INTERVIEW

Ryan O’Connell: ‘I had a fear being gay was going to be really, really difficult as a disabled person’

As well as writing on the new US version of the groundbreaking ‘Queer as Folk’, O’Connell also stars in the reboot. Amanda Whiting talks to a multitalented – and hilarious – Hollywood star on the rise about working with Kim Cattrall, living with cerebral palsy and his future as a leading man

<p>O’Connell was 13 when the US version of ‘Queer as Folk’ came out, and he ‘watched it how any self-respecting, closeted homosexual’ adolescent would, he says, by ‘going incognito to Blockbuster and renting the videos’ </p>

O’Connell was 13 when the US version of ‘Queer as Folk’ came out, and he ‘watched it how any self-respecting, closeted homosexual’ adolescent would, he says, by ‘going incognito to Blockbuster and renting the videos’

Ryan O’Connell’s pretty sure he got Covid at the Queer as Folk premiere, but he’s sanguine about it. He wore a cornflower blue double-breasted suit over a sheer black button-down shirt, and took glamorous photos with the entire cast, including Kim Cattrall. “If I’m going to go out,” he says wryly, “there’s worse ways.” The Los Angeles bash was 10 days ago, and now O’Connell, who’s feeling better – but still testing positive – would like to be reunited with society. Over Zoom he bounces around in his chair like a kid on the verge of recess. “Covid is such a clingy bitch,” he laments.

On Peacock’s splashy new reboot of Russell T Davies’s game-changing Manchester-set show, O’Connell plays Julian Beaumont, a reserved Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanatic among a close-knit group of (mostly) men who are (mostly) in their twenties and thirties. They live in New Orleans, and, true to the 1999 British original, have sex with each other as exuberantly and dramatically as possible. Over the course of eight episodes and some of the messiest partner-swapping I’ve ever seen on television, Julian manages to escape the show’s margins. He starts off as the neglected brother of a romantic lead and ends the season as part of the only couple worth rooting for.

It’s a huge deal for O’Connell because Queer as Folk is only his second acting gig and here he is, at the centre of its knotty universe. And it’s also a huge deal because Julian, like the actor who plays him, was born with cerebral palsy (CP). Unlike the previous two incarnations of the show including the American remake from 2000 – the reboot is conscious of all the ways a queer show can be inclusive, with a cast comprised from different races, genders, kinds of privilege, and, radically for television, disabilities.

In fact, when showrunner Stephen Dunn offered 35-year-old O’Connell, already a writer on the series, the chance to star, the actor did a double-take. He knew Eric Gaise, who uses a wheelchair, had already been cast as Marvin, another series regular, and O’Connell genuinely couldn’t imagine a script with room for two characters with disabilities. “Holy s***!” he says, recalling the excitement washing over him. He’s serious even through his sarcasm. “It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

But Julian’s CP, which, like O’Connell’s, most noticeably manifests as a limp, is where the similarities between the men begin and end. Julian is on the gloomy side of standoffish whereas O’Connell, in a white square neck vest and dark-rimmed glasses, is in the excellent habit of answering every question he’s asked with a real answer and a joke or, even better, a real answer that’s also a joke. He peppers his speech with semi-ironic endearments that soften his razor-sharp honesty, like when he confesses that he’d always wanted to be an actor but assumed it would be impossible for a gay guy with CP: “Talk about systemic oppression at work, baby.”

But being a gay guy with CP is exactly what got him here. O’Connell makes his run at Hollywood sound effortless. After a few years spent blogging post-university, publishing house Simon & Schuster offered O’Connell, then 26, a deal for a collection of zeitgeisty essays and listicles like the ones he was writing for Thought Catalog, a site for confessional rants and half-serious social criticism, aimed at millennials.

Instead of the contracted coffee table book, O’Connell submitted the manuscript for his 2015 memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. In it, O’Connell confessed to a lie he’d been telling ever since he left his hometown of Ventura, California, for university in New York City: that his limp was the result of a car accident. “It doesn’t require a long explanation, and people immediately understand and get your journey in a way that they never did with me being disabled,” he says by way of rationale. The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, who’d read O’Connell in his blogging days, optioned the book immediately.

Ryan O’Connell at ‘Queer As Folk’ premiere

By this time O’Connell had moved to LA to pursue TV writing, including landing a staff position on the 90210 reboot. On the weekends, he wrote Special, the TV adaptation of his own book, for Parsons. But when the show finally went into production, casting the main character of “Ryan” proved tough, and money was tight. “May we all be cheap enough to star on our own Netflix TV shows,” O’Connell wisecracks of securing the lead role.

That TV show is how Queer as Folk showrunner Stephen Dunn knew who O’Connell was in the first place. Back in 2018, Dunn asked to meet him at the swish Sunset Tower Hotel. “I had a $52 plate of fried chicken, and it was hashtag no regrets,” remembers O’Connell. “Making anything gay takes approximately 40,000 years,” he assures me, but here we are talking about the reboot they first discussed only four years ago.

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O’Connell calls his “the least relatable journey” to Hollywood, but there were always signs that’s where he’d end up. Firstly, he didn’t like being a kid in Ventura by the sea. He hated being told what to do by adults and, having been born with cerebral palsy, he had the doubly alienating sense that he didn’t even control his own body. He’d be playing with his friends and then be escorted off to physical therapy to be “stretched into oblivion”.

For Christmas, he’d ask for television scripts for his favourite television programmes, Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (his character Julian is also a big Buffy fan). It’s one of those precocious childhood anecdotes that seem to predict the future, but O’Connell doesn’t agree. He knew he’d leave Ventura the moment he graduated high school, but his childhood didn’t leave much room for daydreaming. At times, he wasn’t even sure what his body would be capable of by the time he reached adulthood. “Looking back at it, my childhood, in a lot of ways, feels idyllic,” he says. “But then there’s also these punctuated bursts of extreme responsibility and stress and pain that felt very, very jarring.”

O’Connell (Julian) and Johnny Sibilly (Noah) in ‘Queer as Folk’

O’Connell was 13 when the US version of Queer as Folk came out, and he watched it how any “self-respecting, closeted homosexual” adolescent would, he says, by “going incognito to Blockbuster and renting the videos”. He would sit at arm’s length from the VCR so that he could hit pause if he heard his mother’s footsteps. “I felt titillated. I felt turned on. I mean, I’m sure my d*** became raw after every watch.”

But if acting felt out of reach, so did the lives he saw depicted on QAF. “This is not a knock on the US version because what it did was truly groundbreaking. I don’t fault them for not including disabled people in that iteration. But not seeing anyone in that Queer as Folk iteration that reminded me of myself, it just cemented these fears I had that being gay was going to be really, really difficult as a disabled person.

“So it was a little bit of a euphoric horny high, followed by a crushing realisation of sadness and, ‘Oh, I’m f***ed.’”

Fast-forward to 2021’s pinch-me moment, when Queer as Folk started filming in the estate made notorious when infamous MTV reality show The Real World filmed there in New Orleans in 2000. It was ecstatic and freeing, like study abroad for adults, minus the binge drinking, O’Connell tells me. "I’m in the Belfort Mansion with Kim Cattrall? This is a gay f***ing fever dream.”

Cattrall plays Julian’s mother. “She is so dry and so smart and so funny,” O’Connell says, adding that he didn’t ask her about not appearing in Sex and the City spin-off And Just Like That… as it didn’t feel “chic”. He mostly managed to keep his cool around the small-screen legend, except when he shot a sex scene while she watched. His internal monologue went something like: “I’m literally doing a sex scene with the master. Literally it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ No one does sex scenes better than her. Are you f***ing kidding me?” Now, Cattrall comments on O’Connell’s Instagram posts. “Love you when you pout,” she wrote on a recent pic.

O’Connell plays Julian on the gloomy side of standoffish

So what’s a disabled gay kid who could never possibly be an actor do when his memoir is a TV series starring him and Samantha Jones is his mother? “I feel like my fuel is telling off an ableist society and proving people wrong,” says O’Connell. Just By Looking At Him, his debut novel, was released earlier this month and already a film adaptation is in the works. You can probably guess who’s going to star in it.

“I think naturally I will be always attracted to queer stories. I love including disability in my work, because unfortunately it’s just not discussed as much,” he says of the book, which is about a gay man with CP. “And also I feel like I’m in one of the rare positions where I could potentially get a story about disability made.” This is the closest O’Connell comes to describing his deeply personal work as a form of activism. And he can see the dent he’s made in Hollywood. Fifteen years ago, he didn’t think a guy like him could be an actor. Five years ago, he got cast in Special because they couldn’t find anyone else. Now, he’s at the beating heart of a glossy network drama. He’s going to play the lead in a feature film. It’s a huge deal, I point out, and O’Connell agrees.

“I know! They can absolutely manipulate me for capitalism,” he says. “Are you kidding? Tokenise me, Daddy. I have a mortgage!”

The Independent is the official publishing partner of Pride in London 2022 and a proud sponsor of NYC Pride

‘Queer as Folk’ is available to stream on Peacock in the US and will be released on 1 July on Starz in the UK

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