Young actor-writer-director Cooper Raiff impresses with Jersey-set love story, ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

cooper raiff interview

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson co-star in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”

“He co-produced, directed, wrote, co-edited and starred in this movie and he’s only 23,” a friend warned me about Cooper Raiff. “You’re going to hate him.”

The critic was joking, obviously. Although if you’re the jealous type, it’s true you might have problems with the precocious Raiff. How can someone this young be this successful?

Well, talent has a lot to do with it.

The young Texan’s most recent film, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” — which is playing at the Tribeca Film festival, June 13-14 — co-stars Raiff and Dakota Johnson. It’s about Andrew, a recent college grad and “motivational dancer” at New Jersey bar mitzvahs, and Domino, a vulnerable, 30-ish single mother. The romance that ensues is unlikely, sweet and very touching. The film, which will stream on AppleTV+ starting June 17, is well worth watching.

As is Raiff, who recently chatted with me about getting into the movies, why this very Jersey story was shot in Pittsburgh, and what’s next.

Q: So what was your road to becoming a filmmaker? It seems like all happened very suddenly.

A: My dream since high school was to make movies but I didn’t know how to start. I thought, “I can’t write. Direct? Who do you think you are, becoming a director?” I thought acting could be my way in, so I started with that. But then in junior year, this theater director came to our school, and we were talking about writing, and I told her I didn’t think I could do anything good. And she said, “It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be meaningful to you.” That’s when I started seriously working on my writing. After high school, I moved to LA, started college and concentrated on making movies.

Q: And how did that go?

A: I went on some auditions, mostly for student films. All they’d ever say was, “Can you do a deeper Southern accent?,” and I thought I was gonna jump out the window. But I saw this interview with (filmmaker) Jay Duplass and he said, basically, if you’re trying to make films, the cavalry isn’t coming to rescue you — you have to do it yourself. So during spring break, I convinced my best friend and girlfriend to make a movie with me. We didn’t even a tripod; we’d just sit the camera on a table. But we finished it, and put it on YouTube, and I tweeted Jay with the link and said, “Okay, I did what you said. Will you watch it and email me what you think?” And he actually did, and we started talking about how to make that small movie into a bigger movie, which ended up becoming “S#!%house.” It was on about day five of shooting it that I first thought, “I don’t know, maybe I can be a director …”

Q: And what inspired a gentile from Texas to make his next movie about bar mitzvahs in Livingston, N.J.?

A: The school I went to in Texas, K-12, was probably about 40 percent Jewish — which meant nothing to me until I was in seventh grade. But then that became the most visceral year of my life. I mean, being 13 is already that, with puberty and first dates and everything, but when people started having their bar mitzvahs, it added a whole other thing. I suddenly became an outsider in this very specific world which I kind of envied — the community aspect, the togetherness. Of course, the easy answer to why is, I wanted to do a story about these two characters, and I needed some way for them to keep coming in contact, so how do you do that? You make one character a professional party-starter, and the other character a girl’s mother, and have them keep meeting at bar mitzvahs.

Q: And why Livingston?

A: No one would accept a movie about bar mitzvahs in Dallas, so I felt I had to set it somewhere else. And my manager is from Livingston, so I knew about it that way. But, it’s very similar to where I grew up, in some ways. And I liked that, as a place, it has this very unique feeling of a kind of holding zone — you’re close to New York, but not in New York.

Q: You actually shot it, though, in Pittsburgh. Was there a problem shooting in Jersey?

A: The only problem was, Jersey’s become really, really popular with filmmakers. We got a late start, and by the time we were almost ready, there were so many other movies shooting there that summer we worried we wouldn’t be able to get the crew we needed. But no, Jersey’s a great place to make a movie. In fact, I’m shooting my next movie there: “The Trashers.” It’s based on a true story about this hockey team known for being pretty extreme. I’m always going after a very specific feeling, and it’s going to be a movie where you’re gritting your teeth sometimes but you’re still really, really rooting for these guys.

Q: You root for Andrew, your character in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” He’s kind and he’s charming, and fun on the dance floor. But he’s also definitely flawed.

A: Oh, there’s so many things wrong with Andrew! It’s funny, because people say, “Oh he’s so kind, he’s so nice” and, yeah, that’s his thing, he gives 120 percent of himself. But he’s the worst person in the world to his stepdad. He can be crazily overprotective of Domino. I think the big flaw with Andrew is he doesn’t have any clue who he is, and you know, he’s 22, here’s his time to figure that out — but he’s just dying to be 32 and jump ahead into a serious relationship. And the thing is, he could be great at it, he could be a great partner, but he really needs to learn how to take care of himself first.

Q: Domino is facing her own challenges, including raising Lola, who has autism. Vanessa Burghardt, the New Jersey performer who plays her, is also on the spectrum. Did she have a lot of input into the character?

A: I really tried not to put any onus on her about that; I don’t think it’s fair, once you’ve written something, to put all this responsibility on someone, like “Okay, now you flesh it out.” But to be truthful, Vanessa is very opinionated and loved getting on Zooms to talk about the character; by the end, every single thing was rewritten. Lola was always … I don’t know if I ever even told myself this, but I think in some ways Lola is the heart of the movie. And when I saw Vanessa’s audition … she didn’t look how I pictured the character, or how she was on the page, but watching her, she was just so right I started sobbing. She really was amazing. She is amazing, and the challenge was just keeping up with her and capturing all the things that make her who she is.

Q: I have to tell you, my two kids made their bar and bat mitzvahs here in Essex County, and I still remember so much of that scene – the girls in their socks on the dance floor, and kids singing “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” and the DJs, and the crazy party themes, and the elaborate invitations. What’s your wildest memory of the ones you went to?

A: I had started dating this girl, Jordan, and I decided it was time we finally kissed. I mean, we hadn’t even really talked yet, but I decided it was time. So we were at a bar mitzvah at the Dallas Aquarium and I asked her, “Hey, you want to go look at the penguins?” So we snuck off to where the penguins were, and the whole place was dark and disgusting and smelled like penguin poo-poo. And that was my first kiss, there with the penguins.


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