The creator and star of 'Ramy' opens up about tricking people into watching the series, working with Mahershala Ali and the Emmys.
"I think I realized that people really do love reverse psychology," Ramy Youssef tells ET over the phone, with his smile somehow audible from the other end. He's spent the last few days popping in and out of interviews while promoting the second season of his Hulu series, Ramy, and is loving every second of it. "What an easy trick!"
That "trick" the 29-year-old actor pulled was during his acceptance speech at the 2020 Golden Globes in January, where he scored a surprise win for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. He thanked "my God and Hulu," and then jokingly called out the audience of A-list celebrities and industry powerhouses for not watching his show. "It very much turned into a thing of like, 'Oh, he said we hadn't, and now we should," Youssef says. "You guys are easy!"
It wasn't as if Ramy wasn't on anyone's radar. By the time Youssef won his Globe, the series had already been renewed for its second season. It had also added Oscar winner Mahershala Ali to the cast. However, the Globe certainly elevated Youssef's -- and the show's -- profile. And he knows it.
"If you think about the show, it's about a Muslim guy in New Jersey who has a porn addiction. It's so specific," he summarizes. Yet, Ramy is about a lot more than that, as Youssef notes later. But his point is about the message it sends that a show with those themes could find awards success. He doesn't beat around the bush: he hopes to replicate that success at the 2020 Primetime Emmys.
"For that to win an Emmy would just mean so much for the types of things that I think networks would be willing to greenlight. The more that it gets recognized, the more excited I get for shows that aren't my show, the more I get excited for someone to be like, 'Well, Ramy is just talking about jerking off, and he won an Emmy. Why can't we do this?'" explains Youssef, who co-created the series with Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch. "So, to create a reference point for success off of something that would not have been greenlit five years ago would be really exciting."
Youssef and Ramy certainly have a shot. The TV landscape has changed tremendously over the past five years, and Ramy is meeting the moment. Impressive acting performances and thoughtful scripts offer complex discussions about faith and finding yourself, and expose the complexities of the biases communities have against each other. Before white Americans were inspired by the recent surge of the Black Lives Matter movement to analyze their privilege and confront the systemic biases of their families and neighbors, Ramy was having those conversations on TV.
A flashback episode in season 1 of the series showed the plight of life in America for Muslim families following 9/11. And season 2 shines a light on how it can fall on younger generations to educate their parents on LGBTQ issues and curb stereotypes about other communities.
"So much of the show is really about bringing intimate questions to the surface, and that's actually where the goal ends," Youssef candidly shares. Ramy isn't meant to be didactic and the comedian doesn't want it to be taken as such, in fear that it would "lose what makes it interesting and what makes it funny."
Issues of discrimination -- just like issues of faith -- are featured during the show as "natural" parts of characters' journeys. If that happens to inspire audience members to take a closer look at their own lives, that's an unintended plus, Youssef reasons.
The actor talks about his show with a pride and enthusiasm some actors have for their work, but often try to shroud in an abundance of humility. Youssef is incredibly humble, but he has no reason to hide the high regard he has for his work; it scored him Ali, months after his second Oscar win.
Ali joined the show as Sheikh Ali Malik, a "cool radical" Sufi Sheikh who inspires Ramy to get out of the depression, porn and sugar addiction he fell into after his trip from Egypt in the season 1 finale. Ramy has always had trouble giving into haram (essentially sin, anything prohibited by the Quran) on his journey to be a good Muslim; on his trip to Egypt, he slept with his cousin. The Sheikh tries his best to put Ramy on a better path.
"I just really felt like I was dancing with an amazing dancer, and someone who isn't trying to outdance you, but is really trying to create a dance number with you. When you really have that kind of graciousness from someone who is as talented as he is, who is walking onto this set and really ingratiating himself to everyone and opening up his talent and his perspective, it's a dream. It's almost kind of surreal that we pulled it off and that it happened the way it did," Youssef raves of Ali, who converted to Islam in 2000.
The role wasn't written for Ali; the fact that timing worked out and he joined the show was "totally divine collaboration," Youssef says, as he and Ali are perfectly matched onscreen. Despite the Sheikh's early-on request for distance from Ramy, they're brought closer by Ramy's courting of the Sheikh's daughter, Zainab (MaameYaa Boafo). The season 2 finale sees their relationship come to an explosive end, as Ramy confesses to sleeping with his aforementioned cousin again, the night before his wedding to Zainab. The impassioned yet vulnerable scene sees the Sheikh unhinged, delivering a big "f**k you" to Ramy. It's one of Youssef's favorites.
"It's the core of the arc we were really excited to explore, really looking at the difference between genuine faith and the performance of faith," he says, reflecting on the scene parallels Ramy and the Sheikh's first meeting. "It's faith versus ego."
As for where that leaves Ramy -- both the character and the show -- for season 3, Youssef says hopefully "more Mahershala." He suspects that's what the acclaimed actor intends, but knows realistically, there are "real world ramifications" that could hinder Ali's return. "It won't happen right away. I think there are certain things that Ramy's going to have to figure out first," Youssef adds. "So, I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing more of that."
"A big mask has to come off of Ramy," the comic says. "He's not looking at his compulsions and his pain from a real place, and I think that it's going to be really exciting for him to no longer have the ability to hide behind any of these things. So much of the series has been really exploring these intimate places where many of us can hide, and I think season 3, a lot of people in the show are going to have to … face a lot of the dynamics that have been hanging out underneath for a long time."
While audiences may not always be able to relate to the situations Ramy finds himself in -- sleeping with his cousin was surprisingly not the most wild experience he had in season 2 -- the show and Youssef's performance connects with audiences because of what's at the core. It's been praised for portraying Westernized Muslims in an authentic light, showcasing common themes expressed in particular ways.
"It's so specific in looking at somebody dealing with the idea of who they want to be and who they actually are, and that's really at the core of most people's struggles, if they're being honest with themselves. And this idea of higher self and lower self is this constant equilibrium that we're trying to get to," Youssef shares.
"That type of struggle, it's all very relevant to pretty much anyone's journey -- and certainly people of a certain age and anyone who feels like a two-cultured kid, or anyone who feels like they can't express themselves fully based on who they are and where they are," he says. "I think it gets more and more relevant if those are the lenses in which you're watching the show from."
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