Youssef stars in the Hulu comedy about a wayward Egyptian-American millennial, which often sits in the discomfort of his self involvement, his mistakes, and the consequences of his actions.
“Some people call it cringey, but I think I call it naked,” Youssef told IndieWire over the phone on the heels of Season 3’s Hulu premiere. “There’s just this nakedness that I really enjoy where I’m not trying to fabricate, I’m not trying to be someone who’s just going for shock value.”
The shock is still there — when Ramy helps a friend masturbate, accidentally kills a dog, or cheats on his fiancee with his cousin — but it serves a purpose.
“Just by the nature of the type of character that Ramy is, he’s someone where we’re tracking an ego death that he’s having,” Youssef elaborated. “And that can be ugly to look at. It can feel naked and it can feel uncomfortable.”
Season 3 finds Ramy at lowest and most naked, trying to move forward and rebuild both his life and himself after coming clean about the affair and losing his wife. After thinking he was living righteously and making understandable mistakes, he has to face the truth of who he is and what he has done, naked in every sense.
“For the record, no actual nudity,” Youssef added. “But it’s definitely suggestive.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: It’s been two years since Season 2 of “Ramy,” so I’m curious how it was getting back into the headspace of the show and what you wanted to accomplish with Season 3.
Youssef: Yes, so Season 2 came out May 2020. Even though there’s this gap in time, we’d been working on it a lot. We started writing in winter of 2021 and there were a few things that delayed us. There was some COVID delays, I went to go shoot a movie, we’re also creating another show at the same time, “Mo” on Netflix, so it’s been very busy. But we made Seasons 1 and 2 back-to-back, which is its own kind of exhaustion. Having a little bit of time really allowed me to look at it with the team and say, “Okay, what worked? What do we want more of? What excited us the most?” The biggest realization for me is just how much I enjoy making this an ensemble show.
Yeah, no disrespect to you personally, but I feel like “Ramy” is sometimes strongest when it’s not about Ramy the character.
That’s true in the sense that I really love these other characters. I love writing for them and I love directing them. By nature, the way that we explore the parents in the show or the way that we explore Dena (May Calamawy), his sister, there’s just different entry points. We really embrace that as a show. I didn’t come into this show thinking it has to be about me, I really felt like there’s a type of comedy I really like, there’s a type of storytelling I really enjoying [showing], and that’s the most important thing, whether I’m on screen or not.
That can be tough to put into words sometimes, but can you elaborate on the type of comedy and storytelling you enjoy?
For me, the whole point of watching a comedy like this is to be able to broach subjects that normal conversation finds very difficult or finds very heated, and take a little bit of the heat out. In the third season Ramy goes to Jerusalem, and the goal for us was “Okay, how [does] Ramy go to Palestine and Israel and somehow everyone’s upset with him?” (laughs) What’s unifying about that? These are things that are inherently uncomfortable, we’re going to be naked in them, and then it’s also going to find the funny and the thing that we might not want to look at all the time. But we want to have a good time doing that. I love that in stand up, and it’s something that really translates into the show.
You said that between Seasons 2 and 3, you got to see what worked and didn’t work — can I ask what you think didn’t work?
I didn’t feel like things didn’t work, it was just about more of things. It’s not so much even a political answer, I’m really proud of the show. The third season is my favorite season, but there’s no way we could have made this season without making the first two. So you just get to look back and say, “Oh, I really like when Ramy is talking himself into a hole even though it’s uncomfortable, and the more we do that, we get some really fun stuff. Let’s do more of that.” Or “I really love his sister Dena and we like seeing her under a certain pressure, but then we also want to see her making bigger mistakes, so let’s have her do that.” And “we really love our parents in their solo episodes, but we really want to see more of them together, so let’s do that.” It’s really looking at what we like and doing more of it. That’s where I think we’re really strong as a show and as a team.
I love some of what happened this season with Dena and with Maysa (Hiam Abbass), and I wanted to talk about fleshing out the women specifically — I know that’s something that was talked about in the early seasons — and how those characters have evolved.
I think it naturally evolved. They’ve been strong from the beginning. Find me another show about a guy who’s a comic where in the first season there are dedicated episodes to characters that aren’t him, that are women. This is something that we’ve always been really passionate about in the sense of showcasing the family and the women in the family.
…And there’s even more to do; I don’t feel satisfied that we’ve touched upon everything that we can with both of those characters, in the same way that I don’t feel like we’ve done it with Ramy or Farook (Amr Waked) or Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli). Putting them in the forefront — and also putting them together, we really wanted to see more mother/daughter. In Season 2, we had this conversation with Maysa and Dena in the car in the episode “They,” and I remember seeing that dynamic and thinking “Oh, we need a lot more where it’s just two of them.” So we did that this season and that was really exciting.
Dena is also is in such a different place than certainly when we first met her, and we really see the highs and lows of that relationship in the episode.
I think we made a conscious decision as a writers room too where we wanted to, as we did with a lot of characters, skip a bit. There were a few things we didn’t see that happened off-screen. For example, she seemed to grapple with her virginity. We had this nightmare of hers in Season 1, I loved how that came out. It was probably one of my favorite surreal things we’ve done on the show. It felt like the most potent feeling of what it’s like to be a virgin, for me and for a lot of the writers in the room — women and the men in the room. There’s almost a trope of watching a brown woman grapple with her virginity. We did a version of it in the first season that we felt spoke to something with more clarity and integrity for our character, but now we skip the chapter in which that happened for her because we felt like that’s something we’ve seen a lot of; we want to see her making a huge mistake, and we want to see her mess with that situation with someone else. We put her in a situation where she was a bit more of the aggressor, which I think is something that we don’t always get to see our women in, and seeing her in that light for me gave some of the funniest scenes we’ve ever done as a show.
And speaking of the women in the show, we have Sarita Choudhry doing just an amazing job as Olivia. Tell me about working with her and exploring that character.
Yeah I called her. I said, “Please do this because you’re the only person I can think of who really bring something special with this character.” We wanted to create a woman that wasn’t just a fantasy for Ramy, but that really was part of him crashing down to reality, in terms of what his relationship with sex and women look like. Because she’s such an honest character, we’re able to have this blend of these realizations of kind of how painful sex is for Ramy, but also we understand what it means for her. Without being too spoilery, she’s not just a bounce-board or a mirror for Ramy, she really takes it into her own hands, and when you walk away from this season, you realize she was in control the whole time. And I think Ramy needed that. It’s felt like a fulfilling interaction where each character ends up getting what they need, and that was really exciting to craft with her and act with her.
As they part ways Ramy has basically an epiphany and this very intense monologue. Tell me about breaking and filming that — you mentioned the fun of watching Ramy talk himself into circles but this one feels less comedic.
The whole season builds to that. We’re watching this ego death with him over the course of a couple of seasons. Where he is on the shoreline, right outside of this apartment of his in Brooklyn — for me, playing it was nerve-wracking and enlightening. …I really felt an out-of-body thing while I was shooting that and it felt like everything we had written. On this show I play so many roles from writing and producing and directing, but it was definitely a moment where the only thing I was thinking about was the acting, and that was really fun.
I think about halfway through I was like, “Oh, we have not cut and we’re not going to cut.”
(laughing) Yeah, we don’t cut.
What role would you say Ramy’s faith has played in his life with each passing season?
He’s always been a seeker. When we went into the third season, we felt this might be the season where he’s not seeking, where he’s having this real crisis of faith and he’s a bit shut down. That really influenced my performance. There are times where the character looks like he’s dead behind the eyes. He’s withdrawn, and there’s something incredibly relatable behind why he’s where he is. It might not be favorable, and it might not be even popular and there’s a funny idea of him being an asshole — and I’m not saying that he’s not, this character in a way is — but again the thing he most is, is naked. Most narratives that can let people off the hook for what their actual motives are or what their fears are — we don’t with this character. But I don’t think he’s an anti hero. He’s cracked open, and that comes to a head this season. It’s not about searching as much as it is healing.
I think a lot about that line from the Sheikh (Mahershala Ali) in Season 2 which is in the recap at the top of Season 3, where he says “You hurt people.” It’s so concise and effective, and I feel like that really guided the character this season.
That’s a really great thing to highlight. I do think it did and I do think that created shame for him. It’s not like that statement created shame — what he did lead to that statement. But that statement was a real direct result of how he’d been living. And yeah that’s just a great point because it eats at him.
I feel like HBO owes you some acknowledgement for being ahead of the game with the incest storylines and with Hiam Abbass who’s now on “Succession.” What would you say to fans of those shows who should check out “Ramy?”
I mean in terms of Hiam Abbass performances, I’m biased, but Hiam Abbass as Maysa is I think her finest work. She is to me in so many ways the star of this show. Working with her every day — and this year she produced and directed with us as well — is truly a highlight of my life and my career. And in terms of incest, if that’s something you’re interested about, we’ve got it!
I know it’s very soon to talk or think about Season 4 but have you given any thought? Do you know what you would like to tackle moving forward?
We have a clear idea of certain themes. When we were shooting the first season I had a really clear image of what I wanted the last shot of the series to be. So hopefully we can move quickly into making that happen.
“Ramy” Season 3 is now streaming on Hulu.