After the success of 2020’s Shithouse, 25-year-old filmmaker Cooper Raiff had expectations for a follow-up. His sophomore feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, finds the young writer-director once again casting himself in the main role, this time as Andrew, a recent college graduate without much direction. Combining a larger budget, a more recognizable supporting cast, and a Sundance premiere, the indie dramedy won the festival’s Audience Award and the hearts of the folks at Apple with a $15 million distribution sale. 

Raiff’s second film features many of the same flourishes as his first. Millennial needle drops fill the silences between bars rather than college parties, but the genuine tone remains the same. There’s an earnestness embedded within each character, an honesty that Raiff hopes to capture, along with tidbits of insight into the messiness of being in your early 20s. Not all of it works, but how can it? Raiff’s characters, difficult not to mistake them for stand-ins for the director, are usually only 2-3 years his junior, lovable, flawed men that don’t have life figured out but still want to be deeply in love. 

Paired alongside a magnetic Dakota Johnson and newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, Raiff’s persona works as an easy-going, ultra-caring, completely lost young adult. Playing a party-starter for Jewish families in his neighborhood and surrounding community, the director spends the majority of his film attempting to relate to everyone, to give everyone all of his attention, focused on others rather than his own growth. Throw in Leslie Mann as his mom and Brad Garrett as his step-dad with an emotional punch by the former and levity by the latter, and the film, for the most part, is able to balance these shifting tones. Raiff avoids a sophomore slump due to these more seasoned actors, and his willingness to be sincerely emotional, unforgiving in his constant crying. 

As the film arrives on Apple TV+, we chatted with Raiff about the themes of Cha Cha Real Smooth, his own maturity, dancing at parties, and casting himself as someone with a savior complex. 

The Film Stage: Do you feel like an adult right now? In this exact moment?

Cooper Raiff: Yes, I do. I feel like an adult. I don’t really have much figured out but I do think I feel like I’m on my way. And I feel like I have taken responsibility for my life in a way that I think makes you an adult and I suffer the consequences of my decisions—like an adult.

There’s so many little insights in the movie about growing up, and about the messiness of being in your early 20s. How do you feel about being in a position to give those insights to such a wide audience? 

Yeah, I think I do. I think I wanted to make a movie about the main character realizing that he has to figure out who he is and figure out what his 20s are going to be for. And so I didn’t have the insight of saying like, “This is what your 20s are for. This is life figured out.” But I did think I knew enough to realize the differences between Andrew and Domino and to show how Domino didn’t get that and to show how they’re kind of helping each other get strong for different phases in our life.

And you’re in your mid-20s right now. Literally, right in the middle. Is this what you thought your 20s would be like?

No, it’s not––not at all. It’s nice: after we finished editing Cha Cha I kind of decided to listen to my movies’ advice. And I got a therapist actually for the first time and just trying to figure out certain things about myself that aren’t related to me, like writing or making a movie.

Do you feel currently defined by your movies, defined as a person by these two projects?

Yeah, it’s funny—people are like, “You’re nothing like Andrew. You don’t work at Meat Sticks.” Andrew is a specific person in that he does not want to sit with the fact that he gets to figure out who he is. And so he dives fully into something—goes, like, so hard. And so passionate and puts all of himself into this relationship with Domino and this relationship with Lola. And I can relate to that because I do the same thing with movies and my relationships, and just because I have a better job than Meat Sticks doesn’t mean I relate so much to Andrew. 

Both Andrew and your character in Shithouse cry more than once. Do you find yourself crying in real life in a similar way? 

I cry at the drop of a hat. For sure. Well, you know, people ask about, “Are you trying to start a revolution?” And I’m like, “No, I just cry a lot.” And so the main character in the movie cries a lot. 

When was the last time your cried? 

Today, actually.


I was crying in an interview. I was doing an interview with Vanessa and I was talking about watching her audition tape and I slowly started crying. Like, I’ll tell you: I was literally crying. I don’t know why, but I cry often. 

Do you like that part of yourself? 

Sometimes it’s really embarrassing. Yeah. But I try not to hate it about myself. I just wish I could control it better.

You do a lot of dancing in this film. If you could pick one song to dance to, what would it be? 

“24k Magic” by Bruno Mars. It just always gets me. Not just on the dance floor. But I feel like I just love dancing to that song. That’s a song that always—if there’s a party and no one’s dancing and you play that song—people will get on the dance floor.

When you’re at a party, are you someone that is playing the music and has the aux in your hands? 

No, I don’t. I don’t have a dance playlist. But sometimes I’m at a party and it’s clear we should all be dancing. And I just tell the DJ to play that song. Yeah, seriously. People love that song; it’s such an easy song to dance to. And it really kind of stops the party on a dime because of that intro. 

Do you have a go-to dance move? 

Yeah, I think some people have called me out for having, like, five moves. And that’s all I do. I don’t even know what they are. They’re not specific. Like they’re not the sprinkler or anything. But it’s just like a certain thing that I do. A couple times people have been like, “You know, you just do the same dances.” Like, yeah—so does everyone, right? Which is fine. Yeah, I’m not an actual dancer. But I like dancing.

The actual character of Andrew is so loving and caring, and seems to have the biggest heart. He’s pretty likable, even when he’s being over-the-top and too passionate. How do you feel about casting yourself in a role like that?

Yeah, it’s tricky. It’s been this thing that I think people sometimes miss—not a fault of their own. It’s the filmmaking. I wanted to make a movie about someone who is so much more comfortable putting his hands under Domino’s elbows than he is figuring out who he is, and I think he’s got very little boundaries. The flip side of someone who’s so, so, so loving and so protective is that they really have no idea, or no ground to stand on. And that to me is the core of the movie: this person with a make-happy complex. You can call it a savior complex. The movie starts with this kid who maybe feels someone’s open heart and sees her crying on the phone and is like, “Oh, I’m in love with her.” Yeah, that’s deeply not it. There’s something wrong.

And I wanted to make a movie about that. I could relate to that. And I wanted to make a movie about this person who is drawn to specific people at the party. And it’s so in his comfort zone to dive into their world. And, yeah, to address the likability thing, I really love all of the characters in the movie, and with every movie I make I want to just work to make the people watching [also] love those characters. I think the way to make them love them is to have them understand them. And I hope that every character is likable.

How did you come up with the moment with the elbows? 

It was originally that they were on the couch. And she was gonna say something like, “It’s so good right now, except my ankles are chilly.” And he was going to, like, just kind of move his socks or something on to her to keep her warm. But I wanted it to feel more visceral. Like, it’s painful. If you think about someone’s elbows on your hands. But it’s euphoria for him. It’s what he lives for. It’s these subtle things and I wanted to tell that audience that this is not okay. And there was this whole thing with the opening where some of the producers were like, “It looks like he has a savior complex.” And I was like, “Oh, welcome to today.” Like, this is great that you now know what that was about. And some people would say like, “Wait, it’s a little heavy-handed that the mom’s bipolar and Domino’s depressed.”

This is great that we are all on the same page about what the movie is about. There is a thing that happens with his dynamic with Domino that is utterly representative of him and his mom, and the journey of the movie is to get to this place of Domino being the one who relieves him of that and says “I’m happy I’m good. Go. Do your 20s. Go figure out who you are. You don’t even know who you are yet.” That was the main line of the movie, that moment. 

How do you go about directing yourself? How do you analyze your acting performance while on set?

It’s funny: I haven’t really done a performance. I’ve only acted in two movies and both movies are very focused on other people. And so it’s kind of a non-performance in a way. I wanted to make sure we shot all of Andrew’s stuff on, like, a medium-close up, not a close-up and Domino’s stuff on close-up. And so I think if I was ever having a bad day, I was just like, “Hey, focus on the other person, you’re fine.” And I think directing and acting… it’s exhausting, but it’s not hard in the way that I think people think like you’re constantly switching hats. Dakota was a director in the scenes that we were in. Just figuring out how to best say what we’re trying to say.

What’s your personal view on love? 

I’d like to think that there’s just one soulmate. But I think I wanted to get a really good, specific feeling at the end of the movie, but I wanted it to be believable because I think that’s the only way that’s going to actually feel good. And the soulmate idea was a way to try to make it feel okay. Deeply, okay. And I tried to poke fun at it. That’s not exactly what I believe. But I do think that we can feel so spiritually aligned with someone and, like, really shared sensibilities and it may not work out. And it doesn’t mean you guys weren’t perfect for each other in every way. Just some things don’t work out. And that’s how life goes. It’s really sad. But that’s where the idea came from.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is now on Apple TV+.

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