Monday, May 17, 2021

Reverend's Interview: Feeling Special with Ryan O'Connell

I wouldn't say we are living in the most enlightened of ages, but we are making progress in at least one way. People with physical disabilities, long excluded from leading roles in the entertainment industry, are finally being recognized as major talents on screen and stage. Wheelchair-bound Ali Stroker won a 2019 Tony Award for her groundbreaking performance as Ado Annie in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, while the numerous deaf cast members of last year's movie Sound of Metal just helped it nab two Academy Awards.

One of the most prominent such talents is actor-writer-comedian Ryan O'Connell. Born with a mild form of cerebral palsy (CP) in 1986, O'Connell had multiple surgeries and intense physical therapy while growing up in Southern California. He performed in plays and musicals throughout his high school years despite his physical limitations, and he also studied screenwriting. While O'Connell was in high school, he discovered another potential handicap: he was gay.

As O'Connell recounted to Vulture magazine in 2019: "The moment I realized I was gay was – truly – seeing Ryan Phillippe's ass in (the 1999 movie) Cruel Intentions. I remember seeing Ryan Phillippe's ass and being like, ‘That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And then being, like, ‘Oh, fuck me: I’m gay and disabled; this is so rude."

He continued: "I was closeted until I was 17. I came out because I really liked this boy who I knew was gay, and I knew that in order to pursue him I needed to be out of the closet. I came from a very gay family. My grandfather was a closeted homosexual who died of AIDS. My uncle’s gay. My sister’s bi."

O'Connell has mined much of his personal journey in Special, the series he created for Netflix in 2019. He adapted it from his 2015 memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. O'Connell stars in the show as Ryan Hayes, an insecure gay blogger with CP who still lives with his mother, Karen (played by the luminous Jessica Hecht). He also wrote the series and serves as one it's producers along with actor-producer Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory fame. The first season was a hit with both gay viewers and the disabled community. It also garnered notice from the Television Academy, which nominated the show for several Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Short Form Comedy Series and nominated O'Connell for Outstanding Actor. Special also received a Special Recognition Award from GLAAD last year. Even more viewers have discovered the series while bingeing streaming content during the COVID-19 lock-down.

The second and final season of Special is set to premiere on Netflix on May 20th. It picks up two months after the dramatic finale of season 1, when Ryan had a huge fight with his mother and moved out. Ryan, who still hasn't spoken to Karen, has a case of writer's block that's getting him in hot water with his self-absorbed boss, Olivia (Marla Mindelle). Enter Tanner (Max Jenkins), a flirty dance instructor who charms Ryan despite not being totally available. When his writer's block eventually lifts, Ryan is inspired to write a long form piece about disability. From there, he begins a journey of self-discovery that creates unexpected complications in his relationship with Tanner. Cute newcomer Buck Andrews is partly responsible for these as Henry, a more aggressive gay guy on the autism spectrum who befriends Ryan.

Meanwhile, Ryan's best friend Kim (the delightful Punam Patel) lets her guard down when she meets Harrison (sexy Charlie Barnett, who previously starred in the movie Private Romeo, a gay take on Romeo & Juliet). He is a sensitive and fabulously wealthy tech mogul, but Kim's insecurities and jealous tendencies continue to hamper her personal life and threaten to push Harrison away. This season is about the primary characters — Ryan, Karen and Kim — coming into their power and realizing they all deserve big, gorgeous lives whether society agrees or not. Did I mention Leslie Jordan also appears as an unexpected new friend to Karen?

Reverend was privileged to speak recently with the very funny O'Connell about the new and exciting season of his hit show.

REV: How have things changed in your life or career since season 1?
RYAN: I guess the one thing is that whenever you want to make gay shit it's an uphill climb, unless you're Ryan Murphy (laugh). It has gotten a little easier for me. I'm at point one-and-a-half now instead of at the very beginning of my career.

REV: Given your success, do you feel any pressure to be the spokes model for gay men with disabilities?
RYAN: (Pause) No (laugh). Of course, when you are representing a historically marginalized group there is a responsibility to be truthful about it. I've learned I have to divorce myself from my fears about representing the community and be authentic. It's true what they say, "Write what you know." You have to write and speak your truth.

REV: I understand season 1 was pretty autobiographical. How much of season 2 is based on your life?
RYAN: Season 2 is actually not autobiographical at all. I would say the themes are very true to my life experiences but not the actual experiences. I've always been more fully cooked than Ryan on the show. I moved out of my parents' house when I was 18 and lost my virginity at a normal age (laugh). But the show is emotionally authentic to my life.

REV: What do you recommend to people with CP or other disabilities who want to make it in the entertainment industry?
RYAN: First things first, you have to feel you have the right to be there. Rob Schneider in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and Adam Sandler were who I aspired to be when I started out. And why not? They were hilarious and popular! You have to have confidence and be tenacious. It took four years to get season 1 of Special together. The rejection was so demoralizing. It was a very painful process. But you have to keep at it because rejection is part of the process. You have to emotionally bottom to be a top, bitch, so put on that strap-on and get to work! (laugh)

REV: You and Max Jenkins (who plays Ryan's new love interest, Tanner) create some sexy sparks this season! What was working with him like?
RYAN: Max is great! I discovered him when he did the original High Maintenance series back in like 2011. We became friends when he moved to LA. I got so excited to give him a really juicy part on the show.

REV: What are you working on now that Special is, sadly, ending?
RYAN: I'm finishing a novel, Just Be Looking at Him, and working on a movie of it with Greg Berlanti (the out producer of the CW's multiple superhero series plus director of the 2018 Love, Simon movie). I also sold a show called Accessible to HBO and am waiting to hear if they're going to film it.

REV: Very exciting! I wish you continued best of luck in all your efforts.
RYAN: Thank you so much!

Season 2 of Special premieres on Netflix on May 20th.

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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