Ryan O’Connell Talks ‘Queer as Folk,’ His Debut Novel and His Representation of People with Disabilities
Ryan O’Connell has come a long way from writing viral pieces for catalog of thought in the mid-2010s, but he tries not to think about it too much. Fresh off Netflix’s second and final season Specialthe Emmy-nominated comedy series he created, wrote and starred in, he’s now gearing up for his next role: a spot in Peacock’s contemporary reimagining of Russell T. Davies Queer as Folk. The series centers on a group of weird friends, just like the original in 1999, but the reboot is notable for arriving on the small screen fully formed as one of the most diverse shows airing on television today.
For many gay men who came of age in the 2000s, Queer as Folk served as a sexual awakening through its unapologetic depiction of sex and same-sex relationships. O’Connell’s relationship with the series was “complicated“, he underlines during our Zoom call. “It was my first lifeline into being gay and showing what my life could be like if I was a gay man.” He remembers that he would secretly rent the series from Blockbuster and tell his mother that he was just watching the plot. (Others, like me, would just skip to the sex scenes available on YouTube.) While the series was inherently transgressive, the original focused almost exclusively on the experience of white cisgender gay men. “Being gay, being disabled, it reinforced this idea [for me] that wow…maybe it’s not the intersectional identity I would have ordered from the combo menu,” O’Connell says.
O’Connell’s journey to this iteration of Queer as Folk began in earnest in 2019, when he and the Canadian filmmaker Stephen Dunn met for a “very glamorous dinner party” at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood and hit it off “like gangbusters”. Dunn, fan of Specialhad just received the green light to lead the Queer as Folk reboot, and wanted to tap into O’Connell not just as the show’s writer and co-executive producer, but to his surprise, as an actor as well. “After Special finished, I wasn’t sure I’d play again,” O’Connell says. “I couldn’t have imagined being on any other TV show, but I’m so glad I did and Stephen believed in me.” Much to O’Connell’s delight and disbelief, the script featured two main characters with disabilities, rather than a singular, symbolic perspective. “It speaks to Stephen’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, as very rarely are stories of people with disabilities included, but having the two of us on the show was just amazing,” he says.
On Zoom, O’Connell exudes a sense of self-confidence and self-awareness. On Special and Queer as Folk, he brings characters to life that feel grounded and authentic, in part because of his own involvement in the script. “I write things that are deeply personal, and I wonder when it will stop, but the act of writing can be so painful, so not fun, that I do it as therapy and I can’t imagine the do it in another way,” he says, adding, “But my life would be easier if I did things that were less personal.
Appearing in Queer as Folk as an actor is a bit ironic for O’Connell, who wasn’t originally supposed to star in Special, That is. He expresses a sense of impostor syndrome and guilt at falling into the craft rather than getting the years of professional training that other actors might have. “That’s how I feel about writing,” he explains. “I take writing very seriously, it’s in my blood. And there I was, headlining a TV show with no experience. With two starring roles under his belt and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Actor, he struggles not to feel “deserving” and has come to find genuine enjoyment in the process. “Now, after being on Special and do Queer as FolkI can actively come out of the acting closet and say, yeah, I really like it,” he admits.
On Queer as FolkO’Connell plays Julian, a type of “sarcastic, dry bitch” consciously written to feel distinct from Ryan on Special, who is much more committed to a “god damn, wide-eyed optimist” disposition. “Julian is just a very specific character. She’s a person who’s obsessed with the mall and wants to be a flight attendant,” he says. He’s joined onscreen by Kim Cattrall, who plays Brenda , Julian’s down-to-earth, down-to-earth mother.”Being his son really felt like a gay fever dream,” he says. “I was like, have I ever jerked off to this?” (Au (Beyond the surreality of playing his son on television, O’Connell calls Cattrall “a treat to be around” and “a goddamn delight.”)
Among his many projects, O’Connell is also a published novelist. During the early days of the pandemic lockdown, he challenged himself to write 1,000 words a day with no expectation of a final product in the meantime Special to resume its production schedule, “as a way to avoid existential fear,” he says. In just three months, he completed a solid first draft. “There’s no fancy way to put it; it poured out of me,” O’Connell says. “It was like an exorcism. I will pursue this summit for the rest of my life. On June 7, Simon & Schuster published the final result of their pandemic experiment in the form of a novel, Just by looking at it, a trauma” about a gay television writer with cerebral palsy struggling with alcohol addiction and deep discontent.
Writing the book was deeply personal and therapeutic for O’Connell. “The character is a high-functioning alcoholic,” he explains. “At the time, I had a very big problem with the alcohol that I had to change. I knew [I was] express feelings that I had never given myself permission to express in the mouth of this character. When you see, you cannot not see. Halfway through writing the novel, O’Connell got sober. However, he wants to make it clear that Just looking at it is not a memoir like his first book published in 2015, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Each Other, the one he doesn’t look back with fondness. “I mean, don’t give a 26-year-old a book deal. They cannot be trusted. They are not well, ”he says, half-jokingly.
O’Connell has now developed a thirst for the entire creative process, from acting to writing and producing, and he hopes to eventually mentor and shape new voices for the screen. However, he will not watch scripted television in his spare time. “Honey, I work in television,” he says. “When I watch TV, I need to be completely brainwashed. Watching scripted TV for me is like doing fucking homework. Right now, O’Connell says he’s in his ” disabled, creative gay era”, and he hopes Queer as Folk helps queer people feel seen because it approaches inclusion in a way that feels authentic and centers characters who have historically been relegated “to the appetizer,” he says. “It’s corny but it’s true: representation matters.”