Bria Vinaite was sure she was being catfished.
The 24-year-old New Yorker with no acting experience was making a living through her marijuana-themed clothing line on Instagram when some guy contacted her about a movie role. She responded, she said — so she could laugh about it later.
The random DM was from Sean Baker, who wanted to know if she’d try out for The Florida Project. As it turns out, Baker knows a thing or two about casting unknowns — he’s also the guy who cast first-timers Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in Tangerine.
It wasn’t until Vinaite was flying to Orlando for the audition that she realized this guy was for real. Still, she had no idea The Florida Project would go on to become the darling of the film fest circuit, and a probable contender for major awards at the end of the year.
“Even when we were filming, even with Willem [Dafoe], even with Sean being such an amazing director, I did not think this film was gonna be as well received as it was,” she tells me in Toronto, where The Florida Project has just played to yet another wave of rave reviews.
And deservedly so.
The Florida Project is a remarkable work of empathy and joy, digging into the everyday lives of the semi-permanent residents of the run-down motels on the outskirts of Orlando. Vinaite and her very young co-star Brooklynn Prince anchor the entire thing, as a mother-daughter duo who share a lot of love but not a lot of money.
Vinaite’s performance as Halley is so natural, so seemingly effortless, that it’s tempting to believe that she’s not acting at all — that she actually is just a sweet and flighty young mom who wandered onto the set of Baker’s Kissimmee, Fla., set. And in person, Vinaite does have something of Halley’s easygoing vibe. But other than that, her story isn’t much like Halley’s at all.
For starters, Vinaite doesn’t have kids — and doesn’t want them anytime soon, especially after shooting this movie. And the Lithuania-born New Yorker was totally unfamiliar with Halley’s corner of Florida; the closest she ever got was an eight-month stint living in Miami, after which she returned to New York swearing she’d “never set foot” in Florida again.
(That last part turned out to be a lie, Vinaite acknowledges with a laugh. “A month later, I’m there for two months filming!”)
But to hear Vinaite tell it, The Florida Project is an important story precisely because it’s such an unfamiliar one to so many people.
“It’s a situation that no one knows exists. I never knew about the hidden homeless situation until this film, and until Sean,” she says. “There are so many things we don’t know about because they don’t get spoken about, and people might be embarrassed to speak up or might be shamed into not speaking up.”
‘I’ve been doing such crazy stuff. Stuff I’ve dreamed of.’
The Florida Project can help change that.
“Sean is taking real life and turning in such a beautiful story that also gives it a lot of attention,” Vinaite continues. “I feel like once enough people are talking about it, the government’s gonna have to do something about it. If no one’s complaining, they’re not going to fix it.”
The film avoids casting judgment on its characters, allowing them the room to just be who they are. When Vinaite talks about Halley, it’s clear she feels deeply for her.
“She’s just trying to make something out of nothing. She doesn’t necessarily have the best opportunities around her, you know,” she says. “Some people don’t necessarily have family helping them or anyone, even friends, that care enough to help.”
Vinaite knows just how lucky she is to have opportunities like this one. She had absolutely no acting experience when Baker contacted her. “I mean, I did a play when I was in eighth grade, but who hasn’t?” Once she was cast, she got just two weeks of acting classes before shooting began.
In fact, she wasn’t even much for watching movies and TV before The Florida Project.
“Now I do,” she says, “but now I feel like [making The Florida Project] kind of ruined it for me.” She explains, “I’ll be watching a movie with my friends and everyone’s saying, like, ‘Whoa, this is so good.’ And I’m like ‘Do you know how hard that scene is to shoot?”
She has, however, seen The Florida Project – three times, in fact, starting with the premiere at Cannes.
“We got a ten-minute standing ovation. Everyone was crying,” she recalls. “And for that to be the first time I ever watched it, I cried for probably tow hours after. That was crazy. It was really, really a moment.”
Even after Cannes, though, even after all the whirlwind press tours and glowing reviews and all the movie stars coming up to her, Bria, to tell her how much they loved her (“It’s wild!” she exclaims), the whole surreal experience still hasn’t sunk in for Vinaite.
“I’ve been doing such crazy stuff. Stuff I’ve dreamed of and would just wanna cross off my bucket list,” she says. “At the end of every day, I’m just like, ‘That didn’t happen.’”
It did happen, though — and now that it has, Vinaite plans to ride this opportunity out as far as it will go. In other words, yes, she’s putting her clothing line “on hiatus” to pursue acting.
“It’s something that I could do like 12-plus hours and I’m happy. I have nothing to complain about. If I could do that forever, I’m never gonna feel like I’m working.”
Which might be scary, but Vinaite’s already conquered her fear. She was “terrified” when she was heading to work on The Florida Project, she tells me now, but that turned out to be a silver lining.
“Every time I get scared of something now, I’m like, if I could do that, I could do whatever it is I’m scared of doing.”