Some people have improv in their blood, and Punam Patel is one of those people. The actress shows off these skills most recently in season 2 of Special, a Netflix series about a gay, disabled man named Ryan on his journey to find himself while handling his interpersonal relationships.
In the series, Patel plays Kim, Ryan’s work friend turned best friend. Patel plays Kim with an assured realness that allows that character to feel like a real person, especially in her expanded role in season 2, where the audience gets to see what goes on in Kim’s personal life as well as Ryan’s. Patel was nominated for an Emmy for the first season for Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series.
Patel sat down with AwardsWatch recently to discuss the second season, her collaboration with everyone on set to complete the character Kim and what she hopes for her now that the show is over.
Tyler Doster: How are you today?
Punam Patel: I’m good. How are you?
TD: I’m pretty good. Very excited to talk to you. I love the show. I’m super excited to talk to you about it.
PP: Oh, thank you. Thank you for watching.
TD: Oh yeah. How did you originally get involved with Special?
PP: So Ryan had seen a web series that I was in. I think I had two scenes in it, but it was with this guy. Oh, okay. It was this guy that I was in the CBS Diversity Showcase with, Brian Jordan Alvarez. And so Ryan’s partner, Jonathan, also was in that showcase. And so it was just kind of through him that Ryan knew of who I was and really liked me and this web series, I guess. And then when he was looking for parts, people to play Kim, Jonathan was like, “What about Punam?” And Ryan’s like, “Oh my God, I love her.” So he sent me the script. They reached out. I loved the scripts. Obviously, they’re hilarious. He’s a brilliant writer. It had been so long since I had laughed out loud at something. And then we just met for lunch. And going into it, I was like, “Yeah, no matter what, I’m going to do this ’cause I love it.” But then after meeting Ryan, we just immediately became obsessed with each other. And then he didn’t audition anyone else and offered me the part. So it was kind of like a crazy, like I felt very lucky. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so glad we just like hit it off, and it worked.”
TD: That sounds like it was meant to be for you.
PP: I think so.
TD: When you were reading the scripts, what attracted you to Kim?
PP: I really liked how unapologetic she was. I liked that also she was a person that was not fitting into the standard of beauty in a lot of ways, but her entire identity as a character didn’t revolve around that. Because I think sometimes when people include any sort of diverse representation in shows, whether it be body size, race, gender, sexuality, the pat on the back is so loud that that’s all you hear. The entire character becomes about like, “Look, we put a brown person on screen.” And the way Ryan writes is everyone’s just a human being first. And all these things affect who we are as human beings, but they’re not all we are. He writes people as the collection of parts that we actually are in real life. And that really, really turned me on (laughs).
Tyler: (laughs) So how much did you end up contributing to Kim?
PP: You know, Ryan is such a talented writer and such a confident writer that he hires people that he really trusts. And he really allowed, especially after he knew that I had a background in improv, really kind of let me go rogue on set a lot of times and just add my own bits at the top or the end of the scene. But I also am extremely respectful and never want to not do what’s on the page because also what’s on the page was so brilliant too. So in season one, it was mostly like me being like, “Oh, what if I said this?” or “What if I said this joke this way or added this line to this joke?” And he’d be like, “Yes, absolutely.” Or we would talk about it and come to one together. And then for season two, I felt like we had become best friends at that point, and he just really knew who I was and things that I had been through. And we just had lots of discussions about Kim and what it would be like for someone like her. And then even beyond that, for example when he was writing scenes with Kim and her father, what that conversation would sound like. And he reached out and we kind of wrote it together and then even on set, I’m like, “Oh, I feel like her dad would actually say something like this.” And he’s like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So Ryan is extremely open, extremely collaborative. So when it felt appropriate and when the moment required, I really got to have a lot of say in a lot of things. And I got, I felt very comfortable and safe speaking up, but that being said, we were working from such a brilliant base that I really didn’t have to that often.
TD: Interesting. So were you able to improv a lot, or was that encouraged a lot on set?
PP: It was, yeah. Our directors, Anna Dokoza and Craig [Johnson], was, they’re both just so, again, trusting of us. And I think it’s a combination of trust and respect. I’m very respectful, and I’m not going to just start saying something completely different than the script, but there was always takes where they’re like, “Okay, yeah. And then like add your little thing at the end.” Or Ryan and I again would talk about everything, and I would always pass it by him before, except if it was like a tag at the end of the scene, and then I would kind of surprise him with it. And then he would break, and then we would laugh for four minutes and delay production. And I don’t think people were happy about that, but we had fun.
TD: So during this collab, did you ever get to collab with any other people, like the costume designer? I’m asking because Kim’s wardrobe is so phenomenal.
PP: Oh yeah. Skye [Stewart-Short], our costume designer for the show was incredible. Everyone in the costume department from the set dressers to everyone was so wonderful. And that was really led by comfort. Like if I ever didn’t feel comfortable in something, they were like, “Absolutely. You don’t have to wear it.” And there was definitely things where I was like, “Oh, I actually really, really liked this. Can you like…” Even when you do wardrobe fittings, they take pictures, obviously, of everything. And I would purposely, in the ones I really liked, smile extra and give a thumbs up or a peace sign to show that I really am happy about this one. And I’m like, “Maybe it made a difference.” Because I got to wear all the pieces I really, really loved. And then even with hair, the hair department or the makeup department, I’d be like, “Oh, for her birthday, I feel like she would have something wild.” or like, “Let’s do a pink lip.” Everyone was super open or I’d be like, “Let’s put some barrettes in her hair. Let’s have fun with it.” Everyone was very open. And I feel like that’s a sign that everyone’s extremely professional and great at their jobs because they know how to customize it for the person they’re working with.
TD: Yeah. It sounds like no insecurity is involved at all. Everyone’s firing on all cylinders.
PP: Yeah. Yeah.
TD: On the show you balance humor and emotion so well. How do you approach keeping the humor while being vulnerable?
PP: Probably because that’s just how I live. I think for people who maybe grew up like I did feeling like they were entertainers, just for even their family or feeling like they were the funny ones, humor is a way to, humor can be used as a vehicle for so many feelings and emotions. And I feel like you can tackle so many things with levity when approached with humor. And mind you, I don’t do it so much in my real life that you never know how I feel, because that can be really annoying and unhealthy. But I think even our darkest, most human things, at a certain point, you can look back and at least find something about it that can make you laugh. I mean, there’s certain things in life I’m never going to find funny. There’s a lot of comedians that are like, “Nothing’s off limits.” I’m like, “Certain things should be, like we don’t need to make fun of everything.” But I think I have a really deep understanding, again, that we are all made of parts that exist at the same time at all times. So I’m never just happy, or I’m never just sad, or I’m never just confident, and I’m never just insecure. I think if we were all only one thing that would be insane. The world would be absolutely even crazier than it is. And so allowing all of those things to exist at the same time that even in our deepest emotions, we are still inherently ourselves made it a little bit, I wouldn’t say easier, but made me more able to transition from crying over a breakup to karaoking Lil Kim on stage.
TD: Kim gets her fair share of romance in the second season. What was that like playing the different relationships?
PP: I loved it. I mean, everyone was so attractive, so that didn’t hurt. Everyone was also so incredibly nice, made me feel so comfortable. I loved it, too, because I feel like sometimes when you see people that are outside the normal standards of beauty in this country, which are super white and super thin, them being sexual is almost the butt of a joke. It’s almost like, “Oh my gosh, this fat girl’s getting laid. Ha ha, he he, she’s probably attacking him.” And to not have to explain why these men would be attracted to her, I think is extremely empowering because I think in real life, everyone is attracted to all different types of people.
And in real life, everyone’s getting laid. It’s not just thin, white people. We’re all getting laid. And so on TV when it feels like it has to be over-explained why someone would be attracted to someone that looks like that, it’s very insulting. And so I loved that she got to not only be with these men, but be the one to decide whether it keeps going or ends. I mean, you’re not always happy about that, but it is empowering that she’s also just not always the one that’s a mess. Or she gets to have her pick of the litter too, which is great.
TD: You also had a role on Space Force as well. Can you tell me how that was different than playing on Special?
PP: Yeah. Probably because I was on Space Force, I think I was like mostly glorified background, and on Special I’m like a person you get to know. Happy to do both, but life and career is all about both, so I’m never going to be like, “No, I’m not going to do that.” Space Force was really cool because I got to be around legends like Steve Carell and John Malkovich and just observe them in their element. And I feel like I learned a lot just by being around them. And John Malkovich is also such a kind, interesting person, so we would have conversations on set where he would be talking to everyone on set. That was like a really fun, cool, huge budget production to be a part of. Because you know, I’m a scientist, and we’re in this giant set they’ve built, whereas Special was more like the little show that could. A little more intimate, but both experiences have value, but obviously it’s something like Special, I just got to know everyone a lot more, and it felt like a full family.
TD: I’m sure that they do have a supreme differences. For my last question, I just wanted to ask you since Special is ending now, what would be your hopes for Kim? If there was a season three, if it kept going, what would be your hopes for Kim?
PP: Well, I hope she moves out of her parents’ house because it ain’t cute. Me, personally, I don’t think I could ever move back in. I don’t think a lot of us could. Although a lot of my friends did this past year, and it worked out so maybe I could. But one, I hope she gets her own place. Obviously on the surface, I hope her website takes off. I hope all those things, but personally, I hope she learns how to just allow herself to just be. Because I think especially as women, especially as women of color in this industry, we’re always feeling like we need to grow more hair or yank this or suck this in or put on this makeup or make my eyes look bigger and make my waist look smaller. And I think it’s really important to stop and have moments where you allow yourself to just be and exist as you are, and know that that is absolutely more than enough.
TD: Well, that’s wonderful. You were one of my favorite characters on TV this year, so I was so excited to talk to you today.
PP: Thank you.
TD: So funny. You are so great on it. Thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed talking to you.
PP: Thank you so much, Tyler. I love talking to you too.
TD: You have a great day.
PP: You too. Bye.
Season 2 of Special is currently available to stream on Netflix. Punam Patel is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
The second season of Special is currently available to stream on Netflix. Punam Patel is Emmy eligible in Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix