emmy insider

The Stars of Netflix’s Special Are Proving the Trolls Wrong

Jessica Hecht, Ryan O'Connell, and Punam Patel.
Jessica Hecht, Ryan O’Connell, and Punam Patel. Photo: Anna Webber/Getty Images for Netflix

It took Ryan O’Connell four years to convince Hollywood that the semiautobiographical story he tells on Netflix’s Special about living as a gay disabled man was worthwhile and universal. Two Emmy nominations later, O’Connell is LOL-ing his way to the red carpet next month with his co-stars, Jessica Hecht and Punam Patel, who are also nominated for their roles as Ryan’s mother, Karen, and his work friend, Kim.

“I’ve always known that this is an Ariana Grande song,” O’Connell said. “It’s dressed in a gay, disabled wrapping paper, but you take off that wrapping paper, honey, and it’s ‘thank you, next.’”

Netflix’s first 15-minute series, Special, produced on a shoestring budget over 19 days last summer in Austin, Texas, pulled in four Emmy nominations in the short-form categories. O’Connell, who wrote all of the episodes, ran the show and starred in it, earning an acting nomination as well as one for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series. Hecht, who will next appear on The Sinner, and Patel, who is co-starring on The Kenan Show, are competing against each other in the actress category.

Vulture gathered O’Connell, Hecht, and Patel at Netflix headquarters in Hollywood this month for a conversation about acting, working on the show, and what the nominations mean to them.

Ryan, this was your first time acting and you got an Emmy nomination. Has Meryl Streep been calling?

O’Connell: Oh my God, no one’s been calling at all. [Grabs a phone] “Hello? No one’s there.” Not to brag, but I’ve been sent auditions for horrendous, stereotypical gay roles that I’m saying no to. Which feels like a power move. The first audition I got sent, I called my agent and I was like, “I’ll do it, but I’ll rewrite it.” And she’s like, “You can’t do that.” Well, then I don’t want to do this! I did go on one audition. And the girl goes, “Can you do it more artistic?” And I was like, “Artistic? I don’t even know what that means, but okay!” And then I started talking and then she goes, “No, no, no, autistic.” I was like, [singing] “Deeply offensive wherever I go!” It was so tragique.

Speaking of autism, 20 minutes ago at Sweetgreen, a girl talks to me and goes, “I love Atypical.” And I was like, “It’s Special. It’s cerebral palsy.” Cerebral palsy, autism, they’re different.

Patel: You guys don’t even look alike.

O’Connell: The trolls just never end.

And now you have an Emmy nomination for your performance, after Jonathan Banks was disqualified.

O’Connell: Honey, I know! She’s limping her way to the finish line. Sneaking in through the fucking back door as per usual. Honestly, it truly is LOL. Everything about this show is us just squeaking by. It’s always us defying the odds and people underestimating it. And so it really tracks that I got this nomination delayed because of Better Call Saul.

Punam and Jessica, what did you think when you heard Ryan was nominated too?

O’Connell: They’re like, “This bitch.” [Laughs.]

Patel: I was like, Yeah, no duh. How does a show featuring 80 percent him, about him, get nominated but not his performance? No one else could’ve done what he did.

Hecht: People don’t understand that we don’t look good if we’re not acting with somebody who’s giving you a tremendous amount. The level of depth and honesty and humor that he was throwing at us made us give these performances. So it was perfect that he was acknowledged.

O’Connell: [Hecht] said something so silly that actually completely changed everything for me. It was the first week and I was having anxiety about my performance and you said, “It’s just talking. You talk all the time.”

Patel: And you’re just talking literally as yourself because, like, the show is about you. It’s not like you’re in Starship Troopers where you talk like an alien or something.

O’Connell: Not playing, like, a World War II widow!

But that seems harder?

O’Connell: It was hard because this character was me, but was not me. The way he carried himself and how awkward he was, I was never that way. She was never a wallflower. I came in fully formed out of the womb like this.

Patel: But you never felt that?

O’Connell: I felt it internally, but I never let that show externally because I was so self-conscious. This might sound silly, but I didn’t know they were going to dress me [for the show], and that really helped. I went to this four-hour fitting for ill-fitting Dockers and these button-downs and these weird clunky shoes. I move differently in those clothes. And then, towards the end of the season, my style gets more and more polished and I felt more and more like a version of myself.

Tell me about casting Punam and Jessica.

O’Connell: [Talking to Patel] I knew you from The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, the web series. She just had two scenes, proving that there’s no small parts! Only small actors, okay? I remember truly LOLing my face off and being like, Who is this girl? And my boyfriend, Jonathan [Parks-Ramage], did CBS Diversity Comedy Showcase with her and he said I need to meet her. When she went in to audition for Warner Bros., we did a chemistry read together and clearly it was popping off, so we didn’t see anyone else.

Why did you want to do it, Punam?

Patel: Especially for a plus-size woman of color, you’re always just going to be the quirky neighbor or the fat friend. And I’m like, Oh, wow, I get to be confident and do something else? It’s rare to read something that actually makes you laugh out loud. And then, as soon as I met Ryan, I was like, I don’t even care if the script changes. If it involves him, I’m in. I literally never met anyone like Ryan. You’re the most unique person I’ve ever met.

O’Connell: Oh, thank you. I think you infused [Kim] with this warmth and just made her human. You also are a gifted improviser and so she provides a lot of lines on set. A lot of which made it into the show.

Patel: I’m waiting for my writing credit.

O’Connell: We came to Jessica very early on because she’s close with [executive producer] Jim Parsons. She was also in an episode of High Maintenance, which is my favorite fucking show. I’m obsessed. But then Jessica wasn’t avail. We did auditions and Karen’s a hard character because—I don’t want to slam anyone that auditioned, because that’s shitty—the instinct to play her is this overbearing helicopter mom and kind of sitcom-y. And if you play her too dark, it gets weird. We saw some shit! But it truly was scary because we still had not found someone that really cracked her and we were in preproduction in Austin. Two weeks to filming, we still didn’t have Karen. And then one day we got a call that she was available. And it was like, Thank fucking God.

Hecht: I do have to say that I wasn’t available because I was preoccupied with my kids. I was too much like the mother to play the mother!

O’Connell: Classic Karen.

Hecht: But then my husband said he was going to be around so I could take off. I have teenagers and I didn’t want to leave, but I did tell him the script was so good. And he said, “Well, who’s it for? Maybe that will help you.” And I said, “I think it’s just for the computer?” [Laughs.]

Patel: You didn’t know it was Netflix?

O’Connell: We were literally in a van after shooting day five and she’s like, “Darling, where is this going to be?”

Hecht: [Laughs] I wanted to do it based on the material. I just thought it was so beautifully written.

O’Connell: Once the shock wore off that she didn’t know where the series was going to be, I actually was extremely touched. She off-ramped her life for something that was gonna be airing at a fucking Dippin’ Dots.

Hecht: I love Dippin’ Dots.

O’Connell: And now she’s nominated for a fucking Emmy, so …

Let’s talk about some of the great scenes of the season. One of my favorites was Ryan and Kim at the pool party, when she tries to make him more comfortable by encouraging positive body talk.

O’Connell: My first day of shooting was me getting hit by a car in the morning, and then getting naked with Punam, and then making out with Keaton [played by Jason Michael Snow] on the bed. I was like, Oh my God, they just wanna fucking throw me into the deep end. For the first scene, they were like, “Okay, let’s have him get hit by a car, ‘cause he doesn’t have to say anything.

Hecht: Did you have a stuntperson?

O’Connell: Of course, you think they were gonna risk my fragile body? Are you kidding me? We were low budget, but we weren’t that low budget. So our first scene together was actually my first scene with fucking dialogue. I wasn’t comfortable yet. But I think that worked ‘cause my character wasn’t comfortable at all.

Patel: And I’m parading by in a bathing suit.

O’Connell: How did you feel? You looked so hot.

Patel: Everyone kept telling me I looked good. I knew I looked good, but sometimes I feel people try and overcompensate with compliments. They feel like they need to convince me because, if I look like this, there’s no way I would believe it. But, no, I’m good.

Hecht: You are so pretty! I’m sure people tell you.

Patel: Thank you! There was a time in my life where I would have the towel around me, take the towel halfway into the pool, let it float, and then go underwater and only show my shoulders. So, it was a cool moment of growth. It was really hot and you’re sweating and there’s all these people around and you’re just walking around in a bathing suit. After the first couple of minutes, you realize no one cares.

Could you tell that Ryan was nervous?

Patel: No, you present so confident all the time. Even when you’re talking about your insecurities, you speak about them so confidently. I never feel like I need to comfort him. I always know he’ll be okay.

Hecht: He’s so honest. It’s beautiful.

So, Ryan, that first day ended with your first kissing scene?

O’Connell: I was so new to everything, so Jason and I practiced the makeout scene the day before, which was hilarious.

Hecht: Where were you?

O’Connell: At our corporate apartments. I was so nervous. I wanted to make sure that we get the awkwardness of the kiss right. But, of course, I felt gross being like, “Hey, can you come over and make out with me?” My job was so humiliating! But Jason was amazing ‘cause I forget that actors are so used to this. They’re so game for whatever. And it actually, really helped that we had this prep time before.

What about the scene where Ryan loses his virginity to the sex worker played by Brian Jordan Alvarez?

O’Connell: I was so terrified, and Brian’s just this magical unicorn that’s like, “Whatever, babe!” It became so funny, ‘cause the first part of the scene is me undressing from a suit. I wrote myself scenes not knowing that you had to do things 40 times. I was clueless. And that was a lot for a gimpy girl like me! [Laughs.] By the time I was naked with Brian, I was so liberated. I was like, “Yes! No more clothes! I can just lay here with my legs up in the air like a fuckin’ paid vacation!”

Patel: It’s sweeter than how most people lose their virginity. And it involves disability and sex work.

O’Connell: It was based on my own experience with sex work. There were lines in that scene that I actually had sex workers say to me. Everything is copy! [Laughs.] Can I write this off? I think it’s illegal.

One of the great scenes between Ryan and his mom is their conversation at the car wash when he asks her if he’s fucked up.

O’Connell: I was so scared to do that scene. Remember, I told you that?

Hecht: You were anxious that day and I didn’t understand.

O’Connell: It was a really intense scene. Also, weren’t we shooting illegally in a car wash?

Hecht: Yeah!

O’Connell: Honey, Blair Witch Project. We were fuckin’ [deepens his voice] guerrilla filmmaking! We went through the car wash like 20,000 times. My inspiration for that scene was my dad, who is so cheap. We were driving and he was like, “I need to get my car washed. I’m going to go to this places 20 miles out of the way ‘cause I will save a dollar.” We ended up going to this scary Jerry corner of Tarzana. There was a guy on meth screaming at the sky without a shirt on. He actually was hot, which was triggering.

Hecht: Oh Jesus.

O’Connell: We went through the car wash, and of course the car wash breaks down. It was such a weird space because you’re confined, but you also feel protected ‘cause it’s like you’re in the womb. I thought, This needs to be a scene between Karen and Ryan, because it’s forced intimacy. But I was really scared to do it because it was a really emotional scene. It was like them putting their cards out for each other and both revealing they’re fucked up partially because of the other one.

Hecht: I love that you think about parents and kids as fucking each other up, because, of course, as a parent I’m always like, “I screwed that kid up, man.”

O’Connell: You need to give your children credit for fucking you up.

The scene in the Eggwoke office when Ryan confesses to everyone that he lied about his accident is a big one, too.

O’Connell: I had a hard time with the idea that Ryan was somehow bad for telling this lie. I remember the producers saying that he should have consequences. That is Storytelling 101. But I didn’t want him to be vilified, because I think it’s a choice that everyone will understand.

Patel: Anyone who knows how the world is would understand why he had to do that. You can be compassionate but still be upset about a situation. I think a lot of anger comes from a deep fear of being humiliated. It was not what Ryan said, but that he grouped Kim in with everyone else.

That’s why Ryan is such a great character. He’s not painted as a hero.

O’Connell: When we’ve seen marginalized people [in pop culture], they have to be virtuous or perfect. They’re not allowed to be flawed. So when people are like, “Wow, like this is a disabled person and he’s acting like an asshole,” I’m like, “Yeah, because he’s a real fucking person. He’s not here to be your inspiration porn.”

Patel: That’s like the real way to celebrate people. Humanize them.

The final scene was brutal. Mom and Ryan broke up!

O’Connell: This feels like one of those stories that you manufacture in the press. It was the last week of shooting. It was really intense and fucking crazy. And then we found out that the camera stopped working. Essentially, we lost all the footage.

Hecht: When they checked the card, it just wasn’t there.

O’Connell: Yeah, honey. That scene was allegedly gone, girl.

Had you left Austin already?

O’Connell: No! And then, for some reason, it was going to take two months to find out if they had the footage. Something’s not right here. It’s “Building a Mystery” by Sarah McLachlan. [Laughs.] It needed to be sent out to like Oslo, Norway, or wherever the fuck. So then we had to reshoot the scene, which is such a troll.

Hecht: It was so unfortunate.

O’Connell: The last day was already packed to the gills, and they’re like, “Oh, let’s just put this whopping emotional scene that you already did as the last scene of the show.”

Hecht: [Sighs.] At three in the morning. It was just a nightmare.

O’Connell: So we did it again. It was not fun, but then — amazing happy ending! — the guy in Oslo, Norway, four months later, was like, “We got the footage!” We never ended up using any of the footage that we shot the second time, because it was not good.

What was it about the first time that worked so much better?

Hecht: It’s an incredibly well-designed scene. And we did get into a groove. Karen says how fucked up it is to be his mom, and he says he never asked her to do anything. It became very pure.

O’Connell: Once we had it, we were like, “Let’s go!” Because it’s not a scene that’s fun to do. We were yelling at each other.

Hecht: It’s not fun to do those scenes.

O’Connell: What I learned was you yell and it’s chemical. You can’t even fake that. Your body’s not knowing that you’re acting on a fucking TV show. Or mine wasn’t. So we would cut and I’d be upset because I just spent the last five minutes yelling at someone.

Hecht: And if you have to do another take, you don’t want to go and hug each other and be like, “I’m so sorry, I love you,” because you’re trying to stay right in that zone.

Why did you choose to end the season that way?

O’Connell: They were going on their separate journeys. It was all building to this moment of them really confronting their co-dependency and Karen having enough with the selfishness. She just lost her relationship with Phil. Ryan has cost her everything.

What do these Emmy nominations mean to each of you?

Patel: I’ve never realistically put myself in that space, because it’s still surreal that I even get to do this as a living. Growing up, I never really saw anyone that looked like me in that space. So, just to be able to exist in that space alongside everyone else feels cool, whether I put weight on the importance of getting an Emmy or not.

Hecht: I love that. We did this on a shoestring and we did this for us. Usually things with lots of bells and whistles get acknowledged, [so] it’s a validation that my aesthetic would be recognized. But also, on a really basic level, I’m 54 and I hate auditioning. To be very practical, it may mean that I don’t need to jump through hoops as much anymore. What other business do you have to trot yourself out all the time? I do think that would be nice.

O’Connell: You heard it here first! She’s offer only! To me, it’s really validating because the road to getting this show made was paved with trolls. We went out with this and everyone said no. Which is essentially like them saying no to my identity. “No, your story actually doesn’t deserve to be told.” So, to be recognized for this, it feels really good. I wasn’t crazy for wanting to do this show. I wasn’t crazy for thinking that someone like me could exist onscreen.

The Stars of Netflix’s Special Are Proving the Trolls Wrong