Sun. Aug 9th, 2020

Interview: Ramy Youssef (‘Ramy’) is broadcasting to the whole world

Stand-up comedian and writer/director Ramy Youssef still is only 29 years old, though he has two seasons of a Hulu comedy and one Golden Globe under his belt. His show Ramy explores a version of himself, one with the same big questions he’s been asking himself for years. I sat down to chat with Ramy about these questions, these lack of answers, and the difficulty of being in your mid-20s. 

How’s it been since the second season dropped? Are you just doing tons of interviews and how’s it been?

Well, it’s interesting. I mean, the show came out, I think as the national conversation around police brutality, race, and a lot of what’s been at the forefront, you know. I think, really the same weekend that everything was escalating in Minnesota. And so we put the show out and actually hit the brakes for a little bit. Usually you kind of enter a press cycle pretty immediately. And I’m only just now kind of gearing back up into it. I was really kind of trying to figure out and continue to want to figure out how to be useful in the larger conversation. So it’s something I’m really proud of, the show. And almost immediately after putting out the show, I was like, well, “Who cares about the show?” That’s not really what is important right now.

How do you like doing press and all the rest of the stuff that isn’t the show?

I think because of what we’re talking about, how much I believe in the conversation around the show, I really enjoy it. I really enjoy even if it gets repetitive, even if it’s not always in the exact lane of what I would want to do, I just enjoy being able to really continue to have these conversations as an extension of the show. I think if I were, you know, playing a part in a blockbuster movie, and doing the press circuit, it would be really tough for me, depending on what it is, but I think being Ramy with a show called “Ramy.” I’m very appreciative that people even care to ask questions.

I feel as though the show is one of the few I’ve seen that depicts this age range of your mid-20s in a true manner. Is that something that you initially set out to do?

It’s something that I think I was very conscious of. I think there’s something about that place of your mid-20s where you can be in very different stages, in a way that it’s probably the first stage where you can be at radically different stages. You could be a fully-formed functioning level adult, or you could still be holding on to every remnant of being a kid. And that difference was always so striking to me about our 20s, you know. It’s all over the place. And it’s such a time of reckoning of who you were and who you’re going to become, and who you want to be and who you actually are. And those gaps in that wrestling match between those ideas is really alive at this time, and so our 20s now are a lot different than our parents’ 20s. In our parents 20s, they have kids, they have houses. In our 20s, some of us are still in those houses. And so it it.

Where were you at 25? What were you thinking? What were you feeling?

Well, it was an interesting time because it’s really informative to what I’ve made, because I’d been in LA for a bit at that point. And I worked as an actor, and I was getting my feet wet, kind of understanding that I was kind of a hard actor to cast because  no one really knew what to do with me. It was like they would bring me in for the ethnic thing but then they’d realize you’re not as ethnic looking as we thought. They would be bring me in for the dork and they’re like, well, not exactly as dorky as we want to be. Bring me in for the lead and they’re like, not sure if you’re a lead. It was kind of always this weird, middle place I would be in. I was relying a lot on stand up, but also really feeling like I’d been in LA for a bit. But I was definitely, I don’t know, running dry on any money I made. And kind of wondering what am I going to do? And I, I want to say I was around 25/26 and I went to Mecca. And I decided to go because I was really wanting to dig into what it was I actually believed and what it was I actually wanted from my life. I had felt a lot of things kind of pulling at me, you know, pulling me in and out while I was in LA and away from my family and kind of balancing my values, my religious ones and the kind of the industry that I was in. And so it was a time for me where I started to get clarity on what exactly was the factors that were at play as to like, who I wanted to become. And I really started to feel like I really need to know… what are my real goals and where am I really headed? Outside of just natural momentum and natural excitement? It was really kind of a time of being like, what’s the plan? You know? And which way are you really, you know, trying to go here?

How do you even attempt to start grappling with these questions that don’t necessarily have immediate answers? Questions about larger truths? 

I mean, I think it’s really about for me, it was about training. And identifying what my questions actually were and what questions are mine? And what questions aren’t really mine? I think so much of coming into your own is sorting through what you are really dealing with that’s you motivated, and what is kind of junk that’s put on you, from your friends or from your family or from the environment you’re in. And there’s a lot of separating. I think a big question I was always asking myself was how much of what I’m doing is a genuinely motivated action from what I want? And how much of it is just a reaction to what’s happening to me, or what has happened? And I’m just reacting to it. And really looking at the things that I do and the things that I seek and the questions I asked and the things I feel and what I eat and who I’m with and how much of that is just a reaction and how much of that is what I actually want. And so I really had to dig into what I believe and why I believe what I believed in and started constructing and deconstructing and reconstructing a lot of those things. That’s why I always say the work is about bringing people close to their questions, because I think what a lot of us do is we just jump into systems. That system can be a boyfriend or a girlfriend that comes with their friend group and you’re just comfortable there. That system can be what your family told you to do. That system can be your fraternity, or a college that then turns in your job opportunity post-college, and you’re just kind of there. Most people are part of some sort of religious experience, whether it’s called religion or not. It’s just the ecosystem that they’re like, yeah, I’m going to follow this one. What I always am trying to really dig into is the why. The why of any of those, whatever yours might be. I think we’re avoiding that. A lot of us are burying that. And so that’s why, again, what we’re making is not about answers but it’s about recognizing the questions.

What are the questions that you currently have, right now at 29? You’re 29, right?

A lot of them are what’s in the show, right? I mean, a lot of them bleed into what we’re making. The show is not a direct biography/autobiography by any means. So much is different. A lot of what’s the same is the questions I think. Consistently there’s this question in our pilot, where my character considers himself Muslim,but he’s also like, “Do I have to wash between my toes? Do I really have to prescribe on such a technical, detailed level?” And other questions I asked myself all the time. Those are the kinds of things that go around my head. Can you be something if you’re not 100%? But then also what is 100%? For me? What does that mean? Does that mean that you don’t question or does that mean that you do even more? I’m constantly grappling with these questions of desire and discipline. Should I just be in the moment or should I be thinking of the larger plan and what is more benefical to my curiosity, and what’s more beneficial to my soul? What’s, what’s more exciting? Is it to just say the thing and do the thing? Or is it to take a breath and be measured? And since there’s all these questions around, how do I conduct myself and how do I want to be expressing myself that fall within the bounds of faith? But again, in many ways, everything is an act of faith. Like crossing the street. Yeah, it’s a lot of those things that kind of go through the show [also] go through my head.

But how is that? How difficult is that to put out into the world? Because, I mean, for most people, you will share that with 7-10 people, those you’re closest with. You’re sharing it with a much larger audience. 

Especially with a show like ours, with the types of themes and obviously on a language level, we’re broadcasting to the whole world. And it’s such a fine line, and I think it becomes a thing where I’m just continually trying to push myself. Well, that’s my job. My job is to talk about the things that I want to talk about, because it’s probably the thing that other people are thinking. A big question in our second season, we’re watching our character talk openly about what is manifesting for him as a porn addiction. And he kind of has this moment where he’s talking about how he watched more porn because he didn’t want to have sex. Because that’s what his faith told them. And so he ends up kind of channeling all that into into this other place and that can be really dangerous. And that can distort your view of sex and your view of reality and your view of what is real life and what is on the screen. And he’s negotiating on these things. And those are negotiations that I’ve had to go through. Those are things that I felt. I’ve been like, well, who’s talking about this and who’s really getting into this. Are we having a real discussion about it? It’s not to demonize. It’s not about a demonization of porn or something like that, but it’s more of like a deep dive on how potent these things can be and how mentally confusing and potentially destructive they can be. Because I think they can create depression, they can create a lack of reality that causes people to kind of just disassociate. And so those are things that are not dinner convo all the time, which is why it’s fun to break it down in the show, because then it becomes dinner convo. And that’s really fun for me. And it liberates me it makes me feel like oh, cool, like, I’m not trapped by any of this because I can become viewer of my own experience and understand it.

Yeah, I saw a story you told about being in the mosque as a kid and everyone turning around there hats at the same time. Were there other little moments you remember as a kid that made it into the show? 

Yeah, there was that fascination of you wearing a hat frontwards but then when you’re gonna pray, you gotta flip it and I would just always see this visual. I’m like, “Man, this is so dope.” And just a little visual like really being passionate as you’re talking about something and then biting into sunflower seeds and kind of putting your aggression onto a sunflower seed as you’re going at it. That comes into the show and just these moments of  debating really weird… we have this scene where Mo and Ahmed are debating the quality of Quran reciters and the recitation. It’s such a small pocket of the types of conversations that I would have with my friends. These are things that we’re debating because they’re important to us, but you wouldn’t think about it on that level. So the show, the DNA of the show, is those kinds of details.

I just would love to hear like one or two stories about the making of this second season whether it’s on set or in the writers room. Stories that you feel encapsulate the making of the show.

(Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

Yeah, I’ll give you a moment that was really cool for me. Mahershala [Ali] is such a big part. He is such a big part of the second season. But what is more interesting to me is how he became part of it, which is that he saw this show where someone was genuinely trying to embrace their faith. And because that’s his experience, and he hadn’t seen it, he just reached out to me to talk about that. And it translated and kind of morphed into him being this huge part of the second season organically. And we shot the scene that is in the episode one [of the second season]. It’s that scene in and of itself is like a thesis to me of what I always wanted the show to be: watching this guy struggle, this guy Ramy struggle with his ego. Then you have this character in the Sheikh who’s kind of an embodiment of the faith and that embodiment is love. So it’s this idea that he’s saying all these things that he’s done, and he feels like he can’t be loved but then he’s being told no, you can. And to get to shoot that scene with someone who actually believed in the message was so powerful for me. But then there’s this moment in between setups. We converted this church that we’re in into a mosque for the show, and it’s a real church. The mosque is actually set up like a proper mosque. It’s pointing towards Mecca. It’s not just for show, it’s actually pointed that way. And then we prayed together on set. And it was just something about that small moment and to get to experience that. And then you hear Mahershala say that after 2001 he essentially lost so much work, and so many roles because of how clearly Muslim his name was. And then now we’re praying between setups on a show where he’s playing a Sheikh with two Oscars. That was kind of one of those moments. Really, that says everything about what we’re getting to do, and it means a lot, and I think it encompasses what we’ve been really fortunate to get to explore.

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