It’s safe to say that Ramy Youssef – the Egyptian-American comedian, writer and director – has become one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities. He rose to prominence shortly after the release of the hit Hulu series, Ramy, loosely based on his life, starring Youssef as the titular character. The series, which managed to break some stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, has earned a Golden Globe Award and two Emmy nominations for acting and directing. To eniGma’s good fortune, Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata and Senior Editorial Coordinator Mohamed Hesham successfully arranged a fun and frank Zoom video call with this breakthrough star taking Hollywood by storm and making Egyptians proud. Here, Hesham chronicles this memorable interaction.
It seems that almost in the blink of an eye, Ramy Youssef went from being the “other Egyptian-American Ramy” in Hollywood – the first being Rami Malek – to a critically acclaimed star in his own right. While that alone was enough of a reason to choose him to be our eniGma cover star, another was the fact that he singlehandedly managed to change the well-entrenched Hollywood misperceptions surrounding Arabs and Muslims. It also struck us as ironic that today Hollywood is applauding Ramy’s depiction of an Arab American’s ‘normal’ life as a daring undertaking.
Our interview with the Egyptian Hollywood star couldn’t have come at a better time, given that Youssef had recently earned two Emmy nominations for his show, for Best Actor and for Best Director in a Comedy Series. We had scheduled the interview weeks before, so this came as a pleasant development that added to the significance of our interview. While Youssef himself was obviously elated with these nominations, with his signature cap on his head and a cup of Starbucks coffee in his hand, he still came across as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. As he sipped his coffee in between his answers or played around with his straw when he was not sipping it, Youssef personified the nonchalant Ramy that we were used to seeing on screen.
Youssef’s face seemed to light up when we first introduced ourselves to him. My first name ‘Mohamed,’ which is obviously not so common in the US, but more or less applies to 99 percent of Egypt’s male population, seemed to have made him feel at home somehow. Yasmine Shihata, our Editor-in-Chief, also started out by acknowledging her own similar experiences growing up as an Egyptian in the U.S. herself. This clearly helped Youssef feel at ease and he opened up to us from the get-go.
“I always felt that my parents were kind of open-minded, but you just had to open that door with them. I think we definitely had one of those childhoods, where although we lived in New Jersey, home was always in Cairo. My parents always appreciated the side of me that wanted to do filmmaking and comedy, but they viewed it as just a hobby. It took them a while to come to terms with my actually moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting,” says Youssef as he recalls growing up in New Jersey.
Youssef began acting professionally as a teenager, on the Nickelodeon sitcom See Dad Run. He later got to further showcase his acting chops with guest stints on different titles, including Mr. Robot. He then went on to find his comedic voice doing standup sets as well as appearances, on talk shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Eventually, he got his own HBO standup special around the same time that he finally got his own show, aptly titled Ramy, on Hulu, where he got to explore his writing and directing aspirations and really tap deeply into his creative side.
Surprisingly, Youssef says that convincing a big online streaming service like Hulu to carry his progressive and thought-provoking show wasn’t as hard as one would expect it to be. “I think people were ready, by the time I went for it. I’ve been in the industry for over 10 years and I’ve seen it change. When I first started out, if your name was Waleed, you would change it to Wallis to blend in,” he explains, adding with a laugh, “Now, we’re in an era where diversity is being celebrated so much so, that the harder your name is to pronounce the cooler you are,” alluding to the current popularity of the Benedict Cumberbatch-es and Timothée Chalamets of Hollywood. “So, I’ve seen that shift happen. By the time I pitched my show, the world was ready for us. It just took a lot of hatred, stereotyping and unfortunate behaviour to finally get Hollywood to wake up,” he adds on a serious note.
While his life as an Egyptian Muslim living in New Jersey may have things in common with his character’s experiences on the show, Youssef affirms that there are some big differences between him and his Golden Globe winning role. “We mainly try to focus on emotional truth. The show is less of a biography and more about things that I care to explore. I like to view the Ramy on the show as what my life would’ve looked like if I didn’t have a creative passion, and if my family was less communicative,” he explains. “I think it’s an alternate version of me, showing mistakes I could see myself making. It’s almost like this character is a much more ego-driven version of me. In some way, he’s the version of yourself that you are afraid of becoming,” he adds.
In addition to breaking stereotypes, the brilliance of the show’s main plot and theme, seems also to be the result of another powerful force that is driving Youssef. “A lot of stories that I’ve seen on screen have been about somebody trying to leave their culture and their faith behind. I wanted to make a story about somebody who wants to hold on to his culture and faith, but is very torn by the times and keeps battling temptations,” he explains.
Towards the end of the first season, we see Ramy travelling to Egypt to reconnect with his culture and faith, only to find that the Egypt in his head is a far cry from the one he experiences in real life. “I wanted to explore the way we stereotype ourselves. My character has this expectation of what he wants and needs Egypt to be and feel like, without taking into account the human experiences of the people in Egypt. I think when people saw the episodes in Egypt, so many felt connected to what we depicted. I found out that a lot of kids in America, who come from different countries, feel the same way when they go back to their hometowns. The feeling is so universal,” he recounts. “The storyline we did in Egypt also kind of made people fall in love with the country,” he adds, smiling.
During Ramy’s visit to Egypt, his character finds himself falling for his cousin, Amani, which starts a storyline that’s a tangled web, leading to conflicting feelings. “Obviously, we all know that in many of our families there are cousins who get married. I’m not for or against that. It’s like with anything in the show; it’s not a promotion of any sorts, but rather an added layer of complication. So much of this show is about exploring the places where we find ourselves confused. And, Rosaline Elbay, who plays Amani, is such an amazing performer. Obviously she’s beautiful, but it’s way beyond that. This is the type of person that I think the audience can’t help but fall in love with, and certainly neither can Ramy,” he exclaims.
A big part of the second season of Ramy was the introduction of Sheikh Malik, a sort of Yoda who attempts to guide Ramy to the right path, played by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Ali had orginally reached out to Youssef to express his appreciation for the fact that Ramy wasn’t just another show where a Muslim is depicted as a terrorist, and that it showed someone trying to practice their faith rather than attack it. “We really enjoyed connecting on that; then it kind of turned into us getting together for dinner. Then I asked him to come do an episode, and he agreed. As with any good Egyptian negotiator, I soon turned one into six episodes,” Youssef recalls with a laugh. “He ended up being a really exciting part of the story. I think he became part of the DNA of the show,” he adds.
In addition to Youssef’s two Emmy nominations, Ali also earned a nod for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in Ramy. “It felt crazy. There’s like 500 shows on TV every year; so to be recognised as an actor and a director, and to have Mahershala also get a nomination for playing a Sheikh who’s not evil or crooked – just a sheikh that’s just trying to be good – is just amazing,” Youssef exclaims.
“Getting an Emmy nomination means a lot to me personally, and it means something really incredible in terms of being able to pierce through the volume and amount of TV shows that are on right now. If you look at many of the series that we’re up against, you’ll find that they have a lot of celebrity power, but we just have our story,” he explains. “What was also amazing was winning a Golden Globe earlier this year; that was before bringing on Mahershala to the show. Our story was so small, but it’s just how we went at it from a different angle. It means that people are really connecting with it,” he says, with a proud smile.Hiam Abbass in Ramy
Youssef believes that another big part of the show’s draw is Ramy’s family, which in a way is a typical, universal family. There’s the crude uncle, the emotionally distant sister who may be more sensitive than she cares to admit, and the classic strict, but loving parents. The plot twist lies in that each of those characters has their own secrets and different truths that we get to explore in special episodes seen from their own perspectives. As the writer and director of several of these episodes, Youssef attributes his ability to channel these characters’ voices authentically, by putting himself in their shoes. He pictures what their lives and struggles might look like. “I tried to imagine an inner lonely place they might not be talking about. Like a lot of other cultures, ours drives us to keep some things to ourselves. We have this struggle between what’s personal and what’s public, and we can be very private people in a way that can hurt us,” he explains.
As a result of his secrets and bad choices, Youssef’s character hits rock bottom and loses some of the people closest to him at the end of the show’s second season. Youssef reveals that the third season is going to dig deeper into those issues. “The things he hides and the secrets in this family are going to come to the surface. I think, in a way, it will continue to be even more of a family show, because there is so much that this family has to discuss. We’ll be seeing a lot more from all of the characters, and how they deal with what happened. I think it will be really fun to be in that situation with them,” he reveals.
Going beyond the show, Youssef expresses his interest in exploring whatever opportunities come his way. “I already feel in many ways that our show is like a comedic drama. We definitely get into heavier themes, but I wouldn’t mind going lighter. I also wouldn’t mind trying sci-fi. It’s about finding the right story with a good character at its heart. I love anything that feels exciting and honest, whatever the format or genre is,” he states.
As for what lies ahead, Youssef is currently working on a very special project that will feature Steve Way, who plays Ramy’s best friend on the show and is the actor’s close friend in real life. “I’m developing an Apple TV show with Steve, who has muscular dystrophy. It’s a show about the disabled community, and Steve’s life in it. I’m really excited about that, because we don’t really see disabled characters on TV shows that often, and when we see them, they always have small roles. My aim is to do a show that really expands on that,” says Youssef.
Looking further ahead, the star reveals that he has another big dream. “I would love to make a show in Egypt. It would be an amazing experience, because I really loved shooting the two episodes that we did there. I’d also like to shoot more Ramy there, but I would love to make something that is Egyptian at its core. It’s all about finding the right stories, and that’s what excites me about Egypt,” he exclaims, adding, “I know there are some really cool, untapped stories that the world would just be shocked and excited to see.”
What would you say is the biggest advantage of being a comedian?
It’s getting to talk about any issue and to bring some sort of laughter and levity to it, even when there seems like there is no joke that could be told. It’s really fun to be in a position where you can figure out a way to make something really heavy, a little bit lighter.
What would you say is the biggest disadvantage?
Everyone’s always asking you to tell a joke, and sometimes you just don’t want to. When someone asks on the spot, there’s never a good joke that comes to mind!
Who is your dream actor in Egypt that you’d like to work with?
There are so many people that I would love to work with in Egypt. I don’t want to pick just one, because someone might easily be like, “Wait, why didn’t you say me?” I know Egypt too well to pick one name. That would open a whole enigma in and of its own (laughs).
Who is the star you were most surprised to learn is a fan of the show?
Brad Pitt said he really loved the show, and that was very cool.
Lindsay Lohan was supposed to make an appearance in the second season, but dropped out at the last minute. Are we going to see her in the third season?
I really hope so. That would be amazing. I think she’s very special and very funny, so I’m going to reach out again. I’m sure if I ask her, she’ll say “inshaallah!” I know this move. We’re Arabs; we’re used to this (laughs).
Photography: Marissa Mooney