In spring 2016, “The Florida Project” writer-director Sean Baker began his morning in the same way as many of us do when he suddenly discovered his star, Bria Vinaite.
“I was in one of those Instagram black holes where I’m just scrolling, scrolling, scrolling,” he said. “Somebody must have re-posted her post… a video in which I think she was talking to the camera with a blunt in her hand. She was very self-deprecating, but at the same time she had a real attitude and she was funny, she was making me laugh, and obviously she had that youthful energy about her, and I thought, Oh my God, this one’s special.”
Baker contacted the woman, who lived in Brooklyn and had no acting experience. He sent her a plane ticket to Orlando, where she auditioned after touring the locations he’d scouted for his sixth feature. Three weeks of acting lessons later, just after Vinaite turned 23, she arrived on set with her own cyan strands and a chest full of lung-shaped flower tattoos.
“I’m still very shocked that all this happened,” she said in a gauzy voice this week from a friend’s bed in her home borough. She’d just woken up and was still jet-lagged after attending Turkey’s Antalya International Film Festival, the latest stop in a press tour that has included England, Canada, France and at least five states.
The week prior, the Lithuania-born actress signed with agency ICM Partners, who might have seen her photographed alongside supermodel Karlie Kloss in Vogue’s October issue, or Drake as they exited a Toronto eatery. Soon she’ll even move into a new apartment: “Usually I go for very intense, bright things. This is the first place that I’m going to do that’s going to be all pastel, and calm.”
In “The Florida Project,” Vinaite plays Halley (pronounced “Hailey”), whom Baker envisioned as someone who dropped out of school around the time she hit puberty, fled a broken home, became a mother at 15, and never escaped the cycle of poverty. Although she directs tantrums at the adults in her life, Halley is also prone to playful rebellion, impersonating a resort guest to scam a free buffet breakfast, or frittering away her paycheck at the dollar store. She maintains likability even when doing terrible things, like taking selfies in front of a burning building.
Vinaite skipped college, but she’s compulsive learner, averaging a book a week (she just read David Sedaris’s “Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002”]. She loves Jean-Michael Basquiat and laments that she could never draw. “I always tried to find an outlet that was still artsy, that I would be able to express myself with,” she said, explaining why at age 19 she began ChroniCal Designs, a weed-friendly line of clothing and accessories (now dormant). On set, “I was just asking a million questions a day,” she laughed. “We filmed on 35mm — I didn’t know that the film was 24 frames a second and all these little tiny details.”
Vinaite’s abundant optimism is an American novelty in 2017. She wants to continue acting, particularly admires the career of Sarah Paulson, and said “The Florida Project” “makes me believe that anything in the world is possible because I never in my life thought I would be living this dream.” Expect her to be choosy about future projects, calling her debut film (Metacritic score: 92) “a hard one to top.” For now, her audition success rate remains at 100 percent.
IndieWire Honors is presented by Vizio and DTS with premier support from Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City. Watch “The Florida Project” trailer below.