Entertainment » Television

Being 'Special': Talking with Ryan O'Connell about his Breakthrough Netflix Series

by Steve Duffy
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Apr 17, 2019

"Special," a new Netflix series, is unusual in more ways than one. To begin with, Ryan, its protagonist, is a gay man with mild cerebral palsy — not the kind of subject found on your typical sitcom. And then there is its format: Only two of its initial eight episodes are longer than 15 minutes in length, which makes it resemble a series streamed on the web.

The breakthrough series — the first to deal with an LGBTQ character with disabilities — is the brainchild of its star Ryan O'Connell, who based it on his 2015 memoir "I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves." In the book and the series, O'Connell plays Ryan, a Millennial who decides to say his limp (caused by cerebral palsy) is a result of an automobile accident, which gives him the confidence to finally go after what he wants in life — a new job, his own apartment, and a sex life, for starters, which happen in rapid succession. He finds employment as a blogger for a pop culture lifestyle website called Eggwoke that specializes in confessional entries by its staff members, such as "Fifty Ways to Hate Myself" or "Why Do I Keep Finding Things Inside My Vagina." O'Connell based this on his experiences working on the website Thought Catalogue, where he wrote such entries as "An Open Letter To My Only One-Night Stand," "How to Appear Cooler on Facebook Than You Really Are," and "5 Valid Reasons To Get Drunk With Someone."

EDGE spoke to the LA-based writer/actor about how his memoir found its way to Netflix, why the episodes are so short in length, and how he is different from his on-screen alter-ego.

Why Not Write A Book?

EDGE: What kind of cerebral palsy do you have, and how does it affect you?

Ryan O'Connell: I have a mild form of cerebral palsy that manifests itself physically in a limp. I also have motor skills issues, facial awareness issues, and I feel like there is also some sprinkling of brain damage that affect me in subtle ways. I don't think others can really notice or realize, but God knows that I do.

EDGE: Why did you write your memoir, "I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves?"

Ryan O'Connell: I wrote it because someone asked me to, and that is the polite thing to do. I was already doing a lot of writing, so why not write a book at 25 years old. For me, the most important part of writing the book was coming clean about having cerebral palsy. I was closeted about it for many years, and I felt this was my opportunity to be open about who I was and start loving myself.

EDGE: How did your partnership with Netflix happen?

Ryan O'Connell: I had started pitching the show back in 2015, and no one would buy it. It then went to a digital branch within Warner Brothers called "Stage 13," and they commissioned me to write eight 15-minute episodes, but there was still no home. Once my scripts were finished, my producer slipped them to Netflix. It sounds really short when I say it, but it took four long years.

Playing Himself?

EDGE: How did you end up playing yourself in the show?

Ryan O'Connell: Financial necessity, honey. In the initial pitch, I was not attached to star in it, because I had never considered acting before. It just never crossed my mind that I would play me. Now, I couldn't imagine anyone else doing it. When I went to Stage 13 it was understood that I was going to play myself because we had no money. That's the sexy behind the scoop! No money and all desperation.

EDGE: Are there any differences in your own life and your character on the show?

Ryan O'Connell: I hope so, honey! Ryan, the character, is a little more arrested development than I ever was. For example, I didn't live with my mom until I was 28 years old. I am proud to say I moved out when I was 18 years old for college. Ryan also has no friends, and I always had a popping social life. Most importantly, I lost my virginity at 18 and not 28. I was a little more grown-up than Ryan the character, but we definitely hated ourselves the same amount, so we have that in common.

EDGE: Did you struggle more coming to terms with your disability or being gay?

Ryan O'Connell: Being gay was NBD, honey! I just flew past that one: "I'm gay, OK, bye!" I come from a very gay family, so everyone was very supportive. That really was never my struggle. Being disabled was something that I was always deeply uncomfortable with, and struggled a lot with accepting it and myself.

Changing the Conversation

EDGE: I believe "Special" is going to help change the conversation about being disabled and gay. For you, how important was it to get this kind of conversation and representation on television?

Ryan O'Connell: So important! I had a hard time in my 20s liking myself, feeling desirable, and feeling worthwhile as a human being. I think that is partially because I never saw myself being reflected back at me on television and in film. With that lack of media coverage, I felt that my life didn't have much value. I believe that representation really changes lives and you can't underestimate enough. My hope is that "Special" is just the beginning of the spotlight that is going to shine on all kinds of different people. People with disabilities need to be more normalized and become part of the conversation. It needs to also be acknowledged as diversity.

EDGE: How has your book and the Netflix series changed you?

Ryan O'Connell: It's definitely been validating. I always wanted to tell this story, and I always felt it was worth telling. We experienced so much pushback and no's when we first pitched it, I started to doubt myself. Honestly, having the support of Netflix has been a major boom for my self-esteem. I am no longer thinking "I am crazy, and my life does not have value." Disabled people do have value. To know that I showed up for myself and was able to do this is amazing. Part of being disabled is that you are constantly underestimated, and then you start believing it too.

EDGE: You wrote for "Will & Grace." What was that experience like?

Ryan O'Connell: I wrote for the first season of the reboot. It was such a surreal experience because every self-respecting homosexual watches it. I grew up watching it, and it was my first slice of gay representation. The show was imprinted on me in such an incredible way, so being surrounded by the actors and Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, the creators of the show, was a fever dream for me.

EDGE: What's next for you?

Ryan O'Connell: Well, after this interview I go to my job writing for the FOX reboot of "90210." My dream is that there will be a second season of "Special." I love these characters, and I think we have only touched the tip of the iceberg of who they are. I would love to continue to dive in deeper to who they are and where they can go from here.

"Special" is currently available to watch on Netflix.


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