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When Amazon called to tell me that they were greenlighting the pilot episode of As We See It, the euphoria of getting a pickup quickly morphed into low-level anxiety. Then some physical discomfort. And finally, straight-out panic.
While the show is an adaptation of the beautiful Israeli show On the Spectrum, it is also a deeply personal story to me. I have a son with autism who is the same age as the three lead characters in the show, so I felt a deep sense of responsibility to get the story right. And to get it right was first and foremost about treating the three leads of the show with respect and dignity.
Typically, the first steps after a greenlight call might be finding a director, making a preliminary budget, and figuring out where and when we will shoot. But in this case, my initial focus was solely on casting our three leads.
In the Israeli show, the three lead characters were played brilliantly by actors who were not autistic. I had done a show with a character on the spectrum. In Parenthood, the character of Max Braverman was played beautifully by Max Burkholder, also not on the spectrum. But instinctively I wanted to approach this one differently. When we were with Jack, Violet and Harrison, I wanted the audience to feel what they were feeling. It all needed to be authentic. Not just the dialogue and the storylines, but the nuances. The details. The idiosyncracies, the tics. We needed to be witnessing real life.
My first call was to Cami Patton, a wonderful casting director with whom I had worked on multiple projects including Parenthood. I told her that I wanted to do a search for the three lead roles with actors who identified as being on the autistic spectrum. This was in 2019, and the idea of authentic casting was far less in the zeitgeist than it is now. When I spoke to her, I might have had a slightly apologetic tone. I believed I was asking her to embark on a search that could take a very long time and perhaps not result in viable choices. I was so wrong. Within two weeks, I was watching auditions of dozens of wonderful actors.
The first audition I watched was that of Sue Ann Pien, who ultimately was cast as Violet. One of her audition scenes was the scene from the pilot episode where she has a meltdown after her brother tells her that she’s not normal. I was in my office, watching on my laptop, and in less than a minute I was in tears.
I literally scripted the words she was saying, yet it felt unscripted, as if they were being summoned from some deep part of her soul. To be clear, the character of Violet and Sue Ann are very different. She is not playing herself. However, she was inhabiting this role in a way that was so immediately arresting.
“It was an instantaneous body reaction,” she has said about her audition. “I know exactly what Jason is writing about and know exactly how that felt. It comes from when I was very young. The stuttering, the repeating words.… Whether it was from a place of frustration or rage, I would hit a place of not being able to express my frustrations. And I would just shut down.”
In every scene, Sue Ann used feelings and behaviors from her past and present self to embody Violet. She was approaching Violet not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Her performance is fearless and unfiltered. This is what makes her performance resonate so deeply.
For Rick Glassman, who plays Jack, his approach was different but equally fascinating. Rick was diagnosed with autism as an adult, only a couple of years before he was cast in the show. For Rick, inhabiting Jack was tied into his own process to understand who he was and what made him tick. He asked a lot of questions. He is also a brilliant comedian and would constantly use the physical world as a way into his scenes. One day, I arrived on set and we were holding the roll while a crewmember ran out to get potato chips. Rick requested the potato chips, not for his character, but for a background actor seated next to him in the scene. His character was supposed to be agitated in the scene, and Rick wanted to use the sound of the person eating chips loudly next to him to trigger his agitation.
Albert Rutecki brings a gentleness to the role of Harrison that has made this character so deeply endearing. Unbelievably, this was Albert’s first professional acting job. Over the course of filming the first season, I witnessed Albert’s confidence level and professionalism grow at a remarkable pace. Harrison is often a quiet presence in scenes compared to Jack and Violet, but for the finale episode, I wrote a huge, public explosion for Harrison’s character that is the climax of the entire season. It was watching Albert come into his own as an actor during the season that inspired me to write that scene for him. When he came to set the day we were shooting that scene, he was visibly nervous. But he accessed a deep and true part of himself and gave one of the most vulnerable and compelling performances of the first season.
I heard that when we first flew Albert out to Los Angeles for his audition, some members of his family didn’t believe he was being screen-tested for an Amazon Prime Video series. They thought it was a scam. That’s how unexpected this turn of events was for him and, in a way, for all of us who got to make this show.
I think of the first call I made to Cami Patton, when I didn’t know if we would be able cast even one of our three leads with neurodiverse actors. Now, it’s impossible for me to imagine the As We See It cast any other way. Rick, Sue Ann and Albert have brought specificity, humor, heart, pain, silliness and honesty to every frame of this show. The next time I call Cami to say I want to cast a role authentically, I will do it unapologetically.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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