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Ryan O’Connell: ‘I was afraid that being gay as a disabled person would be very, very difficult’

RYan O’Connell is pretty sure he caught Covid Queer as folk premiere, but he is confident. Wearing a cornflower blue double-breasted suit over a sheer black button-down shirt, he snapped glamorous photos with the entire cast, including Kim Cattrall. “If I’m going to go out,” he says wryly, “there are worse ways.” The party in Los Angeles was 10 days ago, and now O’Connell, who’s feeling better — but still tested positive — wants to get back with the society to be united. Via Zoom, he hops around in his chair like a kid on the edge of recess. “Covid is such a clingy bitch,” he laments.

O’Connell plays the reticent Julian Beaumont in Peacock’s sizzling reboot of Russell T. Davies’ groundbreaking Manchester set show Buffy the vampire slayer Fanatics in the midst of a tight-knit group of (mostly) males who are (mostly) in their 20s and 30s. They live in New Orleans and, true to the 1999 British original, they have sex in the most hilarious and dramatic way possible. Over the course of eight episodes and some of the messiest partner swaps I’ve ever seen on TV, Julian manages to get off the fringes of the show. He begins as the neglected brother of a romantic lead and ends the season as part of the only couple worth rooting for.

It’s a big deal for O’Connell because Queer as folk is only his second appearance as an actor and here he is at the center of his convoluted universe. And it’s also a big deal because, like the actor who plays him, Julian was born with cerebral palsy (CP). Unlike the previous two incarnations of the show including the 2000 American remake — the reboot recognizes how a queer show can be inclusive, with a cast comprised of diverse races, genders, types of privilege and, radically for television, disabilities.

When showrunner Stephen Dunn offered 35-year-old O’Connell, who was already a writer on the series, a chance to play the lead, the actor accepted twice. Knowing that Eric Gaise, who is confined to a wheelchair, had already been cast as Marvin, another series regular, O’Connell really couldn’t think of a script that would have room for two characters with disabilities. “Holy shit!” he says, remembering the excitement flooding through him. Despite his sarcasm, he is serious. “It’s an embarrassment of wealth.”

But it is with Julian’s CP, which, like O’Connell’s, is most clearly manifested as a limp, that the similarities between the men begin and end. Julian is on the somber side of aloofness, while O’Connell, in a square-necked white vest and dark-rimmed glasses, has an excellent habit of providing a genuine answer to any question posed to him and a joke or, even better, a real answer that is also a joke. He peppers his speech with semi-ironic endearments that soften his razor-sharp honesty, such as when he admits he’s always wanted to be an actor but assumed it would be impossible for a gay man with CP: “Talk about systemic oppression at work, baby .”

But being a gay guy with CP got him right here. O’Connell makes his run in Hollywood sound effortless. After spending a few years post-university blogging, publishers Simon & Schuster offered O’Connell, then 26, a contract for a collection of contemporary essays and listicles like the ones he wrote for Thought Catalog, a denominational site Tirades and a half – serious social criticism aimed at millennials.

In lieu of the contractually agreed illustrated 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 had been telling since leaving his hometown of Ventura, California, to attend college in New York City: that his limp was the result of a car accident. “It doesn’t need a long explanation, and people immediately understand and understand your journey in a way that they never did with my disability,” he says. The big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons, who had read O’Connell in his blogging days, immediately picked the book.

Ryan O’Connell at the premiere of “Queer As Folk”.

(Alberto Rodriguez/Peacock)

By this time, O’Connell had moved to LA to pursue writing for television, including employment as a clerk at the 90210 reboot. He wrote on the weekends 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 difficult and money was tight. “May we all be cheap enough to star in our own Netflix TV shows,” O’Connell says of securing the lead role.

This TV show is like Queer as folk Showrunner Stephen Dunn even knew who O’Connell was. In 2018, Dunn asked him to meet at the swanky Sunset Tower Hotel. “I had a $52 plate of fried chicken and it was a hashtag with no regrets,” O’Connell recalls. “It takes about 40,000 years to do anything gay,” he assures me, but this is about the reboot they only talked about four years ago.

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O’Connell calls his “the least relatable trip” to Hollywood, but there were always signs he would end up there. First, he didn’t like being a kid in Ventura by the sea. He hated being told what to do by adults, and being born with cerebral palsy felt doubly alienating that he wasn’t even in control of his own body. He would play with his friends and then be escorted to physical therapy to be “sunk into oblivion”.

At Christmas he asked for TV scripts for his favorite TV shows, Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the vampire slayer (His character Julian is a big one too Buffy Fan). It’s one of those precocious childhood anecdotes that seems to predict the future, but O’Connell disagrees. He knew he would leave Ventura the moment he graduated from high school, but his childhood didn’t leave much room for daydreams. Sometimes he wasn’t even sure what his body would be capable of in adulthood. “Looking back, my childhood feels idyllic in many ways,” he says. “But then there are also these intermittent outbursts of extreme responsibility and stress and pain that felt very, very upsetting.”

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

(Peacock)

O’Connell was 13 when the US version of Queer as folk came out, and he watched it like any “self-respecting, closed-off gay” kid would, he says, “going to Blockbuster incognito and renting the videos.” He sat at an arm’s length from the VCR so he could press pause when he heard his mother’s footsteps. “I felt tickled. I felt turned on. I mean, I’m sure my d*** got raw after every watch.

But if acting felt out of reach, so did the Lives he was portrayed on QAF. “This is not a swipe at the US version because what they did was truly groundbreaking. I don’t blame them for not including people with disabilities in this iteration. But I don’t see anyone in it Queer as folk Iteration that reminded me of myself, it just cemented my fears that as a disabled person it was going to be really, really difficult to be gay.

“So it was kind of like a euphoric, awesome high, followed by a crushing realization of sadness and, ‘Oh, I’m screwed.'”

Fast forward to the pinch me moment of 2021 when Queer as folk began filming at the property that became infamous on the infamous MTV reality show the real world filmed there in New Orleans in 2000. It was ecstatic and liberating, like studying abroad for adults, minus the binge drinking, says O’Connell. “I’m at the Belfort Mansion with Kim Cattrall? This is a fucking gay fever dream.”

Cattrall plays Julian’s mother. “She’s so dry and so smart and so funny,” says O’Connell, adding that he didn’t ask her to appear Sex and the City spin off And just like that… because it didn’t feel “fancy”. He mostly managed to keep his cool around the little screen legend, except when he was filming a sex scene while she was watching. His inner monologue went something like this: “I’m literally doing a sex scene with the master. It’s literally like, “Are you kidding me?” Nobody does sex scenes better than her. Are you kidding me?” Now, Cattrall is commenting on O’Connell’s Instagram posts. “I love you when you’re sulking,” she recently captioned an image.

O’Connell plays Julian on the dark side of the distant

(Peacock)

So what does a disabled gay boy who could never be an actor do when his memoir is a TV series starring him and Samantha Jones his mother? “I feel like my fuel is to condemn a ableist society and prove people wrong,” says O’Connell. Just by looking at him, his debut novel, was published earlier this month and a film adaptation is already in the works. You can probably guess who will star in it.

“I think of course I will always be drawn to queer stories. I love including disabilities in my work because unfortunately they’re not discussed that much,” he says of the book, which is about a gay man with CP. “And I also feel like I’m in one of those rare positions where I could possibly write a story about disability.” This is the closest O’Connell has come to describing his deeply personal work as a form of activism . And he can see the dent he made in Hollywood. Fifteen years ago he wouldn’t have thought that a guy like him could become an actor. He was smuggled in five years ago Special because they couldn’t find anyone else. Now he’s the beating heart of a glittering network drama. He will play the leading role in a feature film. It’s a big deal, I point out, and O’Connell agrees.

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

The Independent is an official publishing partner of Proud 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 Starz in the UK on July 1st

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/ryan-o-connell-interview-b2109022.html Ryan O’Connell: ‘I was afraid that being gay as a disabled person would be very, very difficult’

JOE HERNANDEZ

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