You might not believe it after spending just 20 minutes with them, but Sue Ann Pien and Chris Pang are not actually siblings. They just play brother and sister, beautifully so, on “As We See It,” Amazon’s new dramedy from showrunner Jason Katims that centers the lives of three friends and roommates who are on the autism spectrum. That’s because even out of character, Pien and Pang do a lot of what siblings do — interrupt each other, poke fun at each other and stick up for each other.
Theirs is the kind of chemistry, stemming from a mere Instagram message that ignited the actors’ friendship, that is crucial to their characters’ complicated journey on “As We See It,” which drops on the streaming platform on Friday. Pien — who, like two of her co-stars, is also on the spectrum — plays Violet, a young fast food worker who’s desperate to live a fiercely independent life away from her brother Van’s (Pang) intensely protective grip. Violet pleads with Van to allow her to go out on dates, go out for drinks and hang with her friends. You know, to have a “normal” life, as she continues to say.
Meanwhile, Van struggles with the responsibility of taking care of his sister, his only family, while desiring his own sense of independence in a healthy romantic relationship that isn’t constantly interrupted by his fears about what Violet can be getting herself into this time. This dynamic, filled with love and frustration in equal measure, becomes the heart and soul of “As We See It.”
The two actors were eager to dive into the material. For Pien, playing Violet was like playing a version of herself. “For someone like me, I would read something and just burst into emotion,” she told HuffPost on a joint video call with Pang. “I didn’t have to do too much for that.”
Similarly, for Pang, most recently recognized for his portrayal of Colin in “Crazy Rich Asians,” he plunged into his challenging new role as big brother to a sister he doesn’t have in real life. “I’ve never had a sister before, but I feel like I know what it’s like to have one,” he said. “I genuinely cared about her so much and she made it so easy.”
The pair discusses shooting the emotion-filled series, the time Pien crashed Pang’s video game night with his friends and, for the former, watching “Friday Night Lights” for the first time ever.
Sue Ann, what brought you to “As We See It” and what drew you to Violet?
Sue Ann Pien: Oh, well, for me as a female on the spectrum, I think diagnosis is missed very early on for girls. Because part of what we do is this mimicking thing, which is why I act. I’ve learned from a very young age how to act and hide mannerisms that would have me stick out or stand out. So, when I got this audition, I cried the moment I read the breakdown of Violet in the script, and I just knew that it was going to be something much deeper than anything I had ever done in my career as an actor.
Was it at all challenging for you as an actor because you had to tap into some of your own personal experiences?
Pien: I wouldn’t say it was a challenge, because I loved it. I always tell Jason I’m so grateful I got to play Violet, because at the heart and depth of our emotional core, there’s very similar conflicts and wants and needs and passions. Also, so many of the experiences Violet has throughout the show I can relate to from a very personal place.
Chris Pang: I just say, too, Sue Ann is so good in this series. To hear you just say it wasn’t a challenge at all, I’m like, you did so well. That couldn’t have been easy, right? Come on.
Pien: Without you, Chris, it would not have —
Pang: OK, it was a challenge for me. I had a challenge [Laughs]. No, I love the role of Van. I don’t have a sister in real life. I’ve only got a brother and I’ve always wanted to have a sister. So, when I was reading through, I was like, ”Oh man, what would this be like?” I’m trying to figure it all out, so that was exciting. But also it’s Jason Katims. He’s just so fantastic and gives you such great, potent material. I mean, I guess there’s a part of this answer that I want to be like, “I chose to do this.” But, I’m an actor. It’s not like I have a bunch of jobs lined up. It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to get paid to do some stuff? Yeah, I’m going to do it.” But it just happens to be that this one’s a fantastic project.
But yeah, Van’s fun. I think Van’s kind of similar to myself, because he’s a bit of a porcupine. He’s hard on the outside — a tough love kind of thing — but soft on the inside. And he cares about his sister. So there was a lot to like about Van. And when I first read the character, the scenes, I was like, ”This guy kind of sounds like an asshole.” He doesn’t sound like a good guy. I think that was the challenge to play him, because some of the things he does and says is quite unlikable and very abrasive. So I think it was just having a balance of that and trying to find the version of him where you still like him for it. That was something that I enjoyed playing with.
I didn’t really find Van abrasive, though I understand where you’re coming from. I thought of him as being at a point in his and Violet’s relationship for which he might not have been prepared. Violet is continuing to grow and explore and utilize an independence that he might not have expected. I saw somebody who was more scared than a jerk.
Pang: Well, it’s interesting you say that because Van is someone who I see as having to grow up very quickly. This load’s been placed on his shoulders and he wasn’t ready. So, I think he’s developed into somebody that has all the answers, even though he actually might not. So, he has to be confident in himself and, maybe underneath all that, he is scared and someone that just wants connection and wants to love his sister and to just get his life on track. He’s been dealt this hand and he’s just dealing with it and he’s just go, go, go from the moment he wakes up to the moment he sleeps.
He’s balancing his time between work, trying to have a relationship and he’s got to look after Violet. It’s just such a big time commitment juggling all this. That’s all his energy. So he doesn’t have time to be scared or unprepared. He has to have this brave front. So, he is quite a complex character. I had a lot of fun playing with that. I’m glad you sort of picked up on it, but I’m also glad that you didn’t find him unlikable.
No, I think all the characters have a lot more complexities than simply calling any of them good or bad, which is, I think, a testament to the way in which all the characters are written — as multidimensional people.
Pien: Yeah. I think that’s what Chris was saying. It’s Jason, like “Parenthood,” “Friday Night Lights” — these shows are amazing! I’ve actually watched them through the pandemic just to catch up and I don’t see shows like that often, ever.
Pang: Through the pandemic… Wait, had you not watched him when we started filming?
Pien: No. Well, I did. I watched, like, a little before.
Pang: Did you know who Jason was before we started filming?
Pien: I had no idea. Is that bad? Yeah, this is so bad.
Pang: Very honest. They’re recording this. Candice, you’ve got it.
Yeah, and there are no take-backsies. Did you two know each other or were you familiar with each other’s work before this project?
Pien: “Crazy Rich Asians.” I was like, Oh, my God.
Pien: Yeah. I love him.
Pang: We met up before we started filming. I think we have mutual friends and we got in contact on Instagram. And then ... remember that one night you came over?
Pien: It was so funny. Yeah.
Pang: I had friends over, and I was like —
Pien: [Laughs] His friends are like —
Pang: Yeah. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to invite…”
Pien: Yeah, he was playing video games. I just took over his entire apartment, like his sister would. Because I was like, Let’s see what Chris would do. And your friends were like, Oh, my God, no.
Pang: It was crazy. But after you left — because you were busy and you’d done something that night, so you just popped by — my friends were like, “You guys actually look really alike. I would believe that that’s your sister in real life.”
Pien: Yeah, if I had a brother. We look so alike, except he’s way more handsome, good-looking. He’s so beautiful.
Pang: Stop. Stop. Keep going, but stop.
[Laughs] Your chemistry reminds me of the really beautiful moment that comes later in the season when the siblings share this really vulnerable, heart-tugging connection. How do you work up to that scene that really encompasses their entire journey?
Pang: Oh man. For Van, that was his whole journey, starting off in a place where he’s just trying to make life work and he’s doing everything in his own way. He hasn’t ever really admitted that he needed help or didn’t know what he was doing. He just always had this iron-hard front where he’s like, ”I’m in control, I’m calling the shots and you’re going to do it my way.” And I guess it had been working, but now Violet’s not a kid anymore. Violet wants independence and she’s moving onto the next stage in her life and she’s trying to find love and she’s got friends and you can’t do that.
But in terms of the process, man, I just rocked up. I didn’t have to do much. The writing was so good. I guess, as an actor, you get these auditions all the time. There are certain auditions that are written so badly it takes you hours to remember the lines. And I remember when I got the audition for this show, I read it and started filming it, like, five minutes later. Because it was just so — and I was also late for the airport, so I had to film very quickly — easy to learn because the writing was so good and that’s what we were dealing with the whole season.
Then, when you’re paired with a scene partner like Sue Ann.. she is just so incredible in this. I don’t know where she pulls these emotions from. I know she said it was not challenging at all, but look, it was quite amazing to see Sue Ann. I’ve never had a sister before, but I feel like I know what it’s like to have one. I genuinely cared about her so much and she made it so easy.
Pien: That’s one of my favorite, favorite scenes from the entire show because it was … wow. It was such a journey to be with the characters. Without giving too much away, I think it’s important to show the struggle in family dynamics when you do have neurodiversity versus neurotypical. I know this is true of my own personal history and maybe what I meant with it wasn’t hard to draw from was [that it was] just so available. Jason writes from a place of knowing what it’s like. His son has Asperger’s, so there’s such a deep sense of love, connection, care, intimacy. That is what family is like and what the struggles are. So for someone like me, I would read something and burst into emotion. I didn’t have to do too much for that.
And Chris is just the best brother I could have ever asked for in the show. Because I would look at him and I would see family. I would be like, this is what it is like for me to be with my —
Pang: I don’t know… And that’s not what you said all the time. You were like, “You are so annoying.”
Pien: [Laughs] You did! He took me out to Robin. He’s, like, the sweetest person ever. He’s the nicest kind of brother. But I’m probably meaner, like Violet is.
[Laughs] Sue Ann, do you have siblings?
Pien: I don’t. I mean, actually I have a stepbrother. So, this is where you’ve got to be very specific. He is a brother, but he’s a stepbrother, which is not like a sibling sibling. So I was kind raised as an only child in a lot of ways.
Ah, I see. So, a theme I see with “As We See It” is that people need people. As independent as Violet and Van are, they, as well as the people around them, need each other. Can you talk about how that folds into your characters throughout the series?
Pien: Oh man, I love that theme, this idea of independence. Because I was like Violet in a lot of ways, where I needed to go and figure out for myself what life meant for me, what I cared about, who I am, separate from my family’s protection. Because from a very young age, it was obvious that I’m different. My mom was like — you don’t have to protect this little baby that’s so naive, idealistic and has no sense of danger. They were like, “You would just wander off and talk to strangers.” So at a certain point [with] Violet’s journey, I was like, “I’m just going to go do whatever I want to do and then I’ll figure it out.”
And then I come full circle and I realize, actually, I do need support. I need community. I need family. It was hard. It got difficult. Just some of the situations that Violet gets into, you could see how, oh my God, it could have gone so bad. And that’s where the protection of Van… Violet’s his whole world, even if he’s really gruff about it. I could relate to that in a lot of ways. So I like this idea of independence, but independence with friends, with family, with safety, with community, with like-minded people, drama club.
Pang: That’s kind of Van’s whole journey, really. It’s all about him trying to find independence. I mean, I guess this whole series is, in a very fun way, everyone’s exploring their own independence, trying to just figure out how to live life responsibly. Because with more independence becomes more responsibility, to kind of rip off and rephrase a “Spider-Man” quote. But it’s kind of true. And I guess for Violet, becoming more independent and having more choices and options also means more possibility of danger, and I think that’s something that Van really struggles with. So on one hand, he’s trying to take away Violet’s independence, and he’s trying to open up his own independence because he wants his own life.
He wants to spend time with his girlfriend. He wants to spend time doing the things that he enjoys doing, which he never has really been able to do. Violet’s been in his care since he was about 19 or 20. His parents are out of the picture, and so he’s always had to look after her. He’s gone from, like, a teenager straight into now I’m looking after somebody and I’m responsible for another life. So, you have to grow exponentially in a situation like that. And that independence, I think, is something that he’s always longing for. And we’re all still young. We get how important that is. You need your own time to do stuff. And I think that’s something that Van struggles with a lot.
And throughout the series, he’s exploring ways to try and find independence that probably isn’t the best for Violet, probably isn’t the best in general, but maybe makes sense at the time. And I think that’s part of his journey. So, it’s very realistic and, oh man, again, it’s just Jason creating these really deep, three-dimensional characters that it’s so real. It’s a very heartfelt series. I love it. It’s also very funny too. So, don’t worry. It’s not all depressing.