‘Do not tell anybody you’re Muslim’: ‘Ramy’ stars reflect on Hollywood’s longtime neglect
No one looked more surprised than “Ramy’s” Ramy Youssef when he won a Golden Globe — over Michael Douglas no less — for his performance in Hulu’s comedy about an aimless, Muslim American millennial in suburban New Jersey.
And no one was more shocked than Youssef when Mahershala Ali signed on for Season 2 of the half-hour series, in a central role, playing a Sufi sheikh.
“I thought maybe someone made a mistake,” joked Youssef, “Ramy” co-creator, writer, director and star. “I mean, ‘Moonlight’ and then my show?”
“It was no mistake,” replied Ali.
The performers, who spoke over the phone on the eve of the new season’s May 29 release, may come from different ends of the entertainment spectrum, but both have broken barriers in TV and film.
Renowned for his performances in award-winning films that explore the painful realities of racism and the beauty of the American black experience (“Green Book,” “Hidden Figures”), Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar when he was honored for his supporting role in 2016’s “Moonlight.” Youssef is behind the first Arab and Muslim American sitcom. But the true miracle, at least for those stuck in Hollywood’s conventional thinking, is that “Ramy” is funny and irreverent.
The comedy follows the rumpled, 20-something Ramy Hassan (Youssef) as he seeks meaning and purpose in everything from porn to Friday prayer. Ali stars as Sheikh Ali, who serves as a spiritual guide for the meandering, aimless soul in a backward baseball cap.
Youssef and Ali couldn’t have known America would be mid-pandemic and on the precipice of a #BlackLivesMatter revolution when 10 new episodes landed. But “Ramy” was already well-positioned to speak to the pre-existing anxieties of 2020. The series is a clever and fresh exploration of race, xenophobia and finding one’s identity in a country that’s continually grappling with its own cultural DNA. Complex issues and shifting paradigms are at the core of “Ramy,” so what better show to make us laugh through all the pain?
Sheik Ali and Ramy are an odd pair. The imam is thoughtful and disciplined. Ramy is self-centered and impulsive. Together they show what it takes to survive and thrive as an African American father, a modern Muslim and a brown kid with considerably lower career drive than his immigrant parents.
Here, Youssef and Ali discuss their unexpected partnership and what it takes to turn real-life struggles into comedy gold.
The unlikely, perfect pairing of Mahershala Ali and Ramy Youssef makes Season 2 of Hulu’s Muslim American comedy “Ramy” even better than the first.
One of the most respected and sought-after talents in Hollywood joined your little show for Season 2, Ramy. How in the name of Allah did you pull that off?
Ramy Youssef: I’ll explain if you could just help us out a little and do some editing, because Mahershala insists on talking all the time. The guy is wiling out.
Mahershala Ali: [laughs] As long as you make this all about me. And we’re just going to call next season “Ali.”
Youssef: “Ali!” Oh, my God, dude. I’m so down. Kill “Ramy.” Season 3 is “Ali,” without hesitation. But really, you don’t see many practicing Muslims in Hollywood. When we ran into each other, he said, “Tell me if you ever need anything.” And, “We should get some food together sometime.” And I was like, really? So we did get some food, and that’s when I said: “Remember when you asked me to let you know if I needed anything? Well ...”
Was there a concern that Mahershala’s presence might overshadow the show?
Youssef: We had a really special first season, and second seasons, everyone knows they are some of the hardest things to pull off. You’re trying to strike this balance: How do you keep what worked and how do you innovate at the same time? I really cannot think of any other way we could have done it, at the level that I feel we did, without Mahershala. He was always so much part of the “Ramy” world.
Ali: I was nervous every day because I just wanted to make sure I was doing right by the show. You want to make sure you’re not throwing things off. That would be horrible, if you watch the show and you’re not even Sheikh Ali. You’re Mahershala. Like, terrifying. I wanted it to feel real and for people to walk away thinking, “That made sense. I’m glad they came together to do it.”
Because so often you get combinations where the people guest star on television shows or do films together — names, big entities or whatnot — and it just doesn’t work. I wanted “Ramy” to work.
It does. In fact, I think it’s even better than Season 1. Were you a fan?
Ali: Yes. I loved that it felt like it was speaking to me specifically as a Muslim. I was seeing an experience up there that didn’t feel too far removed from my own ... of a young Muslim man, searching. Also you could fall in love with the character, really root for him, even though he was probably going to make the wrong choice.
Youssef: He tends to lack direction at times. Yes.
Mahershala, we associate you with serious Hollywood dramas and prestige TV like “True Detective” and “House of Cards.” A comedy is probably the last place folks expect to see you.
Ali: Well “Green Book” is like a comedy. In its heart, that whole film is chemistry and timing. I also did “Room 104.” But I can see why people are surprised because for the most part the work they’re familiar with is heavy drama. But if you know me, I’m an absolute idiot. I’m super silly, goofy, cracking jokes all the time. I like to laugh and make light of things. I’m sure I’m funny, I think, at times. Ramy?
Youssef: Um ...
Ali: OK, but [“Ramy”] is actually more in alignment with who I am than some of the more dramatic work, believe it or not.
Ramy, you’ve said you never set out to make a show about Muslim representation. It’s “Ramy’s” weird little world. But the show hits all these universal chords about self-worth, family and just the daily struggles of being a less-than-fabulous human.
Youssef: There’s such little content [by Muslims] for Muslim audiences, so a show like ours is almost in this slot to represent and cover things in a certain way. But we don’t. We consistently [tackle] things that can’t be explained adequately in one conversation or one news headline. When you say it really shouldn’t work but it does, that’s exactly the point. That’s the balancing act that’s always really exciting for me.
Part of that duality means viewers who’ve never been in an Islamic center or been involved in conversations between friends about what is and isn’t haram are all of a sudden part of this new world. It’s simple but groundbreaking.
Ali: It was sort of a shock to me that I’ve been Muslim for 20 years and it’s taken 20 years to have the experience that I did with “Ramy.” I converted like a year before 9/11, and I had just started working professionally. My first name is Mahershala. I was born with that, so I changed my last name to Ali. So I’m working on the television series “Crossing Jordan.” I remember when those planes hit those towers, I had only two lines over the next two episodes.
Going from, “Do not tell anybody you’re Muslim” in 2001 to 2020, when you’re playing an imam on television, doing your prayers in Arabic and then praying between setups, on set, it’s just mind blowing.
The leap and the change ... I never imagined being on a set, and then at a given time of the day, look to your left, the right and there’s like a couple of dudes over there making prayer together after they just left craft services.
Critic Lorraine Ali writes of seeing her immigrant upbringing in the San Fernando Valley reflected in the Mindy Kaling Netflix comedy ‘Never Have I Ever.’
What hesitations, if any, did you have about portraying a sheikh?
Ali: Getting the offer, I found myself really excited, but also probably equally resistant. Here you have this opportunity to step into something that you feel just so familiar with and that I felt like I know in my bones — where you understand how to approach a character who is Muslim from the heart space — like, I get that.
But I was probably nervous about actually committing to stepping into those shoes i for a couple of reasons. In my personal life, I would love to have the attributes that Sheikh Ali has. But in terms of the acting or storytelling, when you play a priest or an imam or preacher, there are automatically things about those characters that can feel really sanitized. It’s not necessarily the challenge you see yourself signing up for. What Ramy was able to achieve with that character — he has so many wonderful qualities, including his vulnerability.
Youssef: He’s conflicted by how universal his love is. It really puts him in a bind. That tension that we’re watching and deal with, it makes him really human without desecrating his beliefs and without having to make him look like a fool.
The scene when Ramy first seeks counsel from Sheikh Ali and admits he’s trying to fill the huge hole inside him with porn, was funny and moving.
I was almost on the verge of breaking into crying, and I didn’t want it to be a crying scene. But it so encapsulates what I think the show is about. It’s that gap of where you want to be and where you are. And to feel that kind of love from someone that Ramy first saw as a disciplinarian. Ramy tells him all these things that he thinks are reasons that he should be expelled, and then the Sheikh is like, “OK. Are you ready to move forward? Let’s go. [The faith] is ready for you. It’s waiting.” I’m the only thing in my way.
Mahershala, “Ramy” is another example of you taking projects and parts that are defiantly different from one another.
Ali: What attracts me are things that feel fresh. I’m attracted to change and an evolution.
Do you feel you evolved?
Ali: I can say confidently I feel like I got better as an actor working on “Ramy.” I hadn’t worked in like a year and a half, so to come back, there were many opportunities to check some old, bad habits and also to not make everything so precious. Ramy is able to do things and not overthink it. Go! Let it live! Having to give over to that was really challenging for me, but I felt sharper by the time I was done working on that show. I felt like I was in school again and I learned from Ramy and the rest of the crew.
Ramy, you’re laughing in disbelief.
Youssef: Wow. [Regains composure.] Yeah, that’s the guarantee I give anyone who walks on my set. You’re gonna walk out better. Anyone else who wants to join, you heard it here.
Ali: The last thing I’d say is it was honestly the most diverse set that I’ve ever been on in terms of women in positions of power and people of color. The color spectrum looked like a Benetton ad on that set.
Youssef: Sometimes we even moved people around on set to make sure that they were representing a range.
What happens if “Ramy” makes it to the Emmys, but Mahershala wins?
Youssef: I like the idea that he would be the only person to get nominated. I feel that it would be funnier. If you were the only one who was nominated for an Emmy, it would be very exciting.
Ali: Well, you know I disagree with that. It’s “Ramy” I’m proud of. I’m really excited for people to see it. And Ramy, maybe you’ll sign me up for another year?
Youssef: Oh, my God, dude. I mean, yeah. Yes. Done.
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