Special is … special, to say the least. Ryan O’Connell wrote, produced and is the star of Netflix’s new series, based on his part-memoir, part-manifesto book, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.
The comedy, which consists of eight 15-minute episodes, walks through O’Connell’s real-life experiences of growing up as a gay man with cerebral palsy. In real life, O’Connell, is 32 and was in an accident at 20; he then spent years allowing people to think his limp was due to the accident — not his disability.
However, he revealed the truth in 2015 when publishing his book, and it took the world by storm. The writer, who worked on shows like MTV’s Awkward and NBC’s Will & Grace, was shocked when Jim Parsons noticed the book — and wanted to work together on a series. The show peels the curtain back on life as a disabled, gay man. Read our full Q&A with O’Connell below.
Us Weekly: The series is obviously semibiographical. What’s the biggest difference between the character Ryan and you?
Ryan O’Connell: “I would hope I have my s–t together more than the character of Ryan. He has no friends and lives at home with his mom at 28! That was never my journey. My social life was always poppin’ and I moved out ‘skidmarks-on-the-driveway’ style at 18. So his arrested development is much more pronounced than mine ever was. We both don’t know how to break down a box, though.”
Us: You kept your disability a secret before releasing your book and now, not only have people read it, but they’re going to watch it. Why now?
RO: “I really wanted to put a ‘return-to-sender’ on my self-loathing. As scary as it is to be open and honest about my disability, it doesn’t serve me to keep quiet about it. Disabled people’s stories have been ignored for so long which sends the message that our lives aren’t worth exploring. Representation does matter, honey!”
Us: The show is very relatable, no matter what your physical situation. How did you make sure that happened?
RO: “That was never a conscious decision. I always knew that my life, while at times unique, was not so different than anyone else’s. When you boil down the basic wants and needs of a person, you’re going to find a lot of similarities. Regardless of their race, sex or physical abilities, and that’s what I want to do with Special. I want to take a person who, at first glance, you might feel like you have nothing in common with and then realize – plot twist – you do! Stripped down, we are all a universal Top 40 pop song.”
Us: You’re an incredible writer, but stepping in front of the camera is a whole new world; what was the most difficult scene for you?
RO: “I thought it was going to be the sex scene. Filming a sex scene for eight hours seemed terrifying at first, but after the first few takes, you get used to it and it’s sort of liberating. You’re just like, ‘I’m sitting here wearing a sock in a room full of borderline strangers, everyone can see my stomach rolls and NO ONE CARES. Chic.”
Us: Why do you think this show works as a 15-minute comedy?
RO: “Honestly, there are 40,000 incredible TV shows out right now and everyone has the attention span of a toddler. So, there’s something delightful and noncommittal about binging a TV show that’s essentially the length of a feature. But don’t get it twisted: for season 2, I would love a half hour.”
Special is streaming now on Netflix.
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