‘You Don’t Have to Have Cerebral Palsy to Relate to My Story’

Ryan O’Connell’s show about gay, disabled life is Netflix’s first 15-minute sitcom.

Photo: Sarah Walker
Photo: Sarah Walker

Trust us, you have not seen anyone like Ryan O’Connell on TV before. The star and writer-creator of Netflix’s Special is a gay man with cerebral palsy, who, after getting hit by a car at the age of 20, decided to “rewrite” his identity and spent years pretending that he wasn’t disabled because friends and colleagues assumed his limp was the result of the accident. He finally confronted the truth in his 2015 memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, a book that caught the attention of Jim Parsons and led to his big break.

O’Connell, who is warm, chatty, and funny as hell, began his TV writing career on MTV’s Awkward, worked on Will & Grace, and just started a new gig earlier this month on the 90210 reboot. Special is based on his own life, and O’Connell wrote the entire debut season: The lead character, also named Ryan, is a 20-something gay, disabled man grappling with his sexuality and independence. The show is hilarious with a touch of darkness — and, in a Netflix first, each episode is only about 15-minutes long. It also features standout performances by Jessica Hecht (who plays Ryan’s mom, Karen), Marla Mindelle (who plays his boss, Olivia), and Punam Patel (who plays his work BFF, Kim).

Over breakfast in Los Angeles ahead of Special’s April 12 premiere, O’Connell opened up about how he broke into show business through blogging, his lifelong struggle with self-acceptance, what it’s like to star in his own show with no acting experience, and why he’s tired of TV shows and movies that shy away from gay sex.

Special premieres April 12 on Netflix.

Tell me a little bit about how you grew up and got into the business.
I grew up in Ventura, which is like Laguna Beach but with a little bit of meth. Very easy-breezy, blue-collar beach town. Then I went to New York to go to the New School — I was just reading a lot of Joan Didion and writing a lot of insufferable short stories about avocados and freeways — and I started writing blogs for Thought Catalog. I was 24 years old, and I was feeling all the fucking feelings and going through it. That led to me getting a book deal with Simon and Schuster. And then, through my book agent, I got in touch with a TV agent at UTA. My end goal was always to write for television. Growing up, I would ask for TV scripts for Christmas, and I would watch TV shows with the closed captioning on so it resembled a script. I was, like, psychotic.

No, you were studying.
I was studying, honey. She was boning up for the exam! I must have been such a freak on a leash, but whatever, it all paid off. So then, I moved to L.A. and I got staffed on Awkward on MTV.

Your book deal came before your TV career. How did that happen? You were so young.
I know, usually you do it the other way around. Because my pieces were going viral — lol — you have book agents coming out of the woodwork. So I pitched this trash idea [about] how to be a 20-something, like an Urban Outfitters coffee-table book. When I got the book deal with Simon and Schuster, I had been keeping my disability secret, because what happens in the show actually happened to me. I got hit by a car when I was 20, but in real life, it was much more serious. I got compartment syndrome and I was in the hospital for a month.

What is compartment syndrome?
It’s when something hits you at such blunt force that it cuts off the oxygen flow to your muscles. In my case, the car hit me on my elbow so it cut off the oxygen supply to the muscles that deal with the hand. My cerebral palsy affects my right side more than my left side, and the car, of course, hits me on my fuckin’ left side. So now I have no good sides. [Laughs.]

And that’s permanent?
I got a lot of my function back. The dexterity was never great because of my cerebral palsy, but now it’s really not great. I would say the only thing that I’m unable to do now is handwrite. It was pretty intense, because for one year I could only type with one finger. But being disabled, I’m used to things being taken away from me. If anyone can learn how to grapple with that, it’s me. I grew up having surgeries. I grew up in hospitals.

How many have you had in total?
Oh God, I shudder to think. Probably ten? Eleven? Yeah. But it’s normal for me. It really is. It’s just not in my nature to be staying too long at the victimhood fair. Something bad happens to me and I’m like, “Well, that’s not great. How can we handle it. How can we move forward?”

That’s admirable.
I just don’t know how else to be. I feel like our culture today puts such a high price on victimhood in a weird way. I’ve had so much trauma in my life, but you can’t live in that trauma forever. I deal with it in my writing. That’s a safe space to work through my stuff. When I actually think about it, it’s like, “Oh wow, I’ve actually been through a lot.” But it doesn’t feel that way to me. It just feels like my life.

You pitched a coffee-table book, but that’s not what you ended up writing. What happened?
When I moved to New York, everyone assumed my limp was from my car accident. I never corrected them because, in my eyes, I never related to having cerebral palsy. My case was so mild, and I really was just looking for any opportunity to get cerebral palsy off of me. So when the opportunity came to rewrite my identity as an accident victim — which in my eyes was very relatable because getting hit by a car could happen to any of us, whereas [with] cerebral palsy, you’re born with it — I fuckin’ took it.

I thought I was really making my life a lot easier. And, honestly, for a couple years it was. It gave me the courage to pursue boys and be in relationships. It really did give me a boost of confidence that I never had. But obviously, when you’re lying about who you are to other people and to yourself, it causes a lot of problems. When I got my book deal, I was dealing with a drug problem and I was in a lot of pain. I knew deep down that this was my opportunity to come clean about my disability and do it in a very public way. So I came into Simon and Schuster and said, “I want to write about cerebral palsy.”

Had you finished the book when you landed your first gig at Awkward?
While I was writing the book, I got Awkward. I was so tired of living in New York and writing about my personal life for two dollars a day, so I moved to L.A. Right when I wrapped my second season of Awkward, my book came out. That’s when Jim Parsons got involved and it was optioned. In 2015, we pitched the show with my gay mafia Craig Johnson and John Ricci, so in woke Hollywood years, it was truly 400 years. It was a time when people were just realizing that women were funny. They were like, “Amy Schumer? Crazy! We love her.”

It feels like a lifetime ago.
Oh, it is a lifetime ago. So gay disability? People were not ready for that jelly. We would pitch it, and everyone would die laughing and be like, “Oh my God, this is so unique and so crazy.” And one by one, they all got cold feet making an offer. I remember one person said off the record to my producer friend, “I want to make an offer, but I’m scared for my job if I do.”

When did you finally get your yes?
You put me in a room and 99 people will say no. All it takes is one yes! [Laughs.] We went to Stage 13, which is this digital branch of Warner Bros. We sold eight episodes and they commissioned me to write the scripts. Meanwhile, I had to keep working on Will & Grace, so Special was always my weekend thing.

Was it your idea to do short episodes?
No fucking way. That was Stage 13. I’m a half-hour bitch, okay? That’s what I know. Honey, I don’t go chasing 15-minute waterfalls. I stick to the rivers and lakes that I’m used to, and that is a 30-minute show, okay? I’m actually really glad that Netflix bought it as is, because if they wanted to do a half hour, I’d have to rewrite the entire series and that would not be fun. But for season two, mama wants a half hour!

You wrote all of the episodes without a writers room, right?
Just me, bitch. I’m literally twitching. Oh my God.

At what point did you decide you were going to act in it?
When we went out with the pitch, I wasn’t attached to star because I’ve had no desire to act ever. I was hanging outside the Beverly Center with a net for anyone with a limp and a complicated relationship with their dad. But basically, when we sold it to Stage 13, we couldn’t afford to hire anyone. It was so bare bones, honey.

Had you ever acted before?
Like in fifth grade! That’s it. I’d never acted before in my life.

Not only were you acting for the first time, but you had to play a version of yourself.
The one thing that no one prepared me for was how playing a younger, damaged version of yourself will fuck with you psychologically. In the more emotional scenes, it all felt very blurred lines. Is this Ryan or is this me? I would feel slimed, like I had this heavy residue on me, and it was really hard to snap back to being me. That was a really hard aspect of the job. Like, how emotionally intense it was dealing with all the boy stuff, the sex scene.

Was the sex scene the toughest scene for you? It’s a much more real gay sex scene than TV and movies typically show.
I had a very clear image of what I wanted that sex scene to look like, and my director Anna Dokoza and I were always on the same page. I am so frustrated by the lack of representation of gay sex in TV and film, like in Call Me by Your Name when they panned away to the moon. I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? This movie has more straight sex and more fruit sex than actual gay sex.” You’re blue-balling us the entire film, and then they fuck and you turn away? Go fuck yourself. Like, seriously. That enraged me.

I want to bring gay sex to the forefront in a very accurate, human way. And so I knew with this sex scene, there wasn’t gonna be no panning away to the fuckin’ moon! We were gonna see how gay sex is done. I wanted it to feel real. In season two, ideally, I wanna show a lot more gay sex. It will all have to serve the story, but I wanna normalize gay sex, and I wanna show different flavors of gay sex other than Queer As Folk porny whatever. I think it’s what fucks gay men up. We’ve been so hypersexualized, and it’s just assumed that we fuck like rabbits. It’s also a really intense, emotional thing for us too.

It was Ryan’s first time, and he loses his virginity to a very gentle and loving sex worker.
It’s a huge deal. That scene was probably the hardest for me, but I will say that once we got into it, Brian [Jordan Alvarez] was so supportive that it actually ended up being one of my favorite days on set. I’m, like, Brian’s publicist — on Will & Grace, the first thing I did was show the room The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo. Brian’s a genius. He just doesn’t have a judgmental bone in his body. I just knew that if there’s anyone to get naked with and get fake fucked by on television, it would be him.

We’ve been talking a lot about the aspects of the show that deal with being gay and disabled, but it’s also very much of the moment.
We live in this culture where, on Instagram, it seems like everyone’s fucking millionaires on vacation, but the reality is everyone’s just in credit debt up to their asshole. I made very little money on Special. There’s going to be a billboard of my face, but I have, like, no money. [Laughs.] People will comment, “Oh, he got that Netflix money,” and I’m like, “Where? I don’t have it.”

I grew up very blue collar, but I got a settlement and jumped a class, essentially, so I’m very open about how money has created an immense amount of privilege for me. It has allowed to get me where I need to go faster. People need to be really open about that because, on Instagram, there’s a weird sense of how you should be doing. The more honest we are about that stuff, the better everyone will fucking feel.

You also capture the blogging world in a way I don’t think we’ve seen on TV.
I’ve lived it, lol. My life for three years was thinking about what intensely personal thing in my life had the opportunity to go viral. It was disgusting. It was so fucking gross. Never again. I was 24. I was just desperado, honey.

Were you excited to be on Netflix?
Honey, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. They don’t care about the sex stuff. They don’t care about the cursing. There’s just no Netflix brand. The brand of Netflix is they do everything, so you’re not trying to make your show more like a Netflix show, ‘cause what does that even mean? From a creative standpoint, I’m in fucking heaven. I truly can’t work for anyone else. I’m so spoiled.

But you are working for someone else on 90210.
As a writer on a show, yeah, but not my show. I would never go to network. Ever! When we first went out with Special, my agents said they were gonna go to network and I was like, “Are you kidding me? The gay CP version on ABC?! They’ll fucking buy it ‘cause it’s chic, and then they’ll be like, What did we just buy? And then they’ll kill it.” Things that I get excited about exploring — the sexuality of a disabled person and their wants and needs — you can’t do that on a fucking network.

I’m so happy and blessed because I feel like the stories of marginalized people get told on Verizon fucking go90 or Awesomeness TV. I was really nervous that Special was gonna air on an abandoned oil rig in Marina del Rey and you were gonna need a DNA sample to get access to it. I wanna reach as many people as possible because if this show had come out when I was a teenager, it would’ve saved my fucking life. When you don’t see yourself being reflected back at you, you’re implicitly told that you don’t matter. That your life does not matter, it’s not worth being told, it’s not worth being discussed. And that fucks with you on such a deep level. By the way, you don’t have to have cerebral palsy to relate to my story. Any gay guy who doesn’t feel they fit the mold or that they’re fit enough — which, spoiler alert, is all gay men — can relate. I know it sounds corny, but I really hope this story helps people. This business is so fucked up and arduous, it’s such hell, that I cannot imagine doing anything that’s not worthwhile or meaningful. That’s why I’m here. Not to sell a story about some girl with magical bangs to ABC.

How old were you when you realized you were gay?
Honestly, watching 90210 at 12 years old. Jason Priestley. I swear to God, 90210 was so formative. I remember watching an episode of 90210 where Jason’s in the hot tub with Tiffani Amber Thiessen, and I remember feeling some kind of way. But that was more of a gray attraction. The moment I realized I was gay was, truly, Ryan Phillippe’s ass in 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.”

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. And also, I was just tired of it. 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.

So you weren’t stressed about telling your family.
Not at all. My struggle in life is coming to terms with my disability, owning my disability, feeling comfortable with my disability. It was never about being gay, ever. That would be too much for my heart to bear. But it’s a hard thing in terms of feeling desirable. I was celibate for most of my 20s. I did not have a dick in my ass for ten years. [Laughs.] It’s created this bottomless pit of needing validation, even though I’m in a loving relationship with my boyfriend of four years.

As a disabled person, you just want to feel sexy. It sounds disgusting, but you wanna be objectified. Like, I just want some stranger in Arizona to comment, “Sit on my face!” on my Instagram. [Laughs.] I need that stranger in Arizona, honey! Because disabled people have been so ignored and desexualized, it really, really fucks with you. I work out five days a week and I’m pretty fit. I feel like that’s a really good thing. I always looked at my body as what it couldn’t do, as a failure, and now I’m just so in awe of my body and how strong it can get and what I can do. But I also feel like another layer of it is, “If I get muscly arms or if you can see my triceps, somehow my cerebral palsy will wash away.” I’m literally trying to work off my disability or something.

Tell me how you came out of the closet because of that boy.
Oh my God, I’ve always had a flair for drama. I liked this boy, and I knew I needed to be with him, so I was like, “I’m gonna come out to everyone I know all at once, ‘cause it just seems easier and that’s the most efficient way.”

I came out to my family and three of my best friends that week, but I needed to tell everyone. So I texted everyone, “Come to my house on Saturday for a secret that will change all our lives forever!” My mom went out of town and we went to Spencer’s Gifts and got, like, penis pasta and all the weird phallic gift-bag shit. And my best friend Katie and I made a video of us slow dancing. She tries to go in for a kiss and I’m like, “No!” And she’s like, “What’s wrong?” And I’m like, “Can’t tell you! It’s too much!” And then she’s like, “Come on, you can tell me anything.” And then I turn to the camera and I’m like, “I’m gay, bitches.” That’s how I came out. Of course, no one cared and I got the boy and it was beautiful.

I’ve been very lucky with no one caring about that. The trolls really only come from being disabled. I’ve been so trolled. I’ve had people pull over being like, “Do you need a ride to the hospital?”

Oh no, I’m sorry.
I did a column called The Disability Diaries at Vice, where I basically wrote down every time someone made a comment about my disability or my disability impacted me in some way. I had to stop doing it because it was too much. I had an anxiety attack, I swear to God. I’m really glad I stopped doing that, but those things still take my breath away. My boyfriend and I took an Uber recently where the driver turned around and just goes, “What’s wrong with you?” My boyfriend had never seen that happen before and he was just shocked, but it’s happened to me so many times. He was like, “That was fucked up!” And I’m like, “Yeah, I guess you’re right, that is fucked up.”

I really don’t think it’s out of malice. There is such ignorance surrounding disability ‘cause there’s no dialogue, and, in part, that’s because there’s no disability representation on TV. Think about many amazing things Transparent did for the trans community in terms of starting the conversation about transgender issues. No one’s really having the conversation for disability. I also feel it’s really important that a show with a disability comes from someone who’s disabled. I want disabled people to be able to tell their own stories and be in charge of it.

Can you believe that you are in that headspace now? Wanting to be a voice for the disabled, when less than a decade ago you denied it to the world and even to yourself?
It’s a journey. I came out of the disabled closet in a blog post called “Coming Out of the Disabled Closet.” Actually, that’s the post that Jim Parsons read, so that post changed my life in a variety of ways. I went from never talking about my disability, to coming out at 28, to having a show about it at 32. That was years of psychic damage to work through. It’s also stressful, by the way, to be one of the first disabled leads on TV. It’s overwhelming because I know that Special is not going to speak for every disabled person’s experience. It can never be. You can’t speak for everyone. But when you’re one of the first people that gets the seat at the table, there’s a lot of pressure on you.

I hope that Special is a success so other stories can be fucking told. Disabled people need to be empowered. Growing up disabled and gay, I didn’t think, “I’m going to be an actor. I could be starring in my own show.” Are you fucking crazy? I was just thinking, “God, I hope I get off my leg braces by the age of 12.” I didn’t think that was meant for me. There was no seat at the table for me. I had to wedge myself in between and insert my own fucking self.

‘You Don’t Have to Have Cerebral Palsy to Relate’