Ramy Youssef is ready to spark more 'uncomfortable' conversations with Ramy season 2
"My show is a show that people have an opinion about," Youssef says of his Golden Globe-winning Hulu series.
Ramy Youssef and a group of rabbis walk into a restaurant…
Just a year ago, the 29-year-old creator, writer, director, and star of Hulu's Ramy could have never guessed the situations he'd soon find himself in. While season 1 may have come as a pleasant surprise, the stakes have been raised for season 2 thanks to Youssef's Golden Globe win and the addition of two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.
Despite strong reviews, Ramy premiered last April very much under the radar as a truly one-of-a-kind series. There was nothing flashy, this wasn't another superhero series, and it didn't feature a movie star making the jump to TV. Instead, it followed a first-generation Muslim American living in New Jersey and struggling to balance his faith and millennial lifestyle. As for Youssef, who plays the titular Ramy, he might have been best known for his supporting turn on Nick at Nite's Scott Baio comedy See Dad Run.
Well, a lot can change in a year.
Now Youssef has a Golden Globe, a production deal with tastemaker A24, multiple shows in development, and Blade by his side. As the Ramy team was gearing up for season 2, Youssef got word that Ali, who converted to Islam in 2000, wanted to talk. Their call ended with the Moonlight and Green Book star signing on for a substantial role in Ramy. For Youssef, it was a coup. For Ali, it was "awe-inspiring" to have a front row seat to watch a "phenomenal talent" at work.
"Ramy works in such a free way, and he's just alive and in his instincts," Ali tells EW of Youssef. "We need to tell stories specific to the Muslim experience, and I think Ramy's contribution is really powerful."
Ahead of Ramy's return to Hulu on Friday, EW had a lengthy chat with Youssef about preparing for a big cry this summer, facing criticism in his own community, and putting even more on his own shoulders for season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I just got done talking to Mahershala, and we chatted about life for 10 minutes or so before the interview actually started. I think we were both just excited to talk to other humans.
RAMY YOUSSEF: [Laughs] Isn't he the best dude?
He seems like it. I'm sure it was a blast to get to work with him.
It really was. It was a dream scenario, of someone like him showing up on set. Because you're like, "Okay, two-time Oscar winner, super-successful dude, what's going to happen?" And then you're like, "Oh, okay, he's like sweeter than anyone on this set." It's like a dream come true.
It's been a year since season 1 premiered…
Exactly. Literally, I think last Friday was one year since season 1 premiered.
So what have the last 365 or so days been like for you? Kind of a whirlwind? You were making the show under the radar and then all of a sudden you're winning a Golden Globe and casting a two-time Oscar winner who is also now Blade.
It hasn't sunk in yet. I almost feel like I'm going to cry a bunch this summer, because I didn't stop at all. Like, we had a one-week gap between season 1 airing and then gearing up for season 2. And I kind of even spent that gap doing press for the show and press for my special. I think we were released April 19 and then first week of May we were like, "Okay, let's get our writers' room together and let's go make season 2." It's really been nonstop, and so it hasn't all sunk in. But even you framing it like that, I think, "Oh yeah, it's been kind of wild." But all these things happen in such small moments. I'm doing so much on the show, like this year I directed four of them and I'm writing all of them with my room, so you kind of don't have time to think about what's happening. So I'm excited to get this one out there and then just like chill for a second, even if it's just two weeks instead of one week. [Laughs] But it's definitely been a rush.
Was there a moment when you realized, "Oh, people are watching and this is a big deal"?
When the show came out I was hearing from people that I never thought I would. I got an email from this guy in Nebraska, like, "I'm an evangelical Christian, and I am Ramy." I was like, "What?! What's this dude in Nebraska doing watching my show?" I really couldn't believe it. And it was things like that where I was like, "Oh, this is wild," and like seeing how many people not just in this country but in like Egypt were watching. I think a big moment for me and my family was Egypt's reaction to the Globe. It was national news, like on all the big late-night shows and newspapers. Like it was a thing. I think something like that where my relatives there are calling me, that was even bigger than getting it here. Because here you feel like you're with Hollywood people and you're like, "Okay, cool, Hollywood has seen the show." But then when my aunt is calling me from Cairo, that's kind of next-level for my mind.
I remember watching at our office and I literally screamed, I was so excited and surprised. The Globes are often so off-the-wall with their winners, but sometimes in cool ways. It's a weird balance, so that was fun to see.
It was so dope.
You mention getting emails from evangelical Christians in Nebraska. Since the release of the show, have you found yourself having productive conversations about religion and your beliefs and the Muslim American experience that maybe you wouldn't previously have had?
Absolutely. I was sitting at a restaurant in New York and it was one of those restaurants where tables are right next to each other, and I was actually next to a communal table and it was a table of young rabbis. This woman who was a young rabbi was like, "Sorry, I've just got to tell you, we've all been watching your show. Like everyone we're studying with is obsessed." And I ended up having dinner with them. It turned into this two-hour night of talking about things that I was so excited to get to talk through. So I feel very fortunate because I think a lot of times you star in something or you're in something and people know you from it, and it's cool to be known from something that inspires those kinds of conversations. It's not like people know me from a Marvel movie; it's more like if you know me, you kind of want to have this conversation because you watch the show, and you're really only going to get through the show if that is of interest to you. So it kind of draws a certain energy and certain types of conversations that I'm really grateful for, and that is a thing that I never could have really thought about in advance. But it makes me really thankful.
People probably feel like they know you much more than if you were in a Marvel movie. The show is literally called Ramy, and you're Ramy.
Oh, totally. It very much is one of those things where people are like, "Oh, I know you." And the weird thing is it's a fictionalized version of me, but also they do kind of know me because you know what I care about. Even if those things didn't happen to me, they certainly are things that I care about and I'm taking the time to talk about.
You mention the reaction after the Globes, but overall what has been the feedback from people in your immediate community, whether it be your family or people you often come into contact with? I'm sure the younger generation loves the show and sees some of themselves in it, whereas maybe it's a little more controversial to an older generation.
Yeah, it's really funny, man. My show is a show that people have an opinion about. Because I hear from various members of my community who don't like it and think there's too much sex and all of these things that I shouldn't be talking about, but when they're critiquing the show they're referencing like, "And then, in episode 10…" And I'm like, "Whoa, you made it to the finale?" That's crazy that you would have such a problem with this and then yet watch all of it. It's funny because we don't get stats on who watches the show or numbers, but we do get completion rates and we have a high completion rate — like, people watch it. If they start it, they tend to finish it, and that's what really cool about what the discourse has been, because I've truly heard both sides of it but people are still engaged, and that's kind of what I wanted the show to do. I wanted it to spark conversations that we're not having, and the nature of conversations we're not having is they're uncomfortable, that's why we're not having them. And season 2 is going to do that even more, and I think that's great. So I love it all.
Is there something that has come out of the show that you're most proud of?
I feel really proud when people say, "[Ramy] made me think about my spiritual practice and want to connect to it more." And I've heard that from Muslims and non-Muslims. I think critiques from people who might be on the "conservative end" is that they might think that this is something that is bad for people of faith or something like that, but I really disagree. Because I think if your faith is strong, then a TV show certainly shouldn't sway it. It's f—ing TV. And if you are kind of on the fence to watch something that is openly exploring the wrestling match, I think it hopefully just opens up more thoughtful dialogue, whether that be with other people or with yourself, whatever it might be. That to me means a lot more than anything else.
Going into season 2, did you have anything specific you wanted to accomplish?
I just wanted to put the Ramy character in much more of a pressure cooker. And I think really wanting to put that story on him, even myself as a performer, I wanted to carry more plot. Season 1 certainly has a plot, but it's more vignette-y. So we knew going in that we wanted to build some more story and we wanted to find out more about our characters and their secrets and what's going on with them. And I knew I wanted to do a story with a sheikh. But to be honest with you, I was really thinking about introducing it towards the end of season 2 and going into a potential season 3 — and then Mahershala called. We had been writing for a month, and Mahershala called me and I went back to the room and was like, "So, I think we got to go in a different direction." [Laughs] It became very clear. I had this amazing hourlong phone call with him and he was so thoughtful about the show and the things that he really liked about it, and then it just kind of felt like he left the meeting like, "Whatever you need me to do, I'm in," which is like totally unexpected. It was amazing to get to go in this direction with him.
Talking to him, even he seemed surprised by his casting and the length of arc. Like he was just calling to tell you how much he liked the show!
I know. It started with me being like "one or two," and at a certain point I was like, "How about six?" [Laughs] We also did this in like no time. We were with him for like two and a half weeks. The way we shot this season is one of the craziest things I've ever done. It truly was madness, actual madness — in the best ways, because it was so fun. But I couldn't have done it with anyone who wasn't of the composure of him. Not only his caliber as an actor, but also his disposition as a person. You can't do the kind of work that we were doing if that person isn't just an amazing person, because it's so intimate, it's comedy, I'm dictating a lot of it, and he trusted me. That kind of collaboration for two people who don't know each other that well, I'm really amazed by it. It speaks to just how amazing this dude is, to meet someone who is this Academy Award winner two times over and walks onto the set of a sophomore show and says, "What do you want me to do?" It's really rare.
What can you say about the relationship between Ramy and Sheikh Ali, and what it means for season 2?
Season 1 was very hypothetical and asking questions, and I think season 2 puts Ramy in this relationship where he gets to put his faith into practice in a real way — and test it in a real way. The level of responsibility and accountability that comes from that is really cool, and Ramy having a teacher is something that I think really adds to the pressure cooker of when he does mess up. Getting to show a sheikh and religious leader who feels like a real human was really important to me. Someone who is not holier than thou, someone who is not a cult leader, someone who is not cartoonish, and someone who is just a really well-rounded person who has his ways and a compassion and a temper. I just wanted it to be like a real human. In one of my favorite bits of it, he says, "As my teacher once told me, I don't know." Just hearing someone in that situation and position say, "I don't know," is so powerful to me. Adding that kind of humanity to this type of character is something that I haven't seen, and it makes me excited to get to explore it.
With the critical success of the first season, did you feel like you had even more freedom or creative license? I mean, when you have Osama Bin Laden appear in a dream sequence in your fourth episode, you're certainly not lacking for confidence. And yet, in the episodes I've seen so far, it really seems like you're even going up a level in that sense.
It gives you more confidence to be like, "Okay, I'm going to continue to trust what I like and what I don't like and to just delve further into that." I think our relationship with the network is way easier… I mean, Hulu has been great from the jump, but I think we're even more aligned. You can read scripts all day, but there's still debate to how those scripts are going to play out, and I felt like with season 2 just from the jump there was a much more immediate understanding of what our tone was when a script was being read. So everyone was on the same page and it reflects on the feedback, and I think that hopefully produces even more confident work and something that feels more cohesive.
Last season, you had episodes that you were barely in and instead focused on Ramy's mother, Maysa [Hiam Abbass], and sister, Dena [May Calamawy], and there will be more of that in season 2. For you, has it been a real focus to make sure you're spotlighting different people and different versions of the Muslim American experience?
Yeah, totally. I think season 1 it was kind of wild when between the middle school episode and the mom episode and the sister episode, I remember that being an example of the network at first not being sure; they were like, "This show is called Ramy and you're not going to be in this many episodes like right off the bat?" And then this season it was just like a no-brainer. To me, it's really important because in order to know someone you need to know the people who are around them. This is a show that is always going to be about my character, but it's really nice to get these slices and these spotlights. So we did it again this year with the mom, with the uncle, we have another one with my sister, Dena, and we have an episode that delves a little bit more into the father; it's not a full spotlight but it definitely does follow him a bit more than we've ever seen. That stuff to me is just really crucial, it helps make this family more well-rounded. There's always tension around the word "Muslim American" because it just means so many things. Most Muslims in this country are black, and this season we have black Muslim characters, but even in this show we don't have the real estate to really get into their issues and their specific lens, like it's still through the lens of Ramy. But it's like, okay, if we're looking at this Arab Muslim family from New Jersey that is Egyptian, yeah, let's make sure that we get a couple different looks at it.
You mention that there are so many different versions of what a Muslim American is, but do you ever feel any pressure with the show in the sense that you're one of the few — if not the only one — carrying the torch for Muslim Americans in pop culture? Obviously that's not fair, because I'd imagine like a white Christian surely wouldn't feel that same thing.
The pressure is certainly there and exists. But I don't create from wanting to fulfill that pressure — because that is an impossible task. Like you said about the show being one of the few, if not the one right now, just by design it's built to be criticized, and is also built to be enjoyed. So it's both of those things. It's the nature of the thing at this point in time, and I'm okay with that. And I'm fine with just sticking to my lane and sticking to the things that I want to explore because I think a lot of the criticism comes from just what was unexplored. I want to support a black Muslim creator in really creating a vision of a black Muslim show, but that's something that I can't really do on my show because I'm not that. I have a responsibility to do what I know to the best of my ability. I can delve into other things slightly, but I don't want to disrespect those things by trying to take authority over telling that story. So I'm in a situation where like, it's okay, it's okay for that pressure to exist, it's okay for that pressure to even turn into criticism or whatever it might turn into, that's fine, because I think by just focusing on what I know I can do helps make this show hopefully feel more timeless than, "Oh, okay, they were trying to check all those boxes for 2020." I never want to feel like we're just trying to check boxes and talk about everything, because that would be irresponsible, and just be bad TV.
We talked a bit about season 2, but how would you generally describe what people can expect from these new episodes?
Season 1 is very much "Who am I?" and season 2 is kind of reckoning with who he actually is, and it's Ramy really dealing with what I think is intimacy issues. There's this level of sexual intimacy and there's also this intimacy with God, so we're meeting him at a very intimate place and watching him kind of wrestle there. It's very much the same thing with all of the family members. So I just think it's more intimate and more spiritual.