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Interview: Ryan O'Connell, Creator and Star of SPECIAL on Netflix, Talks What to Expect With Season 2

See what the writer, star, and executive producer of Netflix's 'Special' has to say about series' impact, what he is most excited for viewers to see in season 2 & more!

Interview: Ryan O'Connell, Creator and Star of SPECIAL on Netflix, Talks What to Expect With Season 2

Season 1 of Netflix's 'Special' premiered to both critical and audience acclaim in 2019, and now the series' second and final season is set to begin streaming tomorrow, May 20th. 'Special', based off of Ryan O'Connell's memoir 'I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves', follows Ryan Hayes, a gay man with cerebral palsy, as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, learning alongside his friends and family how to live life unapologetically and authentically.

In addition to being the show's star, O'Connell is also the executive producer and writer of the series.

'Special' stars Jessica Hecht as Karen Hayes, Punam Patel as Kim Laghari, Marla Mindelle as Olivia, Augustus Prew as Carey, and Patrick Fabian as Phil.

We spoke with Ryan O'Connell about writing the characters' journeys, representation in the industry, what he is most excited for people to see in the show's final season, and more!

When we left our main character, Ryan, in Season 1, he was coming into his own as a person, as a writer, but also dealing with conflict with his mom, what kind of journey can we expect to see him go on this season?

Well, I think the journey that Ryan goes on at the top of season 2 is he thinks he is done evolving, honey! He's out about his cerebral palsy, he's living, laughing, and limping, he's having a great time, and then he realizes very quickly, "Oh no, when you choose to live your life authentically it creates a whole new set of challenges." I think it's a journey of him having the courage to take up space. I think he doesn't have a lot of agency or self-worth, especially when it comes to men and relationships, and I think this season is about him really connecting with his disabled identity and giving himself the courage and permission to go through life with the confidence of David Spade in the late 90s.

What can you tell us about our other beloved characters, Karen, Kim... what was it like wrapping up all of their stories and seeing them complete their character journeys?

A big part of me wanting to do half-hour [episodes] was that I really didn't like how much time we had with Kim in season 1, I felt like she was there mostly as a vehicle for Ryan and being his emotional cheerleader, and I was always thinking, "What does Kim do when she leaves Eggwoke and she's done giving Ryan colorful advice?" And so, building out this season, it was really important that we give her a true arc and that we get a look into her interior life. So, that was really exciting to do, it was exciting to see Kim in relationships, be with her family. And then with Karen, I think she goes on a real journey. I think thematically the three characters are all kind of learning how to take up space in this world that is not necessarily built for them. It's funny, they are three very different characters, we have a woman in her 50s, we have a gay guy with cerebral palsy, we have a curvy brown woman, and I think they are characters that on any other TV show would be the best friend character, and on this show they are all the main characters, which is really fun. I think they're all learning how to be themselves and not apologize for things and admit that they want to be the girl with the most cake.

You are also the writer of this show, the executive producer, what was it like for you to be able to tell this story in the way that you wanted to tell it, and wrap up these beautiful character arcs in the way that you wanted to?

It's 'medium raré' in this business that on the off chance that we do get stories that don't center straight white men, and that actually give more people a voice, you'll go through the credits and be like, "Oh, Joel Edgerton wrote this? Sad." You know what I mean? I think that Hollywood is so obsessed with focusing on marginalized communities because they want that Oscar, honey, but if you look at it, are they actually giving people jobs? Are they giving them opportunities? Are they helping them advance so they don't have to be so marginalized anymore? And I think with this show, an actual queer, disabled person was given the keys to the castle. And that never happens. Hopefully 'Special' shows that when you hire a person who has experienced the things that you're depicting, you'll get a much better, richer, nuanced story, and then you're actually helping that person advance through this capitalist hell society, because you're giving them jobs, money, and opportunities. I feel very fortunate that I was able to be the one to tell this story, and not have it be like, 'the brother of someone who was disabled', you know what I mean? It's extremely rare and I feel very grateful.

What would you say was the most fun thing for you to film this season?

Oh my god, definitely the Crip Prom in episode 6. We filmed the first four episodes before COVID, and then we shut down, and then we were lucky enough to finish. One of the first things we shot going back was the Crip Prom, and it was one of the most nerve-wracking things to shoot initially because it was a bunch of people in an enclosed space, which is a COVID no-no. The testing on our show, everyone was super safe, we had no positive test results the entire time we filmed, but it was still a little like, "Okay! We're going into the deep end! I spent five months just staring at the wall and now I'm with a bunch of extras dancing!" It ended up being the best experience because I realized after two days of shooting, I looked around the room and I was like, "Wow, I am in the majority for once." I don't know if I could ever say that in my life. It's always been I'm the only disabled person in the room, or maybe [there is] one other one. But I looked around the room and I saw that almost everyone in the room was disabled. And that was just a really, really incredible moment, and also kind of a frustrating one because I was like, "Wow, it's been 34 years and it took making my own TV show to be able to cultivate this moment. There needs to be more of these goddamn moments in the future, this shouldn't be so earth-shattering."

Absolutely. Thanks to you and this show hopefully it's helping to open up the space more for things like this.

I hope. I don't know. The reality is, is that 1 in 4 people identifies as disabled, 'Special' is, I think, the only show featuring a disabled lead, and now 'Special' is over and what's going to take its place? After 'Special' goes, the representation is going to be even more dire than it already was. And so, yeah, in some ways it feels like we have moved the needle a little bit, but then you're like, "Well, I don't know, we're leaving the same way we arrived." There's nothing to pass the baton to, and that's extremely frustrating.

On that note, what are you looking to do next? Do you have ideas in mind of what you would like to take on?

Oh yeah, I'm a Type A Virgo from hell, honey, she has a lot of irons in the fire. Right now I'm writing for the Queer as Folk reboot, which is really fun. I sold a show to HBO Max, so we're waiting to hear back if we're going to shoot the pilot for that. I wrote a novel, casually, during the pandemic, and that's coming out next year, and I'm actually writing a film adaptation with FilmNation and Greg Berlanti producing. So, I'm keeping busy, she's doing what she's gotta do. I'm still in my gay, disabled period, so there's going to be a lot more stories coming from that.

What are you most excited for people to see with this final season of 'Special'?

I think I'm really excited for them to meet the crips, because if marginalized people are so lucky to get a narrative, it's usually centered around our trauma, and there was something, I felt, revolutionary that with the crips, it's not so focused and centered on their pain, they're up being Gatsby bitches and shooting the s and just being friends. I think that will be kind of shocking to people in a weird way, because, again, it's rare to see a bunch of disabled people hanging out, and then it's even more revolutionary that they're not all weeping. So, I'm excited for people to see that the most.

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