Earlier this year, during a flight from London to New York, 25-year-old actress Bria Vinaite had her first truly surreal encounter with a fan.
“These two little kids—they were siblings—came up to me in my seat and were like, ‘Are you Bria?’” she says. “We took pictures, and then their mom and dad came over. It was just so wild, and it made me really happy, their whole little family unit.” With just one starring role under her belt—last year’s Academy Award–nominated The Florida Project—Vinaite is still adjusting to the idea of being recognized by strangers. “It’s so weird, and I don’t think it will ever not be weird,” she says as her chirpy Brooklyn drawl melts into a laugh. “It doesn’t happen all the time, though. Today I was sitting next to a guy on the plane who was watching The Florida Project and he never even looked over, never said anything.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine Vinaite’s seatmate didn’t take notice. In the film, Vinaite plays Halley, an unforgettably hotheaded and foul-mouthed single mom living just outside of the Walt Disney World Resort in a brightly hued motel. The character was based, at least in part, on Vinaite: Both women are strikingly beautiful, wild-eyed free spirits who are covered in tattoos and love smoking marijuana. The unapologetically fiery women even speak in the same youthfully fast-paced and city-specific timbre. In fact, Vinaite is nearly impossible to miss in any form, even when she’s not sitting next to you while her alter ego spews expletives on your screen.
It was Vinaite’s magnetic presence and fierce style that first caught The Florida Project director Sean Baker’s attention when he stumbled across her Instagram account back in 2016. At the time, the filmmaker was known best for Tangerine, a film shot solely on iPhones about a transgender sex worker. Meanwhile, Vinaite was selling marijuana-emblazoned apparel on social media and had never even entertained the idea of acting. But Baker recognized her potential and reached out.
“I was very intrigued, but I was really nervous, just because it seemed so scary and out of my comfort zone,” Vinaite remembers. “But [Baker] made all my concerns go away. The movie was so special to him, and the story made me so emotional—I just knew it would be an honor to tell it.”
And with just two weeks of acting classes under her belt, Vinaite portrays Halley with an unforgettable mix of bravado and sadness. She’s a mother, yet a child in her own right: brash, vulgar, irresponsible, and petty, but also unquestionably devoted to her little girl. It’s a performance so haunting and nuanced that Vinaite was able to hang up her apparel business for good. Since the film’s release, she’s been splitting her time between press obligations, acting gigs, and lending her voice to the #TimesUp movement. She also appeared in the video for Drake’s hit single “Nice for What.”
While this is the kind of success that could go straight to someone’s head, Vinaite wears her gratitude like a second skin. Over the course of a 40-minute interview, she pauses to emphasize how grateful and blessed she feels with each new opportunity that comes her way. Follow her on Instagram—there are now more than 90,000 people tuned in—and you’ll see for yourself. In photos, Vinaite rocks purple wigs and Discount Universe bodysuits with ease, but also spends a solid chunk of time cramming late-night pizza and rapping along to Cardi B, just like the rest of us.
As for Vinaite’s advice to other young people looking to pursue a creative career, she doesn’t believe there’s one way to characterize success. She sees success as being defined by your personal desires, not by the desires or ideas imposed on you by other people. And in a world where people are so often told “no,” you can’t let that “make your heart cold,” Vinaite says. “Not everyone’s gonna believe in you, and you’re not gonna be everyone’s piece of cake, and that’s totally fine,” she says with a pause, then lets out a laugh. “And if I can make it, anyone can.”