Vanessa Burghardt Biography


Born In: New Jersey, United States

Vanessa Burghardt is an upcoming American actress who gained widespread recognition following her debut film role as autistic teenager Lola in the comedy-drama film Cha Cha Real Smooth. An autistic person herself, Vanessa was selected to play the character of Dakota Johnson’s daughter in the film following a nationwide casting search and her authentic portrayal of the character was praised even by critics from neurodiversity-minded circles. Shortly after the film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Apple paid a whooping $15 million to stream it on Apple TV+ concurrently with its limited theatrical release on June 17, 2022. Even though it was the first film role for Vanessa, she has previously acted on stage productions, but is now more focused on an onscreen career.

Quick Facts

Born Country: United States

Actresses American Female

Height: 5'7" (170 cm), 5'7" Females

Diseases & Disabilities: Autism


Vanessa Burghardt did not let autism stand in the way of her dreams of becoming an actor and actively took acting classes on the weekends, even going to a number of acting schools. The last acting class she took was in New York City, but she left it “halfway through and never looked back”. She also went to a vocational training class briefly, but she “didn’t last very long” there either. Nevertheless, she hired an agent and continued to audition for onscreen roles, apart from acting regularly on stage at local theatre productions in New Jersey.

Vanessa Burghardt tried to contain her excitement when her agent asked her to submit a self-tape for the role of Lola in order to not jinx it. However, her reading of the scene with her mother not only impressed actor and co-producer Dakota Johnson, but left actor-director-producer Cooper Raiff in tears. Raiff said that he immediately knew that her character would be the heart of the movie. As soon as the film premiered at the ‘Sundance Film Festival’ on January 23, 2022, she earned rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Following her success, she was also congratulated by ACANY (A Class Act NY), which she attended before. Furthermore, her performance as Lola was favorably compared to that of Troy Kotsur who won an ‘Academy Award’ the previous year for his portrayal of a deaf character in the film CODA.

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Contributing to Her Onscreen Role

As Vanessa Burghardt never saw anyone like her onscreen while growing up, she used to think that “maybe I was the problem”, that she was the one that needed to be different. However, her outlook changed after watching a few recent portrayals of neurodiversity on screen, like in the Netflix reality series Love on the Spectrum. When she was cast as Lola, she “did not need to try to be authentic” because she was “already there” as an autistic person, but was mindful about presenting a sensitive and nuanced portrayal. Even though she usually takes time to warm up to people, she was able to openly converse with Johnson and Raiff about her perspective because they made her feel safe and comfortable very quickly after she met them over coffee in Pittsburgh following a Zoom call with the former.

Raiff, who had initially consulted with the non-profit organization Respect Ability while writing the script, had “a lot of conversations about Lola's character” with Vanessa, and their conversations ended up changing the original script in significant ways. She revealed to Insider how some of the ways she behaves got reflected on to her onscreen character and ended up in the final version of the movie. In their article about the film, Respect Ability praised her portrayal mentioning how “Lola isn’t “teaching” Andrew about autism, but rather letting him in on her life experiences”.

Family & Personal Life

Vanessa Burghardt is from New Jersey, United States. While not much is known about her family and early life, she had to face hurdles as a child due to autism. She recounted to Insider that like her onscreen character Lola, she was also behind her peers by a couple grades when she was in school, but as she grew older, she became “a little bit more socially mature and a little less rigid than her”. She had aspirations to become an actor and had been taking acting classes, apart from performing on stage, mostly in neurotypical roles

She told Coup De Main in an interview, “Acting helps me understand myself and the people around me”. Despite being a first-time screen actor, her attitude on set impressed her co-star Dakota Johnson, who told Associated Press that Vanessa “was like a total pro from day one”. After appearing in her first film role, Vanessa revealed to Insider that she felt acting in films played better to her strengths compared to stage acting because the way she expressed emotions often appeared insufficient there.

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