For “Cha Cha Real Smooth” casting director Angela Demo, it was out of the question to consider neurotypical actors for the part of Lola, who is on the autism spectrum. “It was never in my mind,” Demo tells Variety. “Never was it ever mentioned on this project [that we would consider] actors who do not have autism.”
This shouldn’t be surprising, as characters that are explicitly or implied to be on the autism spectrum have been present in popular movies for decades. But as evidenced by “Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump,” “Dear John” and countless others, the casting of actors with autism is dismally rare.
Affectionately titled after one of the many bar mitzvah jams that soundtrack the movie, Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth” tells a messy love story about 22-year-old Andrew (Raiff), who falls for the older Domino (Dakota Johnson) while babysitting her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).
But Lola is much more than just an avenue uniting Andrew and Domino. She’s a teenage girl, and like others her age, she has a mix of very specific opinions and interests: she takes great care of her hamster, Jerry; she collects potato mashers; she spends a lot of time working on Rubik’s cubes; she hates to dance.
The scene Burghardt read before deciding to send in a self-tape sets up one of the film’s best motifs. While scratching Lola’s back to help her fall asleep, Domino asks Lola if she’s thinking about Andrew, who they just met at a bar mitzvah. Lola is clearly less smitten with the aimless college grad and says that no, she’s thinking about feeding Jerry cauliflower and cucumber the next day. But she does reveal that Andrew won his $300 bet with Domino that he could get Lola to dance by promising that he’d use the money to buy her the 13×13 Rubik’s cube she had her eye on. When Andrew becomes her babysitter, Lola tells him she only lets her mother touch her back — but later in the film, she changes her mind and asks Andrew to do the same, signifying the genuine care and safety the two have found in each other.
“I remember reading through the sides and, for the first time, feeling like it was an audition that I wanted to do,” Burghardt says. “It was so authentic. It was a scene that was about Lola — it wasn’t about her being on the spectrum; it was just about her life and how she was feeling. I’d never seen a script like that where the autistic person was treated as a character rather than something being used to move the plot forward.”
While there are plenty of actors with autism out there, most struggle to find agents and managers to represent them. This is a significant barrier to entry for these performers, but Demo did her best to sidestep it in her casting process by branching out further than normal.
“I really had to dig deep. I reached out to a lot of local theaters in all the major cities, and put out a character breakdown in every region of the United States,” she says. “And schools, and summer camps. And a service called Actors Access, a forum where unrepresented actors can submit themselves for roles.”
Hundreds of submissions came in, from which Demo selected a group of top candidates for Raiff to choose from. Then, they held a series of auditions over Zoom for pandemic-related reasons, though Demo notes that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It was a long process. It’s more time-consuming,” she says. “But I think it’s more exciting, because you can really make discoveries and reach people that you may not be able to just in-person, or searching in big cities. [We auditioned] so many people. If not for that outreach, how would I have ever found them?”
Burghardt was one of the few candidates who did have representation. A theater group in Los Angeles referred Demo to an agent at KMR Talent who had multiple clients on the spectrum. Burghardt signed with the agency at age 15, after searching for three years.
“I really never thought that I was going to find anyone willing to represent me because I’m on the spectrum and I’m very open about it,” she says. “But at KMR, they have a diversity department where they work with people who have disabilities and get them opportunities in TV and film.”
But even with an agent, it took a long time for Burghardt to find the right project. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is her first film role.
“It just felt like a list of stereotypes that they felt they had to check off,” Burghardt says about auditions she’d been on in the past. “The character was made up of traits, not a personality. It was like all these things that they think, from a neurotypical perspective, that an autistic person might look like, but it had nothing to do with who they were. They were always just being used to serve someone else.”
Once Demo and Raiff spent some time with Burghardt, the choice was easy.
“Vanessa just kind of was Lola,” Demo says. “It’s funny to say. But Cooper’s script was so honest. Lola is a person who says how it is. For better or worse, she’ll always tell you the truth. And that’s who Vanessa is. The marriage of who she is innately and the character just worked beautifully.”
Burghardt felt the same: “There’s one thing I talked about [as Lola], that I like the company of an empty room. That I get drained socially. I really relate to that. I love socializing with people, but it is a lot when you feel like you need to pick up on things that I don’t, naturally.”
Raiff then began to further shape the role around Burghardt, subtly trying to make sure Lola felt honest to her.
“It was originally a 12-year-old, and I was 16 when I got the role, so they needed to move some things around,” Burghardt says. “But Cooper never told me this. He would get on Zooms with me and say that we were going to rehearse, but he would actually ask me for my opinion on certain lines. By the end, I realized we’d kind of rewritten it together. I never explicitly told him that he had to change something; it was a collaborative process. I think maybe he didn’t want me to feel pressure.”
In one of the re-written scenes, Lola is bullied into leaving the bar mitzvah by a boy (Eamonn McElfresh), referred to as Little Prick in the film’s credits. Originally, Little Prick was supposed to tell her she’s unwelcome because she’s autistic, but in the final cut, his meanness is more subtle and biting. Instead of starting from that point, he picks on her for being 16 at a party full of 13-year-olds, to which Andrew responds, “You feeling a little bit insecure because she’s taller than you?” The kid shoots back, “She’s only taller than me ‘cause she’s autistic and got held back three years,” before his parents swoop in to defend him. It’s just as cruel, but without Lola present to hear what he said, the scene reveals more about how Little Prick thinks as well as how he gets away with it.
Things have opened up for Burghardt since “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” but only slightly.
“I’ve been getting more auditions recently. None of them have been quite right but there have definitely been more,” she says. “l don’t really think the industry is where they need to be [in terms of] representation, but I do think they’re getting closer. There’s a couple shows out right now, and I think it’s good that they cast them authentically, but they don’t really speak to me. They’re more about autism than they are about the people. But there is a reality show that I love called ‘Love on the Spectrum’ that does a really good job of just letting the cast be themselves.”
In the meantime, she’s honing her own wheelhouse. She knows she prefers screen acting to theater, because the high-energy nature of the stage doesn’t gel as well with her quietness. And she also wants to try her hand at playing characters who don’t have autism, a step she finds essential for the industry to consider in order to become truly inclusive.
“People think that since I’m on the spectrum, it defines me and everything I am. So if it’s a neurotypical role, even though it’s not explicitly stated that it’s neurotypical, they can’t have someone on the spectrum,” she says. “It’s just a trait of mine. It’s not my whole personality, and it doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of playing roles that you didn’t necessarily see as autistic.”
Demo will hopefully be a part of that change: “I’m ready to go. I have so many people I would love to put in things who came close [to playing Lola]. They were really talented and don’t have that exposure.”
“There’s just so many talented actors who have autism,” Demo continues. “You just have to do the work to find them.”