There’s a scene in The Florida Project that’s so raw with emotion it feels more like a World Star video than part of a feature film generating Oscar buzz. A young woman bursts into her best friend’s motel room, tackles her onto the floor between two double beds, and beats the absolute hell out of her. The young woman, horrified by her own actions, then races back to her own room in the same motel, vomits in a fit of anxiety, and begins to sob.
The character’s name is Halley, and it’s the first time the audience sees the unemployed stripper, knockoff-goods hustler, and single mother truly snap under the weight of her harsh world. It’s the sort of emotionally draining scene that would be hard for even a veteran actor. But for Bria Vinaite, a first-time actor discovered on Instagram only one month before production started, it was just one of many lessons during her crash course in feature film acting.
“Emotionally-wise, the fighting scene was really difficult for me, because that day I was in a really good mood, and I just was thinking to myself, ‘What am I gonna do to make myself get there?’” explains Vinaite. “Because at that point I feel like Halley was really going through a lot of things, and that was kind of like her lash-out way of getting through it. It definitely took a lot out of me.”
The latest movie from director Sean Baker (Tangerine), The Florida Project is a feature-length slice of life that focuses on the semi-permanent residents of some dodgy motels outside of Disney World. Before Vinaite, 24, signed on to play the blunt-smoking ne’er-do-well on the verge of violent existential collapse, she was living in her native New York, making clothes for a small company called ChroniCal Designs that specializes in weed-casual apparel. (Think swimsuits, intimates, and leggings, typically adorned with marijuana-leaf patterns.) Vinaite was feeling restless and ready to make a change in her life when Baker found her on Instagram and, based solely on her online presence, thought she’d make a great Halley. An email, some direct messages, and a phone call later, Vinaite was on a plane to Orlando to meet the director, where he offered her the part.
Within a month, Vinaite was in pre-production and learning how to act entirely on the fly. Talking to Vinaite in person, it’s clear why Baker was drawn to her — and how he drew the character around her. Halley’s accent is Vinaite’s. The tattoos are Vinaite’s. The silly videos Vinaite makes of herself dancing — and the pictures of herself with rap-video-size blunts — almost feel like a character account for the irrepressible, good-hearted Halley. But Vinaite (who says she “still to this day doesn’t know” why Baker chose her for the role) is most definitely acting in Project, and she’s doing it well. Especially when you consider what she pulled together on short notice.
Once she arrived in Florida, Vinaite had two-and-a-half weeks to become an actress before principal photography began. Baker makes beautiful art out of the authenticity of his subjects, but Vinaite was only used to mugging for her iPhone camera, not playing to a big rig in a room with a whole host of crew members watching. She credits Baker and co-star Willem Dafoe with helping build her confidence on set. The veteran thespian was the only seasoned performer for anyone in the cast to act against, and Vinaite says he pushed her farther into her character, specifically during the scene when Halley, in the middle of an argument, pulls a used sanitary pad from her pants and slaps it onto a window. “That’s not something I would ever do in my life. To make that look believable, I was so nervous,” she says, “But then Willem just yelled at me so crazy that it really made me feel like I could do it.”
Vinaite’s acting coach, Samantha Quan, helped her learn how to memorize lines and “bring all my emotions out, because I didn’t know how to do any of that.” Vinaite recounts the “hours and hours” she and Kwan spent workshopping scenes until she felt comfortable with them. And then there was the time she spent alone, learning to detach from Halley after more emotionally rigorous days — like the one in which she was instructed to pulverize co-star Mela Murder. Vinaite would also play drama games with her young co-stars to build rapport; she says there’s B-roll somewhere of her and Prince staging an improv bit in which Vinaite is a store manager and her 7-year-old castmate is trying to buy something from her.
Kwan also taught Vinaite how to build a character up by stripping it down to its most basic parts. “She would have me do, like, the most intense scene, and she would give me the script and be like, ‘Okay. Make me laugh. Make sad. Make me feel this way,’” Vinaite says of Kwan, who was on set throughout filming and would work with her at the end of each shooting day to prep for the next day’s shot list. “Then at the end she’d be like, ‘Now take all that off, and do the scene with all those underneath.’ It really helped, because I felt like it made me understand what it was like to have those real emotions kind of underlying for whatever scene you were doing.” By the time shooting wrapped last August, Vinaite had assembled a character bible that spanned two notebooks, filled with her motivations, her intended outcomes, and Halley’s reason for being present in every single scene.
At no point in acting class, though, was Vinaite coached on how to handle the post-premiere life she’s been living. The Palais des Festivals in Cannes. The red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival. A date with Drake? Yes — that happened. After an evening reportedly spent getting cozy with one of the city’s favorite sons garnered tabloid attention, all Vinaite will offer up is, “Oh, my goodness.” After a pause, she adds, “I mean, it’s just life.” (Her media training is already admirable.) When I remind her that that certainly isn’t my life, she can’t suppress the laughter.
Vinaite plans to pursue acting as a career, and seems to be a natural fit for the spotlight. There’s a video on her Instagram of the actress and her co-stars receiving a standing ovation for the global premiere of Florida Project at Cannes in May. You can see Vinaite, unencumbered by doubt, proudly popping her shoulder and looking back for a picture as the crowd applauds. “It’s so funny to me in those situations. It’s just so natural,” Vinaite tells me when I ask what it’s like to suddenly be looked at by the world. “I don’t even know how to describe it. I just really feel like I’m in my element and I feel like I can do this.”