Film

Bria Vinaite on aliens, self-care and the meaninglessness of sex

Actress, Insta alt girl and Hunger 15's cover star Bria Vinaite talks us through the good kind of chaos that her life has become.

“Yo! Who the fuck doesn’t? If somebody doesn’t believe in aliens, I need them to take a motherfucking look at Earth’s address and get back to me.” The existence of the extraterrestrial is one of a few things that Bria Vinaite is absolutely damn sure of.

Also on the list of the world’s stone-cold certainties are the importance of self-care, the significance of numbers (specifically 11 and 23), the meaninglessness of sex, the kindness of Willem Dafoe, the spiritual and psychological benefits of marijuana, and the irrelevance of other people’s opinions. These truths are useful anchors in a life that has been defined by what Bria describes as “a good kind of chaos”.

Before storming Hollywood thanks to a radical casting decision, Bria moved to New York City when she was six years old, and went from school to school as a kid (“I was a handful”) and eventually wound up in a boarding school that incubated depression, self-harm and addiction among its detainees. “It was terrible. I didn’t want to go. Everyone was older than me. They were drug addicts; they were cutting themselves. It was a dark place. And you become whatever environment you are in.” The school, which she doesn’t name, has since been shut down. “I don’t understand how a place like that could exist. A lot of the darkness and depression in my life stemmed from that time. It was such a heavy burden to carry around at that age.” Time and success, though, have allowed for that damaging year to be recognised as a “weird turning point”.

After leaving the school a few days before her sixteenth birthday, Bria returned to New York, moved out to live alone at 18 (paying her rent on the back of the success of her marijuana-themed clothing line, Chronic Flowers) and then received the DM of a lifetime – from new age auteur Sean Baker, asking her to audition for his candy-coloured motel movie, The Florida Project. (It turns out Baker was inspired after stumbling across a video of Bria – during a brief stint in Miami – prancing around her backyard wearing a feather boa and a tiara.)

The opportunity was too good to turn down but also seemed too good to be true: “A fear inside me was trying to turn this opportunity into something to be scared of,” she says, “but I knew if I didn’t take a shot at this then I was gonna see it around for the rest of my life and that I was gonna really hate myself for it. Deeply.” So she caught a plane to Orlando, cried most of the way there and nailed the audition.

Bria was perfect as Halley, haphazardly but affectionately parenting her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) through a turbulent summer of gradient skies, friendships, fallouts, fires and authorities at the Magic Castle Motel, a budget, roadside dive a stone’s throw from Disney World.

The movie was released in the US on 6 October 2017, the day after the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Almost overnight, Hollywood became a smouldering wreck of incisive accusations, awkwardly worded denials and underwhelming apologies.

“It was shocking,” Bria says, before finding the scandal’s shimmering thread of positivity, “but I’m just so proud and thankful for all the women who spoke up. That was so beautiful, it feels like you have this whole unit of sisters who love you and want to protect you.”

The actress’s unconventional arrival in the industry naturally means she has sidestepped Hollywood’s unique brand of casting couch bullshit. But she’s one hundred percent subscribed to the collective energy of the Time’s Up movement: “If it ever happens to me, I’ll be shouting it from the fucking rooftops.”

Despite Hollywood catching fire 24 hours before its release, The Florida Project was a resounding success. After winning a standing ovation at Cannes months before, it quintupled its budget at the box office, catapulted its young actors to stardom and yielded headlines for Bria like “How The Florida Project’s Star Learned to Act in Three Weeks”, “The Best Acting Performance of the Year Came From an Instagram Hustler” and “The Florida Project’s Bria Vinaite Explains the Art of Ghosting”.

The movie also inspired a socio-political conversation. Beneath its sweet shop aesthetic, The Florida Project is about abject poverty in America: a tiny family living in a purple stucco palace attempt to survive on ice cream cones and the proceeds from selling knock-off perfume outside upmarket Florida hotels. Sex work, drugs and domestic violence creep into the narrative. At the end, the film fades into hazy ambiguity – the space between fantasy and reality.

Certain op-eds accused Baker of making “poverty porn”, but Bria’s connections with women who identified with her character’s experience proved that The Florida Project edged a vital conversation closer to the mainstream. “I’ve had so many conversations with women who were in a similar situation to Halley and I heard from them how the movie helped people open their eyes versus being judging or hateful. It made me so emotional. It compares directly to real-life experiences. Those are the kind of projects that can make a change.”

Bria is now in demand in the industry and understandably feels that she has something precious to nurture: “I have this magical opportunity and I’m very easily distracted. I know that about myself. If I don’t consciously make an effort to not be distracted, I’m going to fuck shit up for myself.”

Her methods of self-preservation are unconventional but effective: “I only have a handful of friends, I’m celibate, and I’ve always been a very strong advocate for cannabis and medical marijuana.” These choices form a personalised, holistic routine that Bria has been refining since swearing off institutional support following her boarding school experience. “I was so forced into therapy and medication that when I came back I rejected any form of help because I associated that with trauma,” she says. “It has been interesting for me to find ways to heal myself without that stuff. I definitely don’t fuck with pharma.”

Self-imposed celibacy may be rare among 25-year-olds in Brooklyn, where she lives, but for Bria it’s a question of retaining power. “I’m not saying it’s forever. But I don’t see what that kind of fulfilment can give me right now. I don’t want it. I don’t need it. It feels like a fucking waste of time,” she says. “If I do happen to meet someone along the way who I’m super into, if they can’t respect that, then they can go fuck themselves. It’s a really powerful thing to have.”

Likewise, keeping a small social circle (“a best friend and three more”) is a way of retaining control – not allowing toxic or sycophantic influences to get close. “I feel like I’m a giver. If I care about somebody I’m overly giving and overly loving. I’ve had situations where things have backfired. People are fucked up. People use you. That’s why I’m content with my small circle – it’s all love. We support each other.”

As for cannabis, it’s a straightforward question of self-medication. “I’ve been saying it’s the best way to make myself feel better forever, and the fact that people are finally opening their eyes and seeing how helpful it can be in the medical community is really amazing.” Her open use of marijuana on Instagram, though, has incited regressive, ignorant corners of the internet: “People come at me all the time – ‘you fucking smoke too much’, ‘you fucking drug addict’ – but they need to do a bit more research.”

Anyone who visits Bria’s Instagram page will be confronted with a few things: the occasional blunt, dank memes, motivational captions, unapologetic expressions of happiness and, in the bio, the digits 11:11. “Everyone has numbers that show you you’re on the right path and those are mine,” she explains. “[According to numerology] my life path number is 11. 11 is 23 in military time. I turned 23 on June 10th, we started filming The Florida Project on June 23rd and Halley’s room was 323.”

So, this was all meant to be? “Well, acting always seemed like an unattainable career. I didn’t have any connections in the industry, it just didn’t seem feasible. It’s not something I even considered,” she says. “So many things have happened to me that are beyond my wildest dreams; it made me feel like my dreams weren’t big enough. Now, I just want to keep acting.” Reality, it seems, became the dream.

15 November 2018