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‘The Florida Project’ director, stars discuss new film with Angelus

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The director and cast members of "The Florida Project" speak with Angelus about the powerful new film.

“It’s very nice to meet you; can I get you something to drink?” asks Brooklynn Prince, one of the stars of the new film “The Florida Project,” as I sit down with her at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel for the film’s recent press junket. This may seem like an ordinary interaction, except for the fact that Prince is only seven years old.

Yes, she gushes with excitement over being in a fancy hotel, the friendship she formed with her “BFF” fellow child co-star Valeria Cotto and getting to meet her idol Elle Fanning at a recent film festival just like any kid her age would. But she looks you in your eye and answers your questions like someone much older.

Similarly, in “The Florida Project” — which tells the story of low-income families living in Orlando-area motels largely through the eyes of pint-sized firecracker Moonee — Prince demonstrates the capacity of an actress far beyond her years to carry the dramatic weight of a film. As you watch Moonee stir up mischief with her friends, joyfully finding fun and adventure within the destitute margins they inhabit — pretending an abandoned building is a haunted house, faking asthma so that a stranger will buy them ice cream — your eyes may widen with the same childlike wonder displayed by the kids onscreen. And in the film’s third act, when Moonee’s eyes well up with tears as she becomes more cognizant of the gravity of her living situation, your eyes may very well again mirror hers, as it dawns on you that these impishly spunky kids have stolen your heart.

“She’s simply one of the best actors — of any age — I’ve ever encountered,” says director Sean Baker of Prince, who booked her first acting gig at the age of three. “She’s intelligent beyond her years, warm-hearted, positive and loves to act.”

“It was really beautiful; they did such a good job,” says co-star Bria Vinaite of her onscreen daughter and fellow child actors Cotto and Christopher Rivera. “It made me so proud; every day I’d watch them work so hard and really give it their all. It was so admirable; I can’t imagine being that age and having that much responsibility every day, and they did it with such ease. I was so proud of every single one of them.”

Vinaite herself is nearly 20 years Prince’s senior, but she’s actually greener than Prince from an acting standpoint, as “The Florida Project” marks not just her first feature film, but her first credit of any kind. Despite not having any acting experience prior to portraying Moonee’s troubled yet sympathetic mother Halley, Vinaite, whose neck and chest area is decorated with tattoos that look like they would have been handpicked by Halley, brings such raw honesty and effortless nuance to the role that you’ll likely ask yourself, “Where the heck has she been?!”

And the answer to that question is actually quite interesting: Vinaite was operating an online clothing company out of New York City, when she received a direct message via Instagram from Baker who, amused by her whimsical Instagram account, had a gut feeling that Vinaite was the Halley he was looking for.

“She’s not embarrassed or in any way intimidated by the camera; you could see that on her Instagram, how she’s carefree and confident,” says Baker on his logic behind pursuing Vinaite for the role. “Even though I knew that she might have to take a crash course in acting and get her to a place where she understands blocking and repetition and all that, there was something telling me that this was going to work. She wasn’t your typical Instagram girl that just puckers for selfies; she was making me laugh, not taking herself too seriously and just embodied that carefree attitude I was going for.”

Initially, Vinaite thought that Baker’s Instagram message was a prank, but she soon learned that Baker was, in fact, an accomplished director whose offer was a serious one. And before she knew it, Vinaite, who had never even read a movie script before, much less portrayed a major character in one, was boarding a plane for Orlando. “It all happened so fast that I didn’t totally process it until I got on the plane to go film,” recalls Vinaite. “And I was on the plane thinking to myself, ‘What did I sign myself up for? There’s no turning back!’ It’s been such a surreal experience, and I can’t believe it all started with Sean DM-ing me. It’s nuts!”

Indeed, Vinaite felt pressure to deliver, portraying a single mother who encounters such dire financial straits that she prostitutes herself to keep a roof over Moonee’s head. But the strength of the script, which Baker penned in collaboration with writing partner Chris Bergoch, convinced her this was an extraordinary opportunity to which she simply couldn’t say “no.” “I read a lot, so for something to make me feel emotional just from reading it on paper, that’s hard to find,” assesses Vinaite. “The first time I read the script, I cried. And the fact that I felt so emotional from reading it made me know that it was something special. I just clicked with the character instantly. I was really excited to explore who she was as a person, and I was so thankful that Sean trusted me and gave me the opportunity.”

With Baker, trusting unknowns like Vinaite and Prince with major acting opportunities is far from being a rarity, and has, in fact, become somewhat of a calling card for him. Each of the multitalented Baker’s last five films have featured brand new discoveries in starring roles. And with Vinaite and Prince, Baker’s rolling of the dice has once again rendered enormous rewards. “It’s definitely something that I like doing,” says Baker of his tendency to cast first-timers and unknowns. “And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll figure a way around it, reducing their character or something, but often I don’t have to do that. I’ve been very lucky to find first-timers who have the skill and are able to learn very quickly.”

In “The Florida Project’s” impressive lineup of raw talent that Baker has assembled, however, perhaps his most fortuitous casting decision stemmed from his gut feeling that the role of Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle motel that Halley and Mooney inhabit, should be portrayed by a veteran actor. And Baker got exactly the guy he wanted from the beginning: versatile screen legend Willem Dafoe. Most contemporary moviegoers associate Dafoe with portraying villains, perhaps most famously the Green Goblin in the first “Spiderman” franchise. But Baker, well aware of Dafoe’s tremendous range, which Baker first remembers witnessing as a teenager seeing the film “Platoon” in theaters, was supremely confident that Dafoe was the perfect choice for the unassuming and proficient Bobby who, just as he manages the motel, must manage the daily stress of knowing he may have to evict a family who can’t pay their rent.

“There was something that told me he could do the ‘everyman’ and, because he is so transformative, he will be willing to work with me to develop this character,” says Baker of casting Dafoe. “What was wonderful was that he was so patient and so kind and so willing to work with the kids and all the first-timers. ... He knows he’s a recognizable face, and I was always scared that the audience would get taken out of it almost immediately because they recognize him. He was also cognizant of this, so he did everything he could do to blend in, even getting a spray tan and coming to set with a list of accessories that he assembled after talking to different hotel managers. It was really cool to see him take the time to develop this character.”

“I’ve always aspired to be the kind of actor who, when people see you on the screen, they don’t think you’re an actor” echoes Dafoe, whose multifaceted turn as Bobby will likely make him a strong contender for Best Supporting Actor at next year’s Oscars. “Of course, after you’ve done many movies [113, to be exact], it’s hard to have people not have some associations, but I like to try to undermine those associations.”

The character of Bobby is an amalgamation of motel managers in the Kissimmee area who Baker interviewed. He was so struck by these frank conversations, during which many of the managers shared staggering details about the daily challenges they encounter, that it inspired him to alter the course of the script.

“At first, before I had even traveled down there, we were thinking this was going to be a mother-daughter story and that would be the extent of it,” recalls Baker. “But then we started interviewing a few hotel managers, one in particular who was struggling so much with the concern that he’d have to be put in a position to evict one of these families and put them on the street, because he has to keep his job and keep it professional, even though he has a true compassion for them. And it struck me, ‘This poor guy who probably isn’t making that much money … yet he has to go home and live with this every night. And that’s what really inspired the Bobby character for me.”

In a lesser script, characters like Bobby, Halley and Moonee could have easily become caricatures, victims of all-too familiar ground: the landlord with his mind on the rent, the hooker with a heart of gold, the naive child, etc. But the “The Florida Project” never strikes a false note, and, just like Halley herself, never lets severity of her situation detract from Moonee’s joyful zest for life. It’s a testament to both the outstanding performances as well as to Baker and Gerboch’s proclivity for depicting real, layered people living out raw, warts-and-all slices of life.

“My goal is always to keep things based in realism and true behavior,” explains Baker. “I love people watching; I love observing. I think what happens often, especially in the case of a character like Halley, is they get sanctified and portrayed as pure victims of circumstance who don’t have any flaws and are just doing their best they can for the love of their child, at which point the audience goes, ‘That’s a saint. That’s not a person I know. I can’t connect with that person anymore.’ Therefore, they can’t empathize anymore. Yeah, she’s not the best mom — she has no formal education, no support system — and that’s what makes her human. And so I hope audiences will then see the truth in that character.”

Baker first decided that he wanted to tell the story of people like Halley who eke through life within the walls of motels when Bergoch presented news articles to Baker that illustrate the issue as a national epidemic, which, for Baker, was truly an eye-opening discovery. “Of course, I was aware of the country’s homelessness issue, but I was never aware of families living in motels who are quite literally one night away from being put out in the street if they can’t come up with the money,” says Baker. “And because I didn’t know about it, I thought to myself, ‘I’d like to shine a light on this. I don’t think it’s widely known, but I think it’s something that should be.’ Awareness, after all, is the first step toward change.”

So why, you might ask, did Baker and Bergoch choose Orlando as the setting to tell Moonee’s tale? “We decided to set it in the Orlando area [to show] the juxtaposition of kids growing up in motels with what’s considered the happiest place on earth right next door,” says Baker in reference to Disney World, which Walt Disney himself referred to as “the Florida project” when the world-renowned park was in its early phases of construction. “And it wasn’t just the irony; it was more than that. It was showing the audience, ‘Look, if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere, and it might even be happening in your hometown. Just look.’ ”

Members of the cast matched their director’s diligence when it came to research, likewise arriving to the set two weeks before principal photography began and conducting interviews with people who actually live in motels like the Magic Castle. And just like their director, they were astounded by the revelatory accounts the residents and people in the community shared with them.

“I learned many things, but perhaps the most haunting was that almost every motel resident I met seemed shocked that they were in the situation they were in,” shares Dafoe.

“When I met other people in the motels and I asked them how they liked it, just hearing about their lives helped me form the character and made me realize I am mostly luckier than Moonee,” adds Prince.

But some of the conversations the cast had with the locals were, much like the film itself, unexpectedly uplifting and brimming with optimism. “It was really interesting to me that, as much as they were struggling, they were still really happy,” Vinaite says of the motel residents with whom she spoke. “It helped me put things into perspective in my life. I thought about the things that stress me out or that I get sad about, and compared it to how happy they are even with the stress they face in their situation. [It] helped me let a lot of things go.”

It is with this same sense of optimism that Baker hopes “The Florida Project” will serve as a vessel for increasing audiences’ awareness about poverty in their own communities. “I went down there trying to find a villain and I found, quite honestly, while it does require more attention from the federal government —the villain is really the recession of ‘08 and the housing crisis that came right after. Everybody was affected by this. And as I started talking to the local government and agencies that deal with social services, as well as the residents and the local business owners, I started to realize that everybody is actually doing their best to eradicate it. Everybody is trying. My hope is that people will walk away from this loving the movie so much that they’ll be thinking about the real Mooney’s out there and think, ‘Maybe there’s a real Mooney in my own community.’”

As visually stunning (Baker takes full advantage of Florida’s breathtaking natural lighting, sights and sounds) as it is narratively nuanced and dynamic, “The Florida Project” — which is rated R — has the potential to linger not only on the minds of audiences seeking social change in America, but also on the minds of Academy members come February. Just as with last year’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight,” A24 has found, once again, an unforgettable Florida tale with “little engine that could” potential to surprise everyone at the Oscars.

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