TV Shows, Pop Culture, Interviews

Ramy Youssef on what it’s like disrupting Hollywood’s typical Muslim narrative – and on what keeps him going

Ramy Youssef wants you to see that Muslims are vulnerable, too.

First-generation Muslim American Ramy Youssef isn’t your typical actor.

As the co-creator and star of Hulu’s new comedy, Ramy, 28-year-old Egyptian-American actor and stand-up comedian Youssef set out to tell stories about a kid from an immigrant family who wants to hold on to his culture. He based the main character on his own experiences growing up in suburban New Jersey as a Muslim who considers himself religious.

“It shows someone engaging with their faith in an honest way. I felt like a lot of narratives I saw [of] first-generation children…or anyone from a strong faith background was watching them kind of try to erase where they come from and distance themselves from the tension of their parents and culture,” Youssef said in an interview with The Tempest. “I wanted to make something that reflected my experience. [That experience saw me] trying to honestly engage and identify with my background, but still asking questions about it.”

With a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Ramy is built around Ramy Hassan, played by Youssef, a Muslim unsure of what type of Muslim he is or ought to be. The show breaks stigmas and barriers in the Muslim community by addressing topics like sex and dating in Islam, as well as post 9/11 feels.

During our interview with Youssef, we discussed Muslim American representation in the media, his character and spoke of the importance of diverse and authentic representation in the entertainment industry.

The show’s trailer premiered in March, racking up more than 5.6 million views on Youtube. Muslims, in particular, have reacted strongly, with many feeling represented, while others criticized the show’s portrayal of American Muslims and the absence of Muslim women.

Youssef acknowledges the critiques, explaining that Ramy isn’t meant to represent all Muslims. “[As Muslims,] we take a burden on to try to represent everybody and that’s not fair, that’s not something other creators have to do in the same way. It’s important to tell the most specific story to you, don’t worry about any of the feedback or blowback because your job is to actually make something that you can grow from.”

When it came to the importance of representation, particularly the media’s often inaccurate and harsh portrayals of Muslims, Youssef explained his thought process while developing the show. As an Arab-Muslim, he represented the identity he could best depict.

“This is just one piece of representation. This is a small slice of an Arab Muslim family, most Muslims in America don’t even fall under that category,” Youssef said. “Most Muslims in America are Black, while many are South Asian. So this isn’t an antidote to a 24-hour news cycle or years of propaganda and war literature on Muslims. It’s simply just one piece of the puzzle.” 

According to Youssef, there are a lot of differences between the Ramy he plays and his real life. He spoke about the family in the show as compared to his own and described how in real life he has a creative outlet to express himself, whereas Ramy, the character, does not.

“This character, this family talks a little less to each other and this character has less of an outlet so he’s more stuck. But the thing that I really love about this character and something that really resonates with me in real life is that when he has a problem or when he’s trying to figure himself out or get the best version of himself he prays,” Youssef said. “He turns to God. That is where he goes, that is how he feels comfortable expressing himself and trying to figure himself out. This was something that was really important for me to put out there and that I wanted to have seen,” he added.

Youssef aims to depict the reality of Muslims in his show. He wants the audience to see that Muslims have the same problems, values, and desires other Americans do. 

[Image Description: Three men, Youssef, left, with Mohammed Amer and Dave Merheje, are seated in prayer, while Youssef looks up and to the sky.] Via Barbara Nitke/Hulu
[Image Description: Three men, Youssef, left, with Mohammed Amer and Dave Merheje, are seated in prayer, while Youssef looks up and to the sky.] Via Barbara Nitke/Hulu

“I want the audience to see that Muslims have vulnerabilities. I want them [the audience] to take a look at the types of problems that this family and character face and understand that our problems are very much like anybody else problems.”

Through this show, Youssef hopes to recontextualize words and spaces, while also demystifying the tropes about how Muslims are and operate. “When you hear ‘Allahu Akhbar’ in America it means something violent, but when you watch this show, you realize that is something people say when they are looking to find a calm moment- when they are looking to reflect, just an act of worship that is tied to being a human.”

“Dehumanization here is what’s most important. Anything else is just very specific to this story and not really indicative of anything more than that,” he added.

When asked about the advice he would give to fellow Muslim Americans seeking to follow in his career path, Youssef spoke of the importance of taking risks.

“Take risks, don’t be worried about the feedback that you may or may not get. Just know, that if you’re young and want to be something, you just have to be as authentic as you can. Be yourself,” Youseff said.

He finished his advice off with a practical note: “Try to pray and drink a lot of water.”

The first season of Ramy is available on Hulu. Earlier this month, the network announced that the show had been renewed for a second season.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.