It was right around this time last year that Moonlight began to crystallize as an Oscar contender, having carved a steady wave of buzz through festivals in Telluride and Toronto, and ultimately to the New York Film Festival. It was there that audiences and critics unanimously embraced the eventual Oscar Best Picture winner. This year, The Florida Project appears to be on a similar trajectory, having just bowed at NYFF this week. First earning buzz at Cannes where it was snapped up by A24, also the studio and distributor behind Moonlight, the Sean Baker film shines a light on Florida’s hidden homeless, telling the story of a young girl and her childhood friends, who reside in decrepit motels on the outskirts of Disneyworld.

The film is a sunset-drenched heartburn that powerfully transposes the escapism of childhood against a minefield of class traumas. As we follow young Moonee (the charming and lively Brooklynn Prince, only 6 when she shot the film) and her friends Jancey and Scooty (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) through the marshes, parking lots, and strip malls of the disenchanted Disneyscape of Orlando, we can’t help but immerse ourselves in their world of mischief with a sense of, yes, nostalgia, but also the awareness that everything going on around them threatens their well-being at every turn.

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project.

Willem Dafoe gives a heartfelt and deeply naturalistic performance as Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle Motel, where Moonee and her mother, Halley (a magnetic and brash Bria Vinaite), resentfully dwell. Consensus appears to be forming that a Best Supporting Actor statuette for Dafoe—utterly lovable in this role—would be long overdue. But it’s 7-year-old Prince whose star turn as Moonee has pundits wondering if she could become the youngest performer ever to win an Academy Award (Tatum O’Neal still holds that record—she was 11 when she won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for 1973’s Paper Moon). It also can’t hurt that Drake is a fan.

It’s true that every couple of years, we meet a bright young child star who becomes a staple of the awards circuit, Jacob Tremblay and Quvenzhane Wallis being two recent examples. While it can be concerning that kids so young can be exposed to the finnicky, harsh spotlight that some people have trouble navigating even in adulthood, Prince and Baker, chatting from a room at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, put those worries on ice. In conversation, it's clear that Prince gravitates to the spotlight. She's just having a blast, and still makes time to annoy her siblings and watch her favorite cartoons—that is, when she isn’t hanging out with Gary Oldman.

When did you start acting?

Brooklynn Prince: I was two. My mom started out as an agent and she quit—actually, I don’t know what really happened—but she ended up being an acting coach. My Mimi kept saying, “Come on! You can get into acting!” But my mom was like, “Oh no.”

Sean Baker: Brooklyn’s Mimi is her grandmother.

Prince: She’s my grandmother, some people call her Mimi. So, I had my first audition and it went well, and I thought it was fun! I did my first modeling job, and had more and more auditions, then I got into this big movie, which I wasn’t expecting. It came out of nowhere, with this nice Sean, right here…

What was the casting process like for the character of Moonee?

Baker: We put out a local casting call in Orlando and the entire county. Brooklynn’s name happened to be in the database of CrowdShot, which is a local casting company. We looked at her headshots, we thought her physicality was perfect for the role, but we had her come in to audition. Within seconds of her being in the room, I knew that she would be in the film. I wasn’t 100% sure if she would be Moonee but I had a very good—

Prince: —idea. [Laughs.]

Baker: [Laughs.] Yeah. It was just a very fun audition. She was actually auditioning at the same time as [costar] Christopher Rivera, and the two of them were doing exercises to get energized and it was hilarious. I was watching these two little kids create their own boot camp. He was doing push-ups and she was doing squats. So even before they actually started doing the scene, I was already taken with them.

Christopher Rivera with Prince.

How did you prepare Brooklynn for the role and get her into character once you decided she would be Moonee?

Baker: Well, Brooklynn had already had experience, so she worked with my acting coach Samantha Quan to get to the places we needed. But I have to tell you, Brooklynn is a born thespian. She got it. She was memorizing the lines we had written for her, but then on set we were able to ask her if she could sometimes make those words her own. If we needed her to improvise she has that capability. So it was really about spending time leading up to the shoot. It was about making sort of a summer camp for the kids. I was hoping—and she can tell you whether or not this is true—I was hoping that it would be fun for them and an experience they would never forget.

Prince: Yeah, it was. And they let me drink one whole Sprite! [Laughs.]

Brooklynn, your character says a lot of bad words in this movie. Were your parents nervous to let you take this part?

Brooklynn: Yeah. I had just turned six. I’ve heard the S word and the B word. I just knew those words. I didn’t know about the rest. Then, when I read the script, my mom and dad were like, “Oh my god. If you say these words at home you’re going to get in big, big trouble.” And I’m like, “What?” But they felt good about that because Sean really kept all of us safe.

Baker: I remember that moment when we made the decision on the three children. We were in a back room of a casting company and we brought the parents in. I said to the parents, “I love your kids. I would be honored to cast them in this film. I hope you’ll agree to it. But you have to understand one thing, there is profanity that they will be hearing and sometimes uttering. We have to be on the same page that this is okay, but we’re going to work with the kids and make sure that these are only words that are said between me saying ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ not to be used in real life and not to be used off the set.” I think we were all in agreement. And these kids are very mature; they understand. They’re respectful and that’s what it comes down to.

Did you feel like you were playing or pretending while filming in Florida?

Prince: Yes. My mom and dad always said to me growing up, they said, “Brooklynn, always play. You can play all day until you go to bed!” I’m just used to playing and being a kid!

How do you keep having fun when you’re on the road?

Prince: I like to bother my dad, or whoever is with me. I like to be annoying. Sometimes I like to annoy my brother—that keeps me entertained. [Laughs.] I like the hotels, and being on the balconies. Actually, we had an accident. Val [Cotto, her costar] accidentally dropped one of my playing cards off the balcony! [Laughs.] And it was one of the queens. So I was like... awww. But it’s fun.

Have you become good friends with Valeria and Christopher from making the movie?

Prince: Yeah, they’re pretty cool, and don’t forget Aiden [Malik, who plays Dicky in the film]! Actually, Val and I became best friends at the casting. So we play best friends in the movie and we’re best friends in real life. I met her and I just knew, that was going to be it.

With Bria Vinaite, who plays Prince's mom in the film.

Marc Schmidt

The movie is so much about Moonee’s relationship with her mom. Was it difficult to act like somebody with a different mom?

Prince: No, I just pretended Bria was my mom!

Baker: Bria actually came down to Orlando a month out from shooting. She spent an entire month before we even needed her to really hang out with the kids and also get a crash course in acting. She was very green.

Prince: Green?

Baker: Right, green, which means that she wasn’t experienced. She wasn’t even as experienced as you, Brooklynn. The wonderful thing is that the way that these two interacted was very sibling-like. And that’s what I was going for with the characters. The Halley character had her child when she was around 15 years old. She was a kid having a kid. So I always wanted them to have more of a sisterly relationship than a maternal one, even though the maternal relationship shines through at the end, and it feels very real.

Prince: Quite real!

Brooklynn, is The Florida Project the first R-rated movie you’ve seen?

Prince: Oh, yes.

What are some of your other favorite movies?

Prince: Right now, I love Leap! That’s my favorite one ever…. ever! And I liked Maleficent, Star Wars, Harry Potter. But I also like Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes. So I’m half pow-and-wow, and half cartoons. I liked Wonder Woman too! It’s out on DVD, so go get it at Wal-Mart!

Now that you’ve gone to three film festivals, you must be meeting a lot of movie stars. Have you gotten to meet anyone you’re very excited about?

Prince: [Dramatically] Why do you ask? Have you seen my new follower on Instagram? I’ll save that one for last. I met Gary Oldman... I’m really good friends with him. Helen Mirren, Emma Roberts, and Zachary Quinto. And now for my new follower on Instagram—drumroll please!.. Elle Fanning!... I know, right?

Baker: That one was really special for Brooklynn. We were in Toronto. She came by and talked for a while.

Prince: I’ll tell the whole story: We were at that Hollywood Reporter place and we were about to take pictures, right Sean? I was sitting there on the couch with Bria, and all of the sudden I hear someone out of the corner of my ear go, “Brooklynn! Get out!” And I was like... you’ve gotta be kidding me. I’m like, "No, there is not—" And then I see someone and I go, Is that Elle? “Elle!” And then she turned around and I was like [Screams.]. I ran all the way over to her and I hugged her, and we just talked for a little bit about the movie and how I was her biggest fan, and, oh my gosh that was the best day of my life, ever.

I love that story!

Prince: Yeah, me too.

Rivera, Prince, and Valeria Cotto.

Sean, what was it like for you to go into this second feature and to create this story from a kid’s perspective?

Prince: [Impersonating Sean in a deep, gravelly voice.] Um, well, it was great working with Brooklynn, she’s great, and Valeria is pretty cool. Christopher, I liked working with him. So, uh, they’re the best actors in the world. Sean can’t answer right now…

Baker: [Laughs.] Working with Brooklynn, she has a professionalism that matches any seasoned actor I’ve worked with. Also, it’s crazy as a director to ask a six-year-old to improvise, but I saw that she had that capability. You saw the film, so you saw that last scene where she’s eating at brunch, you know we just rolled 20 minutes documenting her eating. Of course she got through the scripted lines in maybe a minute or minute and a half, but then we had 18 minutes just watching her, conversing with her, and letting her come up with lines. She came up with some really wonderful lines, like that pregnant line—it’s an incredible moment. I only said, I would not make this film unless I found the presence of a Spanky McFarland, and she has matched his talent.

Prince: Spanky McFarland?

Baker: Spanky, from The Little Rascals. And it was just... I learned a lot. I learned a lot about working with children, but the thing is, is that I was also working with such a professional that it made my job easy.

Prince: Thank you so much, Sean!

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