Cooper Raiff went through tons of audition tapes to cast the role of autistic teen, Lola, in his movie “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” but when he saw Vanessa Burghardt’s tape, he knew that she was the one. “She was nothing like the character that I had originally written. I remember being really scared to tell the producers that it’s gotta be her and I’m gonna rewrite it all to make it work,” he tells Gold Derby during our recent chat (watch the exclusive video interview above). Seeing Burghardt, who also has autism, do the reading with her mother made Raiff think of the relationship between his mom and his sister which originally inspired the movie. “I felt connected with her already through the computer and when I met her, even more so. We’re still close. I just adore her and I’m obsessed with her in a very similar way that Andrew’s obsessed with Lola.”
“Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which can currently be streamed on Apple TV+ stars Raiff (who also wrote, directed and produced the film) as Andrew, a recent college graduate who takes a job as a Bar Mitzvah party host when he can’t figure out anything else to do. In the process of managing these parties, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her teenage daughter, Lola (Burghardt), both of whom he develops a strong connection with. The film also stars Leslie Mann, Raúl Castillo, Evan Assante and Brad Garrett. The film made a big splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it took home the Audience Award (U.S. Dramatic).
While Raiff isn’t Jewish in real life, he drew on his experience growing up in Dallas and going to a private school where almost half of the students, and almost all of his friends, were Jewish. “That didn’t mean to me until I was 13 and I was going to a Bar Mitzvah literally every Saturday and a service in the morning.” Seeing the traditions involved in the celebration made Raiff feel envious at times. “I remember feeling so jealous of the togetherness…and just picturing those families at these Bar Mitzvahs and watching these candle lighting ceremonies, that was the energy that I wanted to convey.”
Johnson was cast in the movie before Raiff had even written the script as she had also come on board as a producer. With Johnson in the film, this allowed him to bring in Mann to play his mother. “She’s like the dream mom in every movie. I never thought she would do it but Dakota’s friends with her. So she texted her and said please be in this dumb kid’s movie.” Casting Garrett was also a triumph for Raiff who has been a massive fan of his for years. “He’s a walking stand-up act. He is constantly making jokes on set. In scenes we had this shorthand. He would do a take and then he’d look at me and he’d go, ‘A little less mustard?’ And I’d say, ‘A little less mustard.’ He’s such a joy.”
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