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Several major titles in this year’s Cannes lineup rested their weighty stories on the tiny shoulders of minors. Competition titles Wonderstruck from Todd Haynes and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja as well as Directors’ Fortnight entry The Florida Project from Sean Baker all feature children in key roles. But finding the right child to take on the responsibility of a lead often isn’t an easy task, and led these directors to all sorts of unexpected places.
Baker’s Florida Project, which also stars Willem Dafoe, centers on a 6-year-old girl in Florida and her gang of friends. Brooklynn Prince, the 8-year-old who plays the lead, had experience as an actress, working in commercials and smaller roles in films, but most of the other main actors were discoveries.
Determined to find his actors mostly from the neighborhoods in Florida where the film was shooting, Baker held casting calls but stumbled upon the actress who would play Prince’s best friend while shopping at Target. “I saw Valeria Cotto and her mom, and I went up to them and gave them my card,” he says. “She must have thought it was creepy with this guy walking up to her with a business card with a Chihuahua on it — my Chihuahua is on my card.”
Baker told Cotto’s mother to look him up on IMDb (which was followed by her asking, “What’s IMDb?”) and after she did, she took her daughter, then 5, to an audition call where Cotto landed the part. The other main role went to Christopher Rivera, an 8-year-old boy who lived in one of the motels where the project was shot.
For Hayne’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel telling two parallel stories of children — a boy searching for his father in the 1970s and a deaf girl who runs away to meet her favorite actress in the 1920s — he was determined to cast a deaf actress for the latter. Haynes reached out to deaf schools and communities across the U.S. and received more than 100 tapes (some wanted the part so badly, says Haynes, that a few girls who were not deaf pretended to be, in hopes of nabbing it).
Eventually, he cast 13-year-old Millicent Simmonds, who had never acted in front of cameras before. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw the phone recording that Millie did,” he says. “I felt like I saw this incredibly complete person — something really strong and unmistakable.”
Haynes’ other young lead, Oakes Fegley, is more experienced, having starred in Disney’s recent hybrid film Pete’s Dragon. “But there was something very un-Disney about him that we liked about him — he just felt extremely natural,” says Haynes. And while Fegley as only 12, it was his maturity that Haynes was drawn to in part: “He carried a little bit of the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
In the case of Bong’s Okja, he found 13-year-old South Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun, who plays the caretaker of a giant piglike creature, after seeing her work in Hwang In-ho’s 2014 film Monster. “She had her own perspective, and we shared the same views about her character,” he says. “Ms. Ahn may be young, but she but has a very strong sense of self.”
This story first appeared in the May 19 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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Melvin Van Peebles