A young actress with autism makes her mark in Apple TV+'s charming indie dramedy.
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Cha Cha Real Smooth, the Sundance darling that debuts today in theaters and on AppleTV+, has already earned high praise for its memorable premise — a recent college graduate comes of age and falls in love on the New Jersey bar-mitzvah party circuit — and the clutch comic timing of its young writer-director-star, Cooper Raiff.

Raiff, 25, also happens to have great chemistry with his costars, including Leslie Mann (as his messy, sympathetic mother) and Dakota Johnson (as the elusive single-mom object of his affections). But there's another newcomer who often steals the spotlight from more famous faces: 18-year-old Vanessa Burghardt, an actress with autism whose vivid, vulnerable turn as Johnson's daughter helps form the emotional core of the film.

From her home in New Jersey, Burghardt talked to EW about finding the truths in her screen debut, driving in cars with her movie-star scene partners, and looking for more roles that reflect her in Hollywood.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When we spoke to Raiff this spring, he said your audition actually made him cry, and he decided there was no one else but you for the part. You had never acted before professionally. How was the audition process for you?

VANESSA BURGHARDT: I got the casting call from my agent just to submit a self-tape, which I've been doing for a while before that. I heard back from Cooper really quickly, like within the week, and then we did a callback and we started talking....I don't think he wanted to make me feel like there was any like pressure on me to be a certain way. I think he just wanted me to be what he saw.

Vanessa Burghardt
Credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

He also said he really leaned on your input to develop the character. What was that like?

He would do this thing where he would say that we were going to rehearse, but we didn't really rehearse. He would sort of just ask me questions and get my opinion on things. And then I noticed eventually that each time we had a conversation, the script would change. And so I started thinking "We're not rehearsing. I think you're having me rewrite my lines." [Laughs]

So did you see Lola on the page at first? Or at least the version that ends up on screen?

Yeah, I didn't really. She was originally a lot younger and maybe a little less socially aware. And then when we started having conversations, it became clear — obviously I'm older, so she was a little bit more mature and she was maybe a little bit more emotionally in tune than she had originally been.

[But] I didn't realize that [Raiff] was internalizing my opinions. I thought he was just sort of asking me what I thought because I've never done this. I've never been in a movie before, so I thought maybe that was normal. I didn't really know what I was doing.

Lola is like a Jedi at Rubik's Cubes, did that bit come from you as well?

No. [Laughs] I can't do it for the life of me.

Had you been to many bar mitzvahs before you shot this? There's a lot happening on the dance floor.

When I was in seventh grade, I went to one bar mitzvah and I drank Shirley Temples and hid in the bathroom until it was time to go home, and I vowed never to do it again. And that was that.

It seems like Cha Cha Real Smooth is a movie that could mean a lot to people with autism, because there haven't been a ton of portrayals of neurodiversity on screen, at least not good ones. Had you seen any before this that you felt got it right?

I really haven't, besides in the last couple years or so. So I always kind of thought that maybe I was the problem, because there was no one like me, but there were people like everyone else. So I thought maybe I was the one that needed to be different. But recently I've seen a few shows about people on the spectrum. None of them are quite — I don't really resonate with any of them, but I think it's at least a positive thing that they're taking a step towards more representation. But I don't think they're really anywhere close to where they should be.

Cooper told me that you're also a writer, and a really good one. So do you have plans maybe to fix that?

Yeah, I write all the time when I don't know where it will go, but I hope it goes somewhere, because I do have a lot to say to people. I just need someone that believes in what I have to say.

Does the fact that Cooper is 25 — that this is his second movie and he's already making a third — does that make you feel hopeful about what you can do, even though you're still a teenager?

I think so, because I was under the impression that I needed to be a specific age to start doing things, or I probably wouldn't get cast in anything until I was at least an adult. And Cooper, he kind of took matters into his own hands. That's was really cool.

What do you hope people will take away from Lola when they see the movie?

I think just the fact that she's someone who experiences life differently and she experiences emotions differently, but she cares about people and her experience is completely valid even though it is not very conventional.

Cha Cha Real Smooth
Credit: Apple TV+

You also have a really interesting dynamic with Dakota in the film — sort of these two kids against the world, even though obviously she's your mother. But also, Lola's still a teenager, and she has a lot of teenage feelings. What was your first meeting like?

We met on Zoom once pretty briefly. And then when we got to Pittsburgh, we met for coffee, and I knew who she was and I'd seen a lot of her movies. But I get pretty nervous to meet everyone. I remember I got scrambled eggs at the cafe and I got so nervous to, like, check out at the register. But I remember feeling instantly really comfortable with her. We started talking immediately and she had the ability to make me feel very safe, very quickly. I usually take a while to warm up to people, but I think we just sort of connected.

Was she helpful on an acting level, since this was your first movie set? Sorry, I should have asked first — did you go to acting school?

I've been to a lot of acting schools. I used to go to classes on the weekends and then I went to a vocational school briefly, which I didn't last very long at. And I remember the last acting class I ever went to was in [New York City] and I left halfway through and never went back. It's not really my thing, but I have done it.

Well, you can go back now and tell them you didn't need it. But did you and Dakota end up talking through these characters a lot?

We had a lot of conversations, not specifically in terms of the scenes, but about the path of acting. I'm not going to college, and she didn't go to college either. She felt kind of lost at that period in her life, and that was the period that I am approaching. She helped me feel a lot more secure in the fact that the path I'm taking is different, but it's still okay and it's still something that can work out.

Do you have a favorite memory from the shoot?

Well, my favorite filming experience in general, there was one night where we were all in the car together. It was just the three of us and it was the middle of the night and there was music on in the car and it was kind of an emotional rollercoaster and I don't know, I just ended up feeling a lot more like... I don't socialize with people. I don't know very many people. And I remember after that night kind of feeling like I had a group and I belonged.

Cooper said that he relied so much on your feedback. What was it like when you actually saw the movie?

I saw it in my bed for the first time for Sundance. They needed to have us all see it before just to do press. And I remember — well, first it was very dissociative, because I'd never seen myself. I'd never heard myself speak. It was just a very out-of-body experience. But then once I got past the part of watching myself on screen, I really became fully emotionally invested in the movie and I cried and I loved it so much and I told Cooper. And I think it meant a lot because he knows that I'm always going to be honest with him.

This is a small, modestly budgeted indie, but it's also streaming on Apple TV+, and the last movie they bought at Sundance was CODA, which won an Oscar for Best Picture. So you could be famous in a week or two. Are you ready for that?

I don't know. I've never been even remotely popular at school. And so I don't really know what that's like, but I do remember this week we were in New York for the premiere and that thing started to happen where a couple people were outside the hotel and they wanted to take my picture, and I thought maybe they were waiting for Dakota or something. I was very confused. I think it's something that I probably would need to learn to navigate, but I don't hate it.

So what's next for you?

I'm auditioning all the time. I've auditioned a lot since we wrapped, but haven't quite found the right role yet. And I think there's still not a lot of flexibility in terms of diversity among casting directors, but I'm hoping to find the right thing soon.

Well, I hope too that you just get to enjoy your summer and be 18.

Yeah. [She smiles] But I get very focused on what I'm interested in, so I'm always focused on what the next job is going to be.

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