Ryan O’Connell, the creator of Netflix’s short-form sitcom “Special,” had never acted before and had no intention of being the star of his series. But a limited budget put him front and center. And now that performance has earned him a surprise Emmy nomination.
Three days after nominations for the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards were announced, the TV Academy pulled “Better Call Saul” short “Employee Training: Madrigal Electromotive Security” from competition in the short-form categories after ruling it did not meet the minimum running time of two minutes for at least six episodes. In addition to the series’ nomination in the short-form comedy or drama category being rescinded, actor Jonathan Banks’ nomination for his performance was revoked.
O’Connell had just been turned away from his weekly Laser & Light facial at Skin Laundry in West Hollywood when he learned Friday that he was a nominee.
“I just came back from a vacation in Provincetown, Mass., and I was ready for my damn facial,” O’Connell joked . “But they said my skin was too red! That it seemed like I got a little sunburn. I was devastated… And then Cole Galvin, an exec at Netflix, was like, check your email. I’m like, ‘Did we get canceled?’ And then he called me and said I was nominated for an Emmy. I thought it was in kind of a LOL. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’”
He read up on the time-limit requirements. And while giving Banks praise, O’Connell is happy to benefit from the situation.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my God, fine, I’ll take it, honey!’” O’Connell said in his typical humorous way. “I’m so excited. It’s so surreal. But, also, in the storied history of my show, which is like the little gay disabled show that could, it very much tracks with the narrative. I feel like we always just squeak by. We’re just always limping our way to the finish line.”
The series, which hails from Jim Parson’s That’s Wonderful Productions and Warner Bros.’ Digital Networks’ Stage 13, is based on O’Connell’s 2015 memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.” The semi-autobiographical series plays out in eight snack-size episodes and revolves around a gay man with mild cerebral palsy who, nervous about how his peers will react to his condition, pretends that a car accident left him disabled. Rounding out the cast are Jessica Hecht as Ryan’s mom, Karen; Punam Patel as his work bestie, Kim; and Marla Mindelle as his boss, Olivia.
O’Connell’s newfound nomination raises the show’s total haul to four in the short-form categories, including nods for Hecht and Patel.
We spoke to the multi-hyphenate, whose TV writing credits include “Awkward” and the revival of “Will & Grace,” about what it was like playing a fictionalized version of himself and what he’s learned about Hollywood since making the series — which led to an idea for a spy thriller gay wedding project that is screaming to be made.
Given that you hadn’t planned to star in the series, is this nomination a confidence boost for you? And how would you describe the experience of not only having control of your narrative, but also acting out this sort of dramatized version of yourself?
I had no plans to act. Zero. So, yeah, it feels really validating. Because I’m not an actor... I mean, I guess I am an actor now, whatever. I need to get used to it. I had a hard time separating myself from the character of Ryan, because it was so autobiographical. And I felt like I was playing a version of myself that I felt like I had outgrown five years ago. But putting myself in these scenarios again, it really felt like that was backsliding. And I felt like I wasn’t experienced enough as an actor, or maybe I was too close to the material to be able to separate.
Having to act out these scenes — getting rejected by boys, having a fight with my mom — it felt very, very close to the bone. But I felt like, in a way, that might’ve helped my performance, because a lot of it didn’t feel like acting. It just felt almost like a documentary or something. Oh, God, maybe I shouldn’t say that. Maybe that takes away from the performance. Voters are gonna be like: “Oh, so you were just acting in a reality show? OK, then. No Emmy for you.”
What was that first day of shooting like? How did you get comfortable with it?
I think they were trying to ease me in because the first scene, which was actually cut, was a scene of me walking down the street and seeing a boy, and smiling at me, and me smiling back. So there was no dialogue. I could tell the faith was strong! They were like, “OK, let’s see if you can do this. Let’s see if you can look at a boy!” And I was really nervous leading into it, because... I had been in acting classes for months leading up to this, but I never felt like it had clicked in. I was really nervous, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. This sounds very witchy, but that first take or that first shot that we did, I felt something kind of click. And I just knew instinctively what I needed to do. It felt bigger than me.
I’ve always kind of secretly wanted to act, but I never gave myself permission to want that. Because I think as a marginalized person, you always think about how you can take up the least space possible.
Tell me about those acting classes. Was it like “Barry” or “The Kominsky Method” vibes?
No, Myra Turley [“Flags of Our Fathers,” “Nightcrawler”], honey, at her house in Van Nuys. It was individual. I can’t take that darkness on. Also, can you imagine me being the ... in class, being like: “So, here’s the deal. I’ve never acted before, but I’m randomly the lead in my own Netflix show, so I need to know how to act.” But no, I definitely needed one-on-one. And it was actually kind of incredible, because I think being in the actor position really helped the scripts. It really kind of made me approach writing in a completely different way, because it helped me identify when something felt kind of clunky or not natural. But yeah, Myra Turley was Kumail Nanjiani’s acting coach on “The Big Sick.” She was just incredible. She was sort of like the tough mom I always wanted.
What did you learn about yourself in doing this series? And what did you learn about Hollywood?
I learned that I could do it. I mean, I was really nervous. I wrote all the episodes ... I executive produced it. I starred in it. I had never written an entire season of television myself. I had never starred in anything before, and I’d never executive produced anything before.
“Special” was a bare bones operation. I mean, I’m not allowed to talk about the budget that much, but honey, let me tell you, it was like — woo, honey, it was real. We shot this in 19 days. 19 shoot days. And so it was like getting thrown in the deep end. That’s why I’m so happy about its success and reception, because I feel like all the odds were kind of against us. Like, it shouldn’t have worked out. I know it sounds corny, but it really did prove that I can do whatever I put my mind to. And also, I think I’ve learned that I actually enjoy acting. I’ve always kind of secretly wanted to act, but I never gave myself permission to want that. Because I think as a marginalized person, you always think about how you can take up the least space possible. So I thought, ‘Oh, I want my own show, and that’s greedy enough. I’m basically acting like a straight white male, how dare I.’ But... it’s OK to admit that you want that and to go after that. Because everybody deserves to be the girl with the most cake.
I’ve learned that Hollywood doesn’t know what they want until you tell them. So I think my whole career it’s been like, “Well, we’re looking at this right now. We’re looking for a spy thriller gay wedding.” And you’re like, “What the ... are you talking about?” You know what I mean? And it’s just because a movie did well for them that is sort of in that vein and they want to replicate it. So it’s your job to kind of be like, “No, no, no. The spy thriller gay wedding is not what you want. You want this.” You have to really believe in what you have to say, and believe in your story being told. You have to stick to your guns.
I don’t know, I kind of want this spy thriller gay wedding.
What if it’s like the Ali Wong thing, where she was like, ‘I want to arrange a comedy with Randall Park,’ then all of a sudden it’s green-lit. All of a sudden I’m getting offers to make a spy thriller gay wedding. Yeah, please put it out there and just watch my phone not ring.
“Special” hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, but how do you hope to build on what you’ve established?
Oh my God, I have so many things. I mean like I don’t want to spoil anything, whatever. But like just know that it will be gayer and gimpier than Season 1.
I just think about 2015 and hearing all those no’s from all the networks we went to, and feeling so discouraged. I was feeling like, “My life is too niche, my story is too niche, no one’s going to care about it.” And I feel like this has just been one crazy ride. Not only when the show came out and got such a good reception. And the critics really liked it, which was amazing. It’s like now having these four... Emmy nominations, it’s like, it feels really damn good. I got to say. But I felt like I always knew that this story deserved to be told. I just feel like Hollywood in general lacks imagination, and they have a hard time thinking outside the box. I hope that the success of my show allows other stories that seem unconventional to be told, and know that there’s an audience for that.
But my goal with this show is to take someone who has been othered by society, and make you watch the show and turn to your partner in bed and be like, “Babe, call Cedars-Sinai because I think I might be gay and disabled.” Because the things that Ryan wants, which is just like, a boyfriend, boundaries with his mom, to do well at work ... those are not unique things. And those aren’t things that make someone special. It just is what makes someone human.