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Cha Cha Real Smooth ’s Cooper Raiff Is About to Become the Next Big Thing

·13 min read
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He's the guy from the film with the odd name—but after this summer you won't forget the name of “the guy” (Cooper Raiff) or his film with “the odd name” (Cha Cha Real Smooth). (On that last part, “In the ‘Cha Cha Slide,’ there's one part where you cha-cha real smooth and that's the part of the song where you get to do your own little boogie and that's what this movie is about,” producer and costar Dakota Johnson recently explained on Today. “It's the part of your life where you figure out who you are and you do your own thing.”)

When you watch, you'll want to know just what Raiff's story is and how he managed to direct, write, and star in two films (his first being the SXSW darling Shithouse) before the age of 25. And how he's also gotten superstar talent like Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Jay Duplass, and David Harbour on board for his films.

When we Zoom, I tell Raiff he reminds me of Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and starred in the Oscar-winning 1976 film Rocky, and then wrote, starred, and directed Rocky II. “That's the biggest compliment in the world,” the Texas native says. “Rocky is one of my favorite movies ever, plus, like, the best romance of all time. It's not about the fighting—it's the best romance.”

Raiff, who wasn't even alive when the first five Rocky movies came out, knows a thing or two about romance—or rather, the long, awkward, twisty road it often is. It's why there's so much heart in Cha Cha, a character-driven film about a somewhat lost 20-something party starter (primarily for bar and bat mitzvahs) who finds his purpose thanks to the help of a mother named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her special needs daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Domino and Lola attend many of the same events that Andrew (Raiff) works and without spoiling anything, let's just say it makes for one very interesting friendship.

The film was such a hit at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival that it won the festival's audience award. Apple swiftly purchased it for $15 million. On Friday, June 17, Raiff's Cha Cha will premiere on Apple TV+. Not bad for someone with only a couple short film credits to their name.

But you don't just decide to make a movie and become the next Stallone or Raiff. It takes lots of work, meeting the right people (Duplass was an early mentor), and talent. Here Raiff fills us in on how he managed to get Johnson on board for Cha Cha, his first, very fishy kiss, and how he's spending a little bit of that massive payday.

Glamour: How did the idea for Cha Cha Real Smooth come about?

Cooper Raiff: When I was in college [at California's Occidental College], like, my freshman year, I was doing a lot of writing and there was a character named Kate, who became Domino (Dakota Johnson's role). It was about this mother of a disabled kid, and I was writing little vignettes for her; that character was the genesis of the idea. And then later on, I started writing my character who was just out of college. He's someone who I think would thrive in his 30s; but in his 20s, he's really bad at that floating time in your life where you have to figure out who you are. At some point I was like, I think these two characters should meet because they highlight each other's interior lives very well. Then I had to figure out a way for them to keep meeting up again. When I had the bar mitzvah idea, that's when the whole thing cracked open. I felt like, Oh, this could be a bigger movie. Once I had all of that, I pitched the title and those two characters to Dakota and Ro.

Are you Jewish? And did you go to a lot of bar or bat mitzvahs growing up?

No, I'm not Jewish, but I went to a K-through-12 school in Dallas, and 40% of my grade was Jewish. It didn't mean anything to me until seventh grade, when I literally went to a service and a party every single Saturday for an entire year. I also dated a girl in high school for three years who was Jewish. So my childhood was really defined by not being an outsider but learning about and feeling envious of the Jewish community in a lot of ways. When I came up with the idea to make my character a party starter, I wrote this montage where his family and Domino's family are at this party and this song is playing while the candle lighting ceremony is going on. It's just these two broken families in this tradition of togetherness and someone becoming a man. I didn't have any of that. I am Christian, but I didn't go to church and we surely didn't do Shabbat dinners on Friday. So that was always really interesting to me: That Andrew and Domino wouldn't be Jewish, but would be going to all these parties. I actually did have my first kiss at a bar mitzvah. It was a whole fish-themed bar mitzvah that took place at an aquarium.

I love that! Did that kiss turn into anything?

It didn't pan out. I asked her if she wanted to go see the penguins, and we went out and it smelled really bad, but I still planted one on her. It was a good first kiss. It was romantic.

So how did you come up with the idea to call this film Cha Cha Real Smooth?

When I came up with the idea, it was just like, I think that's what it has to be. When I told it to Dakota and Ro Donnelly [Dakota's producing partner], they would not let me have any other ideas. I listened to this song by Charlie XCX called “Party 4 U" and threw out the idea of what if the movie was called Party for You or something like that, and they were like, “Never talk about a different title ever again.”

Was there any personal inspiration for these characters in the film?

My sister is disabled and my mom is very much where the Kate character that turned into Domino came from. Freud would have a lot to say about the movie. [Laughs.] But yeah, that's the personal inspiration. I relate a lot to Andrew and his deal because in the movie, he's like 120%. He's all about Domino. He doesn't know at all who he is, and I really relate to diving into something and being afraid to spend time alone in a room.

Has your sister met Vanessa Burghardt, who plays Domino’s daughter, Lola?

No, they haven't. There would be some waterworks there. Andrea, my sister, is not autistic. She's got this thing called holoprosencephaly and her brain didn't divide into two hemispheres, so she can't walk or talk. People ask me how Andrea liked the movie, but she didn't watch it. She hates movies. Truthfully, I wanted to make the movie about her, but she would be a terrible actress and she'd look into the camera the whole time. So I settled to make it about…she's gone to school her whole life with a few autistic kids who I think inspired Lola. But when we met Vanessa, she was not anything like what was on the page. So the whole process of creating Lola was kind of just trying to keep up with Vanessa.

<h1 class="title">Cha Cha Real Smooth</h1><cite class="credit">Courtesy of Apple</cite>

Cha Cha Real Smooth

Courtesy of Apple

Getting back to your character and being a party host: Is there a song that immediately makes you want to get up and hit the dance floor?

Yeah, “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars. That song gets me on the dance floor every time. That was originally written in the script, but we decided to get more economical with our music.

Understandable. So, to use a Yiddish term, where did you find the chutzpah to direct, write, and star in this film? Did you have to convince anybody to do all three?

They had to convince me. I really did not want to act in this movie. There was this guy who I really wanted to be in the movie [instead of me]. Dakota and Ro had seen my first movie Shithouse, where I did do all the parts, so I think that's why they wanted me to act in it because then my DNA is in every spot. And if I'm not acting in a scene, I'm behind the monitor crying. So I do feel like it's all the same world.

What was it like when you first met Dakota?

When I first met her over Zoom, I spent the first 10 minutes just talking about what I love about her acting and how funny she is and how I always watch her stuff and I'm like, Oh God, I wish this person let her do more of this and more of that. Because when she's given the room to do her thing, she's phenomenal. I thought she was so funny. I loved her in The Five-Year Engagement where she plays Jason Segel's girlfriend. She's so funny.

Raiff and Johnson in Cha Cha Real Smooth.

Cha-Cha-Real-Smooth-Cooper-Raiff-Dakota-Johnson.jpg

Raiff and Johnson in Cha Cha Real Smooth.
Apple TV\+

It’s widely documented that Cha Cha Real Smooth sold for $15 million to Apple TV+, which is just mind-boggling. How did you celebrate something like that?

I was fist-bumping a lot. It was morning when we found out, so my girlfriend and I and my best friend, Daniel, went to get mimosas or something. The most exciting thing was when we got the first offer for the movie, because we weren't expecting it…especially with the first offer, because you go into a bidding thing. But the first offer was well above what we made it for. As soon as that happened, I think that was when we went out to get mimosas. It was like, “Okay, now let's let the sales agent do her thing.” We were just so pumped that I get to make another movie because this one is going to show that I can make something specific and personal that can make its money back.

What was the biggest purchase you made after this amazing deal came through?

I'm not a big-purchase guy, but I've been more lax about not spending. My family is very cheap and so I've become less...cheap. I think.

Is there a place you would like to visit or something you would like to eventually buy?

Oh, you know what? I'm going to Paris with my girlfriend this summer. So I think that's the biggest purchase, maybe.

Are you prepared for fans to crush on you after this film?

No, but it's really easy to stay away from what's written about me, I think. And I don't go out much. So that's good.

What is your favorite way to spend a day off? Or are you always in work mode?

No. Especially this year I've been really trying to focus on not being in work mode. For five years, I was constantly trying to figure out how to make money doing the thing that I love to do. But as soon as we got that initial offer, it's like all of this weight came off because I felt like I could relax and, like Andrew, figure out who I am and how I want to spend my off days and what I want to do in a room alone that's not typing a script. And so, I like to go to the beach, and I like to hike, and I like to spend quality time with my friends and family and girlfriend.

If there was a superlative on set for you, what would it be?

Most likely to cry. I'm the biggest crybaby.

What triggers you?

Every time Vanessa was doing something, I was always tearing up because she's great and she makes me emotional. There are moments on set where I just can't believe what's happening or can't believe that people trust me to lead them. I just feel overwhelmed with gratitude and will tear up.

How do you find the confidence to wear all these hats and do what you do?

I work really hard and put so much thought into things, so I feel very self-assured and can fall back on that. I'm always the first person to talk about how big of a dumbass I am, but I do know how hard I worked on this specific story and how much I've thought about how we're going to make it. But making a movie takes so many people. I think I'm a good listener and I really want to collaborate. I disagree a lot, but the people closest to me will say that I'm always just looking for the best idea, or what's going to tell the story in the best way. So I think that's where the confidence comes from.

What was your choice of snack or beverage on set?

Everything. I will literally eat anything you put in front of me. One day they had a bowl of M&Ms and everyone was so worried that they're like, “We're not going to do that again. We're not going to have M&Ms on set because Cooper is going to literally keel over.” When I'm in work mode, I'll just shovel stuff into my face. I probably gained like 5, 10 pounds in 22 days of shooting because snacking was my way of de-stressing.

David Harbour (who play Hopper on Stranger Things) is in your next movie, The Trashers, so who's the most famous person in your phone who you still cannot believe calls or texts you?

Oh gosh, Dakota, for sure.

Finally, is there a platform or cause that you really want to become an advocate for, given your success?

AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). I'd like people to know they can join a local chapter in their community wherever they are because AFSP has programs and events in all 50 states. Loved ones have found great help and support there, so special shout-out AFSP North Texas.

Jessica Radloff is the Glamour senior West Coast editor and author of the soon-to-be-published book The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series (October 11, 2022). You can follow her on Instagram @jessicaradloff14.

Originally Appeared on Glamour