From the perspective of an Egyptian-American Muslim in New Jersey – Hulu’s “Ramy” is a show that brings to the forefront the often misunderstood and unexplored narratives of Muslims and Arabs at large. After his Golden Globe win for “Best Actor, TV Musical or Comedy” earlier this year – the palpable multi-talented actor Ramy Youssef is one to pay attention to.
“Ramy” is a show that is bold in its storytelling and important in its nuanced exploration of characters and experiences. We see an often misrepresented community through a distinctly complex and relatable lens – humanized. “Ramy” challenges the status quo, it asks the hard questions, it explores the uncomfortable, it highlights the insecurities – and that’s what makes it work. From conversations around prayer, faith, gender dynamics, intimacy and sex – there’s no topic that is off limits. This is not a show that holds back, it didn’t in Season 1 and it pushes the conversation even further in Season 2.
Though the show is called “Ramy” some of the most important conversations on the show sometimes exclude Ramy – whether the episodes are dedicated to Ramy’s uncle, sister, mother or any other character that might seem “secondary”. The show at its core is pushed by all the characters and their singular, complex and layered journeys.
We spoke with Youssef for 10 minutes, a couple of days before the second season’s May 29th release. Check out the conversation below.
The Knockturnal: How’s it like directing, writing and acting on the show. How do you feel like having your hand in every part of the process has impacted your overall creative approach to both the show and the character?
Ramy Youssef: “Good question, you know we go on a lot of directions – but for me, I think it helps the show feel like it has a unifying theme and I think it helps the show feel like it’s in the style that I’d like it to be in. We tell a lot of different stories, we follow different characters. We play even sometimes with differentiation within our tone. But for me, yeah it’s been really exciting to expand into all those roles and it feels organic for the show.”
The Knockturnal: I feel like the show discusses some pretty bold topics. Was there ever a subject that you hesitated to talk about on the show?
Ramy Youssef: “I’m nervous about a lot of the things that are in the show. Almost all the topics are presented with a hesitation. Yes, absolutely. I think the hesitation can be a good thing because if I’m afraid to talk about it that means other people who are nowhere near as vocal as I am, must be really afraid too. So much of the show is about making connections that we have a hard time making outside of a comedy and so much of it is about having deep conversations. So to me, that nervousness is a lot of times the way we should be going, the direction we should be headed in.”
The Knockturnal: This season introduced some very interesting new characters, specifically the character of Sheikh Ali as his role was definitely an important addition. How did the collaboration with Mahershala Ali for the role come about?
Ramy Youssef: “Mahershala reached out to me after the first season because he was excited about the show. He liked that the narrative of the show was about somebody trying to follow their faith. I think we see a lot of shows where it’s just someone who doesn’t want to be part of their culture or doesn’t want to be part of their faith – he really resonated with that. In talking to him more, I told him about my desire to have a character in the show that was really a practicing Muslim who really embraced it. So much of the show is about people who are torn, but I really wanted a character who was kind of the embodiment of someone who’s been transformed by the faith and someone who really lives by it and someone who practices it in an honorable way – to make someone like that who felt like a real human and didn’t feel fake. To have someone of Mahershala’s caliber bringing that character to life is a dream come true.”
The Knockturnal: What made you want to explore the relationship between Ramy and Sheikh Ali. I feel like we never really see that. A lot of the times, we are somewhat fearful of Sheikhs or hesitant and wouldn’t necessarily talk to them so personally about issues going on in our lives. What made you want to look at that relationship in a more nuanced way?
Ramy Youssef: “I think that the faith of being Muslim, it’s a faith about love and it’s a faith about mercy. I really wanted a character who was driven by that love and that mercy to be there for the conversations that we were having – that’s really what the Sheikh embodies. I think so many times Male religious figures and just religious figures in general are portrayed as just hypocrites, inhuman, as inaccessible, as out of touch, as all these things that tie in to how people view the faith as well. I really wanted to open up that channel and show that there’s so much love, and so much honesty and so much mercy that can happen in these relationships.”
The Knockturnal: Do you feel like you want to explore more Black characters in future episodes and seasons? This season didn’t dive into the nuance of the characters but rather introduced new characters that gave a different feel/experience to the show. Do you feel like you want to explore that in the future or do you feel like that has to come from a Black-Muslim show or from a Black-Muslim creator. Because at the end of the day, this is a show about Ramy and he is an Egyptian-American.
Ramy Youssef: “Yeah I think the answer is a little bit of both. The answer is both. It’s something that I think will be interesting for our show to hopefully get a little bit more insight in. But, we’re never going to do it justice that being fully immersed in a Black-Muslim world will do. I’m very excited to see that world really flushed out in a meaningful way by a creator. That’s something that I’m really looking forward to happening. Also, I think moving forward with more episodes in Ramy, there’s a lot of things that I would love to explore where we could get a little bit of a deeper look.
The Knockturnal: *SPOILER* I already watched the new season, one of the storylines that really stood out was the one that you had with Mia Khalifa. The breast milk storyline was absolutely hilarious. Talk to me a little about what it was like writing that whole interaction. Just so funny.
Ramy Youssef: “(laughs) It was definitely a funny phone call when I basically told Mia the idea. It really came out of trying to just complicate the conversation. This is a season that deals with Ramy’s character having a porn-addiction and we felt like that was a very real thing that can come about I think for a lot of people of my generation. But also, I think if we’re even getting specific with Muslim communities. It’s a bunch of people often who are trying not to have sex before marriage but then turn to porn and then they create unrealistic relationships with sex, unhealthy views of sex. So, because we were talking about porn so much, it felt natural to talk to a porn star. That was really the genesis of it and then it was just like what would make us laugh the most and what would be the most kind of ridiculous thing.”