Metro Weekly

Ryan O’Connell on two groundbreaking seasons of ‘Special’ and writing his way to sobriety

"I will always be attracted to stories that no one else wants to tell...because it's what excites me," O'Connell says

Special, Ryan O'Connell
Ryan O’Connell — Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

Based on his acclaimed “memoir-meets-manifesto” I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, Ryan O’Connell’s Netflix series Special depicts a humorous version of the writer’s life as a single gay Millennial with cerebral palsy. Spend time getting to know O’Connell, though, and it’s clear that while he and Ryan Hayes, the character, share many similarities and a favorite expression (“Chic!”), the creator is wiser and far more self-assured than his fictional avatar.

The lines blur, O’Connell says, chatting over Zoom ahead of the show’s season two premiere. For one thing, real-life Ryan has a long-time boyfriend, fellow writer Jonathan Parks-Ramage, whose debut novel Yes, Daddy, is being hailed as both erotic and chilling. Fictional Ryan, having only recently moved out of his mom’s house and lost his virginity, has a lot of catching up to do in the dating department. Apparently, so does his mom Karen, portrayed in an Emmy-worthy performance by Jessica Hecht as an empty-nester blindsided by her son’s sudden independence, yet excited to see what her newfound freedom holds in store for her.

The season’s eight half-hour episodes (up from 15-minutes apiece in season one) thrust both mother and son, as well as Ryan’s bodacious bestie Kim, played by Punam Patel, into hilariously, sometimes scarily, unfamiliar romantic territory.

Special is about three people,” says O’Connell. “Ryan, a gay disabled person. Karen, a woman in her mid-50s. Kim, a woman of color who is curvy. It’s about these people that I think, historically, in TV have always been kind of the sidekick and the side piece to the main character of a straight white male or whatever. And in Special, they’re given the space to just be the main course. They’ve been relegated to appetizers, but, honey, they’re eating tonight.”

Not only do Ryan and Kim get their hands on hot new boyfriends, keeping the show’s playful sex scenes on the menu, but all three characters explore new connections to their families and communities. “That’s been really exciting,” O’Connell says, noting the show’s purpose in presenting “these three characters both finding their self-worth and coming into their power, and realizing how important they are in a society that has not inherently valued them from day one.”

From the outset of working on this season, O’Connell knew where he wanted things to go for his TV alter ego. “Netflix told me from the very beginning, when they renewed us for the second season, that I’m going to get half-hour episodes and it’s going to be the final season,” he says.

“That was not the answer that I was hoping for, but at the same time, it really set me up to write a complete final season. I think what would have been more devastating was if we had made the show and I left it open-ended, hoping for a season three only to never get a season three. So, actually, I really, really appreciated knowing in advance. I mean, it feels like a series finale. It feels like we’ve really gone on a full journey with these characters. We’re leaving them in a really good place. So, I’m really glad that we got the opportunity to do that and we didn’t leave things hanging.”

Special: Ryan O'Connell
Ryan O’Connell in Special — Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s talk about those blurred lines between Ryan O’Connell and Ryan Hayes. Did they blur a lot for you when you were writing and performing it?

RYAN O’CONNELL: A little bit. I mean, I think this character, honestly, is goofier, shall I say, than I ever was. I did not suffer from such arrested development. I, for example, moved out of my parent’s house when I was 18 years old, lost my virginity when I was 17, so I don’t really relate to that aspect of it. I think, emotionally, this character feels very close to me. The things that he’s struggling with, the things that he’s feeling I understand very deeply, but the actual setting and the interactions and the relationships that he finds himself in, I have not experienced.

MW: What about the pop culture references? Because I feel like Ryan and Kim have such a good set of comic references. And even Ryan’s mom, making jokes about Nancy Meyers movies. How much of that sensibility do you share with Ryan Hayes?

O’CONNELL: That’s the complete, absolute overlap. As a gay man, I remember the most insane pop culture-y things and I constantly am thinking like, “What had to die in order for this to live?” I literally can’t remember something consequential, but I can remember the ins and outs of Emily Valentine on 90210 from 1989. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

MW: I can totally relate to that — not having really important information at my fingertips, but I can quote Dorothy Zbornak at will.

O’CONNELL: Yeah, exactly. And that’s just called gay culture.

MW: And now you’re part of that. Are you experiencing being a part of larger gay culture outside of yourself?

O’CONNELL: I guess so. I mean, I was the Grand Marshal of L.A. Pride in 2019, and that was a huge moment of cool recognition. Honestly, though, I will always feel a little bit of an outsider in the gay community just by virtue of being disabled and not being an Insta-gay influencer and whatnot. But I definitely have felt more accepted and more supported since the show coming out.

It’s funny, I used to have a lot of internalized homophobia growing up, and I used to really, really not feel like I fit in. And this show coming out and the acceptance from the queer community has really shown me that all those feelings that I had and all those inadequacies were kind of a lot in my head. Or maybe gay men just like you better when you’re famous.

MW: This season also deals with Ryan finding a community, not just among gay people but among disabled people, with a group that calls themselves The Crips. Talk about reclaiming that word and including that community on the show.

O’CONNELL: It felt like a no-brainer. For season one, it was where Ryan was at with his internalized ableism. And the fact that his life was such a fish bowl that he really wouldn’t know any disabled people, that completely tracked for me. But with season two, with him living on his own and being out about his cerebral palsy, it just felt like a natural progression for him to find a group of like-minded individuals and have his own disabled community.

It was also just a really fun excuse to hire a lot of disabled actors and make use of this time I have as a showrunner and creator and give people as many jobs as possible. How often do you see disabled people on TV, let alone a whole group of them, hanging out, shooting the shit, and not always talking about their trauma and not having a violin playing in the background softly as they process every bad thing that’s ever happened to them? It was really important that we just show them living, laughing, and talking shit, and just being completely normal and having just a great, genuine friendship with each other. Because I think that marginalized people can exist, but in this very small little box of just our trauma, and so it needs to be a drama. It needs to be very sad and da-da-duh. It’s like, “No, actually, let’s just show them being bitchy.”

MW: I want to shout out Punam Patel, who plays Kim, and Marla Mindelle, who plays Ryan’s boss, Olivia. Where did you find them? Because they’re both really great.

O’CONNELL: Marla Mindelle is actually my boyfriend’s writing partner, so I’ve known Marla for years and they write screenplays together and all that stuff, so Marla’s always been in my life and she’s incredibly talented. She’s so fucking funny, oh my god. Hiring her was a no-brainer because I just think she’s a genius.

And then Punam Patel, I’d seen her in Brian Jordan Alvarez’s web show, The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, which is genius. Punam’s only in it for like two scenes, but she’s so fucking funny. I remember watching it being like, “Oh my god, who is this girl? She’s so crazy talented.” And when we were talking about the character of Kim, my boyfriend was like, “You should think about Punam Patel. She’ll be really good at it.” Punam was so amazing. She is the only character that we never saw anyone else for. We just saw Punam and we’re like, “She’s it. She’s the one.” We didn’t bother even auditioning anyone else.

With Punam, she’s just so gifted and she knocks everything out of the park. A big reason for me expanding season two was that we could get into her character more. Because in season one, she’s very much Ryan’s emotional cheerleader and, although you dive a little bit deeper into the things that she’s struggling with, it still is very much through the eyes of Ryan, and I just really hate that. I don’t like that trope in TV of that sassy sidekick that’s going to tell it like it is and whatever. So, in season two, I really, really wanted to broaden her storyline and for you to get a deeper dive into her character and see her outside of Ryan.

MW: One of the great things about the show, and especially this season, is how it spreads around the romance. We get to see Kim and Karen and even Olivia get some. Talking about the expanded episodes, was it a relief to have that space to breathe, or was it just more pressure to deliver basically twice as much material this season?

O’CONNELL: No, I actually completely divorce myself from pressure. I’m not kidding you. It’s like one of those things that I’m so lucky to have and I don’t know how I got it. I don’t let the noise enter the brain. I just don’t. I’m like, “Nope.” Because to me, you can’t think about the bigger picture when you’re in the writer’s room crafting a season of TV. You have to basically think about what story you want to tell, and, at a certain point, you’re not even in the driver’s seat anymore. The story tells you where it wants to go and you kind of just have to go along for the ride a little bit. So, I didn’t think too much about the pressure of season one and living up to it. It was no pressure. It was luxurious, because season one, I felt like I was always writing against the clock. And I felt like I was never quite fully getting what I wanted to do. The pacing was so fast, and I think that kind of worked in our favor, in terms of the show being very bingeable because it was 15-minute episodes. I think it actually brought more of an audience to our show than we would have gotten if it was half an hour.

But for season two, it was so great, because things actually have time to develop and had time, as you said, and room to breathe. That was the most amazing thing because I just felt like, with short-form, there was a ceiling and I hit it. You can only do so much with the medium at 15 minutes. And I feel like with season two, as a writer and a performer, I was able to really kind of show what I could do without those time constraints.

Special: Max Jenkins and Ryan O'Connell
Max Jenkins and Ryan O’Connell in Special — Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

MW: Let’s dig into the writing because I really enjoy the writing of the show. And obviously, other writers did too because you won a Writers Guild Award for season one. Congratulations.

O’CONNELL: Yes, thank you. It honestly is such an honor to be recognized by other writers, because other writers are such bitches and we’re so judgy. So, honestly, having their embrace felt amazing.

MW: One of the season two episodes that I think is going to be really striking to people is episode 2, when Ryan has a sexual encounter with a guy who expresses a fetish for guys with disabilities. I think there are people from many different minority and/or marginalized perspectives who will understand exactly what that feels like, and what that learning experience is because it almost always comes as a surprise. Why did you want to include that?

O’CONNELL: I’m sorry that anyone has this experience of being fetishized, but, to me, it’s a perfect example of through specificity, you get more universal, because even though someone’s not disabled, I think people can relate to being fetishized for something, or find themselves in sexual situations that they don’t really want to be in but they don’t have the self-esteem to walk away.

It was really important when we wrote that scene that it was consensual. He asked for consent. Obviously, it’s a curveball that he only brings up during sex and Ryan’s like, “Ugh.” But he does give Ryan the out to leave, and Ryan doesn’t take that out and I think that’s a really interesting thing, because I think it’s a gray area. I think it’s about Ryan just kind of feeling lucky to be invited to the sexual party. I think Ryan just feels so blessed that some handsome, Hallmark Channel actor wanted to fuck him that it didn’t matter how he was being fucked. The fact that he was being fucked at all was a gift and I think that’s a version of sex that I could relate to.

I’ve never been fetishized, but I can relate to being in that environment and not having the self-esteem to leave. I just think it’s something that people can connect to, sadly. And I thought it was also a really interesting way to marker Ryan’s growth as a character, because I think by the end of season two, he would be like, “No, I’m fucking good. See you later.”

MW: The fact he talks about it later is a moment of growth too, bringing it up to the Crips. The series, in general, is very sex-positive and open. Was it hard at all to protect the sex positivity of the show from any pushback from executives?

O’CONNELL: No, no. Everyone was so on board. I mean, here’s the deal. I think that when you’re buying a show from me, you kind of know what you’re getting, for better or for worse. There’s no bait and switch. I think with season one, they were on board with Ryan losing his virginity to a sex worker. I really believed in that scene, and I knew that that scene was going to get a lot of attention because we’d never seen anal sex that way. We’d never seen sex worker representation that way.

Netflix was always on board. I think they understood that authentic depictions of sex was such a part of the show. So we shot the first four episodes [of season two], and then the pandemic shut us down and we came back, and I remember there was some discussion around the sex scenes and the COVID of it all and is there a way we can fake things. I was very lucky because we had shot most of the sex scenes in the first half, but there was still some stuff with me and Max [Jenkins, who plays Ryan’s partnered boyfriend Tanner]. I was very lucky because me and Max are good friends, and we have a dialogue and it’s a safe space but I knew that he was down for it, I was down for it.

So much of this show’s DNA is those sex scenes, those honest sex scenes. And to take it out would be like watching a version of Sex and the City on E!. Remember when E! was running the Sex and the City reruns, and Samantha was just basically on the cutting room floor, because all of her fucking storylines revolved around her getting fucked and being naked? I was like, “No one wants to see the Sex and the City E! reruns. They just want to see the ones on HBO.” So I was really grateful that I had that relationship with Max, he was super comfortable, and that we were able to kind of keep those storylines intact without any changes from COVID because I just feel like it wouldn’t have been true to the sphere of the show.

MW: Now that Special is done, what do you think you’ll be able to do with whatever power and influence you have to continue telling stories?

O’CONNELL: Well, I think rumors of my power have been greatly over-exaggerated. I will always be attracted to stories that no one else wants to tell, that have stigma or taboo attached to it, which is fortunate for me, in some ways, because it’s what excites me, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. But it’s also a troll because I don’t think any things that I want to make are necessarily an easy sell. I’m not selling “Free-spirited sister moves in with her type-A sister and then things get crazy! Things Get Crazy, coming to ABC in the fall.” If I sold that, I’d have a house in Malibu, you know what I mean? I want to just continue to make things that push the conversation forward and that push the envelope and sometimes come all over it.

I wrote a novel in quarantine that’s coming out next year called Just by Looking at Him. It’s very gay, very disabled. I sold the film rights and now I’m writing the screenplay and I’m going to star in it. And I sold a show to HBO Max called Accessible, that’s about an all-disabled boarding school and disabled teenagers just living, laughing, and fucking, and if it actually gets made, it will make history because it’s predominantly a disabled cast. That was inspired largely by shooting Crip Prom [for Special], and looking around the room and realizing that I was the majority for once. That has never happened my entire life. It’s considered a victory if I look around the room and I see one other disabled person. But to be in a room full of disabled people, it made my heart swell and kind of served as the spark for this new show where it’s a predominantly disabled cast. We can explore different kinds of disabilities.

When I was thinking of Accessible, I was kind of like, “Oh, am I going to get pigeon-holed? That’s the guy that only wants to talk about disability. Blah, blah, blah.” But the reality is that there’s so many things around disability that have yet to be explored — that have yet to be allowed to be explored — that I just find it to be an endless well of inspiration. And I don’t give a shit.

I mean, you think about people — like, Sofia Coppola talks about the malaise of the wealthy over and over again and people are obsessed. Noah Baumbach makes movies about neurotic New Yorkers over and over again, everyone’s obsessed. By the way, I’m obsessed, too. Big fan. Sally Rooney writes fucking books about girls in weird, fun, queer relationships in Ireland. People are allowed to create variations on a theme, and dip into the same well over and over again. Picasso had a Blue Period. I’m in my Disabled, Queer, Blue Balls Period. That’s where I’m at. So I need to let go of those insecurities and just kind of follow my heart, and my heart wants to live in Crip Gay Land.

MW: What’s your outlook on acting in roles that you don’t create?

O’CONNELL: “Everyday is a Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow. I think I have a complicated relationship with acting. I really like it. I fully came into that space of just admitting that I like it, and I like performing and all these things. It’s hard because once you’ve been in control and you’re doing something that you know is good, no offense, it’s hard to kind of go into a space where it’s a huge trust fall. I mean, quite frankly, I just don’t get sent that many great things, and I don’t make my living off of acting, so my thing is why would I go from my own show that I know is critically acclaimed and everyone loves, to being, I don’t know, Jillian Bell’s gay best friend on a whatever show? Do you know what I mean? Actually, I love Jillian Bell. I don’t mean to drag her. I don’t know if she would ever do that. So wait, not Jillian Bell, one of the girls from Pretty Little Liars, whatever. That would make no sense.

So I think I’m really into acting, I really am excited to work with people, and not work on material that I’ve written, but I’m very, very choosy about it and it’s not like everyone’s banging down my door. So it’s kind of a mixture of I don’t really want to go to the dance and they don’t want to take me to the dance. Hopefully, there will be a next project that I can be in that’s really good. I will work for things that I’m not involved in. Trust me. I’m a very, very choosy girl.

MW: Have you seen Ryan J. Haddad’s autobiographical show Hi, Are You Single?, because he namedrops you in the play.

O’CONNELL: I have not seen that yet and I’m going to. Ryan is a delight. We’ve obviously been in touch, being the other gay, queer, disabled Ryan out there. We don’t grow on trees, so us girls have to stick together. I think it’s amazing. Whenever someone like Ryan comes up, it’s honestly just a sigh of relief for me because there are so many of us and our voices have not been amplified the way that they should. I think Ryan is doing an amazing thing and I love that his play has gotten so much attention, and I’m just like, “Yes! Let’s multiply. Let there be more of us. Let’s fucking dominate this field. Strength in numbers.” A rising tide lifts all ships, in my opinion.

I think marginalized people in Hollywood, they’re correct to feel this way. Because tokenism is a real thing that happens in Hollywood where one person’s success would mean your failure. It’s a zero-sum game. There’s one seat at the table and if someone’s taken what you perceived to be your seat, that means that you won’t succeed. And I think that’s changing, and I also think that we live in a world now where people are creating their own things and they’re not taking the usual pathways to be seen. So I think it’s really important to lift people up and, again, not see people’s success as your failure.

Special: Jessica Hecht and Ryan O'Connell
Jessica Hecht and Ryan O’Connell in Special — Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

MW: You mentioned your new novel, Just By Looking at Him. What’s it about?

O’CONNELL: It’s about a gay, disabled TV writer. I don’t know where I could’ve gotten that idea. He’s in a long-term relationship. He works for a network sitcom. He falls down a rabbit-hole of sex addiction and alcohol addiction. He’s really just trying to fill his hole in order to feel whole. It’s funny.

Writing this novel was honestly one of the purest writing experiences I’ve ever had, because with TV, you have a lot of people weighing in. Luckily, with Special, everyone was super smart and made the show better, but there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen. With the novel, I wrote it in quarantine. I wrote the first chapter in three months. It just poured out of me, conduit style. It was crazy. It was just a very liberating, creative experience to just be there with my work, be able to tell a story that I want to tell and now I’m finishing up edits with my editor who’s amazing. It just feels really nice.

I think that the medium of TV and film is amazing, and I love it, but there’s a certain kind of economy to the story-telling. Everything needs to kind of add up to something. It’s almost like a math equation. You’re plugging this in here to pay it off later. To me, what I’ve learned about myself is that I need to be doing different things in order to feel stimulated, and I think what I love about the novel is that you can just literally do whatever the fuck you want. There’s really no model. There’s no structure. If you want to get lost in the woods talking about the bougainvillea, you can go talk about the bougainvillea for 40,000 words. I would never do that. I don’t even know how to spell bougainvillea, but if I did, I could. And I think I just feel really liberated creatively working in the medium of the novel — which I know probably is the most pretentious thing I’ve ever said. Forgive me.

MW: Probably Ethan Hawke has said the same thing.

O’CONNELL: [Laughs.] Oh, no. That’s not good! That is not making me feel better about anything I just said, but thank you, I guess.

MW: Not that we’re dragging Ethan Hawke. On the subject of reading, what have your reading habits been like during this past year? Better, worse, or unchanged?

O’CONNELL: I probably read three books the entire quarantine. Which is LOL because I wrote a book, but somehow I can’t read a book, I don’t know. Please let’s figure that out. Let’s get doctors on that, figure that out, if that’s possible.

I think my attention span has really been shortened. I think it’s really hard for me to focus. I wish I could say that I used quarantine to reconnect with all the books that I promised myself that I’d read. I didn’t read any of them. One book I did read is called This Naked Mind by Annie Grace, and Quit Drinking Without Willpower by Allen Carr, and I got sober through reading those books.

MW: Wow, congratulations.

O’CONNELL: That’s an honorable mention. Well, honestly that was sort of the impetus for the novel is that when I wrote it, I started writing a thousand words a day, just not intending to write a novel. I just wanted to write something.

MW: As an exercise?

O’CONNELL: Yeah, it was a writing exercise that I really, truly, truly, truly did not know where it was going to go, but then the character I started writing was a high-functioning alcoholic, and I had been in a really kind of TBD relationship with alcohol for many years and I was really, really looking for a change, but not quite sure how to do it. I realized I used this character as a way to be honest with myself about my true relationship with drinking and how I viewed it. I also kind of knew, on a deeper level, that once I was honest and I wrote all those thoughts down, once you see, you can’t unsee. So I kind of felt like writing this novel could force me to get sober and it sort of did. I mean, I read those books while writing my book and I got sober probably two or three months after I started writing the novel. So people say, “Writing this novel saved my life.” Well, honestly, it kind of literally did in my case.

MW: That’s really great to hear.

O’CONNELL: Thanks.

MW: With the show only a week away from being out, and especially the way it releases, all at once, how does it feel? It won’t be something that you get to play out over the summer, for instance.

O’CONNELL: Yeah, I like it all at once, because I think I want the whole story out there. I like all of that stuff. What’s a bummer honestly is kind of being at the tail-end of the pandemic. I mean, it’s not the tail-end of the pandemic, but life is opening up more in the U.S., and I miss doing things in person. I miss those kind of in-person celebratory moments, because we worked on this show for two years. It was such a labor of love and I am kind of mourning the in-person aspect of it. Season one was so amazing and I did so much press for that and I got to do so many cool things that I kind of feel excited that I got to do it. I do miss an in-person celebratory moment.

MW: With everybody emerging slowly, what have you not been doing that you really can’t wait to resume?

O’CONNELL: I was really, really, really locked down. I didn’t do anything. I don’t drive and I wouldn’t take Uber for a year, which, by the way, my bank account was like, “Thank God.” My life became shrunk overnight, where it was like my neighborhood and that was it. I did this primarily because I’m a smart person who doesn’t want to get COVID, but also I didn’t know how COVID was going to interact with cerebral palsy and I didn’t want to find out. I’ve been through enough health things in my life to not test my luck.

I’m fully vaxxed, and I got to go back to a gym a week ago. I mean, honey, I’m a gym rat. Sorry, I am. I fucking love a fucking gym. The gym is meditative for me. It’s a soother. Doing at-home workouts truly was not the look. Just being back in a gym was so exciting. But also, just on a deeper level, I really was so terrified during COVID of getting COVID and getting sick and dying in a real way, because, again, we didn’t know how she was going to like CP. My guess, not great. Not having that low hum of dread constantly — of being like, “Am I going to get sick? Am I going to die?” — let’s just say, that’s a weight lifted off my shoulders.

MW: Yeah, it’s a daily relief to get texts and pictures of relatives getting their second shot. I’m just relieved that anybody who made it through it, has made it through it.

O’CONNELL: Yeah, absolutely. I almost want to Men in Black memory-erase COVID. I don’t want to see anything about it. I don’t want to talk about it. Can we just pretend COVID was that messy party-goer that got too wasted and vomited all over someone’s rug? Can we just pretend COVID was that person, and never talk about her again? We can have one download session at brunch the next day. But then let’s not bring her up. Let’s not invite her to the party ever again.

MW: Season one Ryan — Ryan Hayes, that is — made it clear that he considered “special” to be a condescending euphemism in certain usage. I guess now the word, for Ryan O’Connell, has a whole different connotation. What’s your relationship to the word “special” now?

O’CONNELL: I think I’ve definitely reclaimed it. I think “special” has been used in the past to infantilize us and to separate us, and to kind of continue the otherness of the disabled community, but I think there’s something really empowering in saying, proudly, that I’m special, that disabled people are special, that we are unique individuals who deserve to have our voices heard and be amplified and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I love doing a remix on a harmful term and making her chic.

MW: Chic! That’s the perfect chic ending for us.

O’CONNELL: Love that. Of course, I was going to end on chic. I had no other choice.

Season two of Special is available for streaming May 20 on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.

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