Cha Cha Real Smooth’s Vanessa Burghardt on autistic representation and working with Dakota Johnson and Cooper Raiff [SXSW 2022]

production still from cha cha real smooth
Pic credit: Apple TV+

“Some people I feel comfortable with when I meet them and some people I need to get used to,” shared Vanessa Burghardt, newcomer actor and star of Cooper Raiff’s second feature film, Cha Cha Real Smooth. However, when it came to working with her costars Raiff and Dakota Johnson, things seamlessly fell into place.

“Luckily, with Cooper and Dakota, I felt comfortable immediately. They both made the environment feel very inclusive without any babying. I really appreciated that.”

Cha Cha Real Smooth is a romantic coming-of-age story about a recent college graduate Andrew (Raiff) and his budding relationship with local mom Domino (Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Burghardt). It is set to the backdrop of the Bar Mitzvah party scene as Andrew struggles to find his footing in this new, post-graduate world. The film made its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and later screened at the 2022 South by Southwest Festival.

Prior to its worldwide Apple TV+ release this summer, Monsters & Critics had the opportunity to chat with the three leading actors. During our brief conversation and after witnessing both aforementioned screenings, it was clear that Burghardt is, not only, a fan-favorite actor in the film, but has also won over the hearts of director-writer-actor Raiff and Johnson.

Burghardt is ready for viewers to see an ‘authentic’ portrayal of autism

Burghardt’s Lola is an amalgam of emotions, first introduced attending a Bar Mitzvah party of a classmate. Her mother is evaded by the other parents for whispered rumors of infidelity and a free-wheeling lifestyle, but the duo quickly catch the eyes of the lovable and dorky protagonist.

Being a middle school girl with autism, Lola sticks to her mom’s side during the celebration and the two play an array of table games and practice breaking out of their comfort zones. It is this unbreakable maternal bond that truly shines through the rom-com as their love for one another is never doubted.

Lola’s interest in Rubik’s cubes and her adorable hamster Jerry are sprinkled throughout the story, and after Andrew has stepped into babysitter duties, her quick-wit and unique collections are showcased. She expresses a pivotal line to him, mid-film, communicating her boundaries and her energy level. She tells Andrew that she enjoys sitting in silence and his drive to entertain her can sometimes feel draining.

She is a nuanced character that feels fresh to the genre and the entertainment industry, for many reasons, one being her heartwarming genuineness. Speaking about autistic representation, the New Jersey native said, “I’m really excited for people to see an autistic female that’s portrayed in an authentic and realistic way. Sometimes people think that we don’t experience the full range of emotions or have the same feelings, but we do. It’s just not seen very often.”

Others within the autistic community have expressed similar sentiments, as the SXSW screening was accompanied with a Q&A. Many audience members stood up and shared their gratitude for Burghardt’s portrayal, adding that they were on the spectrum themselves or have family and close friends who are.

What’s next for Burghardt?

With all eyes on the young actor, the future of her career is limitless. Prior to starring in the indie film, Burghardt was performing in local theatre productions and taking acting classes. She told us that she “would like to” star in another feature film.

Raiff has also expressed that this is the start of a “long career” for Burghardt. He mentioned that she was the first actor cast, outside of the production team — which involved him and Johnson.

“Vanessa and I got to know each other so well at the beginning. And then when Dakota swooped in, it was like she stole her,” he joked. “They were like spending all their time on set together.”

Johnson chimed in, teasing that Burghardt is working on an upcoming production with TeaTime (Johnson’s production company and producer of Cha Cha Real Smooth) — and while details weren’t disclosed, they fervently took animation off the table.

Certainly, as attested to by her performance in Cha Cha Real Smooth and her relationship with the two film-making greats, this is not the last we will see of the up-and-comer.

Cha Cha Real Smooth premieres in select theaters and Apple TV+ on June 17, 2022.

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