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In Disney’s Seedy Shadow, the Magic and Hardship of ‘The Florida Project’

“If more stories are told about marginalized communities, subcultures and minorities, the less marginalized they will be,” he wrote.

The idea for “The Florida Project” came about five years ago, inspired by news stories about families — the “hidden homeless” — living hand-to-mouth in cheap motels after losing jobs and homes in the Great Recession. Mr. Baker and his writing and production partner, Chris Bergoch, homed in on tourist lodgings that had become quasi-welfare motels in central Florida, and plotted out a story that mirrored a Disney theme — the young princess with an imperiled mother — told from society’s underbelly. But after struggling to get financing, the pair shelved it and started on “Tangerine,” a success that would make paying for “The Florida Project” a whole lot easier.

“It was probably serendipity and perfect timing,” Mr. Baker said. “If I had made the film five years ago, Brooklynn wouldn’t have been in the film, so it all works out. I can’t imagine this without Brooklynn.”

Brooklynn is Brooklynn Prince, who plays Moonee, “The Florida Project’s” precocious, mouthy, utterly convincing young star. Mr. Baker had been looking for the modern-day equivalent of Spanky McFarlane, from the Depression-era “Our Gang” pictures, and said he knew Brooklynn was his gal within seconds of their meeting. “We really wanted a perfect package of physicality, the cuteness, the wit, the extroverted character trait of hers,” he said.


The director knew within seconds of meeting her that Brooklynn Prince was the actress to play Moonee, the linchpin of the film.

Joyce Kim for The New York Times

Now 7, Brooklynn lives with her mother, father and 7-month-old “goblin brother” (her term) in Winter Springs, north of Orlando. While she had done some modeling and a few commercials, her parents initially had doubts that she could pull off Moonee, who, for all her adorability, is more or less a foul-mouthed delinquent. Brooklynn hadn’t so much as talked back, said her mother, Courtney Prince, who is an acting coach.

“She’s never upset, never mad. She’s a really easygoing kid, and I remember telling Sean, I don’t know if she has this in her,” Ms. Prince said by Skype from their home. Ms. Prince recalled telling Brooklynn to forget acting like “a cheesy commercial girl” and instead wholly imagine herself in Moonee’s shoes, advice that helped lead to a performance that has had critics calling Brooklynn “a real find” and “a revelation.”

“I don’t cuss and I don’t yell at somebody,” Brooklynn said, comparing herself to Moonee, as she shared the Skype screen with her mom. “But I eat maple syrup and ice cream and everything she eats.”

Mr. Baker filled other crucial roles in the unconventional, painstaking manner that has become something of a hallmark, poring over social media and approaching people he spotted on the street.

He cast Valeria Cotto, a first-time actress, as Moonee’s young friend Jancey after happening upon her and her mother at Target. Christopher Rivera had been living with his family in the Magic Castle himself when Mr. Baker tapped him to play another youngster, Scooty. Mela Murder, who plays Halley’s friend and fellow single mom, landed the role after Mr. Baker saw her in the short film “Gang,” and Sandy Kane, the New York personality known as Times Square’s wizened “Naked Cowgirl,” won the part of a Magic Castle resident with a penchant for topless sunbathing.


Thanks to her Instagram posts, Bria Vinaite was hired for the role of Moonee’s wild mother.

Joyce Kim for The New York Times

Perhaps the riskiest move was hiring another first-time actress, Bria Vinaite, a heavily tattooed, free-spirited Brooklynite, to play Moonee’s mother, Halley. Mr. Baker said he had considered A-list names but was struck by the dance videos and paeans to marijuana Ms. Vinaite had posted on Instagram. Ms. Vinaite, who was born in Lithuania, grew up in Bay Ridge and left home at 17, said she almost backed out of the flight to Florida that Mr. Baker had booked for her. “I was really sketched out,” Ms. Vinaite, who is now 24, said in a recent FaceTime interview. “Am I really flying to the middle of nowhere? Am I making a smart decision?”

Mr. Baker had Ms. Vinaite prepare extensively with his partner, the actress Samantha Quan, who coached out of Ms. Vinaite a performance described on Mashable as “so natural, so seemingly effortless, that it’s tempting to believe that she’s not acting at all.”

The gravitational center of the film is held by Mr. Dafoe. His menschy character was created by Mr. Baker and Mr. Bergoch after they met real-life motel managers torn between running a business and caring for families on the brink of eviction. Mr. Dafoe, whose performance has kicked up awards talk, said that while he was conscious of being the most seasoned actor on set, his biggest job was to fit in.

“I may have slightly different skills, but I want to forget those skills,” he said, speaking from Australia, where he was filming “Aquaman.” “Anytime you can kind of forget being an actor, it’s great.”

While his character ended up being the grounding element of the film, Mr. Dafoe said what kept him grounded himself, and tethered to the reality of that world, were the real-life people living in the motels — including Christopher, and other residents who served as extras in the film. They were struggling to make it through the next week. “That,” he said, “keeps you on track.”

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