The protagonist of Hulu’s Ramy might be the poster boy for millennial ennui, but behind the scenes, the creator of Ramy is boldly paving the path he wants to walk.
Ramy Youssef, the 29-year-old Golden Globe-winning writer, director, producer and star of his own comedy series, wears many hats behind the scenes while also sharing on-screen misadventures with a stellar ensemble that includes Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and former porn star Mia Khalifa in season two.
After the first season of Ramy took its protagonist on a journey of self-discovery, the second season dives deep into his quest to better himself. Ramy turns further towards his religion, finding an aspirational path in Sufism and Sheikh Malik (played by Ali) and tries to reassess his own thoughts and consumption of sexuality after his trip to Egypt left him deeply conflicted.
Youssef describes how Ramy explores different forms of sexuality, and continues to break societal and cultural taboos through authenticity and comedy.
Q: After season one, where did you want to take Ramy to in the second season and what were some of the key lessons that you wanted him to learn?
A: I don’t know how much he learns. I think he’s trying to hide, and I wanted to really watch him go through it and have the pressure to live up to how he thinks he should be and how he wants to be. Season two was very much about creating a story where we could more candidly see him strive to live up to what he wants for his entire self and to fulfill his faith and the duties of his faith. The arc of watching him do that and once again come up short, it was really exciting to put him through that and exciting to see where he goes next. What’s exciting about television is that it’s incomplete, it’s not a movie, it gets the opportunity to keep expanding. It’s like getting to the end of a book chapter and being like, what’s the book about? Gotta read the next chapter, and I think TV is very much like that too, and it was all about how to craft the right chapter for this character. Season one was very much about him being aspirational, and then season two’s chapter was about being transformational and trying to change.
Q: You’re writing, directing, producing, and starring in your own show. What’s the experience like for you juggling all these roles, both in front of and behind the camera?
A: It felt like a natural extension on a level, but you also just continue to learn more about being a leader, you want to make sure everyone on set feels safe and comfortable and has clarity about what they’re meant to do, and so I definitely learned a lot about putting together a show. It felt, on many levels, a natural extension of what I’ve been doing and want to continue to do, I’ve been making things since I was 15. I sometimes think how we tell stand up jokes at an open mic in front of 10 people and then two years later, you’re telling that joke on national TV; the joke hasn’t changed but the audience has, and in many ways, that’s how being on a set is – I’m running around doing things, but now I don’t have to pick up the actors and pick up their lunch and write it and direct it, so it’s a huge sense of gratefulness where this is way more reined in than it used to be.
Q: How did Mahershala Ali come to be involved as Sheikh Malik?
A: The idea of having a Sheikh was something we were hoping to achieve towards the end of the second season and we were trying to think who would play this character, and then Mahershala reached out after seeing the first season. He just reached out on the energy of ‘I’m a practicing Muslim’ and he just really appreciated what we were doing, he reached out on a level of friendship and then it quickly, organically became about wondering whether he’d be in one or two episodes and he said yes, and then it kept turning into more.
Q: How were you able to contrast Ramy with what Mahershala brings so uniquely to the screen?
A: Mahershala is what Ramy wants to be, and to have that in proximity to Ramy, it gives so much clarity to the show. Ramy wants to be a good practicing Muslim, he really wants to step into this in a meaningful way and he gets to see what that looks like, and he also gets to see how far Sheikh Malik takes from that. So to have someone like him playing with the gravity and the impact that he does was really important because I’ve always wanted to see a character who really embodies this idea of being transparent about their faith. We learn that the Sheikh converted and it changed his life for the better, and I always wanted to see that on TV in a way that felt human, to see a religious leader that didn’t have this dichotomy, like ‘he’s a religious leader, here’s a crazy contraction.’ I don’t want him to be contradictory, I wanted to have a Muslim character that is Muslim and he loves being Muslim and he’s still complicated and he’s still interesting to watch. I don’t know who else could have done it, and something I really love about the show is that I can’t imagine anyone else playing these characters.
Q: The women in Ramy’s life seem to be a north star for him. How does his relationship with his mom, his sister and in this season, Zainab, affect his trajectory?
A: Ramy’s relationship with Zainab [MaameYaa Boafo] is certainly the relationship he always dreamed of but has been too afraid to step into. She really enters his life in this moment where he’s taking all these steps to become a better person and in the same way that Sheikh Ali is, Zainab is also a really amazing example of what I believe Muslims to be, which is she’s super steadfast in her faith but she’s also really open minded, so when Ramy comes to her and he has these flaws, she sees his intentions and that to me is an embodiment of her faith, where it’s like she can see this person wants to be a higher version of themselves and they really believe and embrace that, and she doesn’t have judgement. But she’s not perfect, she also has her goals, she reacts to Dennis being hired so we see her humanity, it’s someone who’s following her faith but also has a lot facets to them and you see them in different shades, and to have someone like that in Ramy’s life is very much like a north star.
I think he has a different relationship with his mom and sister. There’s obviously sibling contentiousness that exists with Dena [May Calamawy] but also, Ramy really cares for his sister and he wants her to have autonomy, he wants to figure out what she wants but also, he doesn’t mind that he’s treated better than her and then he definitely wallows in that a little bit. With Dena, we kind of see who Ramy wants to be and he tries to live up to that. With his mom Maysa [Hiam Abbass], he gets to see who he is much more clearly, which is like, he’s kind of a little shit and he can be difficult and egotistical, and those things come out with the dynamic. I think with the family, you’re always more of who you actually are because it pulls you back to that place, they’re the people who you don’t choose and so you’re less of the image you want to put forward because they know everything about you, or they think they know everything about you, and I think seeing that difference puts even more interesting shades on everyone.
Q: You and Steve Way share a particularly intense scene this season in which your character has to help Steve’s character masturbate in order to relieve the pain he feels. [Read our interview with Steve Way here]. Why did you feel it was important to have that moment between the two friends?
A: It informed a lot of how Ramy views sexuality, because so much of this season, from Ramy’s porn addiction to his fantasy about Zainab and what that relationship could be, and Ramy’s escape into being a good Muslim, Ramy doesn’t have a clear grasp on what love should look like in that shape and what those things should be. This is really about the love between Ramy and Steve, but I think the really crucial point in that interaction where Steve has a real pain that he has to deal with and he just wants to go do it at a strip club or wants an escort, and Ramy’s so morally opposed that he’s like, “maybe you should get on Tinder and find somebody,” and Steve’s just like, “why would I want to use someone, I’m not going to go on Tinder just to use somebody, I’m not you.”
Steve is such a beacon of reality, he beams reality in this way, a reality that Ramy is not aware of himself. Ramy needs all this guidance and all these maps, and Steve can’t afford to have those things, and so to have them together, they both feel like outsiders in their own right, and I think they’re both honest with each other in certain ways but it felt important to further explore through Steve about what is sexual agency, and what is right and wrong, it’s the perfect mess for the both of them to be in that would really bring up each of their issues with the other. Steve is so opposed to Ramy’s spirituality that if Steve had just let Ramy pray, then he could have gotten help from a sex worker instead of having to go through that with Ramy, and Ramy is so caught up in saying things are haram and things are sin, he ends up having to do something he really didn’t want to do. But ultimately, he did do that for Steve and Steve did let him do that and that might be the truest act of love that exists on the show, it’s so genuine.
Q: Homosexuality is often taboo in Muslim culture, and exploring that this season through Uncle Naseem [Laith Nakli], the perennial bachelor who preens himself on his masculinity, what did you want to convey?
A: This is something that’s taboo in a lot of cultures, and culturally, it’s not something America is used to as a whole, if you look at America as a whole. He’s trapped in these ideas of what it means to be a man and so much of this show is a deconstruction of masculinity, it’s a show that I think pretty clearly takes that point of view, and not to say we don’t talk about femininity and talk about women, I do know our strong suit is breaking down these men and I think it’s really important for the discourse and it’s something I focus on a lot because it’s what I know intimately. The idea of the guy who is so projected in masculinity, the first time he’s in the series, he’s saying homophobic things, he can’t reckon with what his desires are and can’t reckon with who he actually is, he’s just hiding. We talk so much about sexuality, we don’t want to skirt away from talking about different types of love, different avenues, so in season one we had a hint that this might be who he is, and then we really dug into it, we were like, how organic of a fit and how many people there are who live lives like that, and so it became very clear to us that seeing this window, this snapshot of who he is was important to highlight.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced this season?
A: The biggest challenge was really juggling all of it. We cross-shot this season, so we were shooting different chunks of many episodes at the same time and often shooting many in one day and that’s what happened when you’re [an indie] budget show.
I think the scenes with Mahershala were the most emotionally draining because they were so connected to different types of pain that I’ve felt and to questions that I’ve had – it doesn’t exactly reflect my real life but emotionally, there’s elements of different types of things that I’ve felt and Mahershala is also this character that he strives to be. There’s such a level of emotion and connectivity there that I would just be exhausted after doing a big scene with him, we both would be, but in a really satisfying way. Those scenes would take everything out of you.
I think the scenes with Steve in the hotel room were probably the most surreal to shoot for me, this hadn’t really been shown before in this way because Steve is so unique and to be able to put something out like this with him – we’ve known each other since middle school, so to find ourselves close to 20 years later, on set of this TV show getting to do something pretty wild, that was the one scene where everyone on the crew was like, ‘I can’t believe we shot that.’ It was very surreal, so that was a big moment for me.