Sue Ann Pien —Actor, Model, Director, Advocate and Maybe Good at Chess

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Most of us know Sue Ann Pien as the character “Violet,” on Amazon’s comedy-drama series, “As We See It,” that portrays three- 20-something adults on the autism spectrum who share an apartment in LA. For this role, Pien landed nominations for Best Lead Performance in a New Series at both the Film Independent’s Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards.

ABILITY’s Chet Cooper met with Pien over Zoom where they chatted about Pien’s early life and how being on the autism spectrum led her to acting and, later, directing. They discussed Pien’s diverse array of interests, from the down-to-earth, authentic representation in entertainment, to the out-of-this-world space exploration, with a little zombie apocalypse thrown in for good measure.

Chet Cooper: We’ll start at the beginning. So, there are these gases that came together known as the Big Bang theory. Is that too far back?

Sue Ann Pien: Just a little. Let’s jump forward a little bit! (laughs)

Cooper: You’re already giggling. I did some homework. I usually don’t do too much homework I have a kind of adlib temperament. But I looked at some of your interviews, and one, in particular, was a talk with “Talks at Google“.

Pien: Yeah.

Cooper: In the interview, your peers on the TV show, “As We See It”, were all so funny! Rick is hysterical. I know he does stand-up. Even Albert — He seems to be more shy. — was right there with you. I wish more people could see you guys adlibbing and all cracking up. It was long, but really fun to watch.

Pien: Yeah. A lot of people pretty much imbibed the entire show in one sitting.

Cooper: Back to “As We See It,” was that filmed during COVID?

Pien: No. We had to pause production. I think we shot the pilot in 2019. And then we paused all through 2020, and then I believe 2021, we started again. So, we were trying to get people in and out really fast. It was incredible with all the COVID protocols on set.

Cooper: Was this your first big show that you’ve done?

Pien: Yeah, this is the first series that I’ve been able to lead as a series regular on, absolutely. I’ve done co-stars, I’ve worked with Tom Hooper, I’ve done a ton of commercials, so I’ve been on pretty epic sets. I’ve been on the Warner Brothers back lot, where we shot “Night after Night” with David Nutter, the “Game of Thrones” award-winning director. We were doing all-night shoots, 12, 14 hours. You come in at 6 p.m. and then you wrap at 6 a.m., stuff like that. So, I’ve been on very big, big productions, absolutely. But by nature of I think the show and accounting for COVID, it was amazing to be on a sound stage. For a lot of the scenes, we did inside the apartment. And then we would go on location, we’d go to shoot at Arby’s. One of my favorites, wow, was going to the Santa Monica pier. That was incredible because it was at the tail end of when everything started to open. For a while it was still pretty empty. And then when we went, we shut down the entire pier. And we got to have the whole night on the pier and the beach to ourselves, which was so magical. I’ve never seen that. Usually, it’s packed out there. It was fantastic! I was like “What???”

Cooper: Did you go in the water?

Pien: Oh, yeah. We did some jumping and kicking and splashing on the ocean beach.

Cooper: Do you do any water sports, surf or anything?

Pien: I’m very particular about temperature. And also, I wear contact lenses, so I learn a lot of things the hard way. One, it’s very uncomfortable to get salt water in your eye and worse if a contact falls out. Some of my favorite water sports I would have to do when it feels like bath water, like Hawaii. It’s really fun to surf in Hawaii because if you fall off the board, and it’s really strenuous, too, it’s like falling into bath water. It’s amazing.

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Cooper: A good place to go is Bali.

Pien: Oh, I love Bali! I’ve been several times. I love it. Cynthia and I got married out there.

Cooper: That’s why I said it, actually. (laughs)

Pien: Oh, cool! (laughs) Yeah, yeah! You’ve done some online stalking. Oh, my gosh, can we have some privacy in this household? (laughs)

Cooper: (laughs)

Pien: I have this tendency to overshare. I have to just not be on any social media.

Cooper: I also noticed that you were involved in “Mars One.”

Pien: Oh, I loved Mars—yeah, I mean, space.

Cooper: Mars One had some controversy

Pien: Oh, yeah. I know that the press taped it—That’s so funny you said that. That probably why they were trying to get us to do this documentary and my manager was like, “Oh, just don’t worry about it, don’t do it.” (laughs) Because maybe there’s a lot of, like—I mean, I don’t care, people are going to say whatever they want.

What happened, if you go deep into that, I don’t know what Bas Lansdorp did. —He was the CEO.— But the idea itself, I think, was an idea whose time had come.

My father worked in aerospace; he was an aerospace engineer. You’re going to train people to be doctors, to be astrobiologists. That’s what I applied for, to be the on-board astrobiologist. And in a 10-year span, you would train them as a team. In a 10-year span, anybody could get a Ph.D. in anything, right? Incredible.

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And what was proposed by Mars One is no different than what Elon Musk is doing. He’s always said he wants to create a city of a million people. And now, when I was doing this thing with Sony, I could see. And we had talked about this. Basically, NASA’s finally catching up. And now you see that everyone’s doing the same thing. They’re doing simulations. They’ll send people to Mars. People just didn’t like that the first idea coming out of this wasn’t theirs. MIT didn’t like that it wasn’t their idea. There was a paper they wrote that said that no, all the humans that you send to Mars will die within the first x amount of Mars days, right?

Yet here we are. We’re doing exactly what Mars One had proposed. So, whatever happened financially, there were some strange choices. I’m curious. I don’t know what happened. There was a stock exchange thing that made no sense to me. I know at one point—because there’s also an entertainment element to that—Lion’s Gate had approached Bas about creating an entire show, and he wouldn’t do it because he didn’t want to water down candidates. He really wanted and believed that the people who would be in this venture needed to really be Martian colonists.

Cooper: Basically you’re saying that you want to go to Mars.

Pien: I think we have to. We could go into this conversation. I’m going to have a huge extended conversation with you. I think it’s necessary. I think it’s time. Why is there mass extinction of the animals? You’re looking at the carrying capacity of the earth. There’s a problem. We’re looking at overpopulation, a manmade extinction. Why are we still doing the same things? We have planned obsolescence. People don’t even know what that is.

Cooper: I’m raising my hand. I know what it is.

Pien: You do?

Cooper: Sure. (laughs)

Pien: A lot of people don’t know and don’t care. I have a stove from the ’60s that I never have to fix or exchange.

Cooper: But that was the economic model. The concept works because they’ll have to buy it again in four to five years. It keeps that industry working. What it doesn’t work for is the planet and our health. Toyota builds a vehicle, they have planned it not only to be for a long time, but it actually will go back to the earth, that the materials that they’ve used supposed are not only recyclable But if you let the car sit there, Mother Earth would take it over and it would become part of the ecosystem. At least that’s what they’ve said. But the planned obsolescence, that’s when you say the Japanese and the Germans take over vehicles for a long time. And then the Americans finally picked up and said, “OK, we can’t keep having products that will fall apart,” which is engineered.

Pien: Right. I do propose—us going off-planet is going to change not only the consciousness of how we run a civilization, what we consider. There’s an astrobiologist named Dr. Charles Cockell, he’s phenomenal. He ties environmentalism together hand in hand with off-planet exploration. The way that he writes about it, people have to read his books. Because some people are like, “Wait, why are we going off-planet when there are so many problems on earth?” It’s not one or the other. It will change how we function as a society.

I’ve always loved things like the Venus Project. You look at technological advancements and what we can do, something called a resource-based economy. I’m sure there are many other types of models or prototypes we can also dive into. I found Jacques Fresco’s particular passion and drive, what he did as a civil engineer with his life, was he in UNESCO? He got an award. The cities he’s designed are just phenomenal. This idea of a resource-based economy. You start to look at the entire planet system as all the resources as belonging not only to the planet but to future generations.

That’s what I was using Mars for, to talk about that. (laughs) Like, what will I do with money on Mars with me and my 20 friends? Here’s this Venus Society Project we could try out, what do you think about that?

Cooper: It’s back to barter! Barter is the way it all started anyway.

Pien: (laughs) Mm-hmm!

Cooper: Two chickens. (laughs) That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, I have these chickens…

(laughter)

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Cooper: Do you play chess?

Pien: Yeah, I’m really good.

Cooper: Have you played recently?

Pien: I haven’t played recently, but I play a lot of strategy-based games. My friends and I played the Game of Thrones game. It’s about a nine-hour game. It’s so fun. We’ve played it twice. It’s so long and epic. I won both times.

Cooper: How did you get into acting?

Pien: (laughs) Well, from a very, very young age, it was really important that I show up a certain way, have certain mannerisms that were not myself. Now I look back and my mom was worried that I was very naïve and very idealistic. All traits now we know are on the autism spectrum, Asperger’s, child-like. I was like a project. In first grade, she would teach me how to, “Look me in the eyes! Smile!” She would train me and coach me to do monologues. A bit of “Winnie the Pooh” monologue. How to behave in public, how to talk to people.

She was looking out for my future. As a Chinese mom, she was really worried, I don’t think I was very verbal until I suddenly was. And then you couldn’t shut me up. It was so funny because I was hyperlexic as a child. So, when I started to read—At first, they put me in ESL classes because I wasn’t reading and I wasn’t speaking. And then when I started to read, I was reading so above and beyond that at school gave me the principal’s ‘Most Improved’ award for the year. (laughs)

Cooper: Nice (laughs)

Pien: They were like, “This kid is reading at a high school level.” I had no idea what I was saying, though, but I was decoding words very quickly. I had no sense of comprehension. That caught up with me after I skipped second grade. They said, “Oh, my gosh, she’s so far advanced!” So, I skipped second grade and then in third grade, the teacher said, “Yeah, she reads really fast, and she has no idea what she’s reading.” (laughs) No idea what it was about. And then they tested me in fourth grade, and they were like, “She has a really high IQ, this kid. We don’t know what to do with her. Either that or she’s needing to be in a special class.”

Cooper: Where was this?

Pien: This was all in southern California. I was born in LA, Torrance, to be exact. And then my mom and dad divorced when I was three, when I was sent to live with my dad’s family in Taiwan. So, from three to five I grew up in Taiwan, and I retained my Mandarin Chinese skills from living there. And then when I was five, my mom had me back in California. We lived all over, from Monterey Park, Northridge, and then in high school, in four different high schools, that was brutal.

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Cooper: Wow four different high schools. So, your acting came about from your mother working with you to make you appear more “normal”, I think is the term you used.

Pien: Yeah. By the time I was in UCLA, I saw some friends and I was like, “What are they doing? They’re traveling the world and doing all these really fun things.” I was raised with a very rigid idea about what pathways are available to me in life. I have to get a Ph.D., become a lawyer, doctor, that’s it. That’s it.

I had no interest; I wasn’t interested in any of that. I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to see and experience things that were so much different from what my mom told me was available. A friend became a model. He was traveling the world, and I was like, “That is so cool! I went to the same agency that he was signed with, and I said, I’m in, here I am.”

I’ve become really good at mimicking, as a lot of females on the spectrum are. I could choose somebody, almost like a character study, and become them. I could take on their mannerisms, how they walk, how they talk. I would practice my facial features. I had one friend I thought was so cool and I wanted to be like her, and she always pouted. So everywhere I went I started to pout. And I took on the way she would talk. I was basically becoming the alpha females that I saw, and I loved it. It was a way to camouflage my differences.

It became an open doorway that one, nobody—I mean, I should have known. I think my mom knew. I think my mom should have been an actress. (laughs) She was dissuaded from it. She grew up on sets because she had a cousin who was a movie star in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It was so cool. I’m just starting to dive into this side of the family. She always had that sense of, how are you seeing a set as a kid? How do you behave wherever you are? She was well aware of that. And she was very, very dramatic in her home life, where I think if she was on set and able to do that, she would have been more at peace at home. (laughs)

There was one point where they needed an older Asian woman, and my agents were like, “Does your mom want to come and try to audition?” And she did, and she booked it,” her first audition ever. I was shocked! She’s awesome. Why are we talking about my mom?

Cooper: We were talking about acting.

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Pien: Then I was like, “This stuff’s easy! I’m going to do this!” (laughs) I was so excited! Actually, I really wanted to do good in the world. I wanted to join the Peace Corps at first, and they said, “You don’t have a college degree. Go get a college degree.” Social justice, environment, stuff like that had always been a calling throughout my life. You look at people like Greta Thunberg, it’s just part of the Asperger’s, the autism. There’s a strong sense of needing to do some type of social justice, of good in the world. My mom and I and my dad made a deal. I had to finish my college degree. “Just get that undergraduate degree, and then we’ll let you do whatever you want to do with your life, OK?” I was like, “All right. I’m going to pursue acting full-time. That’s my game. I’m going to be like all the other kids in LA.”

At this point I’m meeting friends who really are, most of my friends were models, but in LA it’s the same because you’re doing commercial jobs. I started to realize one, I don’t really like posing as much because who knows what my face is doing? I just didn’t look as good as my friends when they modeled. They looked so good. They were really aware of their body and their face in a certain way. It seemed a lot harder for me to get that down. But two, I’d loved acting, because I was already doing it, over and over and over and over. I was basically a method actor without knowing it.

It was so natural for me to come in and pick up some dialogue and turn into this person, that person. That’s what it was. I’d been acting nearly half of my life now professionally. 2004 is when that job came in. For about 20-something years. It’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be. There were so many times I thought, “Oh, good, I’m going to have a big break.” But it was worth it. It was fantastic. I can look back now and said, “Wow, look at how much I learned.” I mean, I just directed. That’s incredible. I wouldn’t have been able to be on set, to direct.

Cooper: What did you direct?

Pien: I directed a short film called “Once More Like Rain Man.” It’s about a young female autistic actress’s experiences through Hollywood written Bella Zoë Martinez. She’s on the spectrum. She just turned 18, and her family helped her out a ton, they work in the industry. We have Susanne Ellis, she’s the president of Beacon Pictures. They’ve done amazing things, created a series with Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner, Denzel Washington, “The Hurricane.” Darren Dean is one of our producers. He did “Tangerine: The Florida Project” with Sean Baker. These guys are really cool. And I’ve been directing for a while informally, with no budget. It was like an internship. They were like, “We’re going to build you out a legit team, department heads.” It was so fun, it was incredible. I put Sosie Bacon in there, we got Tracy Reiner in there, Joe Mantegna. We’re doing all the festival rounds. We’re bangin’ it out!

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Cooper: Did you meet Joe’s daughter Mia?

Pien: Yes, yes, I did! She loves makeup.

Cooper: Yes, yes! I don’t know if they still have it, it was something like Mia’s Makeup Corner.

Pien: Yeah, yeah.

Cooper: Joe’s been on the cover of ABILITY Magazine a couple of times.

Pien: He’s incredible. He makes me cry. He’s like the grandfather that everybody wants—he’s just such a beautiful kind-hearted human being.

Cooper: What did you think about the director.

Pien: (laughs) I thought she was great.

Cooper: (laughs)

Pien: And it turned out wonderful.

Cooper: Beyond that, do you have any other things you’re working on, planning to do?

Pien: There are things I can’t talk about. I feel really happy. I know I’m a lucky person,.

Cooper: You’re 86, right?

Pien: That’s right! I’m glad you did your homework! As are you! (laughs)

Cooper: (laughs)

Pien: I remember those wars. It was hard. They were some of the harder times to live through. But we survived it, by golly. Where’d you serve? (laughs)

Cooper: (laughs) Boy Scouts. Front line. What were we talking about?

Pien: Why did we get to this point? What was I talking about?

Cooper: You said you were stalking me and that I should be concerned about—

I think you were saying something about, no matter how much I might practice beforehand, you’re going to beat me at chess.

Pien: That’s right. (laughs) Yes. No, I don’t like doing that. I actually don’t have that bone in me where I need to beat someone. Because I like to play for play’s sake, and it just so happens I win, sometimes more often than not. But I don’t have that sense of—if I lose, I lose, that’s fine. But I’m going to play all out.

Cooper: But you’re still angry at that two-year-old cutting in front of you for the water.

Pien: (laughs) That was a lack of integrity. Have you seen “The Peanut Butter Falcon”?

Cooper: Yes.

Pien: One of my best friends, Vanessa Halby, I knew her before she married Will Halby and they formed Zeno Mountain Farm, before that it was a Cheshire Project. It’s a camp—

Cooper: I know them as well.

Pien: I grew up in those camps. That was my family for a long time. I was a camp counselor. I loved it. I fit right in, obviously. And I remember being on set one of those days at camp, way before Zack Gottsagen was in “Peanut Butter Falcon,” I think was becoming bulletproof, and he was playing the—he was like, “Hey, give me all your money!” He was like a bank robber. And he has Down syndrome. I couldn’t look away from this kid. He was riveting. The charisma of this man. I was like, wow, that kid can act. It didn’t matter that he had Down syndrome. So, I was not surprised years later when I saw him in that movie with Shia LaBeoufa in “Peanut Butter Falcon”.

Yes, a lot of people want to act and want to come indoors, but everyone knows it’s a very competitive realm. There are only so many slots available for actors. So, you have to do the work. There’s no getting around the work. And it’s hard for anybody, no matter if you neurotypical, disabled, non-disabled. That’s what Eileen Grubba was talking about. You’ve got to give actors who’ve been at this a long time to get out there and lead the way, otherwise you’ll give disabled talent a bad name.

You put a kid on a set who’s never acted before and you call him autistic or whatever and they can’t deliver their scenes or whatnot, they can’t deal with the 10-, 12-, 14-hour days, then they’re like, “Oh, we can’t hire disabled people. They can’t act.” You cannot do that. That’s what Eileen was talking about. Which makes a lot of sense. You’ve got to find people who have been doing this and who happen to have a disability. I have friends I’ve known who have had strokes. They’re now disabled, but they’ve been acting for decades. That’s very interesting to me. That will be a part of their persona and their character.

So yes, you’ll find actors who are riveting and can bring so much. But what someone like Eileen, who’s been doing this for 30 years at the actors studio will bring to that role will be very different than someone who just happens to have a disability and you just want to place her in a role. She won’t bring something that has craft. That’s what we’re talking about. She was saying that you also have to make sure you don’t lose the acting in it, or you’ll do disabled people a disservice. You can’t just pull in some random kid off the street because they’re in a wheelchair and go, “Do this role.” Then they’ll be like, “No, people in wheelchairs can’t act.” No, you’ve got to bring in people who have been doing this for a while. Nic Novicki, you have to be an actor. You have to know what you’re doing.

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Cooper: Yes, you have to have talent, without a doubt. But talent needs to be given opportunities.

Pien: You have to give people opportunities and open the doors. I just directed, I put Danielle Perez— I had to fill in some roles, Danielle is a wheelchair user. She’s a very funny, very interesting actress, Spiderman, Spiderverse, all that. The role I gave her, you don’t even see she’s in a wheelchair. I did that on purpose because it doesn’t matter. She’s so funny. I want her to be able to be cast. So what? She just happens to be in a wheelchair, but she’s going to play my casting director. And that’s what we’ll start looking at. Why can’t someone who’s at the bank teller have CP? She came from a different era, and I understand. Twenty, 30, 40 years ago actors had to be perfect. We had this idea of perfection. Now it’s like, why can’t the girl next door or the wife have a limp?

Cooper: Eileen has done a couple of video clips for us helping young people understand some of the benefits of having a disability in acting.

Pien: I do think that casting directors are way more open nowadays. I was looking at an old—They’d be afraid to type this into a casting breakdown. They called the character good-looking. Now everything’s just open. “What have you got? Let us see it.” If you can get the right actor, “Let’s see what you’ve got.” Regardless of whatever disability or non-disability.

Cooper: What we find still today, the people who are casting who are coming to us, agencies, they’re looking for diversity, from gender to trans to disability to race to voice. Some of the characters are written in such a way that they’re pretty much stuck to say, “OK, this is based on a true story, so we have to find a needle in a haystack.” That’s one of the big benefits of abilityE. The other thing we want to do, and you mentioned it, is to give people a break. Do you know Robert David Hall?

Pien: No.

Cooper: He’s one of the first people with a disability to make it mainstream. He was on CSI, the original series. He was the coroner on that show. Dual amputee. Never mentioned it. Both prosthetics, he used a cane. But he wouldn’t get other parts. This one he would walk into the coroner’s office and look at the body and decide why the person died, was it murder? He would be on different shows and movies where he’d be a judge. They would give him those parts, where it’s a seated scene and he never has to walk. They were worried about—even then, just the cane alone was a problem for them. But he was such a good actor.

Pien: You know what I think it is? It’s money. That’s what it is, the production. When money’s involved, that’s what you’re up against. Is this disability going to cost me money? I think that’s what we’ll talk about on the panel. For instance, Lolo Spencer is in a wheelchair. Every time she’s on set, “The Sex Lives of College Girls”, she requires a trailer that’s accessible. There’s only one trailer in all of LA that has accessibility for people in wheelchairs. That’s how outdated it is, there are not enough.

Cooper: Where did you get that from?

Pien: She’s said it many times. I’ve also heard it from other people, that there is only one trailer.

Cooper: Do you know what a toy hauler is?

Pien: I don’t.

Cooper: They are RVs that have a back that opens to become a ramp to roll in your toys, dirt bikes, quads, jet skis etc. They come as trailers or motorhomes.

Pien: A place to do makeup?

Cooper: Makeup, dressing room, bathroom, rest area. Star Wagons is one of the biggest suppliers for the entertainment industry. I know we’ve reached out to them before and talked about accessibility. I know that in the article we have on Sophie, it shows her trailer that’s accessible. What’s normally a wall at the back of the trailer actually is a door. So little to no modification is needed.

Pien: Oh, cool!

Cooper: That is already accessible. Because if that back gate comes down, a wheelchair goes right up. Normally there are stairs on the side and you have to walk up and it’s not accessible. So there’s no reason you couldn’t buy a toy hauler for the sets, wherever you are. Also we’ve done articles on RVs that are converted to accessible, and now Winnebago is manufacturing accessible RVs. The back of the RV or maybe even it’s like a bus, it opens up on the side, an elevator comes down, the wheelchair goes back up. Bathrooms are accessible. I can’t believe there’s only one.

Pien: You should ask Lolo about it. She’s said that every time there’s just that one trailer that’s hers, and if she’s renting it out, nobody else has access to one.

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Cooper: I wonder if someone else asks for an accommodation they couldn’t find another one. If there were more authentic actors working there would be more accessibility. It’s one of the reasons we created abilityE and the reason we created abilityJOBS in 1995. Because we would hear from companies, “We would hire a person with a disability, but we don’t know where to find a qualified, talented PwD.”

Pien: I think you’re right. You have to put people into hiring positions. Our short film, for example, we have so many people who are neurodiverse, on the spectrum, disabled in front of and behind the camera. You have to get writers, directors, producers who are disabled. End of story. Period.

Marlee Matlin, look at what she did for Troy Kutzer. Why? She’s good, he’s phenomenal. That’s what you’ll have to do. You’ll have to have autistic neurodiverse people running shows, doing things in positions of power. That’s how they’ll get people who are disabled on set.

Cooper: It’s awareness, and then you have champions. That’s what you’re talking about, sometimes the champions, Joe is a good example, a champion around autism. He puts his time and effort out for that. We see that with the deaf community, in every aspect, spinal cord or whatever. The realities are—the more we keep pushing—

Pien: Don’t you find it weird that there’s nobody in the apocalypse who survived on TV? Think about “Walking Dead,” “Last of Us,” “28 Days Later,” “28 Weeks Later,” I’m a fan of the zombie genre who has a disability, who has Down syndrome, who has wheelchairs? That’s the one thing Lolo and I were talking about. If I were going to create a character, I would have it that one of these guys survived the apocalypse, and they’re bad-asses. Their wheelchair is tanked up, fire-spitting, machine guns! Come on! People love them. They’re going to make sure their Down syndrome child had survived! Put ‘em inside a van, keep ‘em safe. I want to see that story line. The fact that we haven’t seen that yet, we’re missing out on a big audience. That’s going to be a big draw. I would watch that. What’s this girl in the wheelchair doing? Oh, my gosh, she’s killin’ zombies! How is she doin’ that? Why? Come on! That’s really cool. That’s like Mad Max, but with a disability.

Cooper: Somebody did that. She tried to produce a movie.

Pien: Who did?

Cooper: I can’t remember her name. It was years ago. She was a superhero of sorts. Her wheelchair was powered with machine guns and more.

Pien: And nobody wanted to see that?

Cooper: I don’t know what happened to it. I know she was trying to find the funding and got something shot just as a trailer or a pitch for something. It didn’t happen. As you know, to do that properly, you have to tie yourself to either someone who has a lot of money or a studio that has that idea, maybe from a comic book or something. It was called Silver Scorpion—it was coming out of Syria as well. Before the Syrian war, before everything broke out in the Middle East. I don’t know what happened to it. It was something like Silver Scorpion.

Pien: Whoa!

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Cooper: I’m going to share my screen and see what happens when I search “autism” on the magazine website. (Shares screen) Have you ever heard about this? Autism-certified destinations? A friend of mine has a brother who has severe issues with—when something triggers him, he will destroy the place. This is a concept of making places accommodate somebody who needs that quiet space, but also that space can’t be destroyed.

Pien: Awesome! A break room!

Cooper: (laughs) Yeah, a true break room.

Pien: You do motocross racing? That’s amazing. I had a scooter. I took my scooter all the way to Joshua Tree because I thought I would take only a few hours more—

Cooper: You took a scooter from LA to Joshua Tree?

Pien: Yeah. Because I’d done the drive so many times in a car, I was like, “OK, I could do it through the back roads.” I didn’t realize it would take a lot longer. It took me six hours one way to get there.

Cooper: What was your route?

Pien: I went through Little Rock. I had to go through Angela’s National Forest. At a certain point, I’m not even driving on the road, I’m driving on the shoulder. Big trucks go by. But I f**kin’ made it. I took pictures and videos of it. It’s so cool. And then I slept on a rock, and it was so hot that I had to stop and pour water on my head and put my helmet on. If I stopped riding I couldn’t touch my brakes any more, so when I drove back home the next morning, I was like, “This is batshit crazy! I shouldn’t have done that.” I had to get up before the sun came up so I could get out of Joshua Tree before it was too hot. And then I would stop, pour water on my head. And you don’t have GPS part of the way, so I had to count miles. I had to be like, “Oh, the next road get gas.” But it was such an adventure, and doable.

Cooper: What size engine was that?

Pien: It was a 170 Buddy. I love my bike.

Cooper: That’s enough to get you up to 50 miles an hour?

Pien: For sure, yeah. I’m a big scooter lover, best buds and all that. I was in Thailand, and this German guy, he brought his Ducati all the way from Germany and just rode all around in the jungles. It was really wild. I’d be scared on a motorcycle, just because I’ve crashed quite a few cars in my lifetime.

Cooper: I just went to a motocross track to meet with a nonprofit that adapts bikes called Moto Demption. I’m going to share my screen. [showing images of Fox Pala raceway]

Pien: Oh, dude!

Cooper: These guys all have ridden motocross in the past and injured themselves or lost a limb, so they modify these bikes, see the handle bar controls? That’s modified. They strap themselves in.

Pien: Oh, my God! So they can still ride!

Cooper: Yes. Our friend and contributor Long Haul Paul has a doctor’s prescription to ride called, MotoMedicine!

Pien: So cool! Remember that Nintendo motocross game? I love that game. It was a motocross racing game. What do you ride?

Cooper: I ride a 250 and a 450 CRF Honda. Even if the 450 was street legal it would be problematic to go to Joshua Tree.

Pien: I was halfway there, and by the time I was saying, “This was such a bad idea,” I couldn’t turn around, it had already been, like, three hours and I just had to keep going the whole way. You’ve got to finish the ride.

Cooper: A lot of people would have stopped. You have tenacity.

Pien: Perseverance? Hyperfocused. “We’re going to make it happen.” That was one thing as a kid, if I was going to do something, I was going to just do it. (laughs) Six hours each way and it’s cool.

Cooper: Do you have the same bike now? A bigger one?

Pien: Oh, we had to get rid of it. At a certain point, Cynthia was riding around in LA and getting messages and calls that it was time to let it go. You can drive nice, but in LA it’s not a scooter culture. They’ll run you right over.

Cooper: I think street bikes are more dangerous, no matter if you’ve got a big bike or a small one. I think motocross, off-road is safer, you wear more protective gear and a truck won’t run you over.

Pien: When we actually got to Joshua Tree, it was magic. You’re tearin’ out inside the park. It’s unbelievable once you’re there. I love that feeling of just going so fast. I miss that.

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Cooper: You could still get a bike and take the bike to a location.

Pien: We still do that any time we travel. When we were in Italy we got on a bike along the coast. We did that in Bali, that’s a scooter culture. Certain towns and cities have that. I would love to have a bike and we’ll just take it around to all the parks and just tear out.

Cooper: I hear that you climb mountains?

Pien: In fact, when I booked the pilot for “As We See It”, my manager immediately was like, “You’re not riding any scooters, you’re not climbing any mountains, you’re not going rock climbing.” And it’s fine because Violet wouldn’t. She needs to be skinny. Otherwise, to have some crazy muscles, people would be like, “Wow, that’s a really built autistic kid!” (laughs)

Cooper: So, you didn’t?

Pien: Yeah, I didn’t climb for a couple years.

Cooper: You did have that really strong grip at one point?

Pien: Oh, yeah. I used to be able to do one-finger pull-ups. I just auditioned for Mission Impossible—

Cooper: Wait… wait, what did you just say?

Pien: I used to do one-finger pull-ups.

Cooper: That’s two fingers?

Pien: I guess two fingers, you’re right. (laughs)

Cooper: Pull-up or just hanging?

Pien: This was in my twenties.

Cooper: I think I’ll try.

Pien: Oh, I’d be impressed! You owe me a video! One-finger pull-ups right now. Don’t hurt yourself.

Cooper: Ok I’ll try to pull up a video.

Pien: Yeah! This was fun. I really enjoyed chatting with you about all kinds of weird and interesting things that I like to hide from the world. (laughs)

Sue Ann Pien

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