Ryan O'Connell on giving disabled people 'free rein to live their horny, sexy truth' on Queer as Folk

·8 min read

In the fourth episode of Peacock's reimagining of Queer as Folk, provocatively titled "F-- Disabled People", Julian (Ryan O'Connell) is feeling like the lone gay out at the sex party, biding his awkward time at the seafood tower (an interesting, if unsanitary, option for an orgy).

Julian, like O'Connell, has cerebral palsy, but it's not his disability that makes him feel left out. After all, this particular sex party is a "crip rave," catered especially to the disabled and the getting off of their rocks. The event is the brainchild of Marvin (Eric Graise), a mouthy paraplegic who refuses to be Julian's friend mostly because Marvin's a lot cooler than Julian could ever hope to be. Marvin encourages attendees of the crip rave to use the hashtag "#F---DisabledPeople," hence the title of the episode — which serves both as a directive and a commentary on what O'Connell refers to as the castration of disabled people.

"I can't remember what was the seed for a disabled sex party orgy moment," says O'Connell, who also serves as a writer and co-executive producer on QaF. "But I definitely think that showing hot, disabled sex was on the agenda." O'Connell co-wrote the episode with Alyssa Taylor in hopes of showing that "disabled people have agency" and to "showcase their wants and desires."

"I feel like society castrates disabled people at birth," he says. "And I feel like for me, my whole life has just been me searching for my dick and putting it back on. And so I just feel like it was a really great opportunity to show disabled people in a new, very horny light."

But for Julian, that light can be a little blinding, until he meets a very handsome stranger played by deaf model Nyle DiMarco, who brings him out of his shell... and away from all that questionable shellfish.

EW chatted with O'Connell about depicting disabled people as sexual beings, having fake sex with Nyle DiMarco, and his dream of playing a bitchy gay assistant in a bad rom-com.

QUEER AS FOLK
QUEER AS FOLK

Alyssa Moran/Peacock

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what was the hardest part of the episode for you in writing it and also in being in it?

RYAN O'CONNELL: Oh, the hardest part? That's so interesting. Well I did have to have fake sex with Nyle DiMarco, which —

Awwww....

I know, I know. Don't cry for me, Argentina. Smallest violin. But sex scenes are uncomfortable. The rumors are true. They just are. But Nyle was so, so sweet and so generous. And of course I was very nervous. It's not every day that you have to pretend to have sex with a literal model, but I don't know, I just felt like the whole experience was the best it could possibly be. And it really is a testament to Nyle and how safe he made me feel and how encouraging I found the whole thing to be. But that definitely was the most nerve-racking scene, I felt, during the whole episode for sure — having to get naked next to a literal Adonis. It's always humbling. It's always humbling.

And in writing the episode, were there any challenges for you there?

I think the challenge was just making sure I got things right, especially from Nyle's perspective. So for example, in the episode he is lip reading, and lip reading is only 33 percent accurate. Even the best lip readers can really only understand a portion of what you say... And then at the end of the episode, he admits to my character that... he's having a hard time understanding him. It was really important that we do right by it because unfortunately it's very rare that we get these opportunities to tell disabled stories. And so there is this sort of pressure of, Well don't f--- it up, baby! You know what I mean? So I think that was just sort of an undercurrent of anxiety that I felt during the entire thing, but hopefully we pulled it off.

QUEER AS FOLK -- Episode 104 -- Pictured: Eric Graise as Marvin -- (Photo by: Peacock)
QUEER AS FOLK -- Episode 104 -- Pictured: Eric Graise as Marvin -- (Photo by: Peacock)

Peacock

Did you bring any of your personal history into this story?

I relate to the anxiety that Julian feels occupying a space at a sex party. I've never gone to a full-on sex party, but if I did, I would definitely pull a Julian and hang out mostly by a seafood tower. I identify as definitely being a wallflower at the orgy. So that definitely felt autobiographical.

What was the atmosphere like on the set the day of that sex party shoot?

I think it just felt very liberating, to be honest. When has a group of disabled people been encouraged to just be their sexiest, most empowered selves? Sometimes I don't even give myself permission to feel things until I write about them. I think some people may have even felt just more confident by the nature of the work that they were being asked to do. So it just felt like a really unique, special vibe, because again, when have you ever seen a disabled sex party happen on TV? It was just really, really incredible to see people who have not been seen in that way and whose existence has not been highlighted in that way, and just really kind of given free rein to live their horny, sexy truth. You know what I mean?

Yeah! Now, the episode is titled "F-- Disabled People," which is a little provocative. Was there any pushback against that?

No, of course not. It's a f---ing joke. The thing is, it's a goddamn joke, and I think with disability in particular, people feel very skittish around it, and they don't quite know how to act. They don't quite know how to be. There's a lot of ignorance around disability, and I think that giving people permission to laugh is a really, really powerful tool in my arsenal. And it feels good because it's coming from me, an actual disabled person. It might hit different coming from an able-bodied writer. But to me, I thought it was just a very funny play on words and a funny mistake. And, honey, that's just how I get through everything — put everything through a long lens, cover the vegetables in as much sugar as humanly possible.

QUEER AS FOLK -- Episode 108 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ryan O'Connell Julian, Johnny Sibilly as Noah -- (Photo by: Peacock)
QUEER AS FOLK -- Episode 108 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ryan O'Connell Julian, Johnny Sibilly as Noah -- (Photo by: Peacock)

Peacock

Is there anything in particular you want viewers to pay attention to with this episode?

I just want people to understand that disabled people are sexy and sexual beings, and we've been denied that for so long. And why is that? Why have we never been seen this way? Why is it groundbreaking? So much of the stuff that I do, I'm like, "Why is this groundbreaking?" It shouldn't be, and you should examine that. Why are we having this interview? Do you know what I mean? I mean, I understand why we are, of course, but I wish it was normalized to the point where it wasn't even worth being interviewed about. No shade to this interview. It's delightful. But it's just frustrating, and I want people to really think about that and why that is.

Do you have any future plans for more disabled sex on TV?

Oh, honey, disabled gay sex is my muse. Always has been, always will. So yeah, I got some things. We're working on the film adaptation of my book, Just By Looking at Him, and that has plenty of disabled sex. I will die on the gay, disabled, anal sex hill, honey. You'll have to bury me there.

It's called being a hero.

Absolutely. I'm an activist.

Is there anything in particular you really want to do on screen that you haven't been able to do yet?

Oh my God. That's such a good question. Yes, actually. I do. And it's going to sound so LOL. So you know how there's those awful gay assistant roles where someone's just there to say something quippy and then run away? And gay actors have always been like, "We want something more meaty, more nuanced," which we obviously understand, and duh, of course. Well, I feel like because I started off writing my own material and writing these meaty parts for myself, I would love nothing more than to just be the bitchy, gay coworker in a studio film that is just there for drive-by LOLs and we never get into his backstory and we don't know a thing about him other than he's funny.

Because I know it sounds LOL — why am I wishing for so little? — but to have that character in a movie, and particularly a studio movie, who has a limp, but he's like 10th on the call sheet, so we don't even dive into why he has a limp; it's not important. That, to me, honestly, is like, "representation matters," truly. Just showing that disabled people exist and hold down jobs and are funny and this and that, and it's not diving into their trauma or their disability — I think that's a really, really powerful thing. So yes, I want to play Bitchy Gay Coworker in a really bad studio comedy where we don't mention my limp once. And that's what I want.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Queer as Folk premieres June 9 on Peacock.

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