Cha Cha Real Smooth was shown at SXSW, and we got to hear from director Cooper Raiff and his cast on the red carpet interview and in the post-screening Q&A.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is scheduled to be released on Apple TV+ on June 17 of this year, but it had its first big-screen showing at SXSW on March 18, 2022. It’s a sweet, sensitive, and funny comedy-drama that explores the nature of youth and possibilities, and what must be given up and what can still be retained for a person to get the most out of life. Director and writer Cooper Raiff stars as Andrew, a recent college graduate still living with his mother (Leslie Mann) and younger brother (Evan Assante), working a demeaning fast-food job without any clear path forward in life. When he takes up work as a party starter for bar mitzvahs, he forms a bond with young mom Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic teenage daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). From there, romantic and sexual tensions rise between Andrew and Domino, made complicated by the presence of Domino’s fiancé (Raúl Castillo) and Cooper’s search for purpose with so much of his life ahead of him. Odeya Rush also stars as Andrew’s high school friend.
Cha Cha Real Smooth’s heartfelt writing, intimate filmmaking and performances, subversions of tropes you may expect to see in a setup like this, and representation of autism clearly won over the audience at the Paramount Theatre, and many people lined up to take part in a Q&A session with Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, and Vanessa Burghardt afterwards. Additionally, I got to take part in an interview with the director and cast as they made their entrances at the SXSW red carpet.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH: THE RED CARPET INTERVIEW
DIRECTOR COOPER RAIFF ON THE PORTRAYAL OF LOLA:
In Cha Cha Real Smooth, there’s an autistic actor cast as an autistic character, which is great to see as someone who grew up in the spectrum myself. Did you consult with Vanessa and get her input on how to portray this character? Did she have any creative control over that? How did that process work?
Cooper Raiff: We did this really wide search for who was going to play Lola, and then, when we found Vanessa and I first saw her tape, I was like, “That’s Lola. There’s no other Lola.” Every conversation we had was about how to shape the character around her, so Lola was very much on the script, but we were very open to these scenes going in a number of different ways. And so, each scene in the movie is very much dictated by who Vanessa is, but I didn’t want to put all the onus on her. I didn’t want to be like, “Alright, time to be a screenwriter,” but I did want to ask her so many questions, and she was really excited to offer a lot to the role of Lola.
DAKOTA JOHNSON AND VANESSA BURGHARDT ON WHAT DREW THEM TO CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH:
What drew you both to Cha Cha Real Smooth?
Dakota Johnson: In 2020, Cooper Raiff had made a movie called Shithouse, which I watched and I loved it – Vanessa, have you watched that movie?
Vanessa Burghardt: I really liked it.
D.J.: It’s a really good movie. And so, he had a concept and title for this film, and I said, “Okay, let’s make it.” So he went and wrote it, and then we went back and forth on drafts and notes and developing the characters, and now we’re here.
V.B.: I couldn’t really afford to be picky, but luckily I really liked the script, and I was really impressed by the authentic portrayal of an autistic character. That was kind of the main thing that stood out to me when I first read it for Lola.
EVAN ASSANTE ON WORKING WITH BIG NAMES:
Evan, you’re working with a cast of big names like Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, and Brad Garrett. What was it like for someone as young as you to all of a sudden be thrust in the spotlight with them?
Evan Assante: It was pretty crazy at first, but they’re amazing people and they’re amazing to work with. They definitely did not make me feel like I was not good enough for them or anything, and it was just amazing to be near them.
Have any more opportunities already come your way from this, or do you anticipate them?
E.A.: I think I anticipate some, yeah.
HOW ODEYA RUSH IDENTIFIES WITH CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH:
Odeya, Cha Cha Real Smooth deals with post-college life, trying to grow up and find your place in the world, and being frustrated by that. Is there anything about that which you could relate to in real life?
Odeya Rush: Cooper’s character is older, and he’s kind of towing the line between being a child and adult, and I feel like I kind of bloomed early with that, where I’m supposed to be taking myself seriously but I wanna hold onto this feeling of being a teenager. Sometimes I forget I’m no longer a teenager. I’m almost 25.
You’ve been part of a lot of great work in the past. What stood out about this to you as opposed to the other projects you’ve done before?
O.R.: What stood out was probably Cooper as writer/director/actor, and playing this supporting role that brings out a totally different side of me. I get to come in and play and relax, and give it my all and have fun with this. I don’t feel like my stakes are crazy high, so I said, I’m gonna go in and have a good time, and that’s what I did.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH: THE POST-FILM Q&A
SXSW Audience Member: Vanessa, have you always known that you wanted to be in film?
Vanessa Burghardt: Yeah, I’ve known I wanted to be in film since I was about 12, but I was kind of past shy. I would kind of go mute sometimes when I got really excited or really stressed, and that’s kind of hard when you go to auditions, so I didn’t get any auditions before this. But I’ve always wanted to do it.
SXSW Audience Member: Vanessa, for your transcendent performance, is there something in particular you can pick out that you were proudest of or that was a challenge, where you feel like you really accomplished something in what you got to do in the movie?
Vanessa Burghardt: Well, it’s not challenging, because I do it all the time, but it was in the movie: my character is in her bedroom and flaps her hands, and I do that all the time, and I’m always jumping and I’m always flapping. But I usually suppress it when I’m around people because I’m afraid of judgement, but I did it in the movie and it felt very free.
SXSW Audience Member: Dakota, is there something that’s kind of drawing you to films like Peanut Butter Falcon and this movie, to bring awareness to people that need that attention, love, and awareness?
Dakota Johnson: I really believe in inclusivity in my bones, on a cellular level. And truly these stories have come to me and these people have come into my life, and I’m lucky enough to be alongside Vanessa and to work with Zack [Gottsagen]. There are a lot of people in my life that have been like Cooper, people who are heart-awakers. They just explode your world into color: I really don’t know, I guess I just have a really open heart, and I really love making movies that make you feel really good.
SXSW Audience Member: This dialogue is very natural and funny, so I was wondering: is it like that on the page or is it improv happening? Basically, how does it not sound like someone sat on a final draft and typed this out?
Cooper Raiff: Great actors. I always tell everyone who’s working on the movie to rewrite lines as they’re saying them. We didn’t have enough time to be like, “Let’s do one where we’re improving, doing silly faces,” but I always left room. Dakota many times was like, “Domino wouldn’t say that,” and I was like, “Go ahead, see what you wanna do.” So, I’m not attached to the wording a lot of times. But each scene wants to really say something, and that’s what was really great about working with everyone. Every actor on set not only cared so much about inhabiting their character, but they cared so much about the story and what each scene was getting at, and how it was relating to the themes. And so, we were all trying to figure out how best to get there, and how best to say things, and what felt the most natural.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.