Interview: Filmmaker Cooper Raiff on Acting in His Own Films, Casting Dakota Johnson and Being a Good Party Starter

When writer/director/actor Cooper Raiff began making films, he tended to borrow not just from events in his life, but also the mental place he was in his life at that exact moment, using filmmaking as a means of figuring out where he was headed as he was immersing himself in his current project. For his festival favorite 2020 feature Shithouse, he cast himself as a lonely college freshman right as he was graduating college. While in college, he began writing his latest work, Cha Chat Real Smooth, concerning recent college grad Andrew (Raiff), who is stuck living with his New Jersey family (mom played by Leslie Mann, stepdad played by Brad Garrett, and little brother David, played by Evan Assante).

Almost by accident while Andrew is escorting his brother to the bar mitzvah of one of David’s friends, he discovers he has a gift for getting parties started and keeping them going, leading the parents of other Jewish kids David’s age to take notice and hire him to be their party starter. Not the career Andrew had in mind, but it must pay well. At one of these parties, he meets a local mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her autistic daughter Lola (extraordinary newcomer Vanessa Burghardt), and through his relationship with them, Andrew begins to see for the first time what he might like out of his future. This unconventional love story turns into an unconventional coming-of-age story for several of the characters, including Andrew.

For those who find Raiff’s character a bit obnoxious, I wouldn’t disagree with you, but I also think that’s by design. Through Andrew’s relationship with Domino and Lola, Andrew grows up and turns down the levels on his self-absorbed qualities and his need to think he’s the smartest and funniest guy in the room. It’s one of those rare films that gets progressively more interesting and mature as it gets closer to its conclusion, and by the end, it points its characters toward better opportunities at making happier lives for themselves. Nothing is guaranteed or unreasonably promising, but our hopes are high for everyone. I had a chance recently to sit down with Raiff when he was in Chicago for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, and not surprisingly, he had a lot to say about romance, reactions to the film (it won the Audience Awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), and especially Dakota Johnson, in her best role to date. Please enjoy…

I’ve heard that at a lot of the festival Q&As you’ve been a part of, people have been relaying to you a great number of personal stories that this film inspired them to tell you. What has been the nature of these stories, and were you expecting the film to hit people in that way?

I hoped for that; I’d die for that. I think the movie is a vulnerable one, and I’d hope that it evokes a vulnerable response. It feels fitting. I think stories about people out of college are about them floating and wanting to grab hold of something to bring them down to earth. But some people also are relating to being autistic or knowing someone who is.

Shithouse was very much a college tale; this is set right after college. Will you continue this trend moving forward as a filmmaker? Is one meant to feel like a successor to the other?

Sure. I don’t think I’ll continue it, but with Shithouse, I really wanted to make a movie during college, and I was like “I’m on a college campus, I should just set it in college.” So what will the movie be about if it’s set in college? It’s about the pain of leaving home and growing up. For this movie, it started with the mother of a sick kid, and then I thought the best way to tell that story as a dumb-ass writer was to put it through the eyes of someone I know well. With Alex in Shithouse, he was the perfect person to highlight the pain of the transition; with Andrew in Cha Cha, to highlight your 20s, it’s great to have a guy who is really good at starting other people’s parties but he can’t start his own life. Your 20s are the time when you have to figure out your own life.

That’s the irony of his job. Andrew defines himself very strongly through his relationships, with his brother, his mother, and now this mother and daughter he meets. As an actor, was that difficult since you’re a slightly different person with each of them?

That’s my problem in life. I spend all my time attuning to others and don’t have any clue who I am. To me, that’s the whole movie. He’s a guy diving into these other worlds because he had no world of his own, and he’s super-terrible at enjoying the company of some people.

We start to see where he might be going with this new job and this relationship with this mother and daughter. He’s going to be helping people in some capacity, moving forward.

Yeah. With jobs, that is separate. I tried to touch on how crazy selling yourself is during interviews and such. Of course, he’s going to find a job that works off his instincts as a person and helping out people. But what he’s really bad at in the movie and what he hopefully gets to by the end is, as a party starter, he has zero boundaries—he’s drinking and trying to scare the life out of a 12 year old. Like Greg says at the end, there are boundaries that come with professional gigs. But his main issue is that he doesn’t have that healthy sense of “I’m over here, here’s my job, here’s who I am.” There’s no firm way he’s grounding his own self.

I have always assumed that the person who planned the party is also in charge of keeping it going. How did you discover this party-starter profession at all?

I’m not Jewish, but I went to this K-12 school that was 40 percent Jewish, and that didn’t mean anything to me until I started going to all of these bar mitzvahs, and the thing I remember the most were the party starters. In particular, this one party starter Vince, and he would come to every single party, this 40-year-old guy. It was incredible to me. He was a very particular person, and he had such good boundaries. They’re starting the party but they also go home and aren’t thinking about the people at all once he leaves. But Andrew is involved with the people at that party. Party starters are fascinating.

But if he’s effective, the parents and the kids fall for him, and you’d be disappointed if he wasn’t at the next one.

Yeah, and it’s a great narrative device of getting this person to keep seeing Domino.

Let’s talk about Vanessa; she’s wonderful here. What was it about her that told you she would be your best Lola?

I don’t know. She was nothing like the Lola on the page.

Did you have to rework the character to match Vanessa more closely?

Totally. I saw her tape and started crying, and I don’t know why. Probably for the same reason so many people have said they can’t imagine anyone else in that role. She’s so amazing and so Lola.

She’s also the most grown-up person in the movie.

Yes, and the most cemented and honest. She read with her mom. I knew that she was from New Jersey, and I could see their dynamic. When she was doing the audition, she was reading the lines as written, but they did this interview portion, and I could tell. I was so interested in her, and I knew that she was very opinionated and that she would help me write the role. We were just trying to keep up with her.

With Dakota, considering where she became famous just a few years ago, she has gotten better with each new role. I think this movie is the best thing she’s ever done, including The Lost Daughter, which I thought at the time was her best work. How did you two connect?

She’s the most interesting actress in the world to me, well before Cha Cha, before I’d seen Lost Daughter. I watch her and she’s so open-hearted, and she can have these boundaries when she wants to. She has such a well of emotion that is not in any way self-indulgent. I met her producing partner first and pitched her this idea—the whole time I was like “I want Dakota to do this; she’d be perfect for it.”—and then the next day, we met; she was about to go to Greece to shoot The Lost Daughter. I spent the first 10 minutes saying why I think she’s so great, and I knew that we would hit it off. I can’t help but watch her so closely, and I think she felt seen and confident that me just saying that I wanted to write a character that would have room to do all of your things, that she would be like “Great, I’m in.” I didn’t pitch much to them, but I knew that Domino would be this perfect character for her, because she’s got this quality that you don’t have to explain or do a lot of exposition. She’s really great, hyper-intelligent, and so emotionally available, but she can also be so spiky.

One of the common threads between the two characters you’ve played in your two films is that they’re hopelessly romantic. But in this film, by the end, he sees the difference between the romantic version of his story and what’s best for everybody. It’s a first step.

And I think the reason he’s crying so hard at the end is, yeah, he’s going to miss Domino and Lola, but there’s a lot of relief. He’s a person who grew up really entrenched in making sure his mother was okay, and that was Domino again. For that person to say, because it can’t be his mom that tells him this, go do your 20s, it’s so what he needed to hear. It’s this kind of cathartic thing, and to sit in a car and say good-bye, it’s so sad but it’s not this love story so much but in the end, he does say to himself, “I need to figure out who I am.” And I’m excited for him to do that.

You have consistently taken on the role of writer/director/star, etc. Do you ever see yourself letting go a little bit, adapting something, directing somebody else’s screenplay?

Yes. My next movie is a hockey movie that I didn’t write the first draft of. I think I’ll always have to have my hands all over it because I don’t know how to direct other people’s words. But I won’t be acting in this one; I did not want to act in Cha Cha at all. It’s so hard, and what ended up happening was that I ended up writing a very specific character, but what I sold with Shithouse and the reason it worked with me was because I was doing all those things, that’s what was unique about it. It was a less confident move to act in it. With this next movie, I’m going outside of my comfort zone and trust that I can direct the actor and trusting that I feel like I have to be so close to them.

By not acting in it, is that less pressure for you?

No, it’s more, because you really have to do your job. What you want as an immature director is to be so close to your actors, and a way of doing that is by being in the scene with them, kind of steering it in the way you want. For me not to act in it, I have to really trust that I have a vision that will get there more conventional directing, outside of the circle.

Cooper, thank you so much.

Awesome. Thank you.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.