Speaking with Awards Daily, Golden Globe-winner Ramy Youssef discusses what it was like exploring religion and Muslim identity in 21st century America and how polarizing reactions from fans is proof that audiences are hungry for these uncomfortable, yet universal, conversations.
Over the past decade, auteur comedies became the defining voice of television. They provided personal voices the opportunity to explore some of our deepest insecurities and anxieties. That’s why it is so fitting that Ramy explores the last taboo of millennial culture: faith and religion. Through his titular role, co-creator, writer, executive producer, director, and star Ramy Youssef explores what it means to believe in the 21st century. He knows that it makes audiences uncomfortable; in fact, he welcomes it.
What does it mean to explore your faith in 21st Century America? As a Muslim-American moving to Los Angeles and living on his own for the first time, it was a question Ramy Youssef found himself exploring quite a bit while balancing back-to-back stand-up sets at the local Mosque and the Laugh Factory. When it comes to his own relationship with Islam, what did he personally engage with and what was a performance?
Speaking with Awards Daily, Youssef details his wild year that included winning a Golden Globe, embracing the strong reactions from audiences engaging with the show, and welcoming two-time Oscar winner (and the most famous Muslim in Hollywood) Mahershala Ali to the second season. On a personal note, he also explores the similarities and differences between himself and his titular role, even going as far as declaring Ramy a representation of who he is afraid of being.
Awards Daily: I wanted to take a moment to ask you about earlier this year when you won a Golden Globe for the first season of Ramy. What was that night like for you?
Ramy Youssef: It was so surreal and silly, and it was just wild. It feels ancient. It’s this weird thing where you go up and get this little gold statue in front of a bunch of people who have gotten statues and now you’re in the statue club. It is so bizarre but also very exciting.
AD: What kinds of reactions have you received from audiences over the past year and has that changed at all with the premiere of the second season?
RY: There is so much going on in my show that I really think there is enough there to draw whatever conclusion that you would like. I find that it touches people in the places that they don’t want to be touched. If you are conservative, and you don’t want to talk about sex those issues come up and if you are super liberal in a way where you don’t want to talk about faith and god in a genuine way, that also pushes a button.
We have this character with all of these questions that he is seeking answers for. For me, the point of the show is to bring the audience closer to their questions. I find it to be this thing where people are responding to the show with a wide spectrum of things from “I really love this” to “I really fucking hate this” or “Why did you do that?” and “I keep wanting to watch more!” I think when people are engaged with the show, they tend to dive into it regardless of where it is hitting them. The amount of people who feel less lonely because of the show has been exciting as well as those who laughed and who have felt angry or cried has been really fun.
AD: The second season has quite a few shocking moments. I’m curious what fans of the show bring up to you the most and want to talk about?
RY: We have the lead character of Ramy, and we don’t protect him in the way that leads often are. There is this idea of the antihero, but I don’t think of him in that way. I think that he is a victim to his ego, and he is straddling genuine faith with a performance of faith. I think a lot of people are shocked that we are willing to go to these places with the character, but for me that is the whole point. If I make a show called Ramy (and my name is Ramy) and it’s this campaign to make him look like a good guy, then I start to feel a little sociopathic.
The whole point of creating this character is digging into the idea that there are versions of ourselves that we don’t want to become, and there are paths that we don’t want to take. I think it’s important to explore that and people are taken aback that we go there.
AD: One element I’ve noticed about multi-hyphenate roles (star, creator, writer, director) is that audiences tend to mistakenly conflate the character and the creative. I’m curious what you have the most in common with your character and where are you two the most different?
RY: When I look at Ramy as a character, he is who I am afraid of being. He is me if I only listened to my ego. He is me without the fortune of awareness. He is me without a passion. He is me without as open of a family as I get to have in real life. I think we all look at our lives in terms of a fork where we look at how things could have gone different. There are big plot departures from things that have happened in my life and that creates the differences.
In terms of things that are the same, I think that there is a desire to want to be good. There is this desire to want closeness to faith in a real way. It is absolutely what I have been seeking my whole life and has always been at the core of what I do. At a certain point, I really wanted to dig into what part of my beliefs are based in what I believe and what parts are based on a performance. I had a lot of those tough conversations with myself and got to create this character who didn’t necessarily have those honest conversations right away.
AD: Often when new shows come out depicting communities that have been historically ignored by American media, there is a sense of pressure to represent the entire community as opposed to one person’s specific story. I’m curious if you feel that pressure when it comes to Muslim and Arab communities? Or are you able to ignore that?
RY: We very much block that out. We are aware of it and definitely feel it, but we also recognize that we have to put it to the side. The thing is the audience is in an unfair position. There are so many different people and experiences under the umbrella of Muslim and under the umbrella of Arab. In all of Western media, we are the only show genuinely going at such a large group of people and attempting to explore those issues honestly. If I’m an audience member and I’m not a guy who is a Muslim-American Arab that is struggling with his faith in a particular way and you told me this is all I had to represent me, then I’d be pissed.
I think the audience doesn’t get a lot of selection. I personally think there is so much to get from this show regardless of who you are, but it is a specific tone. This might not even be your brand of comedy. It’s an unfair position, but I can’t take on the weight of trying to make sure it checks every box because it would make a disturbingly bad product.
AD: No matter what your own personal faith is, I think that religion is one of the last true taboo subjects throughout millennial culture. When did you become comfortable exploring these themes in such a public way?
RY: When I moved to Los Angeles, it was the first time I didn’t live at home. I remember thinking that I really wanted to be a part of seeing Muslims onscreen in a nuanced way, but I didn’t know how it would happen. It was more in the abstract of not wanting us to be terrorists. But to actually talk about faith, which is a different in and of itself. I think what we as a show represent the most is the exploration of a believing millennial. We’re more representative of “believing millennials” than we are of Muslims in general.
It took me a while to realize that talking about that verb of believing and showing someone trying to hold onto their faith was a unique thing that I wanted to do. It took me moving away from my family and fasting Ramadan in the middle of LA. It took me doing stand-up at the Mosque and immediately following that with another set at the Laugh Factory at midnight. It was such a shock when I put it all together and realized that this was something I wanted to talk about more.
AD: Right away the second season takes on a much darker tone. What are you hoping to achieve with that in the second season?
RY: So much of the second season feels like a natural extension of our tone. I think the first season is very aspirational while the second season is very transformational. It goes from “Who am I? to “Oh, this is who I actually am.” When you’re faced with the reality of your actions, everything begins to feel different, and you become harder on yourself. It’s less hopeful. This season’s tone reflects what Ramy would feel after what happened in Cairo and not finding what he was looking for and instead getting further away from it. We wanted to dig into the reality of that.
AD: One of my favorite aspects of Ramy is that you aren’t afraid to pause his story and dive into these stand-alone stories that explore the rest of the ensemble. In fact, I think 40 percent of the second season doesn’t showcase Ramy at all. I wanted to know what inspired that? I don’t think very many other creatives would be comfortable doing that.
RY: I don’t want to say prefer, but in many ways I certainly like those stories just as much as the ones that center on Ramy. One of the reasons those stories pop in the way that they do is because of what we’re exploring with Ramy. Figuring out that balance is really fun to me. I’m really aware of when the audience will want to swirl into a different flavor. It’s fun racketing up tension with Ramy and then forcing the audience to explore a different character. I love all of them equally and being able to grant them all real estate is exciting. I take joy in that.
AD: The biggest surprise might have been in the stand-alone episode dedicated to Uncle Naseem (played by Laith Nakli) where we find out that he is actually living a closeted life as a gay man. Did you always know this where you would take his story?
RY: Looking generationally, not even just within Arab and Muslim culture, the conversations around sexuality are not nuanced. I’ve always said that when you are Muslim it’s hard enough to come out as straight. Throughout the first season, I often found myself asking what the Queer Muslim experience looked like and what would it look like in the tapestry of the show. It felt most organic to introduce it when it would fit one of our core characters. Towards the end of the first season, we really began to think about the uncle and this anger he was walking around with. I think it was like the second scene he’s in we see him saying something homophobic. Sometimes you are writing a character and you find yourself leaving breadcrumbs for yourself.
Part way through shooting the second season, I turned to my co-creators and said, “I think Uncle Naseem might be gay.” It was that moment where we were all like “Yeah, you know what, he really might be.” It’s really fun to pay attention to what an actor brings to the performance and what is happening in the story. It was exciting to watch all of it hit and then be able to bring it to life at the end of the second season. It’s something we wanted to do with care that I hope a lot of conversations can come out of. It’s a first chapter, and I think it will be interesting to also see people under the Muslim umbrella who are openly Queer represented as well.
AD: I can’t end the interview without asking about Mahershala Ali. The news that the two-time Oscar winner was joining the show quickly became the biggest piece of casting news this year. Where did you first meet him, and what was it like convincing him to sign on to the show?
RY: It was actually super organic. He reached out simply to say that he was another practicing Muslim in Hollywood and that he was excited to see this character adhere to his faith. It turned into us hanging out and me convincing him to come onto the show. It began as an idea for one or two episodes, but once we knew we wanted him to play the Sheikh, it quickly dominated the arc of the season.
AD: Is there any chance that we will see him and MaameYaa Boafo (who plays his daughter Zainab) return for the third season?
RY: I think that we are definitely excited to see more of that. We’re all hoping to make that a reality.
AD: We’ve been discussing just how expansive the Muslim and Arab experience in America is and how much left there is to explore. Is there anything in particular that you’re hoping to explore in the third season?
RY: There’s a lot, and even if you just look at our core characters, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. There is so much I want to dig into with Dena and Maysa. In a lot of ways, I feel similar to the comments that the best episodes are the ones that Ramy isn’t in! I love this family, and if I wanted the show to just be about me, I would have stuck to stand-up. This show is about putting my stand-up in other characters, and I get so much joy from that.
The second season of Ramy is available to stream on Hulu.