The 7-Year-Old Actress Who Deserves an Oscar

We chat with Brooklynn Prince, the beguiling star of ‘The Florida Project,’ who gives one of the greatest child star performances we’ve ever seen. Elle Fanning, eat your heart out.

When we first catch a glimpse of the actress responsible for the year’s best lead performance—at least thus far—she is literally skipping, her cheetah print high tops floating over the hotel carpet. She’s chasing after director Sean Baker’s small dog, Bunsen, who has narrowly escaped being corralled by a gaggle of publicists.

The actress would like to give Bunsen a blueberry. Bunsen seems to desperately want one. She implores passionately, anxiously twirling the pleather skirt and tugging at her custom T-shirt, which is black and emblazoned with the names of her acting heroes: #Elle, #Dakota, #Emma, #Daisy (the Fanning sisters, Watson, and Ridley).

Bunsen never gets his blueberry. It’s time for another interview, the latest obligation in a whirlwind press tour that has whisked the actress and her family from their hometown in Orlando to film festivals in Cannes, Toronto and now New York City to screen and promote The Florida Project, an indie dramedy that has received rave reviews at each juncture.

In a crowded Best Actress year brimming with icons all jockeying for five slots—Meryl Streep, Annette Bening, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, Jessica Chastain, and Emma Stone among them—the hope is that an aggressive push could land The Florida Project’s leading lady one of those slots.

It’s a lot of pressure for Brooklynn Prince, the performer who has dutifully been charming journalists since walking the Cannes red carpet in May. Is she nervous? “No, not at all,” she responds coolly, Bunsen resting at her feet. “After all, I’ve been acting since I was 2.”

That’s five long, rich years of experience for Prince. Yes, she is only 7 years old. And, yes, in The Florida Project, she really is that good.

The Florida Project is Sean Baker’s follow up to his 2015 feature Tangerine, an indie that arrived like a firecracker. The film followed Alexandra and Sin-Dee, two transgender sex workers on a raucous mission through the streets of Los Angeles to track down Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp, who has been cheating on her. Riffing on the spark-plug chemistry between stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, the film exploded with fiery, humorous energy.

But while Tangerine was lauded for its kinetic, music video-like filmmaking style—and, more, for being shot entirely on an iPhone—The Florida Project is a film that stuns in stillness and long, steady shots of the Orlando backdrop. That same hilarious, poignant Tangerine energy, however, still abounds.

“We thought this could be the next Little Rascals,” Baker tells us, looking lovingly at his Florida Project star petting his dog’s head. “This could be about the joy of childhood, and at the same time deal with serious issues. The public’s reaction to Tangerine gave us the confidence that we could do something similar with this film.”

As Baker gesticulates, he notices a giggling coming from just to his right. While he’s been talking about the differences between Tangerine and The Florida Project, Prince has been dramatically mimicking his hand gestures—quite convincingly, actually—and cracking herself up because of it.

“We needed to make sure they were extroverts,” Baker tells me at one point when I ask about the casting process for the film’s four young kids. With Prince, he certainly got that. And then some.

In The Florida Project, Prince plays Moonee, who lives in a seedy Orlando motel room with her single mother, Halley, portrayed in a stunning breakout performance by Bria Vinaite. Moonee and Halley are examples of what Baker calls the hidden homeless, members of the underclass who scrape and scavenge, and sometimes just resign, to live in motels and makeshift homes, often in America’s biggest cities. In this case, it’s in Orlando, in the bleak shadow of the happiest place on earth.

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For Moonee, Baker needed to cast someone special.

We meet Mooney hocking loogies with her friends. At first glance, they seem just like any rabble-rousing, listless kids running amok in the dog days of summer. Moonee’s a riot, with a smart-alecky loud mouth, a penchant for copying her mom’s raunchy dance moves and poses, and feral reign over the parking lots and derelict highway-adjacent motels that surround her.

But we also witness Moonee slowly become sentient to the realities of her living situation, the frustrations over what she’s being deprived of, and intense conflict between her fierce love for her mother and intrinsic suspicion that she deserves more.

Baker had almost given up on his casting search by the time a local casting agency brought Prince to his attention. The first time he noticed her, she was doing squats and forcing Christopher Rivera, another young actor who ended up getting cast as Moonee’s friend, to do push-ups, in order to ramp up their energy for the audition.

“Clearly, she won us over even before the audition,” Baker says. Prince smiles performatively. “Why thank you, Sean.”

At a hard-to-believe 7 years old, Prince is a hoot. Her preternatural poise is one thing. Her star-making performance, showcasing breezy comic timing alongside a gut-wrenching ability to emote and command the screen, is another. Where does all of this confidence come from?

“My mom and dad,” she explains. “All my family has confidence. And they have confidence in me, and I’m really, really proud of that. I’m really, really happy about that.”

Her father is an environmental scientist and her mother is an acting coach. The Princes also have an 8-month-old boy. To say that Prince has enjoyed the wild ride of the film’s globe-trotting press tour is an understatement. But she’s devastated to be missing time with the love of her life, her little brother.

“He is the cutest thing you can ever see,” she says. “But you do not want to know his personality.” Why is that? “Ummmm… He is a little grumpy in some ways.” Babies can be like that.

She sighs, the heavy release of a wistful senior citizen reminiscing about their long-lost love. “I miss him so much,” she says. “He means a lot to me. When he was born, my mom’s like, are you sure you want to take this big, big responsibility? And I’m like, yeah. And she handed me my little brother. And I was like, aww. I love him with all my heart. Being away from him, I cannot stand it.”

She moans, a sound so heartbreaking it’s a Pavlovian reflex to cheer her back up. There must be some fun things about all these fancy red carpets and premieres that make it worth being away from him, right? “Not having throw up in my hair,” she responds, immediately taking it back to little bro. “Not hearing him cry at night, keeping me awake. Not eating baby food I can’t stand.”

Prince, clearly, is just as much fun to spend 30 minutes with as her character is to watch for two hours. But, as she’s quick to remind us, she has been acting since she was 2. Actress and character couldn’t be further apart, particularly in scenes when Moonee is cursing, using inappropriate innuendos, and defying authority with gusto, much to the chagrin of Willem Dafoe’s motel manager, Bobby.

It’s a precarious position to put a child in, and one that Prince’s parents weren’t sure they wanted to subject her to. But she desperately wanted the part, and convinced them that she could handle it.

“My mom didn’t raise me that way,” she says. “We were strong Christian people. We are. She was like, ‘We can’t say this word. And do not do that.’ It wasn’t hard for me. But I grew up being a nice girl, and I’m very blessed to be a Christian.”

When Baker settled on the four child actors he wanted for the film, he brought in their parents and explained that, if they were to sign on, their children would not just be hearing profanity, but uttering it as well. Everyone would need to be on the same page. On set, he says, “It was clear that these words were only to be used in character and between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’”

Prince jumps in: “Plus, my dad said, ‘If you say these words, you will not be using YouTube for about three months!’” Baker starts laughing hysterically: “Oh, OK. Now I know the secret.”

It’s nearing the end our interview when I tell Prince how much I like her shirt listing all those actresses. “People always ask me about meeting Elle Fanning,” she says. “I thought you were going to ask me that.”

Baker and I lock eyes and double over with laughter. OK: How did you meet Elle Fanning? “I was kind of hoping you’d say that.”

She readjusts herself in her seat. This story requires sturdiness and bracing. It will be an athletic telling.

“We were in Toronto,” she begins, with the drama of Sophia Petrillo spinning a yarn about Sicily. “I was just drinking a smoothie, and someone’s like, ‘Brooklynn, look, there’s Elle!’ I was like is this really happening? Then I saw it, the really short hair that’s the color of Elle Fanning’s hair. I’m like, Elle! Then she turned and I’m like”—at this point Prince looks up to the ceiling and raises her hands to the sky, singing—“Hallelujah!”

They chatted for five minutes or so. Prince has still not recovered. “I did not stop talking about her the rest of the day,” she says. “My poor mom and everybody was probably like, ‘Oh, when is she going to get over it?!’ And I’m like, I’m never going to get it over it, boy.” Honestly, neither will we.