Sean Baker cast you in the most unconventional way, finding you on Instagram. How long have you had your Instagram page?
I know it’s super crazy. I’ve had Instagram for a while and never did much with it until two years ago. It’s still really bizarre that Sean found me because it’s just not what anyone expected and not what I was looking for. It’s not an option in your head. I’m so thankful for it and Sean changed my whole life with his direct message.
Did you think it was a joke at all?
Sure. When he first messaged me, he told me to check my direct message about a film opportunity and I was skeptical. I read the email and he told me about the story and it seemed so good. We got on the phone and I refused to think it was real. It seemed so crazy and unexpected.
He flew me to Orlando and Brooklynn was already cast and we had this connection. She was so open to having a relationship with me and it made things a lot easier. A month later we were filming and I didn’t have a moment to think about it or process it because I think if I did, I’d be nervous.
So, we filmed it and I returned back to my life. No one talked about it, no one knew how special the film was going to be. The first time I saw it was at Cannes and to have that reaction for the first time after seeing it was so emotional. I cried so much and it was so special. Ever since then, it’s been fun to travel and we feel like a family because we’re all so close and to be able to experience it with all of them.
I love that he does things in this different way and gets this result rather than doing things in this cookie cutter way. Sean is the proof that you don’t need to be typical and he gets these great results with his talented filmmaking.
Did you have any acting experience in the past?
None at all. I took two weeks of acting classes on set before we started filming. It’s crazy.
I learned a lot because before we started filming, I kept asking Sean if he was sure he wanted to do it. I’m so thankful he believed in me. To have someone as special as he is to believe in me, even when I thought I couldn’t do it, was so helpful and gave me the confidence to give it 150% and see what happens. He guided me through the whole thing and made it happen.
You’re so natural, that’s why I had to ask if you’d had any training.
It’s so weird. I never thought I’d see myself in that. The first few times I was so critical of myself and I think it took three viewings before I could watch it for what it was.
What did he tell you about who Halley was going to be?
He had me hang out with three different women who lived at the motels and were in similar situations to Halley. I hung out with them a lot and when I first got there he wanted me to get to know them and really see on a daily basis the situation they were in. They were open and on top of that, I had the classes at the Magic Castle and I was comfortable with the environment so by the time we were filming the intense scenes, the combination brought it together. I’m still in touch with the women. It taught me a lot and thankful and aware of the fact that things that stress me out, aren’t that important.
You worked alongside Willem Dafoe.
He’s an amazing person and I didn’t know what to expect at all. I really respected the fact that he treated us as if we were all equal. He just believed in the film so much and our characters as individuals and was so helpful and if we needed advice. He was so approachable and friendly. Throughout this whole process, there have been a lot of emotionally overwhelming things that happened and there were times he sat me down and walked me through everything. He gave me such good advice and for someone of that caliber to do that has been really great.
Was there ever a film you saw over and over and said ‘I want to do that’?
I didn’t say that’s what I wanted to do, but the first film I was obsessed with was Girl Interrupted. I watched it over thirty times and at one point I think my mom asked me why I had it on repeat. As a whole, I love the film. I feel it’s the first film I really loved.
Is this your path? Will you be pursuing more acting?
I definitely want to pursue acting. I definitely feel like this is special to me. I’ve been reading parts but there’s nothing I feel connected to. I don’t feel like I’m in a rush and I want to do it the right way if I’m going to do it.
When I read Sean’s script, I said, “Yes.” I felt this connection and knew that the script was something I had to do.
There’s the childhood innocence we see through Moonee’s eyes, but then Sean cuts to the reality. We see another point of view that shows you’re aware of what’s really happening. What do you hope people who see the film will take away?
I hope people laugh and cry and walk away more empathetic to others and being less judgmental and being more grateful for what they have.
This isn’t just happening in Orlando. It’s everywhere. Go find these communities in your hometown and help. There’s an affordable housing crisis going on and I feel it’s something that should be more affordable to everybody. Everyone of us should find ways that we can help.
Tell us about yourself and where you came from?
I was born in Lithuania and moved to New York when I was six. I’m very happy I moved to New York at a young age and I feel I got a lot out of the experience of growing up there. I had a typical childhood and always wanted to work in the arts but never imagined this would happen.