“The Florida Project,” director Sean Baker’s Cannes Film Festival sensation, has won rave reviews and awards for its stark, sometimes harsh, reminder of the poverty in our country that many would rather avert our eyes to than acknowledge. Set at the Magic Castle, a rundown hotel where families struggle to pull together a week’s worth of rent (and also one that happens to be in the backyard of the exorbitantly priced Disney World in Orlando) it’s a progressive’s mission statement thanks to its in-your-face commentary on income inequality, the hidden homeless and the idea that Hillary Clinton may have been onto something when she wrote that “it takes a village” to raise a child.
But what makes “The Florida Project” work is that none of this seems heavy-handed or preachy. And that, in large part, is due to the casting. Baker and his producers famously fought for and scoured the country to find children who could both handle the narrative and the pressure of being the central focus of the film — especially since many had little or no acting experience.
Christopher Rivera, who was 8 when he played Scooty in the film, was actually living in a hotel not far away from the one used in the movie, and Valeria Cotto, who was 5 when she played Jancey, was discovered by Baker while she was shopping with her mom at an Orlando-area Target. Neither had acted professionally in films before, which made fellow Floridian Brooklynn Prince — who, at 6, played lead Moonee — the most experienced of the trio. She’s been at it since she was 2 and has a resume that boasts a few local commercials.
Although they were novices and scenes were shot to reflect their more innocent points of view, it would underestimate the group’s awareness and intelligence to suggest that any of them couldn’t comprehend the severity of the situations the film was depicting. Topics included everything from prostitution, stealing and pedophilia to the basic run-of-the-mill guilt trips such as swindling tourists out of their spare change so as to afford an ice-cream cone.
“We have annual Disney passes, so every day [that we went to the theme park] we’d go by the Magic Castle and there would just be kids going up the stairs and going up the hallways and running on the playground,” Prince says. “I would always wonder what’s going on. Is that an apartment or is that an office? And then, when I shot the movie, I was like, ‘this is why they’re running up the stairs every day and are on the playground. This is why they have dirty clothes on. But they’re no different [from] us. They’re not aliens from space.’ ”
Cotto says filming “The Florida Project” made her think about the poverty-stricken “all over the world.”
“You know how when people cry after the movie? It makes me cry too because it’s really emotional,” says Cotto. “You can’t handle things that happen like that. It’s really sad.” She does like the end of the movie, which involves an impromptu escape to Disney World, because her character “was saving the day.”
“The Florida Project” is also the latest in a string of recent and upcoming projects that put children and teen characters in precarious situations — and cast actual kids to play these parts.
The blockbuster remake of author Stephen King’s “It,” which was released in September, is probably the best example. Distributor Warner Bros. made no bones about its plot for anyone who wasn’t already aware of the more campy 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry. Ominous posters featured a single child and a red balloon heading for grave danger while marketing and trailers showed a group of outsiders fighting off an evil force that has taken the shape of a homicidal clown.
But there’s also director Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” (Oakes Fegley stars as a boy who loses his hearing and then travels to Manhattan from Minnesota in search of his father) and “Logan,” the latest film in the “X-Men” franchise and one that saw tween breakout Dafne Keen tear through the screen just as well as star Hugh Jackman.
On TV, in addition to the Netflix hit “Stranger Things” — again, about a group of outsiders who battle a mysterious being — there’s the upcoming adaptation of Caleb Carr’s period-set detective novel “The Alienist” (think the murdering of boy prostitutes in late-19th century New York) for TNT and of author Gillian Flynn’s small-town crime novella, “Sharp Objects,” for HBO. Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K.’s FX series “Better Things” may be a comedy, but it still has kid characters doing such activities as dating older men or questioning their gender identification.
“Usually the teenagers I see are — sorry that I’m going to use this word — bitchy teenagers or angsty,” says Sophia Lillis, 15, who is both the lone female member of the group in “It” and also will appear in “Sharp Objects.” Even more frustrating, she says, is that these characters “usually have angst [even though] it doesn’t usually make sense why they’re angsty and they don’t usually have backstories to it.”
Even “Wonder,” director Stephen Chbosky’s otherwise heart-warming film based on R.J. Palacio’s book, focuses on a fifth-grader with a facial deformity. Star Jacob Tremblay shares billing with megawatt talent that includes Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as the movie covers such topics as bullying and the struggle for inclusivity.
“I think I can speak for a lot of child actors because adult actors, I think that they have low expectations for us,” says Tremblay, who is now 11 and already has a Screen Actors Guild nomination for his role opposite Brie Larson in 2015’s “Room.” “On ‘Wonder,’ everyone was treated the same and everyone was treated with kindness. It was a really [well-]run set because Stephen had a rule that there could be no swearing. I think that it’s good to have sets that are calm. I’m pretty lucky. I get treated pretty well.”
He adds that he hadn’t read the source material for “Wonder” before he was told about the movie, but he’s happy to play the part because “it’s important to share the message of bullying.”
“Luckily, I haven’t seen anyone else being bullied at school, but I have been picked on a little bit because I’m pretty small for my age,” says Trembley, who, for the record, prefers to be described as “handsome” instead of “cute.” “I thought it was important for adults to teach their kids to choose kind.”
Nor should these stars’ ages suggest that they aren’t just as dedicated to their craft as their older co-stars. A week prior to production started on “Wonderstruck,” star Fegley, who is not hearing impaired himself, says he and director Haynes walked through Manhattan while wearing noise-cancelling headphones to attempt to experience what it’s like to live with that disability. He immediately noticed that his other senses were heightened and this added to his depiction of the character Ben. Since Ben was also coping with the recent and sudden loss of his mother, Fegley says he spent time “thinking about what it’s like to lose someone like that and putting myself in my character’s shoes, which is all you can really do to simulate that.
“Everybody has a different process and that’s really just the way I thought through that,” says Fegley, who is now 13 and whose prior credits include Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon,” CBS’ “Person of Interest” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” “That was really cool to do. In previous roles that I’ve done, I’ve not had that same grieving that Ben did.”
But take note, parents and agents reading this with visions of awards campaigns dancing in their heads: The tradition of casting actual minors for edgier material does not automatically equate to your rising star becoming the next Anna Paquin, Haley Joel Osment or Quvenzhané Wallis. More importantly, not all adult-geared drama is right for every young actor.
“There are kids that can handle it and there are kids that can’t and ultimately, it really requires thorough knowledge of the talent,” says Victoria Kress, who co-heads the New York branch of Abrams Artists Agency’s emerging talent department and who represents Lillis.
She adds that while she and her staff read each script carefully before sending them to her clients, only the children’s guardians can truly rule how comfortable they will be with such material.
“The onus is also on the parent,” Kress says. “And the parent has to have a clear knowledge and awareness of what their kid can digest and handle and what they can’t. I’ve had parents that have had scripts for certain 15-year-olds that have been like, ‘Nope my kid’s not ready for this.’ ”
Given all of these deterrents, it’s no wonder that the kids who have made it far enough in the industry to be starring in blockbusters have also built up a good deal of moxie.
“Kids who want to act should be acting,” “Wonderstruck’s” Fegley says matter-of-factly. “Any child actor who is open to [more intense] roles are at a great time in their careers where they can access that stuff.”
Still, he says, “some kids are always thinking about other things” that have nothing to do with working in Hollywood.
“If you are able to keep your focus and commit yourself to a project at that age, then you’re old enough and you’re able to try your fullest,” he says. “As long as you’re trying your fullest, the casting director will either like it or not. If they don’t like it, oh well. If they do like it, that’s awesome.”
As far as the newcomers from “The Florida Project” are concerned, they can’t wait to get back to work. Rivera, who is a huge “Harry Potter” fan, is very curious about the prospects of a film adaptation of the hit play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — although he’d happily settle for simply working with original Harry, Daniel Radcliffe.
Prince has a girl-power themed short list of talent she’d like to work with, including Gal Gadot, Daisy Ridley and (former and current child stars themselves) Millie Bobby Brown and Dakota and Elle Fanning. Cotto, who says she sings, would like to try her hand at Disney movies.
But Cotto does have one simple request for future directors and casting agents: “Just treat me [as an] equal.”