Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera, the three child stars of Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” stopped by the Variety offices to discuss the poignant coming-of-age drama set in a welfare motel outside Disney World. In the film, Prince plays Moonee, a precocious 6-year-old left to her own devices while her spirited mom struggles to make ends meet, and Cotto and Rivera are her two best friends. Over the course of one summer, this ragtag trio embarks on a series of mischievous adventures, winning over the hearts of everyone on their path, including the motel’s craggy manager, played by Willem Dafoe.
How did you all get cast in this film?
Valeria Cotto: Can I tell you the story? Once upon a time, there lived my mom, my uncle, myself and my siblings. We were walking around a Target store, and Sean [Baker] approached us. And he gave us this business card that had his two dogs on it, but on the other side it had his name and his email. He said, “Call me if you want to audition.” I really wanted to act, because I watch TV a whole lot, so when I heard I could probably be in a movie, I was like, “This is my chance!” So when we went home my mom said, “Do you want to do this?” And I said, ‘Absolutely!” And I go to audition, and the first day I meet these two kids [points to Brooklynn and Christopher] and they’re my best friends now, and when I heard they got the part and I got the part, I was like, “Yay I get to be with my friends and I get to be in a movie!”
Brooklynn Prince: I did a commercial for Chuck E. Cheese. I’ve done acting since I was 2. I was in modeling, then I did commercials.
Christopher Rivera: This was my first movie, but I did something before. I think it might have been for TV. I forget what it’s called, but I remember running and somebody was chasing after me.
What was your favorite part about making this film?
Prince: That we got to make a family.
Rivera: We got to shoot for two months.
Prince: It wasn’t two months. It was 35 days!
Rivera: I loved that we got to eat, be funny and make new friends. I liked that we go to eat gummy bears in one scene.
How did you like working with Sean Baker?
Cotto: Sean was amazing to work with because he’d always be patient with us. He’d treat us equally. Sean, he loves us, and he’s an amazing director. Who doesn’t like him?
Prince: My favorite thing about Sean was that he was nice, he was patient and he was always there for us if we didn’t know any lines. We were equals, and he wanted to play with us.
The film tackles some pretty serious topics, like poverty.
Prince: What’s poverty?
It’s when you’re poor and don’t have enough money, like the characters in the film.
Prince: Oh, yeah.
Have you seen the film?
Rivera: Yeah, but we can watch it because we’re the stars of the movie.
Cotto: People that are reading this, this is rated R. Not for children. Capiche?
Prince: When I saw it I was amazed. Like mind blown!
Cotto: When I saw the movie, my hands were shaking.
Rivera: Her whole body was shaking.
Cotto: I was crying. I was sobbing.
Brooklynn, what was it like working with Bria Vinaite, who plays your mom in the film?
Prince: We had so much fun together. I mean, it was like she was my real mom. We have so many funny memories. One time we knocked on the door to see if she could come to me and Val’s room, and then she was napping.
Rivera: I’m like, “can you come outside?” And then she was like, “for what?” And I’m like, “to go to my room,” and she’s like, “no I need a nap first.” And then I came back 20 minutes later and then another 20 minutes later. And the window’s open and I hear her snoring.
Cotto: You know that scene where we’re like dancing on the bed? Every time we’re always dancing so funky and all crazy, and once we were jumping on the bed, and we were like five little monkeys, jumping on the bed, and then we actually fell off the bed!
Do you have any favorite scenes from the film?
Prince: My favorite scene is the rain scene with me and Bria, because it kind of shows what Bria feels. She feels sad on the inside because she’s gonna lose her daughter, but on the outside she wants to have fun.
What about the scene where you ask a stranger for money to buy an ice cream? That was sort of heartbreaking, too.
Prince: I was like, “OK, what are we trying to do? Are we trying to take people’s money or something?”
Cotto: They were set people who were hired to do it.
Rivera: And I’m like, Brooklynn, “take the money from the lady.” I’m like, “come on!”
Cotto: We ate 45 cones. My favorite flavor is mint chocolate chip.
Prince: Mine, too! We’re like twins! But by the way, the ice cream was actually sugar-free because of Sean Baker. Boo!
There’s a really powerful scene in which you all burn down an abandoned condominium complex. What was that like to film?
Rivera: It was awesome. I’m like, “Let it burn!”
Prince: Um, I was supposed to light it and when they handed me that lighter, I was like, “no.”
Cotto: When we burned down the condos that was kind of scary because it’s like burning, but the fire wasn’t actually real. There was a guy in there that was like making the fire happen.
Prince: But we actually thought we really put it on fire, and we’re like, “we’re so sorry!” And they’re like, “no, no, it’s fine.”
What was it like working with Willem Dafoe?
Prince: I’m a huge fan of him. He was so cool. He was in “Spider-man.” When I found out I’m like running around the house shouting, “I’m gonna meet Willem Dafoe!” And he’s in “Spider-man”! I love Marvel!
Rivera: He was like a dude.
Cotto: When I heard Willem Dafoe [was in the movie] I was like, “Who’s Willem Dafoe?” And then my mom’s like, “you do not know Willem Dafoe? Oh my goodness.” And she showed me a picture of him. She’s like, “so he’s gonna be playing the manager.” And she told me how many movies he’s been in and I’m like, “oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I’m meeting a superstar! Can I have an autograph?” He was in “Finding Dory” and he played Gill!
Brooklynn, in the last scene of the movie, you cry, and it’s such a beautiful moment. Can you cry on cue?
Prince: I just did it. They called out, one, two, three … and then I just did it. We did it in one take.
Is it exciting to be in a movie that is out in the theaters? What do your friends at school think?
Cotto: Well, I’m not a big movie star.
Rivera: I’m the biggest movie star.
Prince: I’m not a movie star, I’d just say I’m —
Cotto: A star?
Prince: I’m just myself.
So what’s next acting-wise? Is there anybody with whom you’d like to work?
Prince: I want to work with Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning, Emma Watson, Daisy Ridley, Gal Gadot, Millie Bobby Brown, Ariana Grande, even if she’s not an actress.
Rivera: I want to be in a movie with Tom Cruise and Daniel Radcliffe. But right now we’re just promoting our movie.
Prince: I love promoting our movie!
Cotto: Hey, everyone! Enjoy “The Florida Project.” It’s in theaters everywhere. We’ll be coming to your city or country soon. We love you! Goodbye!