Despite casting Willem Dafoe and working with a $2 million budget — the biggest in Sean Baker’s career — the director knew that his sixth feature, “The Florida Project,” couldn’t abandon what’s become his personal trademark: populating his films with untapped talent.
“For me, Spike Lee was always one that really did it right,” Baker said. “He would have big A-list stars in his films, and then he would always give fresh faces to some of the bigger supporting characters. He would be introducing so many new faces to the world, new talent to the industry, which is I think really important.”
“The Florida Project” has received glowing reviews (IndieWire gave it an A-, and it’s currently rated 95 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and received multiple awards, including Golden Globes and SAG nominations for Dafoe. Yet to Baker’s dismay, critics often describe his cast as “non-actors” and “non-professionals.”
“The industry hears that, and they don’t give these people a second chance… ’Oh, this is a one-off,’” Baker said. “Or they hear the word ‘non-professional’ and then they subconsciously think, ‘unprofessional.'” (Baker prefers “first-timers.”)
However, casting “The Florida Project” was a highly professional, even complex, operation. Baker hired casting director Carmen Cuba, whose resume includes Steven Soderbergh (“Behind the Candelabra”) and Ridley Scott (“All the Money in the World”), as well as “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Stranger Things.” They worked with an Orlando casting agent, Patti Wiley of CROWDshot casting.
Carmen extended the offers to Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones (“Get Out,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), who portray father and son. “You had Carmen doing sort of the Hollywood casting side of things,” said Baker. “There’s a responsibility to the financier to make their money back… audiences get a comfort out of [seeing familiar faces],” he said.”‘The box-office draw,’ that’s a real thing.”
Much has been made of Baker’s social-media discovery, Bria Vinaite. Then a 23-year-old designer of a marijuana-themed clothing line, she’s since appeared in Vogue and has found talent agency reresentation. As Baker told IndieWire earlier this year: “I was in one of those Instagram black holes where I’m just 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… I thought, ‘Oh my God, this one’s special.’”
Baker found an onscreen best friend-turned-fight opponent for Vinaite in Mela Murder, an actress he remembered from “Gang,” a 17-minute short film by director Clayton Vomero. For the role of a tourist, Baker recruited Macon Blair “because I’ve seen him do wonderful work in Jeremy Saulnier’s films.”
GANG from Clayton Vomero on Vimeo
With six weeks before filming began in June 2016, Baker was already in Kissimmee, Florida, not yet accompanied by his crew. “When I would go to Wal-Mart or Target, I would always keep my eyes open” for street-casting opportunities, he said. One night, “something told me to go to Target,” so he took a milk run that he didn’t need. “There’s this little girl with this vibrant red hair,” he said, describing Valeria Cotto. “I went up to her mother and I gave her my card, and I said, ‘You can Google me, and please bring your child in for an audition.’”
Cotto auditioned well for the role of Jancey, Moonee’s neighbor whom she hazes, then befriends, but there was a problem that left Baker “pulling hair out”: She was five years old, and would not be turning six until production wrapped. “That changes everything, because that shaves off an additional two hours out of the day because of child labor laws,” Baker said. “My producers were like [mimes yelling], ‘Well can’t you just find a six-year-old?’ And I said, ‘But she’s so good’… we had to reschedule just to use Valeria.”
However, perhaps the most breakout casting came through Wiley’s Orlando-based CROWDshot casting. Wiley was particularly suited to the task: She had been a child of Florida motels herself.
“My mom was a single mom, doing her very best, and she was a maid, and so we paid our bills that way — she cleaned the rooms,” said Wiley, who lived in motels from five years old, until she was 13. Scouting Magic Castle Inn & Suites, which served as the film’s primary location, “I would see these kids in these little rooms and it would bring back those memories…That was me.”
“Why only give opportunities to people who are already financially well off?” Baker asked. “We were making a film about the motel, so we asked motel residents: ‘If you want your kids to be in the film, we’d like very much for them to be considered.'”
Among those cast from the motels were Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who rounds out Moonee and Jancey’s trio; Moonee’s body double, and background kids.
The breakout came from the toughest role to cast, Moonee. Here the proximity to Disney proved a drawback: Some kids, Baker said, “you could tell they were practicing at home and they were way too polished.”
Confirmed Wiley — whose prior credits include “Iron Man 3,” the “Dolphin Tale” films, and HBO’s “Ballers” — “You could see the disappointment on Sean’s face. Literally, he was ready to scrap the whole thing, because he’s like, ‘I can’t find Moonee. There’s no reason to shoot this film.'”
After vetting hundreds of kids for Moonee’s role, Wiley returned to her company’s database. “I was sitting at midnight, looking on my computer, going through all the kids’ headshots,” said Wiley. She said she was grateful for the distraction, having recently lost her partner of 24 years to a brain aneurysm.
“I feel so bad for [Baker] because I know what he’s looking for, and [Prince’s] face pops up… It could sell water to a camel.” Prince, then six, was the daughter of an acting coach who was once an agent; she had been acting since age two, mostly in commercials. Wiley and Baker called her in.
“We’d put them in scenarios,” Baker said. “We would say, ‘Okay, you three are the bullies, and I’m going to be the younger kid in the pool, and you’ve got to kick us out of the pool, but you have to give us reasons why you’re kicking us out of the pool.’ Some kids would just be like, ‘Get out of the pool! Get out of the pool!’ But then you would have somebody like Brooklynn who would take it to the next level and be like, ‘You know, you’re not cool enough to be in the pool. You know why you’re not cool? You’re not cool because you don’t even get to stay up past 8 p.m., that’s why you’re not cool.’”
“In the audition, [Prince] was really shining,” he said. “She had that cuteness, and that energy, and the wit. But we didn’t know that she was going to be able to deliver the emotional stuff… I guess we just realized what a smart young girl she was, and that she could probably go to those places.”
She got the part, plus a Breakthrough Actor nomination at the Gotham Awards. Wiley also got a part; she’s the Magic Castle’s weary desk clerk.
As for the first-timers’ lives after “The Florida Project,” Baker said, “We do try to manage expectations very, very early on… fearing that there isn’t going to be a life change.”
He cites his Price Adu (“Prince of Broadway”), Besedka Johnson (“Starlet”), and Karren Karagulian (every Baker film) as people who have “not been able to have a break by the industry, and it’s really frustrating. You have to then think whether there’s racism involved. My black actors and my Latino actors, they haven’t gotten as much attention.”
There are exceptions, however; “Tangerine” star Mya Taylor, who was the subject of the first Academy Awards campaign for transgender actresses (leading the way for Daniela Vega, a Best Actress hopeful for “A Fantastic Woman”) was recently cast in the AMC series “Dietland” from Marti Noxon (“UnREAL,” “Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce). Baker’s greatest hope for his discoveries, wherever they’re found, is that the actors “will be accepted by the industry and be taken seriously.”
‘The Florida Project’ is in theaters now.
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