Interview: Ryan O’Connell Discusses Disability, Acceptance, and Being ‘Special’

"I was worried that I'd be held to a standard that I couldn't meet. But everyone has been so supportive and so loving, and even if the show hasn't directly represented them in that way, they still relate to it," says creator Ryan O'Connell of his series, "Special."

Ryan O'Connell

Ryan O’Connell is a very funny writer who has worked in television for more than six years. He cut his teeth on series like “Daytime Divas” and “Will and Grace.” But it was his own story that would eventually lead him down an unexpected path to his own Netflix series. In 2015 he published the book, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” which was optioned before it ever hit store shelves.

Special” debuted in April with eight fifteen-minute episodes about Ryan Hayes, a young gay man with cerebral palsy who lands an internship at an online magazine. He lets his new coworkers believe his limp is the residual effect of a recent car accident, afraid people will treat him differently if they learn he is disabled. As Ryan navigates a new job, new co-workers and friends, and a desire to launch into adulthood, he finds himself held back by his insecurities and fears, and a very co-dependent relationship with his mother.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ryan O’Connell about telling his story on television, and how the experience changed him.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Hi, Ryan! How are you?

Ryan O’Connell: Good, good! Thanks for talking to me!

KP: One of the things that’s fun about this time of year is that I get a chance to catch up with shows that I haven’t had the opportunity see yet. I watched all of “Special” season one yesterday.

RO: Oh my god! Honey! Well, what did you think?

KP: I really enjoyed it. I thought it was fun and clever and hilarious! There are so many things I could say about it. But I’m here to talk to you about your experiences. How did this start? I know it’s semi-autobiographical, but what was the genesis of the show?

RO: Jim Parsons optioned the book right before it came out in 2015, and we went out with a pitch to all the cable networks. And all the cable networks passed. Then we went to this digital branch of Warner Bros, Stage 13, which was doing short form content at the time, and they agreed to commission me to write eight 15-minute episodes. So I did it and then when we finished the scripts, we sent them to Netflix and Netflix agreed to buy it.

It sounds really easy breezy, but the whole thing took four years!

KP: Four years! Wow.

RO: Yeah, it took a long time. Basically we faced a lot of rejection at first and things were kind of TBD and then I had to keep working so I staffed on some TV shows and whatnot. “Special” was always like my nighttime lover. It was never my main side piece. It just took a long time to get the scripts together. And then once they were done, Netflix came on shortly thereafter.

KP: Do you feel like the amount of time it took helped?

RO: Oh my god, yes! I think it did because I’ve just become such a stronger writer. I think when we went out with it in 2015, I’d only been a professional TV writer for two years and I was still a baby in terms of structure, in terms of voice. I think in these last four years I’ve staffed on a couple of other TV shows and I feel like with every job you take, you just become a better writer. If you’re doing it right. If you’re soaking it up like a sponge, which I am.

So I really, really think the amount of time it took, although it felt like a troll at the time, was kind of a blessing in disguise because it gave me time to really come into my own as a writer and I think it just made the script stronger.

KP: Was there an inciting incident that made you say, “This would make a great TV show!”

RO: No. I was just really frustrated at the lack of representation, not only in the gay community but in the disabled community. I knew that the way I would tell my story would be very universal and very mainstream. And I just didn’t understand why stories like mine weren’t being told. I think frustration drives me 99.9% of the time. When something isn’t being shown or something hasn’t been done yet, I’m kind of wondering why. Why? Why hasn’t there been a realistic gay sex scene like there is in episode three? Why haven’t there been nuanced stories of disability coming from the actual disabled creator? These things, to me, feel like a given, and the fact that they hadn’t really been done yet was kind of beyond comprehension to me. And I think it drives me into just wanting to do it more and more.

KP: I have a good friend who is disabled and as a film critic she talks constantly about the lack of representation. Just hearing her experiences have really opened my eyes to notice. Watching “Special,” I was very aware of how special and unique the show is.

RO: Yeah. Walk a mile in our orthotics!

KP: What are some things from your personal life that made it into the show? 

RO: The inciting incident of the show is me getting hit by a car and deciding to rewrite my identity as an accident victim, which actually did happen to me. I was hit by a car at the age of 20. And actually, the accident in real life was much more serious than depicted. Then I moved to New York and people just assumed my limp was from my car accident, and then I never corrected them and just lived life as an accident victim for a couple of years. So that actually did happen to me. And I did work at a confessional blog, Thought Catalog that was similar to Egg Woke, and I do have a co-dependent relationship with my mom! (laughs)

But I feel like everything in the show is sort of heightened. You know what I mean? I was never that arrested development. I was never that socially awkward. I was never that far behind developmentally, the way Ryan is. So I think it’s kind of like me but on acid.

KP: You have such great supporting characters too. Ryan is an awesome protagonist. He’s so funny and so charming and endearing, but he’s also surrounded by really interesting people. How did you create some of those other characters?

RO: I knew early on that I didn’t want it to be all about me. (laughs) I think that as you get older, you become interested in things other than yourself. I think that’s usually how it goes, maturity-wise. So I knew for sure that I wanted to be kind of, not necessarily a two-hander, but I knew for sure that I wanted to dive really deeply into Karen (Jessica Hecht), my mom, and kind of examine what it would be like for a woman in her early 50s to start over and kind of think about the life that she wants, and have Ryan be going through literally the same thing, and kind of examine it from two different peoples’ points of view, from two different age brackets. They’re both so behind. They’re both kind of fish out of water and I thought it was interesting capture that from different age points.

KP: I love their dynamic and I love the way their stories play out. That was one of the things that caught my by surprise. I can’t remember which episode, but the one where she’s helping out her mother and having basically the same conversation with her mother that her son is having with her. 

RO: Yeah, that’s honestly based on my mom’s relationship with her own mom. I mean, my grandma is not that mean, but she has early onset dementia, and I think that does, let’s just say, remove the filter on your brain. You’re just serving straight up tap water brain. And so I was kind of seeing my mom get read the filth by her own mom. And then I can be no picnic sometimes as well. And I was like, “God, she’s just getting shit on from every direction.” And no one is ever going to stop and think, “Karen, what is it that you want?”

I really feel like this show is sort of wish fulfillment on my end. My mom, who has historically always put herself last, what would it look like for her to really kick the reigns of her own life and think about what it is that she wants.

KP: And in addition to Ryan and Karen, you also have these great characters he’s working with. I love Kim. She’s so great.

RO: She’s amazing!

KP: The conversations they have, body positivity, being real about finances. Where did some of that come from and why was it important for you to include?

RO: I wanted Kim’s (Punam Patel) struggle to really not be related to her body. And I think that, like everyone else, some days she feels amazing, some days she feels like she’s not so amazing. But I think that in our culture, what I really relate to as a millennial is that everyone is kind of living beyond their means. I think it’s really, really true. Places like Instagram kind of cultivate this fake life where it seems like everyone you know is always on fucking vacation. You’re like, how do they pay for this? I do not understand. And I think a lot of people are just in credit card debt and they’re charging these experiences. I don’t know, my generation is different. We don’t have a traditional workplace. I think the traditional milestones of getting married and owning a house feel very far away. We’re kind of just living la vida loca and just living our truth. But living our truth can sometimes be way expensive.

I think money is a very interesting subject and it’s really taboo for some reason. And I thought it would be really interesting to explore that.

KP: I think that’s one of the things you capture with this is that you do tackle a lot of things that are considered taboo to show on TV or to talk about in society. It’s interesting the way you do it because you infuse humor into these situations, but it also feels real and relatable. So what’s the writing process like to get there?

RO: The writing process was not so fun because I didn’t have a writer’s room. It was just me, sweating away at Bru’s Coffee on West 3rd and Mojo on Beverly and Laurel, and yeah. It was just me like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” It was actually very lonely process, I’m not gonna lie. I came up in writers’ rooms and I’m used to the art of collaboration, so to have it just be me was very, very daunting. But once I got into the groove and was writing episodes four and five, the rest kind of just came. It was the first couple of scripts that were challenging, in terms of finding the tone and finding the story. Once I was halfway there it was kind of off to the races and it all came out of me Exorcist-style.

KP: Did you have people along the way that you were bouncing ideas off of?

RO: I had my producers giving notes. That’s wonderful. Jim Parsons’ production company. They were really amazing and very thoughtful and very hands on. So I had them and my director Anna Dokoza came on and she did a pass and she gave me notes and her thoughts. So trust me, there were a lot of notes! It was very, very note-y. But it was great because every time I would do a pass, the script would just get stronger and stronger and stronger. But yeah, sometimes it’s hard being the only one that’s a writer even though I was surrounded by truly gifted execs and a truly gifted director. At the end of the day, I’m the only one that could put pen to paper.

KP: Because so much of this was so personal to you, what was it like to entrust your story to Anna and these producers and these actors?

RO: I think we just got really lucky because when you’re not an asshole, you attract other non-assholes. And I think good people want to work with good people. There was no confusion about what the show was. I think my voice, for better or for worse, is pretty loud and crystal clear. So we really were just around people who wanted to make the project happen and everyone was really supportive. No one tried to censor me. It was sort of like we felt like we found ourselves in this little bubble. It was just nice working with mostly gay men and women, which is how I like to roll.

KP: Probably you don’t normally get that opportunity either.

RO: Yeah. I don’t know. I’ve curated my life in such a way that it’s mostly gay men and women! I haven’t talked to a straight white guy in six years!

KP: I’m so jealous!

RO: I mean, obviously, for work and stuff, yes. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been in writers’ rooms that are predominantly women and gay men. I’ve been really lucky that way. I think that like-minded people are attracted to you and vice versa and you just kind of form your own little tribes.

KP: That’s true. What are some things you’ve learned about yourself through this process? I know you mentioned that you feel like you became a stronger writer, but how did this change you as a person?

RO: A lot of it was really scary to me. The scope of making a TV show is so insane you can’t really process it. The scariest thing for me was acting, which I’d never done before. So the idea that I was going to be spear-heading the show and being the face of it while never having truly acted at all was really scary.

But I think that every time I do something that scares me or I think I can’t do it, I just try to show up for myself the best way that I can and just try to deliver the goods. I’m really proud of myself for being able to do that and to be able to also have been able to written all the episodes, and starring in it, and being the executive producer. I’ve been writing in television now for six years but I’ve never been involved with a production truly start to finish and in post for four months and all this. You have to take it piece by piece, because as a whole it’s so overwhelming. But I feel like I showed up for myself. There were definitely some days where I thought I can’t do this. It was way out of my realm. Way above my pay grade. But I feel like I did! So it’s exciting.

KP: You definitely did. It really came together. Like I said, I really enjoyed it. Part of the reason I watched the whole thing yesterday was just because I couldn’t stop watching. It was really a fun show.

RO: Oh, thank you. That means a lot. It’s so interesting. I’ve been working on this for four years, so the response has been so overwhelming. I’ve always felt in my heart of hearts that we were making a good TV show, but you truly never know. So to have the responses reflect that is just beyond my wildest dreams.

KP: What are some of the things you’ve heard from people that really let you know you did the right thing?

RO: It’s been so positive. It’s been scarily positive. I haven’t even gotten any trolls or anything negative. Maybe you can’t publicly shame the gay disabled show, so maybe we’re protected in that way. Mainly what I’m most thankful for is the disabled community because I was really worried because there’s not that many disabled narratives out there, and I feel like when you’re one of the first people to do it, the pressure on you, the burden of representation, etc. I was really nervous because even though I’m disabled and I’m gay and all those things, my experience can’t speak for everybody’s. That’s just impossible. And I was worried that I’d be held to a standard that I couldn’t meet. But everyone has been so supportive and so loving, and even if the show hasn’t directly represented them in that way, they still relate to it. So that’s been really meaningful to me.

KP: I think you made a good point of bringing that into the show too. You point out that your experience is different from other peoples’. The different levels of disability and how people relate to each other.

RO: Yeah. Disability is such a wide spectrum and peoples’ lives are wildly different from others. With cerebral palsy alone cases run the gamut. It does not look the same on each person. While there’s universal threads to be had, there are still very different life experiences.

KP: What’s something you’d like to see for Ryan if you get a second season?

RO: I would like to see him try to become more comfortable in his disabled identity. Although I think that’s going to be very challenging. I think that in Ryan’s mind, he came out of the closet about having CP so his life is fixed. Which is kind of what happened to me when I came out about being disabled at 28. I was like, “Well, I’m done now! I’ve done everything!” And it was like, twist. I actually have a long way to go. The journey to self-love is very long and arduous. It’s like the Oregon Trail. I would like to see Ryan try to come more into his own, but it’s going to be a process.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Ryan O’Connell for speaking with us.

“Special” is now streaming on Netflix.