At the beginning of the year, we named Bria Vinaite one of 12 stars to look out for in 2018. Here, Bria talks about staying true to herself, her unusual beginnings in the film industry and what she envisages for her future...
“If I’m not mistaken, I was dancing around in some yard. And I had on, like, a feather boa and, like, feathers on my head. I had no music on, I was just jumping around and dancing for no reason.”
This was film director Sean Baker’s first impression of Bria Vinaite, in a video he stumbled upon by chance while perusing Instagram one afternoon.
At that point, Sean had finished writing ‘The Florida Project’, and had already cast its child star, Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, but still needed someone to play her rebellious and fun-loving, but flawed, young mum, Halley.
After seeing Bria’s video, Sean swiftly sent her an email about a potential “film opportunity”. However, she admits now that she didn’t take it too seriously at the time.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Sean’s Instagram,” she explains, “But it’s literally only pictures of his dogs.
“Nowhere does it say ‘Sean Baker’, nowhere does it have anything about film. Like, it’s literally just pictures of his dogs, so I was a little confused.”
Realising he was a celebrated director in addition to a canine enthusiast, Bria - who had no acting experience at this stage - did some research and quickly “fell in love” with his past projects, ‘Starlet’ (documenting the dysfunctional friendship between two women, one in her early-twenties and one in her mid-eighties) and ‘Tangerine’ (the story of a transgender sex worker, shot entirely on an iPhone 5S).
Within two weeks, Sean had flown Bria out to Orlando to see where filming would take place and, perhaps most crucially, to meet the film’s young stars, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto.
From the moment me and Brooklynn met, we had an instant connection."
“He just had me play with them,” Bria explains, “And from the moment me and Brooklynn met, we just had this initial connection.
“She was so open to playing with me and being my friend, we just instantly connected and genuinely got along. I think that from that interaction, [Sean] saw that me and her could have that sort of mother and daughter relationship.
“The next day I was flying home and he was like, ‘yeah, you’re Halley’.”
Ask anyone who saw and loved ‘The Florida Project’, and they’ll say the chemistry between Bria and Brooklynn as Halley and Moonee shines on screen, so you’d be forgiven for thinking producers would have gone for a lead star who’s always had a good rapport with children.
It turns out, this was not the case.
“You know what’s so crazy, is no [I haven’t always got on with children],” she admits, “It’s not that I don’t like kids, but I’m not around that many, and I don’t really have any kids that I could say I have a special relationship with, other than Brooklynn.
“She’s the first child I’ve ever loved so much. She’s like my daughter, I genuinely never loved a child like that.”
As we talk, it’s clear Bria has a great deal of genuine affection for her unlikely “mini best friend”, telling us: “She’s so smart, we’ve had so many amazing times together and it’s been really amazing to not only film together but then be able to experience all these new things and travel together.”
But how did a young woman with no experience with children, who had previously made a living selling an online range of marijuana-themed clothing items, deal with suddenly spending all of her time on a film set with a six-year-old?
“It did make me more aware of my actions,” she claims, “And when we were on set, I would definitely watch my language.
“I’d definitely try to be an adult figure, because... we were just together so much, so I felt like it was important to be a good role model for [Brooklynn and Valeria], and get them to understand that those things [we were filming] weren’t appropriate to do in your daily life.”
She adds: “In any of the heavier scenes, anytime there was any sort of yelling where the kids were involved, or anything that was just a little bit much, even though clearly they knew it was a film, I would always tell Brooklynn before the scene, ‘all of this is pretend, I’m not really mad at you, I’m not yelling at you, like, I hope you know that, blah blah blah…’.”
Obviously Sean was taking a big risk with me... I just wanted to make him proud."
Before filming began, Bria underwent three weeks of acting classes at the real-life Magic Castle motel, where most of the film takes place, which she says got her accustomed to everything, from her surroundings to her co-stars.
“I had no previous acting experience, and I was definitely very scared,” she admits, “Obviously Sean was taking a really big risk with casting me, so I just really wanted to do a good job and make him proud.
“It really helped that the classes were on set at The Magic Castle, because by the time we started filming not only did me and Brooklynn have a really strong solid bond... but we also really connected with our environment, and the people there.
“We were there for quite a while before we started filming, so everything seemed very familiar and we were very comfortable just in our environment.”
Over the course of the film, Bria’s character Halley turns to desperate measures in order to keep herself and her young daughter Moonee in their room at The Magic Castle, and it’s obvious she’s taken the film’s themes to heart.
“There are just so many different subjects in the movie that are relatable to a lot of people,” she says, “And it’s just been really beautiful to hear these stories and to get people to talk about these things.
“It’s important that people are talking about the real situations that are going on. It’s not only an issue in Orlando and in the US, it’s a global issue. This shouldn’t be a thing that… is going on anywhere, you know? People should have affordable places to live. That’s a fundamental right.
“And I don’t think that I’ve seen any other movies recently that shed light on a topic like this. I feel like in this film... no one is getting looked down on, it’s really just telling an honest, truthful story without pointing fingers at anyone, you know? And that’s really rare.”
'The Florida Project' is just an honest, truthful story, without pointing fingers at anyone... and that's really rare."
The success of ‘The Florida Project’ and attention Bria herself has received is something she’s still getting her head around, particularly given that in the space of two years she’s gone from being a young woman posting videos on social media for fun to a rising star in of one of 2017’s most critically-acclaimed films.
As Bria puts it: “It still feels so surreal every single day. [It’s been] sudden and, like, non-stop. It’s like, I’ll be processing some exciting news I got, like, two weeks ago and then I’ll get 10 more exciting things to think about. I can’t process everything, you know?”
She says she copes with her new-found fame by simply “laughing at it”, and credits the friends she’s had since before she was cast in ‘The Florida Project’ for keeping her “very grounded”.
“Everybody was excited [at first],” she recalls, “But I don’t think any of us kind of understood the scale of everything until the film came out, you know?
“Like, the other day I was walking down my block with my best friend. We were going to get coffee, and I looked crazy. I’d just woken up, my hair was in a bun, I was, like, in sweatpants.
“And these two girls walked past us and they were like ‘oh my god it’s Bria from The Florida Project!’ And my roommate just started laughing because I looked so crazy, and she was like, ‘wow you should start getting dressed up to go and get coffee’. I was like, ‘noooo!’.”
One major way that Bria’s life has changed is that she’s suddenly become contemporaries with stars she’s admired her whole life, as shown in recent Instagram posts, which see her rubbing shoulders with A-listers including Angelina Jolie, Emma Stone and Nicki Minaj.
However, there’s one encounter in particular that stands out for Bria.
I just hope that I continue to work with filmmakers… who aren’t necessarily making the traditional Hollywood story that’s been retold 100 times."
“Oh… my god, she begins, “OK, so, my favourite actress in the world is Sarah Paulson. I think she is so talented and I admire her so much, I have always said from the beginning she is someone who just really has perfected the craft. She could play anybody and be believable.
“And when I was at the Governors’ Awards, I actually got to meet her and she had seen The Florida Project! I mean, I totally shed a tear.
“I had walked past her, I saw her, like, twice and I really wanted to say ‘hi’ but I didn’t want to be a creep, you know? I finally walked past her again, and then she was like, ‘you’re in The Florida Project’.
“I literally just died, and I gave her the biggest hug and I just told her how amazing she was. And it was a moment! It was definitely a moment.”
Bria adds: “I got to talk to her for a while and she’s actually helped me through a lot of stuff. Like, any time I have any questions I always ask her.
“She’s one of the most amazing women in the world, and to be able to ask advice from someone I admire and look up to so much has been the most dream-come-true situation ever.”
On the best bit of advice she’s received from Sarah Paulson, Bria tells us: “I guess, to just take care of myself as everything is going on, you know? Because if I’m not 100% then I can’t work 100% and do my best.
“So just to always make sure I’m OK and to give myself some peace and quiet whenever I need it.”
Bria is already looking ahead to whatever comes next, and says working on ‘The Florida Project’ has made her want to ensure future projects she takes on are “impactful” and can help “make a difference” in the world.
Citing “women’s rights” and, in her words, “everything that’s going on in the fucking world right now” as issues close to her heart, she adds: “I definitely want to explore all different types of characters.
“In the future I’d like to look back and be able to feel really proud of every single thing I chose to do, and I just really hope that… I continue to work with filmmakers like Sean… who aren’t necessarily making the traditional Hollywood story that’s been retold 100 times by different people, you know?”
I never want to become that type of weird... robotic person. That will never be who I am."
And after getting off to an unconventional start, Bria says that whatever comes next, she’s determined to stay true to herself.
She explains: “My biggest thing throughout all this is everybody around me kept saying, like, ‘don’t change, don’t change, don’t change’, and I never saw why I would want to change.
“Having experienced the past few months... I understand why so many people feel the need to… almost put on a more professional face and kind of like hide [their fun side].
“But for me, the thing I really appreciate the most is that I feel like people have gotten to see me and know me for me, and they like it. And that sort of keeps me wanting to stay the same as well.
“At the end of the day, it’s a job. It shouldn’t change who you are as a person. And I never want to become that type of weird girl who’s… just a robotic person. That will never be who I am.”
She continues: “I feel like my story just proves how important not only social media is, but how important it is to be your authentic self. Because when you’re really truly your authentic self, the right people will find you. And when they find you, it will be for exactly who you are.”
See Bria in action in the trailer for ‘The Florida Project’ below: