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Cooper Raiff wrote and directed 'Cha Cha Real Smooth.' He's also the party starter


Real life starts once you graduate college, At least that's what a lot of us are told. But for Andrew, the ineffably likeable protagonist of Cooper Raiff's new film, "Cha Cha Real Smooth," real life feels stalled. His girlfriend jets off to Barcelona. He's sleeping on a mattress in his kid brother's room. For money, he's selling meat on a stick at the mall food court, like you do. And he gets another gig as a hype man on the New Jersey bar mitzvah circuit.


COOPER RAIFF: (As Andrew) I'm staying in New Jersey for a while, so I will definitely bring David to another bar mitzvah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, I am happy to hear that, because what's happening right now is you're being swarmed by Jewish mothers who are recruiting you to be their motivational dancer.

KURTZLEBEN: It turns out that getting preteen kids to dance is a remarkably effective life raft for Andrew during that stuck period. Cooper Raiff plays Andrew, and he also wrote and directed the film. And he joins us now.

Cooper, welcome.

RAIFF: Thank you so much for having me. What an intro.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) We do our best. You know, this is your second coming-of-age movie after a movie that - this being a family show - we'll call "Bleep House" or "S House."


KURTZLEBEN: What is it about the confusion of young adulthood that intrigues you?

RAIFF: I really like making movies about transitional periods. "S House" was about a kid who was away from home for the first time but really hadn't mentally left home yet. And then with "Cha Cha," I think Andrew is someone who's facing his 20s, a time when he can really figure out who he is. And he's back home, and he's relating to his mom and brother in new ways. And it's a time when he can figure out who he is, but I think he's much more interested in diving into other people's worlds. And he's someone who's really good at starting other people's parties and coming outside of himself, but I don't think he knows where to begin when it comes to starting his own party.

KURTZLEBEN: And then also in this movie, Andrew feels a connection with a young mother, Domino, played by Dakota Johnson. And she herself is in a sort of transitional period. What inspired you to write her character?

RAIFF: I started writing this character when I was really, like, a sophomore in college. My sister is disabled, and one time my mom said to me something about her life forever being defined by my sister, and I didn't know what to do with that information other than write it down. And so that was the seed of the idea. But when I thought of putting Andrew and Domino in a relationship, that's when it started to really say something.


DAKOTA JOHNSON: (As Domino) You only have you. And how scary, but how amazing? You can just figure things out, and you don't have to worry about bringing another person into it.

RAIFF: She didn't have that opportunity to really explore her 20s, and she's in a relationship with this guy who has that. And I think there's this lovely helping each other get strong for the different phases they're about to enter that I really like about the dynamic of the relationship.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And Andrew also develops this - speaking of lovely - this really sweet friendship with Domino's daughter, Lola, who is an autistic teen, and she's played by Vanessa Burghardt.


VANESSA BURGHARDT: (As Lola) Sometimes it drains me a bit mentally and physically when I spend a lot of time mingling.

RAIFF: (As Andrew) OK. Yeah. I'm sorry that I'm draining. How can I not be? How can I help that?

BURGHARDT: (As Lola) You're probably not going to be able to. Sometimes I just need to recover in solitude. I actually enjoy being in an empty room.

KURTZLEBEN: Vanessa Burghardt is herself autistic. I'm wondering, was it important to you to cast someone neurodivergent in that role?

RAIFF: It was important, yes. It was kind of - we didn't think about it another way. So when we did the search, we were always asking to see auditions from autistic actresses.

KURTZLEBEN: I want to ask you about writing for yourself as an actor, since you've both written and starred in both of these films that we've talked about, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" and "S House." But I read that you weren't originally supposed to be the lead in this movie, so I'm wondering how much do you find writing for yourself or acting the words that you've written? Do you find that limiting? Do you find that freeing? How do you approach that?

RAIFF: I think as a writer, I don't feel like a very strong writer, so it's not writing for myself. It's just, like, writing how I talk sometimes. And I think that's the reason why our producing partners - they were like, who else is going to say these lines? You've really just kind of written this character to talk how you talk. So I kind of on accident wrote it for myself.

KURTZLEBEN: This movie is about leaning into the messiness and about accepting the uncertainty of being not only in your early 20s, but just being in those uncomfortable spaces that precede big changes, big steps in adulthood. So I'm wondering, what have you personally learned from your own sort of transitional periods?

RAIFF: The similar thing to what Andrew learned, that I have this knee jerk to kind of dive into something and, like, do something 120%. And I - what's missing is this kind of core who am I in this relationship. And I think Andrew's whole thing about not being super comfortable with the company of an empty room - I like being alone, but I like being alone and writing or, like, diving into TikTok or something. So I think that I learned that in the same way that Andrew did.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Cooper Raiff. His new film, "Cha Cha Real Smooth," is out now on Apple TV.

Cooper, thank you so much for being with us.

RAIFF: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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