A version of this story about Ramy Youssef first appeared in the Drama/Comedy/Actors issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Moments after Ricky Gervais concluded his Golden Globes monologue by telling the Hollywood crowd to “thank your agent and your God and f— off,” Ramy Youssef did exactly that when he won the first award of the night for his namesake Hulu series “Ramy.” But he did so with a no-context-needed “Allahu Akbar,” asserting his faith in front of the world and one of comedy’s most famous atheists.
The first season of “Ramy” was surprising for how it examined the challenges of an ordinary Muslim-American family rarely seen on television. But the second season grappled with faith more meaningfully by bringing in Mahershala Ali to act as Ramy’s sheikh and spiritual guide, as Ramy works to overcome a pornography addiction and discover the person he wants to be.
“Ramy” is a true rarity when it comes to honest discussions of faith and how a young person would aspire to find religion. “This is the kind of show that brings people closer to their questions. Because we’re not really providing the answers, we’re more highlighting the gaps in who we want to be,” Youssef said. “Everyone has a God part of their brain. Even if that part of the brain is committed to not believing in God, it’s there, it’s a desire and it’s a pocket that we all have made a choice in how to fill. And this show touches on that pocket in a way that I hadn’t seen it touched on before.”
Half of “Ramy” Season 2 was in the can when Youssef won the Golden Globe, but Youssef said that Season 1 was effectively re-released after that win, putting added pressure and eyeballs on the show (he joked upon winning, “I know you guys haven’t seen my show…Everyone’s like, ‘Is this an editor?'”). But the real pressure came from Ali, the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award (for 2016’s “Moonlight” and then again for 2018’s “Green Book”), who appears in more than half the season and with whom Ramy forms a spiritual Bay’ah, an Islamic bond and oath to a leader.
“He just brings this energy and he’s so gracious as a performer that you can’t help but be better around him,” Youssef said. “It’s such a testament to him and how amazing he is, not just as a performer but as a person who leads by listening and a person who really comes into it egoless. He cares about the project just as much as I did.”
That empathy is something Youssef has tried to express for all the characters on his show. Season 2 devotes full episodes to Ramy’s sister, mother, father and uncle, and one of Youssef’s strengths as an actor is tweaking his performance to appear in a way each character might perceive him.
“Everyone is the star of their own experience, and the people around them lose a dimension,” he said. “Obviously there are people with very deep empathy, but I think a lot of us walk through life and other people are just a little more two-dimensional than we are, because we don’t know what they’re hiding. Whoever we’re following (in the show), they are now this three-dimensional person, and everyone else is more 2-D, including Ramy. I have a lot of fun doing that.”
And while “Ramy” doesn’t try to tell the story of all Muslims, one of its goals is embracing new perspectives. When looking back at his Golden Globes speech, Youssef explained that it’s interesting how Western culture has
“weaponized” Arabic. “The words Allahu Akbar have been turned into something that is a negative, and it’s really just saying, ‘God is great,’ which is something that people express in English all the time,” he said. “Allahu Akbar and Mashallah–I’m just trying to bring these words to Mazel Tov status. Why not? Why can’t these be in the vernacular when you have so many Muslim people historically and currently in the fabric of this country? It feels long, long past due.”
The bigger challenge for Youssef as a writer and director this season was expanding on the first season while keeping true to its visual style and tone. “Ramy’s” strength lies in how the show finds “people in their most intimate places,” even if that means veering into darker drama or the ethereal.
“We were able to get into some things that step a little outside of realism, but almost in the way that life itself can step a little bit outside of realism,” Youssef said. “It’s really grounded, but it kind of feels like you’re having this super-spiritual moment or this out-of-body moment.”
And for all of its heavy discussions about religion, the show is also frequently hilarious. One of this season’s out-of-body moments comes when Ramy visits a wealthy Arab donor who has a peculiar relationship with the former porn star Mia Khalifa (who cameos as herself). Another involves how Ramy has to help his disabled friend, played by Steve Way, after a trip to an Atlantic City strip club goes wrong.
Youssef met Way in first grade and has known and been friends with the comic and disability awareness advocate who was born with Muscular Dystrophy for much of his adult life. And this season, “Ramy” explored something that Way actually deals with: how being unable to masturbate can cause pressure he needs to relieve for his health. When he explained to his writer’s room this was a real thing for Way, Youssef said they had to explore it.
“He’s been really fortunate because he’s had a girlfriend for a while and he doesn’t have to think about it. And one of our writers, Kate [Thulin], she said, ‘Has Steve ever asked you to jerk him off,'” Youssef said. “Then I called Steve, and I was like, ‘Hey man, have you ever been in a bind where you thought about asking me?’ And there was like a pause on the phone, and he was like, ‘I mean I thought about it for like a second,’ and that was enough. But when he said that, oh my god, the fact that you thought about it once for a second, and it felt like something that you couldn’t dare to bring yourself to, we’ve got to follow that.”
But Season 2 ends on a heavy note, and Youssef has ideas should the show get picked up for a third season. “I think we’ve seen Ramy grapple with the performance of faith,” he said. “And I think it’s going to be really exciting to see him have to understand what real faith is and what it actually looks like, and not just this filter that you apply onto all of his actions. I think watching that is going to be one of the things I’ve never seen done in a genuine way.”
Youssef attests that his show could not have been made even five years ago–but he’s excited about the possibility of an Emmy win because of the other shows that might follow in its wake.
“My hope is the more recognition the show gets, the more that other specific experiences can be allowed the room to be something that is very legitimate,” he said. “That has been really hard for our industry to grasp, and I think that Hollywood is pretty behind. The fact that we can get the recognition we already got and hopefully get more, it makes me more excited about the overall landscape than even what my individual show gets to achieve.”
Read more from the Drama/Comedy/Actors issue of TheWrap Emmy magazine.