In 'Florida Project,' A First-Time Actress Plays A Single Mom Doing Her Best

Oct 8, 2017
Originally published on October 10, 2017 7:17 pm

If you're into Disney trivia, you might know that Walt Disney's idea for a new theme park in Orlando, Fla., was initially called The Florida Project. That's also the name of a new film set in a world that seems very far away from the magical kingdom: a budget motel where families live teetering on the edge of homelessness.

At the heart of The Florida Project is a precocious little girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who spends her days creating her own magic with her friends and exploring the motel's off-limits rooms. Moonee's 20-something mother, Halley, is played by newcomer Bria Vinaite (who director Sean Baker discovered on Instagram) and Willem Dafoe plays the harried motel manager. Baker debuted The Florida Project at the Cannes Film Festival to much acclaim.

Baker's previous film, Tangerine, also made a splash: It told the story of transgender sex workers in Los Angeles, and Baker filmed it entirely on an iPhone. He says he actually wanted to make The Florida Project before Tangerine, but couldn't get funding. "And Tangerine basically opened the doors for us, found us financing to make this."

Baker and Vinaite spoke to NPR about what drew them to this project.


Interview Highlights

On where Baker got the idea for the film

Sean Baker: My co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, he brought me this topic way back in 2011. His mother had recently relocated the Kissimmee/Orlando area. He is very much in love with Disney; he knows everything Disney. So I think he came across articles, local news articles, about the fact that there were families with children living in budget motels outside of the parks. And I found it fascinating; I found it quite sad; I found it to be a subject that I thought we could dramatize. ...

I had never even heard of the term "hidden homeless" before. ... It's not just Orlando and Kissimmee; it's a national issue, it's a national problem. But it was that juxtaposition between children growing up in motels and what's considered the happiest place on earth for children, a place designed for children. So we said, you know, if we could show that it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.

On what Vinaite was posting on Instagram when Baker discovered her

Bria Vinaite: At that point in my life I was living in Miami and I was working from home, so I just had a lot of free time and I didn't have a lot of friends. So I would make these videos to kind of entertain myself because I didn't really have a lot of people to talk to. And I would literally just dance around and crack jokes and like talk to myself. ... And somehow Sean stumbled upon one of those videos and it made him laugh, thankfully, and he reached out. ...

When he first emailed me and told me who he was, I watched all his films like that same day. ... I had to YouTube some of his interviews so that when I got on the phone with him I could cross-check the voice. You know, I had to take some sort of precautions. And then a week later he flew me out to Orlando to audition. I met Brooklynn, who plays Moonee, and me and her just instantly connected.

On what drew Vinaite to the character of Halley

Vinaite: I read a lot of books and it was my first time reading a script and it made me cry the first time I read it. And for me to feel such strong emotion through words was really special to me. And I really respected the fact that as much as Halley is struggling and going through all this, she never once takes it out on her daughter or puts the stress on her daughter. And she doesn't really have anyone around — she doesn't really have friends or family — so for her to be dealing with taking care of a child on top of all the stresses of her life, and to kind of keep it to herself and not, you know, put it on others was really admirable to me.

On whether Halley is a bad mom

Vinaite: She's definitely not a terrible mother. She's doing things that she doesn't want to be doing to herself in order to provide for her daughter. And if that's not being selfless, then I don't know what is. ... I really respect that she does what she has to do. ...

Baker: And in many ways, this is what we wanted out of this film: We wanted to create this discussion. I mean, this is Bria's opinion on it. I've talked to audience members who've come out and said, "Ooh, that mom doesn't know what she's doing." But the goal is to create a discussion and also, hopefully, create at least empathy for her.

Whether or not you agree with her parenting skills, my hope is that they look at this character of Halley, they say: She was probably 15 when she had Moonee. ... No formal education. No family support. No safety net. She's unemployable. I mean, she's in basically survival mode, and there are only so many different ways that she can act. So my hope is that at least, no matter what you think of her character, there's at least empathy for her.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and Jennifer Liberto produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you're a collector of Disney trivia, then you might remember that Walt Disney's idea for a new theme park in Orlando was originally called simply The Florida Project. That's also the name of a new feature film set in a world that seems very far away from a magical kingdom - a budget motel filled with families teetering on the edge of homelessness. At the heart of the film is a little girl named Moonee, played by 6 year old Brooklynn Prince. She spends her days with her friends creating her own magic such as, say, exploring off-limits rooms of the motel. Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays her free-spirited twentysomething mother, Halley. And Willem Dafoe plays the harried motel manager. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")

WILLEM DAFOE: (As Bobby) It's only second week of the summer and there's already been a dead fish in the pool.

BROOKLYNN PRINCE: (As Moonee) We were doing an experiment. We were trying to get it back alive.

CHRISTOPHER RIVERA: (As Scooty) That wasn't my idea.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) And water balloons thrown at tourists. You can't [expletive] with tourists.

RIVERA: (As Scooty) They didn't tip us.

BRIA VINAITE: (As Halley) Are you serious? Oh, my God, this is unacceptable. I've failed as a mother, Moonee. You've disgraced me.

PRINCE: (As Moonee) Yeah, Mom, you're a disgrace.

MARTIN: The director of "The Florida Project," Sean Baker, and the star of the film, Bria Vinaite, stopped by our studios recently. And I started our conversation by asking Sean Baker how he became interested in the families living in motels in the Orlando and Kissimmee areas, who advocates might call hidden homeless.

SEAN BAKER: It was a subject that I certainly didn't know about, an issue I didn't know about. I had never even heard of the term hidden homeless before. And this was something that was brought to my attention through this. And - but the thing is that it's not just, you know, Orlando and Kissimmee. It's a national issue. It's a national problem. But it was that juxtaposition between children growing up in motels and what's considered the happiest place on earth for children, a place designed for children. So we said, you know, if we could show that it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.

MARTIN: But the film's not preachy. I mean, the film is not a documentary. It's a film. It's about film - it's about kids. I mean, it's picturesque. It's like for people of a certain age, it's like "The Little Rascals."

BAKER: Exactly. Well, that's - I've been very inspired and influenced by "The Little Rascals" my entire career. And if you think about what "The Little Rascals" were, they were these comic shorts in the '20s and '30s. They were set against the Great Depression. Most of the characters in "The Little Rascals" were actually living in poverty, but that wasn't the focus. The focus was the universal traits of children. They were having fun. There was the humor, the heart, the resilience, the innocence, all of that stuff. And that's what I felt we wanted to do again. And they did it 70 years ago. They were very much ahead of their time, I think. And this was something that I think applied very well to this circumstance.

MARTIN: And you mixed professional actors like Willem Dafoe with people who have not acted or hadn't acted much, like Bria. How did you find Bria?

BAKER: I found Bria on Instagram, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What were you doing on Instagram, Bria?

VINAITE: At that point in my life, I was living in Miami. And I was working from home, so I just had a lot of free time. So I would make these videos to kind of entertain myself because I didn't really have a lot of people to talk to. And I would literally just like dance around and crack jokes and like talk to myself on some like weird - I don't even know where it came from. It was just boredom. And somehow, Sean stumbled upon one of those videos. And it made him laugh, thankfully. And he reached out. And here I am.

MARTIN: Did you believe him when he reached out on me?

VINAITE: No.

MARTIN: I mean, did you know who he was?

VINAITE: I didn't really watch a lot of films before this, so I - when he first emailed me and told me who he was, I watched all his films like that same day.

MARTIN: Oh, so you didn't think it was a prank?

VINAITE: Yeah. At first, honestly, when I got the email, I did. But I was like, if this is a prank, this is the most well-written prank ever. Like, I'm going to entertain this prank because it's just - whoever thought this up put so much time and effort into this. When he first told me that he wanted me to do the role, I was just like, are you sure? I'm an untrained actress. I didn't - He just believed in me so much. And I felt like the only thing I wanted from this was to make him proud because it was such a special story, and he took such a big chance on me. And I'm just so thankful it ended up breaking out.

MARTIN: What is it that you saw in your character, Halley? What were you going for?

VINAITE: Oh, once I read the script - I read a lot of books. And it was my first time reading a script. And it made me cry the first time I read it. And for me to feel such strong emotion through words was really special to me. And I really respected the fact that as much as Halley's struggling and going through all this, she never once takes it out on her daughter or puts the stress on her daughter or, you know. And she doesn't really have anyone around. She doesn't have friends or family. So yeah, she's in these situations, but at the end of the day, she's such a good mom. All she's trying to do is provide a roof for her daughter, keep her daughter fed and clean and as stable as possible. And I really respected that about her.

MARTIN: She doesn't really have a job. And the jobs that are offered to her are ones that she doesn't want. And I know I'm just - I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say that, you know, she's an attractive - you are an attractive young woman. And, you know, there are certain roles that people see for attractive young women who don't have a lot of, you know, options. And you get the impression that she doesn't have a lot of education, and she's kind of scrapping. And on the other side, you could see where some people would say, you know, Halley's a terrible mother. I mean...

VINAITE: People have said that to me.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, it's a different world than it was when "The Little Rascals" was made 70 years ago. Kids are expected to be supervised a lot more.

BAKER: Exactly.

MARTIN: And some people would say, you know, she's a terrible mother. Bria, what do you say about - am I supposed to like her?

VINAITE: You know, I mean, you can like her or not like her, but at the end of the day, she's definitely not a terrible mother. She's doing things that she doesn't want to be doing to herself in order to provide for her daughter. And if that's not being selfless, then I don't know what is. She doesn't want to be doing the things she's doing, you know, but she genuinely has no choice. So it's either do something you don't want to do and take care of your child or what? There's no other option. So I don't see her as a bad mom.

BAKER: And in many ways, this is what we wanted out of this film. We wanted to create this discussion. I mean, this is, you know, this is Bria's opinion on it. I've talked to audience members who've come out and say, oh, that mom doesn't know what she's doing. But the goal is to create a discussion and also hopefully create at least empathy for her.

Whether or not you agree with her parenting skills or not, my hope is that they look at this character of Halley, they say, she was probably 15 when she had Moonee, no proper education, no family support, no safety net. She's unemployable. I mean, she's in basically survival mode. And there are only so many different ways that she could act. So my hope is that at least no matter what you think about her character, there's at least empathy for her.

MARTIN: Well, to that end though, I think that when you're doing a film about people who one assumes are different from you, there's always that whole question of sort of the politics of that. And there are people who wonder whether there's something a little exploitative about it. And I wonder what you would say about that? Particularly, you know, one of your young actors actually was living in one of the budget motels when you found him for the role. And I just, you know, this is the same argument that came up with "Slumdog Millionaire." There are people - say, well, gee, you know, who are you in that? What would you say to that?

BAKER: I have been covering subjects and focusing on communities at least with my last five films in which I'm not a part of. I'm an outsider. And it was my duty to say, I'm going to do this in a very responsible, respectful way. There's going to be collaboration here. There's going to be an approval process all the time.

So when I'm working with the residents and working with the small business owners and the managers at these motels, as we are fleshing out the script, we had passed the treatments by people, getting their approval, getting their signing off on this material. Because I want, you know, representation is very important. And I wouldn't feel, you know, ethically right unless we felt we were doing the right thing with the representation. So ultimately, I'm a dramatist, and this is about asking questions. But my hope is gaining awareness on a subject. That's my goal with this.

MARTIN: That is Sean Baker, the director and the co-writer of "The Florida Project." And Bria Vinaite is here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios. She's the star of the film. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BAKER: Thank you for having us.

VINAITE: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.