Showrunner Jason Katims with stars Albert Rutecki, Sue Ann Pien and Rick Glassman
Sue Ann Pien
Rick Glassman, Sue Ann Pien and Albert Rutecki
While shooting the pilot for As We See It, actor Rick Glassman thumbed ahead in the script and saw that an upcoming scene involved eating pizza. He promptly informed Jason Katims, the series' showrunner-writer-executive producer, the he doesn't eat cheese. Katims offered to have the prop pizza made without cheese.
"Rick was like, 'No, no, no,'" Katims says, recalling how Glassman insisted that the pizza be made normally. Playing Jack, a character with autism, Glassman — who is also on the spectrum and sensitive to tastes and textures — wanted to peel the cheese off during the scene exactly the way he does in real life. "It added such specificity to the moment and to his character," Katims says.
As We See It views life through the eyes of three neurodiverse twentysomething roommates who endeavor to live life fully, despite obstacles. And as the father of a son with autism, Katims developed the Prime Video series with certain objectives in mind. He wanted the comedy-drama to feel authentic and to appeal to a wide audience. He was also determined to find neurodiverse actors to embody the roles. He hit the jackpot with Glassman, Sue Ann Pien (Violet) and Albert Rutecki (Harrison).
"There were so many great things to draw from their lives and use in creating the roles," says Katims, a 2011 Emmy winner for his writing of Friday Night Lights.
He cites another telling trait Glassman wanted to slip into a scene: the actor proposed that Jack sit down in an otherwise hushed medical waiting room next to someone noisily crunching on a bag of chips. So, the entire production stood by while someone ran out and bought some chips to try it out. In the final edit, which incorporated the munching, Jack's funny, agonized expression evinces just how disturbing that sound can be to someone with auditory hypersensitivity.
Glassman felt flattered that the production listened to his ideas and embraced his personal quirks. "Like, I felt seen," he says. "And instead of these being things that I'm used to people making fun of me about, or things that maybe I would try and mute down a little bit, they became fun character traits."
The three roommates in this story share an apartment but are otherwise exploring their own pathways to love, work, connection and acceptance. Jack works in a tech firm where his awkward, often clueless behavior rankles his boss and lands him on tenuous ground. His patient, understanding dad (Joe Mantegna) worries what will happen when he's no longer around to pick up the pieces.
Meanwhile, Harrison, who is perhaps too sweet for his own good, grapples with extreme social anxiety and agoraphobia, for which he compensates by overeating. He is slowly being coaxed out of his shell by tenderhearted Mandy (Sosie Bacon), an aide who pops in and out as a mainstay in the roommates' lives. Violet in particular leans on Mandy when her passionate nature, flimsy boundaries and trigger-ready emotions get the best of her.
Finding a boyfriend and losing her virginity are two of Violet's highest priorities. When we first meet her, she's cashiering at a fast-foodm restaurant, where she inappropriately regards some customers as boyfriend fodder. She runs into trouble, for instance, when she flirts with one customer right in front of his girlfriend. She's also been cruising dating sites, which worries her protective older brother, Van (Chris Pang). When he replaces her smartphone with a flip phone to restrict her activities, Violet erupts in a furious screaming and crying jag.
The role of Violet looks emotionally exhausting, especially when she lapses into her torrential meltdowns. Pien, however, finds it cathartic. "I intuitively understood who she was," says the actress, whose own autism went undiagnosed for a long time. Other kids would pick on her just to see her mute frustration dissolve into rage and tears. Her family reacted with perplexity.
"It's definitely one of the more painful parts of autism for me," Pien says. "I always heard, 'What's wrong with you? You should know better. You should be different.'"
Van's brotherly efforts to clamp down on Violet also feel fitting to Pien. Being Asian, she says, "There is a lot of saving face, right? Like the outside world is not supposed to know what the family's struggles are."
Portraying Violet liberated Pien to tap into her own experience and show viewers what it's like to be neurodiverse and misunderstood. Not that her role isn't fun, too. In one scene, Violet gets so irate at a guy who led her on romantically that she starts throwing things. "You don't get to do that every day," Pien says with a laugh. "Like, chuck a milkshake at somebody and just make a mess."
When Katims developed the series Parenthood, which ran on NBC from 2010 to 2015, he made one of the Braverman kids, Max, into a young boy with Asperger's syndrome, similar to his own young son. As that son edged toward adulthood, Katims began pondering how to tell a story about young people at that next stage of their lives. "You know, young adults on the spectrum who are delightful, beautiful and smart and funny and have their quirks," he says. "What it's like for them to experience the world and what it's like for the world to experience them."
That goal felt even more urgent after he worked on a PSA and learned that 80 percent of college graduates with autism are unemployed. "And I was thinking, this is not right." Then he happened to watch the Israeli comedy-drama series On the Spectrum, a coming-of-age story about a trio of neurodiverse roommates that was funny, joyous and full of heart. It felt like a springboard. "I was like, this is it. This is the way for me to tell the story."
The Israeli show relies on neurotypical actors, but Katims was set on using actors who are neurodiverse. During one audition, he was shuffling around different groupings when Pien, Glassman and Rutecki ended up together. "It was one of those moments that was just like, 'Okay, here's our cast,'" Katims says. "It was like this sort of magic alchemy that happened when they were together."
As We See It has given Rutecki and Pien their first major acting gigs. Pien previously studied method acting; she's also a self-taught mimic. As a youngster wanting to fit in, she says, "I would watch and mimic the people I wanted to be friends with," taking on their mannerisms, accents, facial expressions, whatever, "and I would copy it to a T."
Rutecki remembers the exact moment he became interested in acting. He was in the fourth grade and was crying after flunking a test. His teacher said he could perform in a play to make up for it. "I did the part and I genuinely enjoyed it," Rutecki says. "I remember thinking, 'This is what I want to do with my life.'" So when the opportunity came to audition for this series, he flew to Los Angeles with his dad.
He decided not to watch the Israeli show, concerned it would influence him too much. He did watch the trailer. "I figured I'd probably be the fat guy in it," Rutecki says, laughing. Instead, he wanted to read the new script and "figure out what makes Harrison tick and what he's feeling and just come at it on my own." Of all the leads, Katims says, "I was most surprised by the depth of [Albert's] acting. He is quietly so wonderful. So humble, kind and gentle."
Having previously starred in NBC's Undateable and other shows, Glassman came to his role with the most acting experience of the three. He makes every scene of Jack's bristle with wry humor. Before he got into acting, he did stand-up, which let him mine his unique perspective for comedy bits. It also helped him define himself. "It was just fun to be in control of how people saw me, as opposed to finding out after the fact."
Glassman was diagnosed with autism only five years ago. He says that unlike Jack, who wants to hide his condition, he was thrilled to acquire this new insight. The thought of playing Jack, however, made him apprehensive at first. "I was very, very scared about doing something wrong or lying or bringing something to it that wouldn't be fair or accurate." But Katims blunted his concerns, telling him, "Everything you are is what you're supposed to be, and bring whatever you want of it to this character." Glassman says, "It just, it made me feel safe."
It's not only the leads of As We See It who identify with being on the spectrum. The same goes for many of the crew and any supporting roles involving characters portrayed as neurodiverse. That includes Douglas (Andrew M. Duff), a young man who attends the same drama club as Violet and develops a crush on her. Poor Douglas. Violet — who's got her eye on a guy she considers "normal" — doesn't mince words when she expresses her scorn for him.
Mantegna, who plays Jack's father, Lou, likewise has a good grasp of autism spectrum disorder. One of his adult daughters is autistic. "And working with him was very comfortable," says Glassman, who benefited from Mantegna's sagacity. For instance, when Jack learns that his dad has serious health issues, the script has him struggling to summon the appropriate outward concern for him — something that doesn't come readily to Jack. Mantegna helped Glassman hit the right note.
"This is going to sound so corny," Glassman says. "I really love Joe. Like I feel myself watering up saying it. He reminds me of my dad in so many real ways. He's so kind to me — and he's just so good — that when we're having these [scenes] and we're seeing [Lou] looking this way, it is sad."
The trio's aide, Mandy, brings boundless compassion to her role in the lives of her charges. "You got this," she tells Harrison in the opening scene of the pilot, when she persuades him to leave the apartment and walk one block under her watchful eye. And only Mandy can calm Violet when she's inconsolable. Katims says he created her as a paragon of virtue because that's what he's observed about so many aides in real life. Bacon, he says, brought natural kindness to the role. "Sosie couldn't love the actors more."
While helping Harrison take his steps toward autonomy, Mandy hangs back but stays on the phone, talking him past a zipping skateboarder and a grinding garbage truck. Harrison's social anxiety (something Rutecki also experiences in real life) is already clawing at him when suddenly a dog starts barking, paralyzing him in his tracks. Rutecki found that part amusing — he loves dogs. Plus, this one had trouble saying her lines. "It took them so long to get her to bark," he recalls. But Rutecki did what the script called for: looking frightened, Harrison turns tail and runs back.
Katims says the actors were utter professionals, always showing up with their lines memorized. He thinks it wasn't always easy for Rutecki to be on a noisy, active set. Once, Katims saw Rutecki retreat to a corner and place his hands over his ears. In solidarity, Pien went over and put her hands over her ears. A few episodes later, though, Katims arrived on set between takes and saw Rutecki "belting out show tunes," he recalls. "It was beautiful how he found his comfort level and confidence."
Pien likewise discovered an ease during production. "I personally love scripted sets," she says. "It's very safe for me. I know what I'm saying. I know what everybody's role is. So as a person with autism, it's like the easiest place." She also appreciated the shorthand that came with working alongside other actors who are neurodiverse. "If it's Rick and I, we could just talk about anything we want, and we don't have to worry about offending anybody or each other."
Bacon anticipates that the show's warmth, humor and realness will prove so disarming that viewers will move past the autism angle and come to appreciate the characters simply as engaging individuals with quirks like anyone else. "We are watching a show that is funny and fun, and the characters in it just happen to be on the spectrum of autism," she says. "It isn't the most important part of the show — we're not highlighting it, and we're not hitting people over the head with it. It just is."
In addition to Katims, the executive producers of As We See It are Jeni Mulein, Danna Stern, Dana Idisis, Yuval Shafferman and Udi Segal; Jesse Peretz directed and executive-produced the first episode. The series is based on an Israeli format created by Idisis and Shafferman. As We See It is from True Jack Productions, Universal Television, Israel's yes Studios and Amazon Studios. It is available for streaming on Prime Video.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "They've Got This."