To say the past couple of years have been busy for Ryan O’Connell. Last year saw the second season of his sitcom Special – the sitcom he co-created and starred in – debuting on Netflix to huge acclaim, after which it was revealed he’d joined the cast of the much-awaited Queer As Folk remake.
On top of that, he’s also about to release his first novel, Just By Looking At Him, which he’s already working to have adapted for the big screen.
It’s been an exciting time for Ryan, he tells HuffPost UK, but not one he’s in a particular rush to repeat.
“I can’t have a couple of years like that ever again,” he admits. “I was working so much that I truly felt like I was hanging on by a thread.
“I’m really glad that [projects I’ve worked on] are coming out, but a lot of this stuff that we’re talking about now was born from the pandemic, and trying to stave off existential dread and channel that into work. And now I’m kind of like… oh, I want to have fun. See my friends, and live laugh love.”
And while Ryan has enjoyed being “a lady of leisure”, he’s already looking to the future, and says directing is the next challenge he hopes to pursue.
“I’d never really taken that time for myself where I really, truly did nothing. But being a lady of leisure only works if you know that it’s finite,” he says.
“It was really fun, but because I’m a Virgo, I was then like, ‘OK, back to work’. It was also nice to do that knowing I was about to go into the press cycle for the novel and Queer As Folk.”
To launch our new Pride interview series, we spoke to Ryan about the queer TV that made him feel seen when he was growing up, befriending his ultimate queer icon and being the “Kris Jenner of Gen Z”...
Who was the first queer person you can remember looking up to?
There was a show on The WB called Popular, it was actually Ryan Murphy’s first show. And Mary Cherry and Nicole Julian, while not gay men, essentially were gay men. They were these really bitchy high schoolers that were, like, hellbent on destruction and being Machiavellian, and they were the most glamorous, insane characters I’d ever seen on TV.
I was maybe 12 years old when the show came out, and I had no idea about what a “queer sensibility” was until I saw that show. and it was like, “oh, I’m laughing because I’m gay”. And then it was like, “oh, I’m gay”.
And then of course, Will & Grace. Karen Walker and Jack McFarland were my first real peeks into queerness, like a little lifeline. So, Mary Cherry, Nicole Julian, Karen Walker and Jack McFarland. Notice that there’s only one actual gay man on that list.
What was the first LGBTQ+ TV show or film that you remember resonating with you?
I was eight years when My So-Called Life came out – I should not have been watching it, but my family was obsessed, so we’d watch it every week. And in that show, there was a character called Ricky, who was queer. It wasn’t even really discussed that much, which I think was kind of transgressive in its own way. There wasn’t, like, a “very special gay episode”, he just was gay.
And I remember being eight years old and feeling like, “hmmm I really seem to connect with this character for reasons that I’m not quite sure about and also scared of and also intrigued, dot dot dot”. So definitely My So-Called Life, Popular and, of course, Will & Grace.
What’s a song you associate with your own coming out?
I came out when I was 17 on the last day of my junior year in high school. And I did it because I had a crush on this boy, and I knew that in order to date him I would have to come out of the clos’ and live my truth. And that summer was this magical coming-of-age, queer Criterion collection vibe.
There was this movie I was watching at the time called Cherish, this small indie film that nobody had seen – and no one has still seen it – and the theme song of that movie was Cherish by The Association. Remember that song? It’s like an old-school 1960s kind of haunted song. And that was me and my boyfriend’s song. Or at least it was in my head.
What was the most recent LGBTQ+ show or film that made an impact on you?
I watched Stranger By The Lake in quarantine, and I loved it. It’s this horny French queer thriller. There are cumshots, there are uncut dicks, it’s sort of spooky spaghetti, I love it. And of course I love The Other Two. Iconic.
But I don’t watch a lot of scripted shows, to be honest. Because I work on scripted, sometimes it feels like I’m doing my homework, so basically I only watch Below Deck.
Who is your ultimate queer icon?
That’s a really, really good question. I’m just going to go with the first person that comes to mind, and that’s the director Gregg Araki, who did films like The Doom Generation, Nowhere, Mysterious Skin and The Living End.
I feel corny saying that, because I’ve actually become friends with Gregg – not to bra-aag. But whenever I’m with him, I’m always like, “you have no idea how obsessed I am with you”. Basically, in the early 90s, he created this new wave of queer cinema, that was so amazing, and he always included a lot of Shoegaze which is my favourite genre of music.
And then next to Gregg, I would say Parker Posey.
When I was growing up, Party Girl, Clockwatchers, House Of Yes, all those indie films were so major to me. Those are two icons to me. She’s amazing, she’s so specific and so herself.
One scripted thing I am watching right now is The Staircase which ordinarily I would not do because it’s like, “honey we’ve already seen the documentary, must we revisit again?”. But honey, if Parker is there, I have to RSVP.
Who is a queer person in the public eye right now that makes you excited about the future?
I am biased, but Fin Argus. They’re in Queer As Folk, they play a character called Mingus. They’re 23 years old, and when I first met them I was like, “OK, they’re 23, I’m 35, we probably won’t have anything in common, they’re only a child”. But we actually got extremely close and I think they’re so brilliant. They also do music and their music is incredible.
I’m obsessed Gen Z. I’ll go on the record as saying I feel like a spiritual grandfather to Gen Z, I’m a big fan. I am very the Kris Jenner of Gen Z, that’s a moniker that I will take proudly.
What’s your message for the next generation of LGBTQ+ people?
We live in a really mind-fuck-y time, in the sense that the world as we know it is becoming more and more progressive, but because of that, there is a fight to retain the old thought. And that fight is actually winning. So it’s this really very weird, emotional, whiplash-y time where the minority is coming into power, but their views don’t reflect the culture that we live in today.
That’s a very hard place to be in, and it’s a confusing place to be in. But my one piece of advice is to know the culture is going with you, rather than against you. And what you’re seeing is, there’s a lot of fear and people wanting to maintain the status quo. But that’s going to change with or without them.
You can’t change the fact the culture is becoming more progressive. So, even though it’s a very scary time for a lot of minorities, more people are with them rather than against them.
The reality is that if it wasn’t real, if the change wasn’t happening, if the world wasn’t becoming more progressive, there wouldn’t be these death rattles of the old guard. These last power grabs. So it makes sense, even though it’s terrible.
Ryan O’Connell’s new book Just By Looking At Him is out on Tuesday 7 June.