New York Post


Director says he found some of his unknown ‘Florida Project’ stars in stores


‘IT’S unfortunat­ely creepy. There’s nothing you can do.”

Director Sean Baker knows his unorthodox casting meth- ods might be off-putting, but consider the results: His latest movie, “The Florida Project,” has already won raves and Oscar buzz on the festival circuit for its portrayal of a free-spirited childhood at a dingy, Disney World-adjacent motel.

Baker tells The Post he searched everywhere for his cast of mostly unknowns — including in big-box stores. “It’s best to go to Walmart or Target to see a lot of people,” he says. “I found Valeria [Cotto, one of the film’s child stars] in Target, with her mother. Her red hair stood out. I told them we were holding auditions for my film. And I made it even creepier by giving them my business card, which has a photo of my Chihuahua on it.”

Luckily for Baker, an NYU film grad whose last film, “Tangerine,” also earned critical praise, there’s the Internet. “Her mother Googled me. It’s easier now — I’m on my sixth film.”

“The Florida Project” takes place in the Sunshine State, at a motel called the Magic Castle, and centers on a 6-year-old girl (Brooklynn Prince) who, along with her ex-stripper mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), is part of the “hidden homeless” population living out of the place.

Baker found Vinaite online. “I came across Bria’s Instagram page,” he says. “She was really putting herself out there, which shows me as a director that she’s extroverte­d and likes getting in front of the camera. She was also self-deprecatin­g and carefree — and she had these amazing tattoos. So I thought, ‘Let’s roll the dice!’ ” Vinaite was eager to come onboard, but with reservatio­ns: “She said, ‘I’m not an actress. I need guidance.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get you a crash course in acting.’ ”

But it’s Prince who carries much of the movie on her small shoulders. A local, she was found through a casting agency, “so she came with a level of experience,” says the 46-year-old Baker. “But I soon realized she’s probably one of the best actors I’ve worked with, of any age.”

He points to a pivotal scene in which Prince’s character, Moonee, bursts into tears while talking to her best friend, Jancey (Cotto). “I was expecting we might have to ask certain questions to try to get her to cry,” says Baker. “Before we yelled, ‘Action!’ Valeria was having a chat with Brooklynn, saying, ‘Are we gonna have a sleepover tomorrow?’ And Brooklynn goes, ‘Um, Valeria, I’m going to have to focus right now. I have to cry.’ ”

He watched as the tiny Method actor sobbed her way through the scene. “I never get teary-eyed on my sets,” Baker says. “But in this case we were all holding back tears. When I yelled, ‘Cut!’ there was this swarm of crew members running over to her, going, ‘It’s going to be OK!’ We got it in one take.”

 ??  ?? Christophe­r Rivera, Brooklynn Prince (center) and Valeria Cotto were hired as part of filmmaker Sean Baker’s unusual star search.
Christophe­r Rivera, Brooklynn Prince (center) and Valeria Cotto were hired as part of filmmaker Sean Baker’s unusual star search.

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