'Special' Stars Ryan O'Connell and Punam Patel Talk Sex, Emmys and Saying Goodbye (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Created by and starring Ryan O’Connell, Special tells the story of a gay man with cerebral palsy stepping out from the protection of his helicopter mom to create a world of his own, which means moving out, making new friends and finding romance. While not directly based on his memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, the former writer for the Will & Grace revival and author’s real-life experiences as a disabled man serve as a jumping off point for this witty and heartfelt Netflix series.
Debuting to critical acclaim, season 1 earned four Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series as well as acting nods for O’Connell, Punam Patel, who plays best friend and coworker Kim Laghari, and Jessica Hecht, who plays Ryan’s onscreen mother, Karen Hayes. “It was a labor of love,” O’Connell previously told ET. “So, it is like a miracle that we pulled this off [and] I’m just so proud that we managed to accomplish this much with so little.”
While renewed for a second season, O’Connell insisted on expanding the series from its 15-minute episode run to a full half-hour to accommodate all of the stories he wanted to tell, which included exploring Kim’s family and seeing a freed Karen find her footing, while also letting smaller moments have room to shine. However, in doing so, that also led the streaming platform to cancel his series, which closed out Ryan’s journey in May.
Reuniting over Zoom, O’Connell and Patel open up to ET about Special, its many, many sex scenes and saying goodby to the short-lived series.
ET: Congrats on season 2. Now that it's done, how do you feel about what you were able to achieve with the series?
Ryan O’Connell: I feel great. I mean, look, I’m really proud of season 1. I think there’s some really amazing moments in it, but I feel like as a whole, as a creator, I felt like I was squishing a half-hour show into 15 minutes. So there are certain moments that couldn’t really resonate or breathe the way that I wanted them to. So, again, I’m obsessed with season 1, but season 2, to me, feels like a fully realized version of the show that I had always wanted to tell. And that’s why I’m such a little b*tch to Netflix about expanding to half an hour. I just knew that this was always a half-hour show and it was kind of like creative blue balls to kind of try to fit it into the short form space. So, season 2 to me is, like, I’m obsessed with it. I really feel proud of it. We worked really hard on it and it tells a really complete story.
Punam Patel: I feel super proud of it. And to be quite honest, I feel a little spoiled now because I was telling Ryan, with the show coming out, it was just so exciting because people were posting all these pictures and memories. And it was also kind of bittersweet because I was like, “Oh no. What if I’m never on a set like this again?” Because it really was such a unique set.
Ryan had such a hand in selecting and being involved in every single part of it. And it shows when from the top down, people are really thoughtful because every single person on that set was just an absolute delight to work with. Maybe it’s because there were barely any straight white men on it, but it was just the most positive, creative and nurturing environment I've ever been a part of. And then I’m like, “Oh, no, that’s actually really rare. What if it never happens again?”
There’s a lot to love about the series, but one of the things that really stood out was the relationship between Ryan and Kim, especially compared to the more stereotypical, codependent relationships we see between a gay man and a straight woman onscreen. During the two seasons, did you two discuss that dynamic and what you wanted to bring to the screen, especially in a post Will & Grace world?
RO: I remember there were some lines where Punam was like, “This is too faghag vibes,” which I was like, “Yeah, totally.” So she kind of remixed those. But I feel like our real dynamic kind of bled into the roles a little bit. I think it was a little like blurred lines. What do you think, Punam?
PP: Yeah, I would say it was pretty reflective of how playful we are with each other. I think when we met -- because neither of us were in the places that Ryan and Kim -- we didn’t immediately have that same dynamic. But when it comes to the support and the playfulness and how we’re always going to each other for advice and venting to each other. I think Ryan and I are also extremely honest with each other. Ryan’s my friend, like when I want to hear it straight and not sugarcoat it. That’s who I go to. And I really appreciate that.
And we do give each other a hard time. Even on set, we started this thing -- I don’t even know how it started -- but I kept being like, “Oh, you’re naughty boy.” And Ryan would be like, “He’s a good boy.” And that somehow made it into the show out of context.
While season 1 had some notable sex scenes, season 2 featured a lot more, for both Ryan and Kim. What was it like to actually get in bed with your co-stars and film these moments?
RO: I feel like the first thing I said to Punam in season 2, I was like, “You’re having sex. You’re having sex scenes and you can Carrie Bradshaw it, you can be in full bra and underwear and be f**king. That’s fine, but you’re going to have sex.”
PP: That’s in the show and in real life. Ryan said that to me: “You need to have sex.” And that’s been really helpful. I feel like Ryan got me out of my sex slump at one point. On and off-screen, Ryan is my sex guide.
But I also love that in this show you only see the men naked. I think that is so refreshing -- not to be obsessed with gender -- but for so long you’d only see women naked and the men are just there. And I just loved how much butt we see, and everyone has a really great butt. Like, not a dud in the group.
RO: Well, butt representation matters. And you can definitely tell it’s the male gaze -- “g, a, y, s” -- for sure. But I think even seeing Kim get off -- I mean sex is just such an important part of the DNA of the show. And it only felt right that we all see Kim getting it as much as Ryan’s getting it.
PP: And that it's normalized. I feel, especially sometimes, when you see people outside of what our societal standard of beauty is having sex, whether it’s brown women or a curvy woman or a gay person or disabled person, sometimes it’s made into a joke where they put it to funny music, where it’s the big girl attacking a guy or something like that. And it’s like, you know, we all have sex, right? It’s not a joke. Like, literally everyone can have sex.
While these scenes were big moments in the show, there’s two where what happened after is really powerful. The first one I wanted to ask about is the frank discussion about bottoming that comes about after Ryan tops Tanner. I was just curious if you felt like you were pushing the boundaries here and maybe speaking to some kind of reality?
RO: I mean, in terms of the sex, I definitely wanted to push that envelope and then kind of sh*t all over it. And I think we definitely did that.
I will say that sh*t on a dick is actually in my memoir that the show is based on. The book has nothing to do with the show since the show is so fictionalized. But that is the one thing I carried over from the actual book. I mean, I remember being 17 and bottoming for the first time. I sh*t on my boyfriend's dick and I literally was traumatized. It was 2004; there was no language around anal sex and what could come from it. And I thought my a**hole was defective or I thought it was because of my cerebral palsy. But there was just a lack of education about anal sex that I would have loved to have had as a 17-year-old venturing into those perilous waters. To me it’s educational, but sex to me also drives story. I mean, gratuitous sex is fine, but I just thought it was a really great way to reveal character and reveal flaws in character and real strengths in character.
Initially, my conception of that was Ryan sh*ts on Tanner’s dick and Tanner [Max Jenkins] is the one that’s not cool with that. And I thought it was really interesting to subvert it and show Ryan be selfish and not be kind the way that Tanner was to him in episode three. I thought seeing that the generosity of spirit was not extended and reciprocated was just really interesting to me and very real of that character, because Ryan can be really selfish sometimes.
The other comes earlier in the season, when Ryan is fetishized in bed. I can only imagine what it’s like to realize that in the moment, but what hit me most was when Ryan takes a bath and is scrubbing his scar. Can you take me through what it was like to film that scene and what it meant for Ryan in that moment?
RO: That sex scene was important to me because it was important to show sex that was consensual, but sex that you don’t like. And if you liked yourself more, you would have found your way out of it. And I think this whole season for Ryan is finding agency and finding his voice and sticking up for himself. So it made sense at the beginning of the season to show that he’s not there yet.
And again, it was really important to me that it was consensual, that this was not seen as an assault. Because I think sex often exists in a gray area and you often have sex that you don’t love, but again, you don’t have the self-esteem or self-worth to really navigate your way out of. And that was a really interesting way to show that with Ryan.
In terms of rubbing the scars, I think Ryan is just trying to erase himself. Being disabled is really weird. There’s this mindf**k of being hyper visible and also invisible. So it’s like, everyone’s looking at you but no one is. So, I thought it was just really poignant Ryan try to erase this part of himself that is so at the forefront of who he is.
In terms of shooting it, it was a f**king nightmare as you can imagine. Jeremy Glaser, who plays the fetishist, was incredible. He was amazing. I had just met him and it was like, “OK, time to get fetishized.” He was amazing and lovely. He was my fetishist whisperer and I’m really grateful for that.
In terms of the scar scene, it was a f**king nightmare because we shot it last and I actually had to scrub my scar. And it literally bled. I was like, “Why do I always want to re-enact my trauma?” I remember my cock sock flew off, so I was just dick out in the tub, which no one wants to see. It’s not really in its best light. It’s not really presented in its best possible way. So yeah, cock out, scar is bleeding. You know, I bleed for my art, what can I say?
PP: Give this guy an Emmy!
Looking back on season 2, I want to ask Ryan, what’s your favorite scene of Punam’s and why?
RO: Well, I can’t choose just one, but obviously “How Many Licks” was incredible. That’s been getting a lot of attention. I feel like people are going apesh*t for that.
“How Many Licks” was originally “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. So basically the idea is that, Kim picked this song for her and Harrison [Charlie Barnett] and just saying, “I got you, babe,” was way too romantic. I don’t think Kim would ever be that vulnerable. Kim’s idea of romance is “How Many Licks.” Like, that’s her version of saying, “I love you.”
Punam is such a pro. Like, she really does not f**k around. She really did memorize the whole f**king rap. And she just f**king killed it.
Punam, the same question for you about Ryan.
PP: I really love the scene where Ryan and Tanner are leaving Richard’s house and they’re about to come to my birthday party. I just thought that was so well-written and also so well-acted. And in true Ryan fashion, it ends with a button, “How far is the Uber?”
I just thought that was, like, literally a perfect scene and encapsulated everything that Special is because it’s so honest, it really goes there with really complicated situations that are actually very real and human. And Ryan has such a human response and it really pulled at my heartstrings.
I also have to ask about season 1 getting recognized by the Emmys with its four nominations. What did that mean to you then and what does it mean for a series like this to be honored in any sort of way? And does that matter to you, in terms of the type of storytelling you get to do?
RO: Well Special didn’t move the needle in the way that Pose did for the transgender experience. I kept waiting for that to happen and it just never happened, if I’m being honest with you.
We did get nominated for the Emmys, which was very chic. And having this recognition from the Academy was really amazing and very validating. But I also would be remiss not to comment on the fact that Special was canceled and that nothing is replacing it. So, we now have no shows from disabled people about the disabled experience. So it’s hard to feel like we did it when, like, I don’t know. It’s depressing. I don’t really know how else to explain it.
Especially after such a strong sophomore season, I can see how you think there’s another one to follow or more stories. Because of that cancellation, is there a chance you can take this somewhere else or do you think this is just the end of the road for Special?
RO: Well, we wrote it as the final season because we had known that we were canceled from the very beginning. So from my frequent perspective it’s very complete. But also on a real level, I’ve been with the show since 2015. So it’s been six years of my life. There’s a part of me that is ready to move on even as meaningful as the experience has been.
But also Netflix owns it. I think theoretically down the line that someone can do more. I mean, I would love to do a Special movie. That I think would be really fun. Or do a spinoff with Kim and her family, because I think that’s its own show. But I think I’m done telling stories for Ryan.
PP: To piggyback on what Ryan was saying earlier, I think it can feel conflicting when you feel really celebrated as far as being represented and seen and heard. And then it feels like sometimes it may not be sustained and it kind of speaks to this moment where I think there are people in this industry that are consciously trying to make a real change as far as representation and telling diverse stories. But overall, sometimes it still feels like it’s just a trend.
RO: I felt really complicated around the fact that we have not gotten that much attention for season two the way that I was expecting. The critics really haven’t reviewed us and it kind of seems like season 1 we were this fad of gay, disabled realness. And then Hollywood was like, “Oh, we saw that, we did that, let's move on.” So I feel complicated about that. I was talking to Lena Waithe and she encouraged me to talk about it because I was feeling conflicted about it. And I know that Lena has been through this stuff in terms of representation in Hollywood. And so she was like, “F*cking say your truth. Like, just say it.” And here I am.
PP: It’s a hard thing to truly appreciate the opportunity we’ve been given, personally and with the show. Sometimes we’re in this space, where people just kind of feel like you should be drowning in gratitude. And it’s like, “Well, no. I can be extremely grateful for all the opportunities I've gotten.” And I am. But it’s not where it should be. And it still feels like people sometimes do it to give themselves a pat on the back, instead of really valuing it. Because your actions show that you value it. But I hope that’s changing slowly but surely. It’s definitely better than it used to be.
RO: Honey, the bar is so low it’s underground.
To wrap us up on a positive note, do you have a favorite memory or moment from your time on set or working on the show?
RO: I liked all of Ojai because it was the last week of shooting and it was me and Punam and it felt very contained. Like, we just shot in the same house for four days almost like we were shooting a play or something. And it was just really nice. I remember being very present and grateful. It was a nice way to end the series because we weren’t rushing. Like, we were able to just kind of hang out and be in the same place.
PP: I would agree that that was also my favorite week probably because it was the last week. Also, every day we had a different food truck, so we had treats every day too, which made it even better. I feel like that sometimes there were weeks where it was like we’re shooting at different locations every day, so it was like you were just moving around and didn't have that time between scenes to just sit and have a coffee together. But everything was at this house. And so all of us were always there at the house.