Exclusive Interview: Ryan O’Connell on Special season 2 “it was nice to be on set with other disabled actors & feel like I was in the majority for once”

The Emmy-nominated, GLAAD and DGA award-winning comedy series Special, created and written by its star Ryan O’Connell, and executive produced by Emmy-winner Jim Parsons, returns to Netflix today for its second and final season. Expanded from its original short form format, this new season uses its additional episodic minutes to immerse us more fully in the dating and work lives of writer Ryan (Ryan O’Connell), his over-protective, loving mother Karen (Jessica Hecht) who’s exploring her new-found independence, and Ryan’s best friend Kim (Punam Patel) who’s battling her insecurities and mounting credit card debt.

Ryan eventually breaks a serious case of writer’s block when he decides to craft a longform piece about disability—both the character and the actor have Cerebral palsy (CP)—and as things get serious with his dance instructor boyfriend Tanner (Max Jenkins), Ryan meets a new circle of disabled folks when he joins a social group, The Crips, and takes Tanner to the prom. At turns hilarious, moving, and poignant, this second season is really something very special, (sorry)!

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

Ahead of today’s season 2 launch, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Ryan O’Connell about the creative freedom that going from 15-minute to 30-minute episodes allowed, the joy of bringing in additional writers, expanding the show’s disabled representation, creating and acting in the show’s realistic, groundbreaking, and destigmatizing sex scenes, and his love for Karen Walker.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the second season of Special. I actually rewatched the first season and then watched all of the second last night, so it was a six-hour binge!”

Ryan O’Connell: “Oh wow, and now you’re faced with me in real life, it must be like a nightmare!”

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

Haha! Not at all, it was a wonderful evening, so thank you, and it’s a treat to get to speak to you about it.

“OK, good!”

So the big difference for us as viewers between the first and second seasons is the length of the episodes, we get more of you this time. How did that impact your approach to the series creatively, getting to explore some of the characters in more depth for instance?

“It felt really good to be released from 15 minute jail! I felt liberated. I was like, wait, I don’t have to pack in 40 million things in a 15-minute episode, while trying to achieve character depth and turns that we’re motivated?! I was like, I can luxuriate with this gorgeous 30 minutes of storytelling?! Season one was very bare bones and it was very intense. We tried to achieve a lot in a short amount of time. With season two, we were able to let moments breathe a little bit more and not have these insane radical character developments squished into like two seconds! So from a creative standpoint I was just in heaven, absolutely.”

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

It must have been an interesting writing experience I imagine, a bit like going from a short film to a feature in some ways.

“Totally. I’m glad I did it, because I think doing season one and writing it all by myself and having these insane time constraints whipped me into shape. It was like Barry’s Bootcamp for writing! So for that I am hashtag grateful. But also like a Barry’s Bootcamp class, I’m happy to never relive it!”

I love the way that you and your character Ryan share a similar flair for language!

“Oh yeah, I have bestowed that upon my son for sure!”

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

As you mentioned you did all the writing last time around, and I noticed that there are some other writers on season 2. Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with them? Were any other disabled writers involved?

“Yes, there were. It was actually a pretty small writers’ room, there were six of us, including the writers’ assistant. So it was not like the 1994 season of Frasier, where it was like, ‘Who is this person? Are they in the room? Do they write for the show?!’ There were like 40 of them, because the budgets were so insane! But with Special season 2 it was great because I did get to hire a mix of disabled writers and able-bodied writers. I also got to work with two of my best friends; Leila Cohan-Miccio, who worked with me on Awkward, and Liz Elverenli who I had actually never worked with before, but she’s one of my close friends. So that was incredible.”

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

“The writers’ room was all gay men and women. Actually no, we had we had a straight script coordinator and I called him our diversity hire! It was absolute paradise to be in my utopia, because I think most writers’ rooms if you’re marginalized your identity is often tokenized. You’re usually in a room full of straight men and then it’s just you. I’ve been really fortunate to be in rooms that were very women and gay heavy, but I’ve also been in writers’ rooms that were not that way. So it was really amazing on this season of Special to be able to curate an amazing workplace and also not to have to explain your identity constantly to other people and for them to understand where you’re coming from. There was that thing with all of us, a shared point of reference. So it was a really fun time and I was really pleased that everyone seemed genuinely happy to be at work. By the way, are you wearing a Carrie Fisher t-shirt?”

Yes. From it’s from Girls On Tops, I’ve got a few of them but this is my favourite.

“I am obsessed! Carrie Fisher is my icon.”

She was the best wasn’t she, I miss her.

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

Obviously it’s very good that diversity and inclusion are a big part of the conversation in the entertainment industry right now, and people are acting on it too, but I feel that disabled folks are often left out of those conversations and actions. What’s your take on that and do you think things are improving?

“You suddenly see me become Steamboat Willie, I’m just like, enraged! Yes, it is a very strange feeling to live in a time where there’s such an importance placed on diversity and inclusion, and you see conversations deepen around race and sexuality and gender—which obviously they could go a lot deeper, and there’s a lot to be done—but then you continually see disability be taken out of the equation and not be included. To throw some stats at you, one in four people identify as disabled. That’s 25% of the population that identifies as having some kind of disability. So to have us not count is crazy-making. I do see it changing a little bit. I actually joined this coalition that’s just been launched called 1 in 4 that is run by all kinds of people working in Hollywood that are demanding more accessibility, a more a disabled-friendly working environment. But I am waiting for that watershed moment, that breakthrough moment where people just magically start caring about disability—or if you want to be really jaded about it—are just scared of not including disabled people out of optics, and honey, at this point, I’ll take anything. I’m like, you want to be shamed into including me, not out of empathy or whatever, or just out of not wanting to be canceled? That’s great, honey, I’m renewing you! So I do think that there’s been a little bit of change, but I think we have a long way to go.”

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

I love the Crips, the social group of disabled folks that Ryan joins in season 2, and there’s the fabulous Crips prom episode. Why did you want to have more disabled representation this season?

“I think the only other disabled person in season one was the deaf guy that Ryan goes on a date with and acts like a total asshole to.”

The guy who apparently has a big penis!

“Oh God, he did have a huge penis!”

But we didn’get to see it!

“I know! Imagine if Ryan hadn’t bungled the date, that could have been a really cool deleted scene! So basically, I knew that with season 2, the natural progression was for Ryan to find his own tribe of disabled friends. It was just really exciting because there’s so much cool disabled talent out there that doesn’t get its due. Danielle Perez was someone who I’d been watching forever. I think she’s hilarious. She’s a stand up comedian and she’s so fucking funny. So I immediately thought of her.”

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

“With Nicole Evans, I went to this thing called the disability film challenge and I watched one of her short films and was like, she’s a literal star. So it was really exciting to be able to include them and to introduce them to people that wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to Danielle or Nicole, and be like, honey, this is just the tip of the talent! To show them that there’s so much out there that you’re not addressing and be like, go have fun, go hire them, go give them jobs! We exist, we’re out here and we’re fucking chic, so let’s party! Also, on another level, it was so nice to be on set with other disabled actors and feel like I was in the majority and not the minority for once, because I’d never really experienced that in my life ever. Which is crazy.”

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

Ryan dates quite a bit in this season and there’s one guy who has a fetish for disabled men. Why did you want to explore that and is that something you’ve encountered yourself?

“I’ve never been fetishized, I’m just waiting for the right one! So, no, that’s never happened to me before, but I thought it was an interesting way to show Ryan have sex that is consensual, but that if he had more self-esteem and self-worth that he would say no to. That kind of sex was interesting to me because it’s not necessarily assault, but it’s very important that I showed his growth as a character. Ryan starts the season feeling very happy and lucky that anyone wants to fuck him. So he’ll take it, even if the sex doesn’t really make him feel that good. Then by the end of the season, he’s really stepped into his power and he’s like, actually, I don’t need to be dating anyone, everyone can go fuck themselves. I’m gonna live my solo truth. So I thought that date was a nice way to marker that growth, while also showing that you can have all kinds of sex and it doesn’t have to necessarily be defined. It was interesting to see him in a situation that, as the viewer, we’re like, oh, if you just liked yourself 2% more you wouldn’t have to do this. But sadly, he feels like he has to.”

Special season 2. Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2021.

One of the many things that I like about both seasons of Special is the sex scenes, they feel very real.

“Well, that’s because we’re actually having sex! Just kidding. And the Netflix publicist is losing color. She’s like fully unconscious, call nine one one!”

Well, they do feel very authentic! As you’ve touched upon there’s stuff happening narratively in them and character exploration too. Can you give me an insight into your approach towards those scenes as a writer and a performer?

“I mean, anal sex is my muse! You know, I’m Andy Warhol and gay sex is my Edie Sedgwick. So I always get really excited to show gay sex in a very realistic almost documentary-style light. Even though shooting it is profoundly uncomfortable and not fun. Every time I’m doing a sex scene, I’m like, ‘God dammit! Why is this happening?!’ And then I’m like, ‘Oh, I literally wrote this. Actually, I have no one to fire. I should just fire myself because I keep writing myself these insane things that I have to do!'”

SPECIAL (L to R) MAX JENKINS as TANNER and RYAN O’CONNELL as RYAN HAYES in episode 203 of SPECIAL Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

“I feel like when I write the show, I divorce myself from Ryan the actor because I don’t actually think about the things I’m going to end up doing. I think if I did that then season 2 would just be me shopping at Opening Ceremony. RIP. Anyway, the point is that there’s a lot of crazy things about gay sex that have not been explored, as you saw in season 2 there’s shitting on the dick, you have top anxiety. Honey, there’s a lot to unpack! And I want to completely remove stigma. Topping anxiety is something that I think a lot of gay men feel. It’s not specific to having a disability. I think anyone having sex worries about their performance and whether or not they’re good in bed or whether or not they can measure up. So I thought it was a nice example of the specificity of Ryan having a disability, but I feel like it’s a universal feeling that people have when having sex. Shitting on the dick is unfortunately very niche. I hope it’s not universal, well, it’s universal to gay men, but I thought that was an interesting thing to show. I also thought it was a nice way to show Ryan being selfish. Tanner had extended such kindness to Ryan when he was unable to top and then Ryan becomes a brat about it. I think anytime that we can show Ryan not behaving in a chic way, an angel gets its wings. I really believe in showing the thorniness of a disabled person, because I feel like we’re allowed to exist, but we’re only allowed to exist in this inspirational, virtuous way, and anytime I can give the finger to that is exciting to me.”

Yeah, I like that he’s flawed and makes bad decisions.

“Yeah, just like a real person!”

Megan Mullally as Karen Walker in Will & Grace. Photo credit: Andrew Eccles/NBC.

Finally, what is your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and why?

“Oh, that’s such a good question. Um, I hate everything! Just kidding. You know, when I was growing up there was this show called Popular on The WB, it was Ryan Murphy’s first show. I was about 12-years-old when it aired and there were these two characters, Mary Cherry and Nicole Julian, who were essentially, let’s be honest, gay men just dressed up in teenage girls’ clothing. I felt deeply connected to them and their sense of humor, without really understanding that there was such a thing as a queer sensibility. Also, like every other gay, I felt deeply connected to Karen Walker in Will & Grace. Any woman that was larger-than-life and in charge. It’s almost like I wanted to be that, because I wanted to have that outsized confidence. I wanted to have that brashness. So I feel like I just really connected to anyone that had such psychotic confidence!”

Did you get to write some dialogue for Karen when you were working as a story editor on Will & Grace?

“I guess, I don’t know! It’s it’s all blur! I’m like, I wrote for that show?! I forgot.”

It’s pretty amazing that Will & Grace is one of the things you mentioned and that you got to work on the revival.

“Yeah, it was really cool, because they’re all at the top of their game. Sean Hayes is a genius. Megan’s a genius. Debra’s a genius. Eric’s a genius. So I think I was paralyzed with nerves the entire season I worked on that show. I feel like I went totally silent, but it was really cool to watch it all unfold!”

By James Kleinmann

Seasons 1 and 2 of Special are streaming on Netflix now.

Special Season 2 | Official Trailer | Netflix
Special Season 2 | Official Poster | Netflix

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