By Nick Romano
April 11, 2019 at 08:30 AM EDT
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Netflix

Special (2019 TV series)

type
  • TV Show
Network
  • Netflix
Genre

Netflix’s Special is a first for the streaming service, in terms of both its runtime and its star.

The new comedy consists of eight 15-minute episodes inspired by the life of creator and lead actor Ryan O’Connell, 31, an openly gay man with cerebral palsy. This wasn’t how he initially envisioned his big acting debut, though. “I come from half-hour,” he tells EW, referring to his background writing network and cable TV shows. “I think in a lot of ways it made me a better writer because I really learned how to cut the fat,” he adds, “and at this point the episodes are so thin they’re like Nicole Ritchie running on the beach in 2005.”

It’s that unique brand of humor that allowed him to foray from writing Thought Catalog hot takes into a screenwriting career on shows like Will & Grace, Awkward, and Daytime Divas. But Special is, well, much more special to him.

In 2015, O’Connell published an article on Thought Catalog titled “Coming Out of the Disabled Closet,” chronicling how he used a car accident at age 20 to hide the fact he had cerebral palsy. He expanded on the article with his 2015 memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, and caught the eye of The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons. With husband Todd Spiewak, the actor wanted to adapt O’Connell’s story for the screen through his production company, That’s Wonderful Productions. It’s been a journey to find a platform to air a series about and starring a gay man with disabilities, but now it’s dropping on Netflix this Friday, April 12.

O’Connell spoke with EW about developing Special without a writers’ room, Ryan Phillippe’s bare butt in Cruel Intentions (because, duh), and his commitment to showing the awkwardness of first-time gay sex. As he says, “Gay sex is a TED Talk.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we get into the show, I read this sound bite where you said Ryan Phillippe in Cruel Intentions helped you come out. Is there anything more relatable than that?
RYAN O’CONNELL: It was very very formative, what can I say? I remember seeing it in a theater with my sister and feeling some kind of way. Luckily for us, he was in every movie basically in the late ‘90s, so we had a lot to work with.

One of my co-workers wrote the big Cruel Intentions reunion for EW, and she talked to Ryan about that. He knows he helped all of us come out of the closet.
Oh my God, I need to read that interview. His ass is in Damages. I keep tabs on his ass. He was naked I think a year ago, and it still looks great. You can’t replicate a ‘90s ass, it truly is sculpted from a gay god, but he still looks good.

I think this means you have to go back to Thought Catalog so you can document Ryan’s ass through the years.
No, I don’t think so. No more thoughts left, honey! It’s the end of the road.

So, Special. When I was told I would breeze through the show, they weren’t kidding. Fifteen minutes an episode — how did you settle on that time?
It was difficult at first because I come from half-hour. The first couple episodes, it was just getting into a groove. I think the second half was easier because the second half was more traditional in the sense that I was telling a story about me and then there was a B story about my mom. It felt very conventional in that way, but it just took a little bit for me to get into place. Really what it is, is you don’t have any room for a C story. I have to be honest, I’m proud of the work that we did, but I felt like I couldn’t dive deeper into Kim, which was a bummer for me because I really wanted to see her life outside of Ryan and there was just no time. Hopefully in the second season we can remedy that.

You didn’t set out to make this as a 15-minute show, right?
Right. That was not the plan. When we got to Stage 13 [at Warner Bros. Digital Networks], that’s what they were doing. They were doing digital short-form content. It was a nice challenge because you have to be very economical as a writer. I’ve done an hourlong before and, honey, that’s just loosey-goosey, strut out your way, order a cocktail. You have space and you have room, honey. This was very, very tight. Every line had to account for something and progress the story in some way. I think in a lot of ways it made me a better writer because I really learned how to cut the fat, and at this point the episodes are so thin they’re like Nicole Richie running on the beach in 2005.

You didn’t have a writers’ room for this either, so you’re writing and editing at the same time. What were some of the biggest challenges with that?
It wasn’t fun, I’ll be honest with you. Writing an entire season of television by yourself at a coffee shop on West Third isn’t exactly the dream, but luckily I had amazing producers, Eric Norsoph and Alison Mo Massey, and their notes were so thoughtful and I really feel like they played a big role in shaping the episodes with me. And also, when my director came on, Anna Dokoza, she had amazing notes. This used to have voice-over and looking back I’m like, “Oh my God, LOL.” I remember the first time when Anna Dokoza signed on, she sat me down and goes, “Okay! I think we can get rid of the voice-over.” I was ready because at that point I had outgrown the voice-over anyway, so that was the last round of edits. It was a long, long process.

What do you think Netflix’s intent is with this show, given how they’re looking to expand beyond traditional runtimes and formatting for their programming?
I can’t speak to their master plan, but Netflix have been huge champions of this show. They’re promoting us like we’re Grace & Frankie. I’m getting billboards, honey. It’s f—ing shocking. They’re not f—ing around. I have to say I was really surprised. You hear all these stories about the tons of content, they put things out and then there’s word of mouth, etc., etc. But they have been so on board from day one with this show, and they have been so into the marketing. That just feels incredible.

All I know is that I’m working with a delightful group of gay men and women who just love the show and want more diverse voices on TV. It’s poppin’. They’re really rolling out the red carpet for this little gay disabled of a show. I feel like I’m getting asked to the dance. I’m like, “Am I pretty, Mom?!” The great thing about Netflix is that they can make whatever they want. So many networks have a brand so it’s like, “Oh, I have an idea, but it’s not gonna fit on this network because of reasons X, Y, and Z.” And Netflix, they’re just trying sh—. They’re taking chances. Their notes were never mandates, ever, ever, ever. They’re just suggestions, and they were so collaborative.

Netflix

What do you think that really says about the TV industry now, as a writer who’s trying to pitch these stories? We have shows like Pose, but streaming has become the destination to explore more stories within smaller communities that are considered niche by mainstream entertainment.
I think network should be scared sh—less, and I think they are. I just feel like streaming has tapped into the zeitgeist in a delightful way. They’re commenting on our society in real time, where the big networks think five years behind. It’s like they live on this remote island where they’re just hearing the song “Somebody I Used to Know” by Gotti, or whatever the f— that song was. They’re like, “It’d be cool if this lesbian moved in next door… to her dad, because lesbians are a thing, right?” And you’re like, “Oh my actual God.” As a writer, it’s really exciting because there’s all these new homes to shop your weird little thoughts to.

Did you try to pitch Special to any of the other mainstream networks?
No, God no. My agents wanted me to go to ABC and NBC and all that stuff, and I just didn’t. I feel bad. There are good shows on network television. I’m writing for the 90210 reboot, which is on Fox, and I think it’s going to be great. I just know that the way I wanted to show this story and tell this story, I just could not do within the confines of a traditional network. So much of what my story is telling is like, gay sexuality! And you can’t do a show about a gay disabled person and not explore sex. That’s such a huge part and I knew that wasn’t going to fly on CBS. I felt very protective over it. This was my story and I knew that I was only gonna get one chance to do it and I wanted to do it right, otherwise I didn’t want to do it at all.

I remember even one of the studios that were interested in optioning it walked away because I wouldn’t go to a network. That’s okay. And then I went to cable and we had these amazing meetings and everyone was delightful, but no one bought it. It was a different time. It was four years ago, which feels like yesterday but it also was, in Hollywood time, four centuries ago. I don’t think they really knew what to do with a gay disabled story, but now I think the culture has shifted so much. People are realizing you can tell diverse stories and still have them resonate with a larger audience. It’s not niche.

Was it an easier process than getting your book published?
No! Oh my God, no. The book stuff was easy breezy. I just went out with a proposal, I met with publishing houses, I think actually one publishing house made an offer and that was Simon & Schuster, and I went with them. That was no muss, no fuss. This was like, we went to two cable networks in 2015, no one bought it so we went to Stage 13, they commissioned me to write the scripts, but it took me forever to write the scripts because I was also on staff on Will & Grace and some other shows. It just took so long. Honestly, in hindsight, I’m really grateful for it because even in the last four years I’ve grown so much as a writer and feel like I know what I want to say.

You described Special a couple of times as a “gay disabled” show. I realize in the pitching process when trying to sell this to network executives it can be easy to repeat that descriptor. Was there ever a concern the show would be pigeonholed because of it?
No. What I did say in the pitch, being gay and disabled feels like this really strange and unique experience that, if you’re not gay and disabled, you can’t relate. But my goal with this show is for you to watch it with your boyfriend or girlfriend and then turn to them and go, “Babe, I need to go Cedars-Sinai because I might be gay and have cerebral palsy!” The whole idea is you see yourself in this character because the things that Ryan wants — a boyfriend, a healthy relationship with his mom, a job where he can feel good about himself — those are things that everybody wants, and that’s not being special, that’s just what makes us human. And that’s not even something you have to be conscious of because that’s my life. I know that weird things do happen to me being gay and disabled, I also know that they’re not so abnormal. I know that when you strip everything away, the basic human wants and desires are pretty much the same across the board.

That makes me think of Ryan’s sex scene in Special, because nobody really gets into the awkwardness of first-time gay sex. And that really struck me.
Oh yeah, honey. I was very passionate up front of how I was deeply deeply annoyed by how gay sex was just not represented in mainstream TV and film. The scene in Call Me By Your Name really got my goat because you have this whole film that’s predicated on desire and sensuality and gayness, and then you have them finally consummate the relationship and you don’t show it. I felt that was, honestly, such a slap in the face. My skin was singing hours afterwards. I just felt like why is this such a fear about gay sex? I don’t f—ing get it. I knew from the get-go that I really wanted to show gay sex in a very accurate way. Everyone was on board. No one ever pushed back on that, but also I was working with all gay men and women. They were like, “Yaaasss.” I’m very proud of that scene and, honestly, it’s just the tip. I can’t wait to go deeper. I feel the way Girls showed sex was revolutionary. “Wow, straight people having bad sex.” And I feel like sex is a lot of things. Sometimes it can be bad and good and funny and awkward in the span of two minutes. It’s a roller coaster, and I want to normalize gay sex like Girls normalized sex for straight people.

I think back to high school and middle school, and they don’t teach gay sex education. So we’re getting as much information from the entertainment we watch.
I had to buy a book at Barnes & Noble in Ventura, [Calif.,] which is where I grew up, and it was called Anal Pleasure and Health and it was for straight people, which is truly LOL. I had a boyfriend my senior year of high school, not to brag. I was like, “Okay, we’re gonna f— soon so I should figure out how this works.” It didn’t really work. I remember the first time I had sex I had an accident, like I sat on my boyfriend’s d—. I was so traumatized. I thought it was a cerebral palsy thing. “Is my a—hole literally broken? I don’t know.” I remember Googling “broken a—hole gay sex.” It was a different time on the internet, it was 2004 so there wasn’t going to be 2,000 Out magazine articles about it. It was really scary navigating the world of gay sex because I had no point of reference. So I hope even a gay teen can watch Special and go, “Oh, it’s okay. It’s awkward.” It’s a lot of, “Is this okay? Is that okay?” It really is a dialogue, honey. Gay sex is a TED Talk.

I always wanted to talk about the fact that you play yourself on top of the fact that you don’t have a writers’ room. It’s like every writer’s dream to have that ultimate control over your own narrative, but what was it like also having to act out this alternate version of yourself?
It was very, very complicated. Going into Special, I talked to a few of my friends, who were actors or they had been showrunners, for advice. Of course everyone was gonna say the schedule’s very grueling, do this, do that, vitamin B12 shot, whatever. But the one thing no one could prepare me for is how strange it was going to feel playing a younger, more damaged version of myself. It was really, really difficult and confusing for me because I was inhabiting this headspace that felt familiar but should’ve felt further away than it did. I felt like during filming I was regressing. I couldn’t detach. I wasn’t that evolved of an actor to understand. When we do an intense scene and they yell cut, I couldn’t be like, “Anyway, here’s a funny cat video on YouTube!” I was still in the muck, and that was hard. It was a little bit of a mindf—. I thought I was further away from feeling the things that my character was feeling, but having to act it out brought me back to that familiar place of insecurity and self-loathing in a way that was uncomfortable. But I think in the end, it was very empowering and a very positive experience, and I’m glad I did it. It’s just an interesting thing that is very relatable for everyone!

Was there a moment where everything clicked and you felt comfortable acting?
The first day of shooting. I know that sounds really weird. I was scared sh—less going up to filming and I wasn’t sure if I could do it, and then the first shot that we ever did, something crystalized and a sense of calm washed over me, and I was like, “Okay, I know what I need to do.” It was very witchy, I can’t explain it, but I’m very grateful for it and I’m not questioning it.

Related content:

Special (2019 TV series)

type
  • TV Show
seasons
  • 1
Genre
Premiere
  • 04/12/19
creator
  • Ryan O'Connell
Performers
  • Ryan O'Connell,
  • Jessica Hecht
Network
  • Netflix
Complete Coverage
  • Special (2019 TV series)
Advertisement

Comments



EDIT POST