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Ryan O’Connell wasn’t supposed to be a TV star. But the creator of Netflix’s Emmy-nominated shortform comedy Special — based on O’Connell’s memoir about finding his identity as a gay man with mild cerebral palsy — wound up becoming just that. O’Connell cut his teeth in television with writing jobs on MTV’s Awkward and NBC’s Will & Grace revival but had to take acting classes before he wound up in rare air as the star, writer and showrunner of his own show.
It has all paid off, with O’Connell securing a surprise acting Emmy nomination after a Better Call Saul shortform series and its star, Jonathan Banks, were disqualified.
O’Connell — the lone writer on all eight episodes of Special — opens up about his path to Emmy recognition, which arrived after six outlets passed on what would become the Netflix shortform breakout.
What was it like finding out about your acting nomination, which came days after all of your show’s other nominees had been announced?
It was confusing! Getting three nominations [for shortform comedy series and for co-stars Punam Patel and Jessica Hecht] was above and beyond what I thought would happen. Getting the fourth nomination in a category — that’s sort of psychotic?! It weirdly fits in with the narrative of the show. We just keep shuffling along despite all odds and defying expectations for this little shortform show that was made for $2 in Austin, Texas. It’s validating.
You were never supposed to star in this. How much trepidation did you feel adding “actor” to “creator, writer and showrunner” on Special?
I remember feeling like I couldn’t act and wouldn’t be able to pull this off. I never thought of myself as an actor; I was never supposed to play myself. It was challenging, and now I feel like I always wanted to act but I never gave myself permission to do that because as a disabled gay person, you feel so limited in terms of what’s available to you. I accomplished so much with Special — showrunning and writing the episodes and exec producing and getting it on the air. And coming out as an actor just felt so indulgent. Getting the nomination, it’s like the Academy believed in me more than I did. (Laughs.)
Knowing it was a years-long process to get Special made — after multiple passes — what sort of message do you hope the Emmy recognition sends?
If you want to do something, don’t think about what society expects you to do. Society lacks imagination, and society is an asshole. I’ve always been an ambitious person, but I never thought that I would achieve this. I just felt like Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with me; there was just no precedent for it. Everybody that said no in 2015? Look at us now! (Laughs.)
What was it about the show that you think connects with Emmy voters?
Special is about an underdog, and who doesn’t relate to that? Ryan wants the most out of life, and it’s a struggle to feel like he deserves those things. And any person that’s not a straight, white male has felt that you’re not getting life right and that everyone is eclipsing you and has it figured out before you do. Those are universal fears and anxieties. The proof is that it has resonated beyond just the queer and disabled community.
Having written, showrun and starred in this, what was your biggest takeaway about the experience?
For someone who is born in a society that doesn’t value disabled people or is in constant questioning of the ability of disabled people, it’s powerful to be able to do all these things. Because there is this misconception that disabled people can’t do X, Y and Z. And we fucking can. And here’s the proof. I hope that this also changes the way that Hollywood sees disabled people and actually gives them a shot. I don’t think that Hollywood is some evil devil that’s like, “Fuck disabled people, keep them out, lock the doors!” I just don’t think that disabled people even enter their realm of comprehension. They’re not even included in the competition.
How much of the plot in Special was deliberate in that you wanted to illustrate specific scenes that Hollywood maybe would have been too gun shy to tackle?
It was important to me that Ryan [the character] is flawed and acts like an asshole. It was important to show that I’m not there to serve as inspiration porn. Don’t deny us our humanity, even if that part of humanity is not chic. Give us all the things, let us be multi-faceted, complex people.
How did you approach telling a complete story in a shortform arena given your background is writing for half-hour episodic comedies like Awkward and the Will & Grace revival?
It took a lot of recalibrating to tell a story with depth, nuance and complications in 15 minutes. Because that’s 14 pages. I realized early on that there could be no “C” story. It was frustrating sometimes where I wanted to go deeper with the character of Kim (Patel) and I could not do it. In the future, I do want to do half-hour [episodes] so I can do that.
Netflix has yet to make a decision on the future of the show. What’s the latest?
It’s looking promising; I’m hopeful. Emmy nominations don’t hurt! I’d like to open a writers room and hire a disabled writer and an Indian American writer.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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