Why Bria Vinaite, The Breakout Star Of The Florida Project, Always Had A Feeling She'd Be Famous

Bria Vinaite believes in fate, and when you consider the wild turn her life has taken over the past two years, it’s easy to understand why. In 2015, Vinaite was discovered by director Sean Baker over Instagram, where, at the time, she was promoting her pot-themed clothing line and uploaded energetic monologues. Baker told her to check her email — he was interested in casting her in a project he was working on about a struggling single mother and her daughter living in the motels outside of Disney World.
Fast forward: That project became The Florida Project, a critical darling that hit theaters on Friday, October 8. Now, Vinaite is busy attending international film festivals, conducting press interviews, and having intimate dinners with Drake. As she says in her own words: "It happened really fast."
Vinaite spoke with Refinery29 about learning to act in three weeks, the power of mind control, and to settle, once and for all, whether her character is a good mother.
Refinery29: Let’s start with the basics. Can you walk us through how you were cast as Halley in The Florida Project?
Bria: “I got a direct message on Instagram one day, and it was from Sean [Baker]. He was telling me to check my email because he emailed me about a film opportunity. His page is all pictures of his dog, so I was kind of confused. But I read the email, and it was very well written. He told me a little bit about his previous work, and we got on the phone. I felt really connected to the project. I had never acted before, so I made sure to let him know that. He flew me out to Florida, where I met Brooklynn [Prince], who plays [my character's daughter] Moonnee. From the moment we met, we had this initial connection in which we just loved each other. It was very effortless to have this mother-daughter relationship with her, because she was so open to having a relationship with me. It happened really fast."
Halley’s backstory is left fairly vague in the movie. Can you tell us the backstory you made up for her while preparing for the role?
“It was so long ago that I’d have to go back to my notebook to find details. But I knew where she was born, who her parents where, why she lived in the motel, what happened with her baby['s] dad — everything. Me and the girl who played Ashley (Mela Murder) figured out our backstories. Sean didn’t want to know. He wanted us to have them so we could make these girls that much more real."
Halley is such a full character. Do you think she's a good mother?
"People have two reactions. Either they say Halley is a great mom, and really loves her daughter. Or, they say, she is a terrible mom, and she’s a horrible person. She’s selfish.
"To me, Halley is a great mom. She’s trying her best. She doesn’t have help. She doesn’t have family. She doesn’t have friends. She doesn’t have any[one] who could help her financially or help her get a job. On top of all the stresses that she’s going through, she never once tells Moonnee, ‘We can’t pay the rent, or we can’t have food.’ She never puts her struggles on her daughter. She does things she really doesn’t want to be doing because she has to provide for her daughter, and that’s the only way she knows how. She’s trying her best. People should be empathetic to others and try to understand what they’re going through."
Has playing a mother and working with so many kids influenced your own thoughts on having kids?
"I definitely feel like I’m not ready for children yet. I also feel like I got very lucky, because in my head Brooklynn is my child, and I don’t need any kids because I have her."
I’m curious about the set dynamics, because the movie’s extras were actually residents of the motel. How much did you interact with them?
"I actually hung out with two women who lived at the motel a lot, pretty much every day. They told me their stories, and were very open and welcoming, and really wanted the stories depicted correctly. They were willing to share their struggles and situations so that we could get a better understanding and tell the story the right way."
What about The Florida Project feels so important?
"In Hollywood, everything’s so glamorized and unrealistic. Sean told this story in such a unique way — it’s so real. He got it so right. We just had our Orlando premiere a few days ago, and a lot of the women I used to hang out with in motels came to the premiere and saw the movie. They said it was spot on. That was the whole goal: To tell these women’s stories in a way that portrays their every day struggles, and isn’t a made up fantasy land. We didn’t want anyone to think we were just taking their story and selling it in the Hollywood way. I’m glad we got it really right, and were doing right for these people."
Can you tell us about how you grew up, and how your life experiences were used for the role?
"I was born in Lithuania, and moved to Brooklyn when I was six or seven. I always knew I wanted to be in the arts or do something creative, but I didn’t know what route to take. I had a clothing line for a little bit, and I worked on that for three years. But I felt that there was something missing. I really wanted to find a different career path. This fell into my lap, and it worked perfectly."
Was acting your dream?
"No, not at all. I never knew I wanted to act, but this really opened my eyes. Acting is the only thing I found that I could work 12 hours a day, and genuinely be satisfied. That’s the goal in life. To find a job that feels so good that you don’t know that you’re working.
I always said that by the time I was 25, I would be really, really, really successful. I just turned 24. When I was 16 or 17, I would tell people that 23 would be my year. 23 would be the year my life changed. I turned 23 on June 10, 2015, and we started filming on June 23. I felt like that double 23 was not a coincidence."
While at Cannes, you were pictured getting dinner with Drake. What’s it like being on the celebrity gossip wheel all of a sudden? How has fame surprised you?
"It’s definitely bizarre, and something that will never feel normal. It all happened so quickly that it’s a lot to process mentally. It all comes with the territory. I understand. But it definitely is something that will take me a while to get used to."
Can you give us a story behind your tattoos?
"Most of mine are coverups, because I started getting them when I was really young, and I got some really ugly ones. I’ve been working on covering up the ones I don’t like. My chest and the one on my arm, the half-sleeve, those are both cover-ups. Honestly they have no meaning. I just wanted to put something pretty on top of something I didn’t like. My favorite things are flowers and butterflies, so I went with that."
Do you believe in fate?
"Oh, I do. I do believe in fate. I’m also really big on manifesting. Me and my friends, when we hang out, would always say the craziest things. Watch this happen, watch this happen. And then it happens. I feel like everyone knows their minds are powerful, but the way life’s been past few weeks — things are happening. It made me realize if you believe in yourself and put things out there, it really just works."
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