How 'The Florida Project' Cast Its 8-Year-Old Leading Actress

The Florida Project Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of A24

"I truly believe she's in the same camp as a Mickey Rooney or a Jodie Foster," says experimental helmer Sean Baker, who discovered two of his three young stars locally in Florida.

Where does one find a trio of rambunctious children who can star in a movie about rambunctious children living in a motel outside of Disney World? If you're director Sean Baker, you find them anywhere you can — even at the local Target.

Brooklynn Prince, the 8-year-old who plays the lead character in The Florida Project, had experience as an actress (mostly in commercials), but, this time, an entire film rested on her small shoulders.

"Brooklynn is truly amazing. Before making this film, I was always skeptical about child performances," says Baker. "I truly believe she's in the same camp as a Mickey Rooney or a Jodie Foster. She's one of those where I can see her going on to have a lifelong, very strong career." Says Willem Dafoe, who plays the motel manager who becomes a father figure for Prince's character, "Sean has a particular talent working with the kids and letting them be free."

The other main actors were discoveries, basically from off the street. Baker, who has a knack for finding unknowns and then directing them in his films, was determined to cast mostly from the neighborhoods in Florida where the film was shooting, so he held casting calls and found 8-year-old Christopher Rivera in one of the motels the director was planning to use as a location. He stumbled upon the actress who would play Prince's other best friend when he was shopping at Target. "I saw Valeria Cotto and her mom, and I went up to them and gave them my card," says Baker. "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 research him on IMDb, which she did before signing up her daughter for the project.

The project's other happy ending? The three young stars are best friends. 

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.