Cooper Raiff Is Bringing Male Tears to Movies with 'Cha Cha Real Smooth'

The writer-director-star of the new film debuting on Apple TV+ didn't want to cast himself.

cooper raiff in cha cha real smooth
Apple TV+

Crying comes "naturally" to Cooper Raiff, the writer, director, and star of the new film Cha Cha Real Smooth, which is debuting on Apple TV+ after premiering at Sundance. In both his latest and his debut, a college-set rom-com called Shithouse, Raiff's characters break down in sobs. It feels unusual to see a young male protagonist crying in this way—not because "my boy died," as Raiff suggests during our interview at the end of a long press day—but just because life is hard sometimes.

"As I'm writing, I usually just try to follow my feelings," Raiff says. "So I'll start to write, 'Oh, he's getting emotional.' And I think that's part of it. But, no, I think I just write what I know. I cry a lot."

Shithouse, which Raiff dropped out of Occidental College to complete, premiered at the online 2020 version of SXSW shortly after the onset of COVID-19. But even though the movie about a freshman finding his footing didn't get the celebration it might have received if there wasn't a pandemic changing plans, the word "wunderkind" started to be thrown around.

Cha Cha Real Smooth feels like an expansion of ideas Raiff explored in Shithouse. This time he plays Andrew, a 22-year-old recent grad who stumbles into a Bar/Bat Mitzvah party starter gig when he accompanies his younger brother to a soiree. As he pumps up the crowd at local Jewish coming-of-age celebrations, he repeatedly encounters a young mother named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). It's the story of a fundamentally nice guy trying to figure out what adulthood entails.

Raiff emphatically did not want to star in Cha Cha, but Johnson and her producing partner Ro Donnelly convinced him. "I didn't write it for myself, but everyone, just Ro and Dakota both were just like, 'You wrote it for yourself,' he explains. "I'm like, 'No, I just am a bad writer and wrote this 22-year-old and I happened to be the same age.'"

cooper raiff and dakota johnson in cha cha real smooth
Apple TV_

When Raiff was approached about making another film post-Shithouse, he had a TV show in mind. But the offer was to make another movie, so he returned to an idea he'd been tossing around since his own college years based on the experiences of his mother and sister, who, like Lola, is disabled.

"A lot of people were like, 'What movie do you want to make next?' And I didn't really have any ideas, but I was just thinking about what's the most personal thing that I would want to make a movie about," he says. "I would tell them about this character named Domino and this character named Lola, and they were like, 'That's not a movie, it's a relationship.'" He realized he needed to add himself back into the equation, "I was thinking also, I can't make a movie about Domino. I can make a movie through the lens of a dumbass 22-year-old that gets at something."

Landing on the Bar Mitzvah framework unlocked something else for Raiff, who is not Jewish but grew up in a heavily Jewish community in Dallas. He saw these two broken families—Andrew's and Domino's—projected against a tradition that is rooted in family, and a career for Andrew that would highlight his own failings. "I figured out the fable," he says. "A person who is really good at starting other people's parties but just doesn't know where to start when starting his own."

Raiff's movies cast him as an agreeable everyman, but an assertiveness comes out when he discusses navigating the business of filmmaking. After his next feature, The Trashers, which he will not star in, he wants to make a TV show he had previously set up at a network, but as an independent production. "I realized how long it takes to get TV made, and I realized that it's hard to deal with networks," he says. "And I ended up actually taking the idea back and my goal is to make it next year after Trashers by myself."

Similarly, Raiff was frustrated by the corporate nervousness he encountered around portraying a character with autism and casting an autistic actress. "Financiers really wanted us to have consultants," he says. "We had this place called RespectAbility, they're great to work with. I think they're smart, and I loved working with them. But, when they first brought that idea, I was like, 'Fuck no, that's not how I make movies.' There's no part of me that is in any way worried about how we're going to go about this. I know intimately how to be respectful."

He knew immediately Burghardt was right for the role when he saw her audition tape where she read opposite her mother. Even though she didn't match the character as written, he decided to make sure the character fit her. "I was crying on the phone, 'It's going to be her. I don't want a single argument with anyone. It's going to be her, and I'm going to figure it out, and we're going to work to make it her because she is the heart of the movie.'" As he said: The tears come naturally.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.