Ramy Youssef On Depicting “Anti-Blackness” In ‘Ramy’ Season 2: “There’s A Lot Of Work To Do”

'Ramy' creator Ramy Youssef
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

In its first season, Hulu comedy Ramy garnered widespread acclaim, striking a chord with its portrait of a first-generation American Muslim, his family and his politically-divided New Jersey community. Released in May, Season 2 resonated all the more powerfully, its themes speaking to events playing out on the world stage. “I think we’re in a time right now where there’s a lack of compassion and humanity,” says creator, director and star Ramy Youssef, “so to have that, even just on the most basic level, is really important, and it obviously exists in this show in a very pronounced way.”

DEADLINE: How do you think Ramy resonates with the world we’re living in now?

YOUSSEF: Well, I think there’s a few fronts. On one front, just by the simple existence of Sheikh Ali and Zainab, I think we have two awesome Black characters that really speak to the Muslim experience, in a way that is exciting to me. That’s something that I think, in many ways, speaks to [our times].

Ramy Youssef and Mahershala Ali in 'Ramy'

I think there’s also this element of looking at anti-Blackness, in even communities of diversity. It’s like, this is a Muslim community, a community that’s been maligned in many different ways, but they have anti-Blackness, too. I think looking at that, and really analyzing that, we can’t simplify the conversation, and just make it this binary of black-and-white, literally. There’s a lot of work to do, and that’s something that we do address on the show this season.

DEADLINE: Season 2 also touches on peaceful protesting, which obviously couldn’t be more relevant right now—though you shot the season last year.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s been a crazy thing that all these protests are breaking out, and then some of the key imagery that really starts off the season is protests. We obviously had no idea that would happen [in real life]. We even have a joke about this Sheikh mentioning white people in Minnesota that we never, ever could have imagined would have resonance. So, it’s definitely been a couple of strange instances of synchronicity that no one could have expected.

DEADLINE: At its heart, Ramy seems to be a show about awkward conversations, suggesting that rather than running away from these exchanges, we should participate in them openly. In this way, perhaps, we might learn, grow, and become better people.

YOUSSEF: I do think that’s a big part of it, because I think really what we’re doing is, we’re kind of catching people at their vulnerability, right? Vulnerability is always going to be awkward, and I think part of why that happens in this show is because we’re looking at things that people don’t usually talk about, but people really care a lot about. We’re looking at faith, and sex, and these are really intimate things that are not talked about as openly as you would want them to. So, I definitely resonate with that.

Ramy Youssef in 'Ramy'

I think ‘awkward comedy’ is a thing, in a sense, but really genuine awkwardness has to come out of showing stuff that you don’t want to show, in a real way. It’s like, we don’t build this show on the brand of awkward comedy. I think it’s actually genuinely awkward, because of what we get into, and I think that’s what excites me with the show. It’s cool to be able to genuinely earn the word ‘awkward.’

DEADLINE: What were your initial thoughts, in terms of a direction for Season 2?

RAMY YOUSSEF: I felt like it’s always a tricky balance, doing a second season, because you want to keep the elements that work, but you also need to change things up, because you don’t want it to get repetitive. I felt like a lot of Season 1 was very aspirational for my character—him trying to figure out who he is—and we felt like Season 2, as opposed to being aspirational, should be a bit more transformational. We should see him with the reality of who he is, realizing that there’s things he needs to change.

I think the idea of us taking him on this journey of self-discovery [in Season 1] that takes him to Cairo, we kind of felt like, “Well, we’re probably not going to be able to top that.” [Laughs] That’s such an epic arc, for him to go do that. So now, what we really are interested in is breaking down his actions, and looking at him in a realer way than we ever did in Season 1. For us, [it was] really trying to see him get closer to his faith, kind of be transformed by it, and obviously, that’s really heightened with the relationship that we have, with him and Sheikh Ali.

DEADLINE: Mahershala Ali is an exceptional addition to the ensemble this season, as Sheikh Ali. What inspired you to write his part? 

Mahershala Ali in 'Ramy'

YOUSSEF: The idea to have this sheikh character is something we had always planned. There was actually even an idea of it being a sheikh that Ramy met in Egypt, but then we pivoted it a bit to, “Well, maybe this could happen at the end of Season 2.” Then, organically, I just started talking with Mahershala, who was a fan of Season 1. As a practicing Muslim himself, he really just appreciated the story, and appreciated seeing faith portrayed the way that it was on our show.

So, it became a thing where pretty quickly, I realized he would be interested in being involved. Then, we pivoted up, making this plot line more of our main plot for the season. We really felt like that benefited the show, because it was where we were headed anyway. So, it was exciting for us to be able to do it quicker.

DEADLINE: Ramy always gives as much focus to your character’s family members, as it gives to Ramy himself. Why has it been important to bring their stories to the forefront?

YOUSSEF: I’m just so inspired by the actors who play them. I mean, they’re so amazing. And it’s also like my show, even though it’s called Ramy, I’ve always really viewed it as an ensemble show. I think in terms of solo perspective, that’s something I can always do in stand-up. If I’m going into a narrative show, I want to do things that I can only do in that format. So obviously, the idea of branching out into other characters was a priority from the jump.

I think even the network was a little hesitant, in Season 1, of a show called Ramy, where we had three episodes that I’m not in, and then they see how successful those are, and how they really inform what’s going on. I just have a lot of fun writing for my mother; I have a lot of fun writing for my sister. It’s just really exciting, in the end, and it rounds out the world in a way that I really enjoy.

DEADLINE: Your TV mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), has such a unique voice and personality. Like every character in the show, she’s well intentioned, yet gets herself in so much trouble.

Hiam Abbass in 'Ramy'

YOUSSEF: Yeah. I feel like the mother is very similar to Ramy, where she’s just saying what she wants to say, and doing what she wants to do. So, writing for [that dynamic between] mother and son is really exciting for me. Just as a first-generation immigrant kid, I think so much of our lives, we really think about what our parents gave up, and what our parents are going through. So, to be able to highlight the parents, in the way that we do on this show, is really important to me.

DEADLINE: Season 2 features some exciting new additions to the cast, including Mia Khalifa—the Lebanese-American former porn star—and actress MaameYaa Boafo, who plays the Sheikh’s daughter, Zainab. What did they bring to the show?

YOUSSEF: This season, we talk about porn addiction, in a way that I feel hasn’t really been explored in a contemporary sense, for someone the age of this character. So, it was really cool to bring in probably one of the most known people in porn, who also happens to have an intersection with dialogue around Muslim representation. Oddly enough, for a while, Mia Khalifa has been a step up of Muslim presentation from terrorism, in terms of what people are seeing. She’s been in the spotlight in very, very odd ways, but getting to have dialogue with her, and getting to have a character like hers involved just felt like very much our show—to try and do something that really just makes us laugh. But also, I think she makes some cool points, and it was really a thoughtful portrayal on her part.

Then, to have the Zainab character was really exciting for us, because I think part of what we really love doing on the show is showing spectrums of where people are at with their faith. So, to have someone like her, who’s such a great beacon of being dedicated to faith, and who really stands up for what she believes in, and the unlikely pairing of her and Ramy was an exciting direction for us. I think it put a different shade on Ramy’s ambitions, seeing a different kind of love for him, so we really enjoyed that, and I think the perspective of getting to have a character like Zainab shapes the world in a really cool way.

DEADLINE: One of Ramy’s signatures, as a series, is the list of incredibly specific and surreal scenarios in which it places its protagonist. In the writers’ room, how do these tend to come up?

YOUSSEF: It really is like: Can we make ourselves laugh? I mean, we’re thinking about these concepts all day, so to be able to genuinely laugh at something is almost a feat in and of itself. I think it’s about having a room of collaborators, where it’s like, “Man, I really love everyone’s taste.” So, when we’re all rolling over something, it’s usually something that hits a specific pocket.

Steve Way in 'Ramy'

I think so much, with our show, I want to make sure that we’re not resting on the fact that we’re the first to touch some of these topics. I want to make sure that we’re really doing it in our own voice. I don’t want to get caught up in Capital-R representation, where it’s like, “Whoa, we were able to put a topic on screen that hadn’t been put on screen.” That’s not really enough for me, because I want this to be something that continues to cut through. I’d love to look back on my show in 10 years and still feel like, “Oh, we put out some cool premises—not just because we were the first ones to do it, but because we had an actual take on it.”

So, that’s really important for me, making sure that it lives in those spaces where it’s exciting. There’s so much content that I just feel like it’s disrespectful if you can’t bring something to the table that people haven’t seen before, in a cool way. That’s a waste of time.

DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges in making Season 2?

YOUSSEF: There was a level of exhaustion, just because we didn’t stop between Seasons 1 and 2. I knew there would be more eyes, not just because it was the second season, but also with Mahershala. So, there’s that element of it, where you kind of know, “Okay, we want to make sure that we’re really growing the character.” It was nice to put plot on the show, when we didn’t have as much plot last season. It was certainly there, but I think this season’s definitely more plot driven, and I feel like it’s to the benefit of the characters. So, I think balancing all those things, and officially doing a lot more of the directing, and a lot more of pretty much everything, was exciting. It’s just a matter of endurance.

DEADLINE: Were there specific highlights for you, from this latest go-round?

YOUSSEF: Just to have a guy like Mahershala come on set and have it be such a seamless experience that heightened the show was so exciting, that we were able to make it work. I think so many times, you get a guest star on a TV show, and it just kind of goes south because you can tell it was stunt casting for viewers. But to have somebody come on who’s really just part of that world was really cool.

Ramy Youssef and MaameYaa Boafo in 'Ramy'

The first scene that we had between Ramy and the Sheikh, that was really a special day, because it established so much of the chemistry that was going to be the backbone of the season. Having that scene work, and feel the way that it did when we shot it, was really exciting to all of us, Mahershala included.

DEADLINE: Where are you at, in terms of thinking about a third season?

YOUSSEF: Oh, I think about it every day. We’re waiting to get the green light on it, but I’m really excited to keep going. I don’t think when I started this show, I knew where it would take me, and there was something about making this season where I really had this feeling of, “We’re just getting started.”  I look at all the characters that we have, and I really feel like we have a lot of room to play with them, and really explore them, and get into what they’re doing.

DEADLINE: At the end of Season 2, Ramy’s entire world has fallen apart. Where do you see the series going in future seasons? What do you think Ramy needs to go through, in order to become the person he really wants to be?

YOUSSEF: I think we’re going to watch Ramy figure out what it is that he actually believes. I think so much of his approach to faith has been, in some ways, using it as a cover, not really digging into a lot of the issues that he does have. And pulling the curtain back on him the way that we did is really important to me, because I really am interested in breaking down why people believe what they believe, why people do what they do. I think this season, he in some ways uses the Sheikh and Zainab as a bit of a crutch, and it’s exciting to see him step out of that.

DEADLINE: This past year, you also released a comedy special, titled Ramy Youssef: Feelings. What did you enjoy about putting that together?

YOUSSEF: The special was very exciting to me because stand-up is such at the backbone of what this show is. Talking to people about things that are happening, and being in a room with people, is probably one of my favorite things, so there’s an element of that that the show can never do.

It was really exciting for me to do that special because a lot of it was material that I’d had for seven years. Then, a lot of it was material that I had for maybe one year, and some of it, I wrote the week of. So, to be able to mix all those things and have an experience with the people there, and be able to capture it was really exciting.

In some ways, it ended up being a little bit of a companion piece with the show, because you can kind of see where a lot of the themes of the show came from. But again, it kind of does something different. My favorite part of stand-up’s always going to be it being live.

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2020/06/ramy-creator-ramy-youssef-mahershala-ali-hulu-interview-news-1202955850/