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Cooper Raiff Reveals His First Time Working With a Casting Director

Cooper Raiff made his Hollywood debut in 2020 with the Sundance hit Shithouse, which he starred in, wrote, directed, produced and co-edited, among other duties. The film premiered at SXSW where it was named Best Narrative Feature and subsequently received distribution from IFC Films.

This year, Raiff's follow-up film, Cha Cha Real Smooth, followed a similar pattern, only on a more amplified level. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, won the Audience Award and was picked up by Apple for $15 million. It is currently streaming on the platform.

Cha Cha, which Raiff wrote, directed and produced, sees him playing a 22-year Bar Mitzvah host who strikes an unlikely friendship with a mother (Dakota Johnson, who also produces) and her autistic daughter (Vanessa Burghardt).

With a more extensive support system this time around, including a larger budget, Raiff was able to experience his first-ever collaboration with a casting director on Cha Cha.

"I didn't have a casting director for my first movie," Raiff revealed to Casting Networks. "I was the casting director. Angela Demo was the casting director for Cha Cha, and she'll always be my casting director now. She's the best."

Raiff explained that Demo, who cast the critically acclaimed indie films The Spectacular Now and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, conducted the casting searches for Cha Cha, watched the audition tapes and sent him selects to view.

"Because it was my first movie where I was watching tapes, I needed to watch ALL of them," said Raiff, laughing. "But I did trust her always. I get so passionate and overwhelmed with someone's energy, and I'm like, it has to be this person. Angela's always like, 'Let's really think about it in terms of putting a whole ensemble together.'"

He credits Demo for finding first-time actress Burghardt to play Johnson's young daughter. Both the teenage actress and the character are autistic. The role was central to the film and central to Raiff's own heart when he originally wrote the screenplay.

"The seed for the script came from the fact that my sister is disabled,” said Raiff. "My mom and her have a relationship that I am always thinking about. I will never fully understand it, but I'm obsessed with it. When I watched Vanessa's tape, I started crying. I don't know exactly why."

Initially, the character on the page was 13 years old, and Burghardt was already 16 at the time of her audition. She was also tall for her age. However, when Raiff watched her audition tape, he knew she was the one. He recalls a specific moment when Burghardt was saying her lines, and her mother was reading opposite her off-camera.

"I could tell Vanessa was annoyed with something her mom was doing," explained Raiff. "It was very subtle, but you could feel it. That's when I was like, it has to be her. There is no other option."

As soon as he finished watching it, Raiff called Demo in tears. "She was like, 'I knew it!'" said Raiff. "Angela knew more than anyone that this was not (the age range) written, but she felt it (with Burghardt). I went to the producers and said, 'I know it's not what I wrote, but I'll change the script to make it work.' I wanted to make a movie with special people, and I knew I would get along with her."

Script revisions included new references about the girl being held back in school, as well as comments from other characters on how mother and daughter look like they could be sisters, among other changes. Raiff also worked closely with Burghardt, asking her questions to make sure the scenes felt truthful and he ran lines with her to ensure word and phrases were realistic and accurate for the character to say.

"Vanessa is very opinionated, and it was lovely working with her," said Raiff. "When you're writing characters, it's just words. The big hope is to cast someone who will not just bring it to life but inform it in massive ways. It was all about the way Vanessa transformed the character.”

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