The show, whose first season premiered last year, tells the story of Ryan, a gay man who remains closeted about having cerebral palsy by using a recent car accident as a crutch. “Special” is heavily based on O’Connell’s personal life story and, during a recent interview with In The Know’s Gibson Johns, he explained that his desire to adapt it for TV stemmed from a lack of representation in the media he felt growing up.
“Just knowing that if this show had existed when I was a teenager, it would have saved me a lot of years, and money, and therapy. You know what I mean? Because there were no stories about disability, really, on TV or film,” O’Connell explained. “That really taught me that my existence was not valued, that my point of view didn’t matter. And, even when we pitched it as a half hour and everyone passed, that message still came back to me in 2015: ‘Oh, your identity is too complicated for us. We don’t understand intersectionality. This is scary. We don’t really want to touch it.'”
“I felt like this was never said, but I felt like I could have been gay or disabled, but not both,” he added.
O’Connell shopped his show around with the help of Jim Parsons’ production company Wonderful Productions before it ultimately landed in the laps of Stage 13, which specializes in short-form content — thus, the sub-15-minute episodes of “Special” — and, from there, Netflix picked it up.
While the fact that the project tells his own story certainly kept him pushing through, the former “Will & Grace” writer revealed that his ultimate goal was to simply remove stigma around the disabled community.
“What always propels me forward is stigma and taboo and removing that,” he said. “There [are] still a lot of things that we don’t talk about in our culture, which is just kind of befuddling to me. I don’t understand. And I think that drive to remove the stigma kept me going.”
At the same time, what makes “Special” so, well, special, is the fact that it can tell Ryan’s specific story in a way that can make it universally relatable to viewers of all demographics.
“I always look at ‘Special’ as a top 40 Ariana Grande pop song, but in unconventional packaging. You take the gay disabled wrapping paper off and it’s truly just ‘God is a Woman’ staring back at you,” O’Connell explained. “The more personal you are, the more universal it becomes. And Ryan is just an underdog. Ryan is an underdog who’s just trying to get the things in life that he thinks he deserves, which is a job, a boyfriend, a healthy relationship with his mom. That’s not insane!”
“[Those are] things that everybody struggles with, whether they’re gay or disabled or not. And, so, I always knew that this story was not niche or fringe. I just knew that it could have crossover appeal,” he went on. “I think that is the job of the storyteller — to create empathy and to have people see themselves in characters that they thought they had nothing in common with.”
In the end, O’Connell’s commitment to telling his own story has generated “such a positive response” from those who have watched “Special,” which, he said, ultimately validates his fight to get the show made.
“When we did get such a positive response, it was so validating because all those years that I’ve been told, ‘No,’ and my story had been rejected, my voice had been rejected, it was just like, ‘Oh, no. See, this does have value,'” he said.
For more from Ryan O’Connell, listen to his full, 20-minute+ interview with In The Know below.
For reference, see below for a timecode breakdown of In The Know’s interview with Ryan O’Connell:
0:44 – 7:02: Ryan talks about working on season 2 of the Netflix show during quarantine, what fans can expect from the second season and how his life has been affected by the show’s success.
7:03 – 10:00: Ryan talks about why “Special” has 15-minute episodes and how that helps (or hurts) his storytelling and the show’s ability to stand out.
10:01 – 16:19: Ryan talks about the journey of getting “Special” made and the importance of telling his story in a universal way.
16:20 – 18:04: Ryan talks about how he came to play Ryan and whether he thinks characters from marginalized communities should only be played by actors who fit those identities.
18:05 – 19:55: Ryan talks about fans’ responses to “Special.”
19:56 – 24:15: Ryan talks about his relationship with acting and where he hopes his career goes from here.
If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s recent interview with fellow Netflix star Taylor Tomlinson here.
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