In 2016, Vinaite had no plans to pursue acting (“It just seemed impossible to accomplish”) and was making money in New York from her weed-themed clothing business on social media. But then, she received a direct message on Instagram.
The DM was from Tangerine director Sean Baker, who asked her to check her emails about an offer to audition for his latest movie. Baker had stumbled across then 23-year-old Vinaite’s feed—an eclectic mix of selfies and playful videos—and thought she would be perfect for The Florida Project.
“I don’t know what the first post was that he saw, but he ended up looking through my whole page and thought I was really like carefree and funny and he really liked that vibe for Halley,” Vinaite recalls.
About a week or two later, she flew out to Los Angeles to audition and was successful. “He had reached out to me on May 8th of 2016 and we were filming by the middle of June.”
Like Baker’s previous film Tangerine, many of the cast—with the exception of Golden Globe-nominated Willem Dafoe—were real people or first-time actors. To prepare, Vinaite had two weeks of acting lessons and connected with real families in Florida.
“I met with a lot of the women who lived in motels in the area and they were really helpful by telling me their stories and their struggles and what they went through,” she recounts. “It helped me understand Halley’s struggles and relate to her as a person a lot more.”
Dafoe, who plays the motel’s sympathetic manager, also mentored Vinaite.
“He was very helpful and taught me how to be confident and believe in myself and just know that I’m going to do a good job,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ve gotten a little overwhelmed and he’ll always just talk me through it, he knows exactly what to say at the right time. He is a very nice guy.”
Since filming, the actress says she’s kept in touch with her on-screen daughter Moonee, played by the scene-stealing 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince. “She’ like my miniature best friend, I FaceTime with her all the time when we aren’t together, I love her a lot,” Vinaite explains.
She’s also met a lot of the film’s famous fans, from James Franco to Drake (no, they’re not dating), and Angelina Jolie.
One of the greatest achievements of The Florida Project is the way it captures the sense of wonder and adventure children share. Young Moonee and her gang take glee in waterbombing guests and spending all afternoon exploring the neighbourhood (with a stop for ice cream, of course).
Vinaite, who was born and raised in Lithuania, says her school breaks were less adventurous and carefree than the kids in the film. “There wasn't much to do but play outside.” But after moving to the US at age six, she sometimes visited summer camp.
And although Vinaite insists she never caused as much trouble as The Florida Project kids, she got her first tattoo—a flower on her arm—at age 16. “I was a little bit more [trouble then] but definitely I was never too crazy!”
With those tattoos now a part of her signature look, Vinaite tells marie claire that she plans to stick to acting.
"It’s a really, really fun job and I really enjoy it. You’re able to build bonds with all these different people," she says.
"To be able to work so hard on something and get to share it with so many people – it’s really an amazing thing."
The Florida Project is released in Australia on December 21.