Interview: ‘Special’ creator and star Ryan O’Connell on his show and finally coming out as hot
Ryan O’Connell in a writer and actor who gained popularity whenever his 2015 memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, about living as a gay man with cerebral palsy, came out. This was an expansion of a column he had written for the blog Thought Catalog, where he discussed hiding his disability using a car accident that had happened to him. In 2019, O’Connell’s Netflix series Special came out with its first season, using a fictionalized version of Ryan to tell the story of a gay man living with cerebral palsy. Recently, season two (the final season) of the show has come out.
O’Connell recently sat down on Zoom with AwardsWatch to discuss coming out as hot, the show’s second season and where the characters would go after the finale.
Tyler Doster: How are you doing today?
Ryan O’Connell: I’m good. How are you?
TD: I’m doing pretty good. I wanted to start by, I saw on Instagram the other day that you recently came out as being hot.
ROC: Oh my God, thank you. God, it took so much courage and bravery to really put myself out there. But yeah, the response was overwhelming. I felt the love.
TD: Yeah. I wanted to know how is that going for you? Are you okay after your recent announcement?
ROC: You know I’m so glad you’re taking the time to see, to check in, to do a wellness check. Yes, I’m doing fantastic. I feel like I’m the first person in history to get in shape after their show wraps. Usually it’s like, you come in with a season two body, with a trainer, all this stuff. I did things the other way, but, it’s all good.
TD: You said let’s just wait until this is all over and I actually have time to do this.
ROC: Yeah. And I was like, you know what? The character of Ryan wouldn’t have a gym body. It really was just me, being kind to the character and being method, so yeah.
TD: Really it was just an acting choice on your part. All of this has been a big choice.
ROC: Absolutely. And I am just dedicated to the craft. You know what I mean?
TD: I’m thrilled to be able to cover that and to be able to be one of the first to hear it.
Ryan: Of course, honey, it’s exclusive.
TD: So let me ask you to take me back a little bit and just ask you how it initially came to you. How did you initially decide to do this series? And when did Netflix get involved?
Ryan: Well, I wrote a blog post for a website I was writing for at the time, Thought Catalog, called Coming Out Of the Disabled Closet, because I had been closeted about my CP for about 8 years. And my friend Adam Roberts shared that post on his Facebook, and he was friends with Jim Parsons. And so Jim and his partner, Todd, read that post, and then I woke up one day to a message from my agent being like, Jim Parson wants to meet with you. And I’m like, excusez-moi? And so I met with him and Todd, and they had just started a production company called That’s Wonderful, and they were looking for their first project and we just got along so, so well. I just adored them. And through that, Hollywood was abuzz with the new hot marginalized group of people being gay and disabled. So, there was a little bit of a bidding war and then I went with Todd and Jim because it just felt the most correct and I loved them. And then of course, no one ended up buying it. (laughs) So welcome to the ebbs and flows of the business. You know what I mean? One minute everyone wants you, no, then no one wants you. And then, after all of the networks passed on the half hour, we went to this digital kind of incubator within Warner Brothers, called Stage 13, that was commissioning 15 minutes scripts. So, I had never conceptualized it as a short form show. I didn’t really want it to be a short form show. But at that point, I was just desperate for it to be on air in any kind of iteration. And so that’s why I wrote the scripts for Stage 13. And then we sent the scripts to Netflix and then they green lit it. But, I feel like when I talk about it, it feels kind of truncated, but door to door, maybe it was four years, so it was a long journey. And there was a lot of times where I just wanted to give up because I felt like there was really no point, that Hollywood was never going to be DTF for a gay disabled lead. But by golly, my Virgo tendencies won out and I stuck with it.
TD: Oh, you’re a Virgo. I’m a Virgo.
ROC: Oh yeah. Well then, you know, we don’t fuck around.
TD: Yeah, absolutely not. So how did you from first season, which was short form to the second season, which is all 30 minute episodes, what happened in between seasons for you to get that extra length?
ROC: Oh, I just told Netflix and I told any press outlet that would listen that I would not do 15 minutes again (laughs). I think if you complain to enough people, they will have no choice, but to follow suit. No, I mean, I was really, really upfront with Netflix that I did not want to do 15 minutes. I felt really, really creatively blue balled while writing it because it was a lot of character development to squish into one season. And I felt like certain moments could not breathe. I would rather have one more season of this show in the iteration that I always saw it as, rather than like four seasons of short form, you know what I mean? I was very upfront with Netflix about it and to their credit, they were like, “Okay, cool. We’ll make it work.” So that’s what we did.
TD: That sounds like it made things a lot easier really quickly.
ROC: Yeah. I mean, it was still a journey because we had to do all new deals. It took five months for us to get renewed for season two. So it was sort of a nightmare and I was sort of on the edge of my seat and it was really, really stressful, but yeah, being able to actually have a writer’s room and be able to do 30 minute episodes, it was so luxurious from a storytelling perspective because I felt like I could really widen it out. I feel like I could include the character of Kim more because I really didn’t like how in season one, she really was just there as like an emotional cheerleader for Ryan. So it was super fun diving into that character and being like,” Hmm, what does she do when she leaves work? What does she do when she leaves Ryan’s side?” So that was really, really exciting.
TD: Definitely. So the show is semi-autobiographical, obviously there’s some fictionalized parts. How do you decide what you want to bring in from real life and what you want to just absolutely fictionalize?
ROC: I don’t think I’m that conscious of it. I mean, I think Ryan, the character, has always been incredibly fictionalized because Ryan is a character who suffers from extreme arrested development. He still lived with his mom. He’s a virgin. I was never those things. I mean, I was a virgin, and I did live with my mom, but I lost both those things at the appropriate time. So Ryan already kind of felt far away from me. I didn’t really relate to his social awkwardness. I didn’t really relate to his naivete. I think emotionally I relate to the character of Ryan. I relate to this idea of struggling to take up space in this world. I relate to this idea of not having enough confidence. And feeling defective with boys and relationships, feeling like everyone’s out of your league, that feels very ripped from the diaries, but the actual character and what he goes through, I would say is like largely, largely fictionalized.
TD: That’s interesting to hear just after seeing everything. I was specifically wondering if you had the same coming out story as Ryan. I know he does it over a YouTube video.
ROC: Yeah. Well, I had a sexuality reveal party, so I came out to all my friends. Yeah. I came out to all my friends via a party they had thrown where I didn’t tell anyone, what was it about. I was very secretive. I was just like texting everyone being like, “Come to my house for a secret that will change all our lives forever.” And I made this video with my friend, Katie, where we were slow dancing. And she went in for a kiss and I was like, “No, Katie, we can’t, we can’t do this.” And she said, “Why not? I have a crush on you. I always have.” And I’m like, “Because I’m gay!” And then I turned to the camera and everyone in the room was just like, wait, what? And then I bought like penis pasta and all this phallic gift bags and stuff like that. There was posters of Morrissey all over the place. So, if you do it correctly, you only have to come out once so you might as well make it count.
TD: Well, that’s an amazing story, that’s even better. You should have included that instead of the YouTube video you should have included your own.
ROC: That’s the difference between Ryan and the character and this is where it gets tricky. Ryan, the character, would not do that. It’s like too audacious in the brand. He’s kind of an insecure little baby, you know what I mean?
TD: That’s true. I definitely agree with that. Thinking about it, I guess giving it a second thought, it wouldn’t work with Ryan, the character, but it works for Ryan, the person.
ROC: Yes, totally. Totally, totally. Yeah. Ryan’s not far along enough on his journey, unfortunately.
TD: Another thing the premier includes is Ryan has a one night stand and that turns into a one day stand, which is something we’ve seen before in straight relationships, a hundred different times. Was that important for you to include that to a gay relationship to get to see out?
ROC: Yeah. I mean, I’m obsessed with gay intimacy and I think at my heart, I’m just like a mumblecore indie filmmaker bitch. So I love the idea of just basically scenes of people talking. I think it’s antithetical to like everything you hear about storytelling mistakes. And I’m just like, “What if they just like have a good time?” My execs are blowing out their brains. And they’re like, “No something needs to happen.” I’m like, what if they’re just connecting? Cause I mean, to me, two gay men connecting is just really, really powerful. And it’s not something that you see all the time. You can see them fucking, or you can see them lusting after each other, but it’s rare that you can really see them bonding. So it was really, really important to me that we have my own little version of the movie Weekend, you know what I mean? I liked the kind of almost like bottle episode quality for our first episode.
TD: And that kind of, honestly, that kind of did give me Weekend vibes. So that’s interesting that you say that. It was one of those things where I haven’t seen it a hundred times before, like I have with heterosexual relationships. So it was super fun to watch.
ROC: I feel bad because I saw the movie Weekend on Percocets so I fell asleep half way through. So I don’t actually know what happens, but I get the gist (laughs).
TD: Have to give it a rewatch one day, but minus the Percocet (laughs).
ROC: Oh totally. Yeah. That was a bad… Oh nevermind.
TD: Another thing that the season two premiere touches on is this falling out that Ryan has had with his mother and it kind of shows how they’re both handling life without one another in this first episode, how was that different than writing the first season where she’s constantly around?
ROC: I just want it to feel really true to life. I think that when you have a schism with a family member, it takes a while for it to repair. I feel like you hear so many family stories of an aunt and uncle holding grudges for like, someone’s stealing the last slice of cake that lasts 10 years. And then of course it’s not really about the cake. So I think when it comes to family, that stuff runs really, really deep and it can be hard to heal. So I definitely was really adamant that they stay separated for the first half of the season. And of course, selfishly, that was a bummer because I love shooting with Jessica [Hecht], but I really, really wanted to make sure they felt individuated and on their own journeys, because season one, their tentacles were intertwined and you really couldn’t have one without the other. So I thought it was really, really important for them to have space. Again, just from a realism perspective, but also just from a straight perspective and letting it breathe.
TD: What was the collaborative process with the directors of the show like?
ROC: Oh my God, well it’s amazing, because Anna Dokoza shot all off season one. So we had gotten super, super close so her coming back to direct the first four episodes was incredible, easy breezy, really an extension I think of season one. And then my best friend, Craig Johnson, was actually attached to direct the pilot in 2015 when we went out with it initially and no one bought it. So having him involved with the last four was just perfect. It felt very, very much like a full circle. And selfishly, I just loved going to work every day with my best friend. And you know what I mean? I’m just such a fan of Craig. Skeleton Twins is such an incredible movie and I feel like our sensibilities, there’s a huge overlap there. So I just felt very, very fortunate to have his perspective and his shooting style. And it was really, really amazing. I feel super, super grateful.
TD: Was improv encouraged a lot on set?
ROC: Fuck yes, of course. I’m an improv bitch. I really, really lucked out with my cast. I kind of hired, without realizing it, a majority of actors who also were writers and improvers. Cause let me tell ya, not every actor can do an improv. That’s not a dig. It’s just, it’s a special skillset, okay. Like not everyone can do it and not everyone’s a writer, not a once a comedian, but by luck, everyone on Special could just do it and they could do it really well. Punam [Patel] in particular is extremely gifted. And I feel like some of her best lines came from her noggin, rather than mine. And I just felt like she made every scene so much better and so much funnier. It was an embarrassment of riches. So yeah, I was always very pro improv on my set.
TD: That’s wonderful to hear. I actually talked to Punam recently and she had nothing but good things to say about you as well.
ROC: She was like, “That disabled dictator bitch.”
TD: (laughs) That’s exactly how it went.
ROC: “He is just dripping with toxicity, he is continuing the cycle of abuse. He’s basically like a straight white male able-bodied man. It’s a nightmare.”
TD: Oh no. She had nothing but great things to say about you.
ROC: Good, good. That’s what happens when you pay someone to be your best friend on the TV show.
TD: So there is an episode, I want to say it’s episode seven, where Ravi is talking to you guys. And he says that he has not seen The Devil Wears Prada and you immediately tackle it as straight violence. And I wanted to know from you, what else do you consider to be straight violence?
ROC: Wow, there’s so much. And it’s almost like carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s like, straight violence is happening all the time. And we don’t even realize it. We’re just being poisoned with straight male toxicity. Straight violence is whenever you overhear a straight guy engage a female barista in nonconsensual conversation about his band. Straight violence is a straight guy wearing salmon colored shorts. Straight violence is open-toed sandals. Straight violence is them telling you a crazy story about the movie Anchorman. I mean, honey, like the list is endless, I could be here for four hours. Like what, what isn’t it straight violence I think is a better question.
TD: I guess that’s honestly very true. When I heard that line it got probably one of the biggest laughs out of the entire season for me. And it’s like almost buried underneath a little bit of dialogue.
ROC: It is because also Punam goes, “He’s been inside me.”
TD: Something else about the show that I love is it is unapologetically, it’s very gay. Dialogue is gay. There’s casual instances of gay sex. Like it is super gay. Is that how you envision the show? Because it’s wonderful to get to see.
ROC: Yeah I make gay things for gay people. I’m not making things for a straight white guy in his mid fifties named Tom who lives in Marina Del Rey. Like this show wasn’t for him. You know what I mean? I feel like as marginalized people with TV and film, it was like tumbleweeds, honey. We were grasping a Coke straws and we’d have to like really stretch the imagination to see ourselves in some things, you know what I mean? And I think there’s real power in saying, “I don’t really care if you don’t get it. This is not for you. This is for like fellow gay people and like straight women.” So like bye, I don’t really care if you don’t get the reference, I don’t give a shit. So, so yeah, it is a very, very gay show and I’m very, very proud of that.
TD: For my last question, I asked this to Punam and I want to ask you pretty much the same question. Since it is ending with season two, what would be your hopes if there was a season three or just in general, what would be your hopes for Ryan’s life?
ROC: I think he would be killing it at the new website that Kim has started and I think he’d want to get into disability activism, quite frankly. And I think that would be really, really fun for him and also get into a healthy relationship where he’s not the side dish, would always be good. And then with Kim, I think Kim would get a book deal and write a book about scamming and then Karen would just continue to live her best Carmela life and maybe date a woman named Sandra.
TD: Well, that sounds like the perfect, that’s how I’ll always envision that the show actually ends. It’s like my own personal epilogue now.
ROC: Perfect. Yeah. Just visualize that. Lots of gardening with Sandra. Lots of pottery. Yeah, totally.
TD: I’m seeing Ryan going to his first Pride and it goes well.
ROC: Oh absolutely. He definitely gets railed, you know? And afterwards you’re like, is that limp from his cerebral palsy or the fact that he’s taken 40,000 dicks?
TD: (laughs) Well, thank you so much for your time today, Ryan, this has been wonderful. I love the show. I’m so excited that it got a second season. I was thrilled to watch it.
ROC: Oh, good, good, good. I’m so glad you liked it.
TD: I loved it. Thank you so much for your time today. I hope you have a great day.
ROC: Of course. All right, see you later.
Season 2 of Special is available to stream on Netflix. Ryan O’Connell is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.
Photos: Beth Dubber/Netflix; Ryan O’Connell’s IG