Ramy Youssef, the multi-hyphenate star and creator of RAMY on Hulu, reunites with his S2 co-star Mahershala Ali for a conversation on faith, creative callings, and one-on-one basketball.
Topics covered include: Mecca, the art of walking a fine line, Ramy’s inner Arab negotiator, hot-button issues, mercy, relatable characters in unrelatable worlds, miracles of filmmaking, how Ramy beat Mahershala at one-on-one basketball, fractured attention, pimple management, comfort zones, Mahershala’s dream of directing, the urgency of the daily lunch order on set, killing vampires in Atlanta, and the Sheikh-Ramy fight scene we need to see in Season 4.
Mahershala Ali: Mahershala Ali for the A24 podcast, along with my brother from another mother.
Ramy Youssef: Ramy Youssef here at the A24 podcast. Mahershala Ali, this is fun. This is mad fun.
Mahershala: Ramy, I know you're leading the way on this, because you're the—
Ramy: Let me ask you something. All right, let me ask you, because I heard you while I was on mute. You were looking at my... I have this Zoom profile photo of... I don't even know where it's from, but it's this really beautiful architectural gorgeous thing where the sunlight is kind of coming in, right? It's dark and then the sunlight is coming in, and it looks like this beautiful place to pray. And then you started talking about pilgrimages, and then I started thinking, "Oh, have you been to Mecca? Have you done a pilgrimage?"
Mahershala: No, no.
Mahershala: No. You're spiritually bragging over there right now. I see it in his face.
Ramy: No— [Laughs]
Mahershala: You’re like, “I’m good.”
Ramy: I haven't done the big one. And I think, for those who don't know, there's many pilgrimages you can do at any time. And then there's the Hajj, which is... It comes in the bigger Eid that comes after the Ramadan Eid. I haven't done the one, I haven't done the one one, but I've done the mini one. I think that's emblematic of my personality.
Mahershala: When you do—
Ramy: I've kind of done the pilgrimage.
Mahershala: When you do it, you’ve got to do it like tw Khaled and just be filming the prayer the next day.
Ramy: He’s the best. He's all about positivity. You're also a very positive person, though. I find you to be, just being outside with you in negative four degree weather on a railroad track. I'm like, "Oh, Mahershala is a really positive guy."
Mahershala: I have to try. Cause you start going, the thoughts take over, you start going down that rabbit hole. And then how I feel when I get into a negative space is not pleasant to be around. You suck the energy out of the room. So, I try to keep it relatively uplifted, and, shoot, you're that way for sure. And it's inspiring just in general, just your energy and your ability to just galvanize people, bring people together, always thinking about other people before yourself. It's pretty extraordinary, man.
Ramy: I mean, working with you is the same. I remember we worked with you for a couple days and then we were like, "Oh, he's not actor-y." Cause you're so good. So, we're like, "He's got to be actor-y. He's probably really pensive and meditates, and you're definitely a pensive guy, but in a good way. But on set, it's just all jokes.
Mahershala: Yeah. We had fun and I need to say, because I had my head in the sand at the time. So, I got to the third season late. But, man, what a fantastic season, bro. What a fantastic season, man. And let me say, real quick, one of the things I quite appreciated was, just in watching your show in general, there's just an inherent degree of anxiety that I think, as an audience member, you just carry, and you are always rooting for Ramy even though you get annoyed with him, and all that kind of thing. But what I thought was really interesting and a little unsettling was, and you could correct me if I'm wrong, but it's just how I interpreted the flow and course of the season was, we do it, we have people that we're in close proximity to that do it. But there's that thing where somebody settles into a certain type of mediocrity or settles into a way of being that isn't necessarily their highest self.
And what I always appreciated about Ramy was that he was always very consciously struggling toward trying to be the best version of himself, even though he trips up time and time again, and that's what makes it so entertaining. And there was a sense in the third season for me that it was almost like he had outgrown that struggle, like he'd dipped into a place for a moment. Cause the season goes by so quick, but there is a sense that, "You know what? I'm feeling good about myself. I'm earning money. I can take care of myself. I can even help my family if they'll accept it, but this is... I'm going down this path." Even though he's trying to get things right with Zainab and everything like that. But there was a sense that he was settling into something, and then before it's all over, the Ramy that we know, there's that awakening, that reawakening that happens.
And I just thought it was just so well done. And the other thing I love is that everybody gets their moment on that show. And as somebody who's come up in this business where so many times you're tucked away in the periphery, it's really beautiful and refreshing to see people who just got to... They play their part, they come in, they make their contribution, and then you keep moving the story along. But then suddenly they're the star of the show for an episode. And you get to really get to know a character and really relate to how they are as an individual dealing with their own path, their journey, their issues, their struggles, their aspirations. And so, in a certain way, every character on that show is sort of equal, in a sense.
Of course we see more of you than anyone else, but everybody feels important. And that's a great achievement, man. And you're clearly the showrunner and writer and all that kind of stuff. So, I'm sure that there's some awareness of that. But just as an actor who hasn't necessarily been in a position where you're show-running or have any desire to even attempt that crazy feat, to see how well you take care of your characters is one of the things that makes the show really fascinating. So, I just think that there's a real generosity in how you present these characters. And even there's a real generosity in the people you give opportunity to. Adel, for instance, who, the audience may not be aware, but he plays—
Ramy: Yeah, Dena's love interest.
Mahershala: Dena's love interest, and I was just smiling from ear to ear. I had to text him and just let him know, "Bro, I'm so proud of you, man." He did fantastic work and here it is—
Ramy: You don't think I saw that text three minutes after you sent it? Where I'm getting Adel calling me being like, "Yo man, Mahershala says I'm a good actor." And I'm like, "Dear God, I've created a monster."
Mahershala: He killed it. I'm like, "I want more of him." I really want more of him.
Ramy: He killed it.
Mahershala: So, that's a really long-winded way of me saying congratulations and just fantastic work, man.
Ramy: You're such a big part of it, man. I think you coming into our show was really one of the best things that could have happened, not only to the show, but I think just to me as a person, because I think that I felt—First off, I couldn't believe that you were a fan of the show, which was amazing. But then it was amazing to... I think in terms of just being generous with a story, I think that I had always gone into making something with the desire that what we're trying to do, the philosophical idea, the higher aspiration is the thing that we're serving.
So, this is a show. Yes, the show is called Ramy, which was... If you knew me back then, you'd know how hard I was brainstorming for alternate titles, but it's what we ended up calling it. But the real thing we were really trying to do is show faith as a real human inner struggle and show it as something that I think, in a grounded human way, watching someone aspire or watching somebody seek.
And I think part of what you're talking about in what shifted in the Ramy character in the third season was, we went in saying, "Oh, this is the first time we're going to see this character not seeking. What does it look like if he turned that off, he's exhausted of seeking?" But the show began, and I think by the end of the season, he's back to seeking. But it really began with this active desire to show spiritual seeking in a way that felt human, that felt real, and that didn't treat religion like a punchline, but also didn't dance around the topic in a way where you're afraid to say things. And so, I went in saying I'm serving that idea, that's the thing that's most important. And so, I think when we realized that we were going to have you in our show, we were already like a month into our writer's room and had a bunch of ideas that I've been stewing on, and then I think your arrival into it, we basically undid everything that we were doing.
And what was so joyful about that for me, even though it actually was kind of stressful and I didn't want to fuck it up, and I wanted you to be happy, and I wanted it to work for the story and I wanted all these things, what was really joyful about it, and why I say it changed my life was because I realized that I got to put to the test the reality of, "Oh, this isn't just about serving what's in my head. I'm actually trying to serve this idea that the show is about." So, even though it's "my show", the show actually belongs to the idea that we set out to do, and everything else comes after that. And so, Mahershala Ali wants to be on the show after we talked—I asked you and you said yes, I had to ask. And then I was like, "Oh crap, he said yes? Shit. I thought he—”
Mahershala: I said yes to two episodes and then it was like, "How about three? How about four? How about five?" I was like, "Ramy, you got this much time. Let's just do it in this timeframe. I'll do it—”
Ramy: I know. That's just the Arab negotiator in me too.
Mahershala: I'm so honored, man. I’m so honored.
Ramy: So, I'm like, "All right, what's the best deal we can get here? How much can we squeeze out of this time with Mahershala? I mean, it's Mahershala." But it was really expansive, is what I'm trying to say. It was really expansive to bring in your character, it totally shifted the DNA of the show in a way that I think the show needed. It was a spiritual process, even meeting you, having it work out, having it go from two to six episodes or whatever. I think it might have been six, and then have that bleed into what the third season was. Because I think the shifts we make from season to season have felt emblematic of years in a person's life. There's the year you're really seeking and everything feels hopeful. And then I would say the season we did with you is like, "Oh, there's this year where there is still that seeking, but it's starting to feel like the walls are closing in on you."
And then this third season really has this, "You know what? I'm sick of that feeling of the walls closing in on me. I'm sick of the feeling of even seeking and failing and falling. So, instead of these walls collapsing on me, I'm just going to leave the room. I'm not even going to try and do what I was trying to do." And then of course, the room pulls him back in. But it has been this really great journey. And I remember, yeah, I think I remember us having a conversation after the second season and I was like, "Dude, thank you for doing this. I feel like I learned the sauce of our show after doing the first two seasons and trying so many different things." And I think, in many ways, the third season is a reflection of the balance of profound and profane and serious and funny, and riding those lines in a way that I feel so thankful for the work we got to do on it because it really—It's just influenced me as a person.
Mahershala: I want to segue because of you speaking on the polarity of the show, and one of the things that continues to impress me, and I sincerely mean this, there are few shows I can point to where I see someone, a writer, a team of writers, a showrunner, really put on display the art of walking a fine line. And you do it time and time again on the show, and you've done it from the beginning where you are able to sometimes have Ramy act as an observer or just as the audience even, you're just seeing... And I don't mean this in a negative way, but with the baggage of Islam—Again, I don't mean that in a negative way, but I just mean with what we understand the teachings to be generally, even if we are wrong about some of those things. And you do a wonderful job of sometimes highlighting the specifics that actually offer an opportunity for people to correct how they may think of something. In this season, it was Israel-Palestine stuff, and to be able to speak on that in a way that was still entertaining, but hitting at some real truths, to Uncle Naseem and his sexuality, the things that Ramy continues to tackle over and over again.
There's so many things, if I went through your show, where you're commenting on the Uyghurs in China. And there's things that you'll constantly get into and you're able to, time and time again, hit that right spot on the mark where someone can watch it, embrace it, hear truth in it—Maybe they choose to be offended, I don't know. But my point is it just feels spot on, time and time again. And I imagine you guys have to have a lot of conversations when you dip into these sort of hot button issues. Or maybe not, maybe you guys have such a clear understanding of how to tackle these things, maybe you don't spend a lot of time concerned about something or walking things back or any of that. But that's one of the most impressive things is that you hit all these topics that can be really taboo culturally, taboo within Islam, and you're able to speak to them in a way where you don't hide.
Ramy: No, I appreciate that. I appreciate you noticing it obviously, because I think that the intention is never to be sensational and it's never to... We're never trying to exacerbate anything that is already inflamed. But I think what we're trying to do is bring something human and flawed to it. And I think a lot of polarity in public discourse is, "You're right, I'm wrong. I'm perfect, and you're saying I'm not perfect." And the other side is saying, "No, no, no, you're not perfect, I'm perfect." It becomes combative. And I think we really try to be precise in what we're saying. It's not even about being gray, because I do think we're pointed. I think that we provide a very pointed, clear critique of the Israeli government and military, and I think that we also tie that conversation and just zoom it out a little bit and show how linked it is to being in a country like America whose government and military operates almost identically, if not a blueprint, for how what's happening over there is happening.
So, to me, it's always not that there isn't anything you can't talk about, it's just, what are you going to put it next to as you're talking about it? There's all this information and there's all these feelings, and I feel like this is my job as a standup and then my job as someone in the show, and a lot of these things I try on stage first and I find the buttons of, "Oh wait, that's probably too far." But my job is to take all those feelings, take all these things and actually organize it and weave it in a way where it’s ingredients that can be tolerable and can actually open it up and expand into something light. You'd never drink a cup of vinegar, but you need it in hot sauce, and you like hot sauce.
And so, it's how do we take these things that we know need to be said, but also, they're part of something else larger that feels like it's a painting of the human condition. And I think the most interesting spiritual principle to me is mercy. And I think we actually try to have mercy with everything we talk about. I think that there is this undercurrent of mercy around, even—Whether it be Israel-Palestine, whether it be abortion, whether it be sexuality, whether it be self-loathing, I think we try to treat it with mercy. And part of that, to me, is really allowing the Ramy character to go through the fire of, "We're not protecting this guy." And someone called him an antihero, and I’m like—
Mahershala: And make it impersonal for every character though too. I think you do a wonderful job of honing in for each character, something that from the outside could just be viewed as a flaw in someone. And then once you humanize it, you understand that there's so much more texture to the many things that so many of us are processing in our journey. And that's where the mercy comes in because it's so connected to empathy. And I think you really protect the space for us to be empathetic towards these characters.
Ramy: And I think that's where I have so much fun with centering the show around other characters. And I think we had such a great time doing it with you on the show, and then we have this amazing cast of our family, and I think we get that empathy by switching the lens. I grew up on this mix of loving Tarantino movies and Coen Brothers movies and loving Apatow movies. And in an Apatow movie you relate to everybody. And in a Coen Brothers or a Tarantino movie, you relate to nobody because everyone is so weird.
And so, it was always, for me, "Oh, how do you take those relatable characters and throw them in these really unrelatable worlds where all the characters are kind of strange?" And it's a really fun thing to do on the show. Ramy is the guy we're following, everyone looks a little weird, his mom looks a little weird. She seems one-minded when we're in his point of view. His sister seems really aggressive and mean. And his dad seems zoned out, but now we're following his sister and all of a sudden Ramy looks really weird, but he's skewed—
Mahershala: She feels like she has it together a bit in comparison.
Ramy: She's got it way more together, and we totally get what's going on with her. And I think in a way too, that's kind of what it feels like as a person. And everyone online is always talking about, "I'm having my main character moment," or, "I feel like the main character or the hero." That's really pervasive slang that I really relate to because I think it's what's fun about designing a story the way that we did. And I think something that I wanted to ask you about, because I think you're so cool and interesting because you are someone who... I do think you're a transformative actor. I think that you're somebody who genuinely does the art and craft of acting in a way that I really admire, I think you become somebody else.
I feel like I'm really excited to keep acting and expand and do different things. And I also know there's always a little bit of me in it, it's just kind of how I roll. But with you, it's, oh, you are someone who really... You really embody it. At the same time, everything you do feels of a piece. Like Swan Song, I thought the questions it was asking and the way you embodied that, and you also produced that—I guess I'm curious, as you pick stuff and you're doing more producing and all of that, you obviously could have picked so many things, and you picked our TV show after winning an Oscar. I wanted to directly ask you what your organizing principle is for what you jump into and what you do.
Mahershala: Thank you for that, first of all. And one thing I do want to say before I attempt to answer your question, I think on the flip side, just as you have more and more time just in the work and in the space, I'm just curious and excited to see you in other people's projects and in other people's work just because, for a few years now, we basically seen you, if it's on TV, it's essentially your work and your writing, even though that's a shared effort, I'm sure, with other writers.
Ramy: Yeah, of course.
Mahershala: The show is named Ramy, part of your responsibility is to bring a lot of yourself to it. So, what I would love to see in your journey is how you're challenged and what you discover, the more and more you work outside of your own universe or bubble, because I think that's where I think a lot will be revealed to you about yourself and who you are as an actor, when you don't have the burden… And the luxury, but it's also the burden of doing your own work because it's the same for standup. That's your work. And so, there's the voice there that you—Why would you want to get away from that? You have to embrace it and you have to use it and you have to turn up the volume on that a little bit, right? And so you're going to feel different the more and more you have opportunities to dip into working for and with other people. So, I just wanted to say that real quick.
And I've only done that. My entire acting life is… Choose from what someone else was putting in front of me. So, with that said, one of the things that I do listen for when I read something is I listen for where fear comes up for me. And usually, that's a good indicator for if it's going to be challenging. And if I look for what's challenging or if I listen for what's challenging, then I think that, that's inherently telling me that this is something that goes beyond... Even if I have a sense that I can do it, it's still something that goes beyond a space that is known for me. It's going beyond my comfort zone. And so, if it's going beyond my comfort zone, that means I got to do something that I haven't done up until that point. That's why the Sheikh terrified me, because I hadn't done that.
When you asked me, it made me nervous, and closer we got to it, I got even more nervous about it, then it pushes me to the prayer mat and I started asking for help to make it easier for me. And one of the things I really want to be able to do, that I've always wanted to be able to do was to transform, to leave enough of myself behind where I didn't feel immediately energetically recognizable. And to really give over to the given circumstances and really try to commit to someone else's aspirations, problems and issues. And I think with that rigid, unending commitment, I think you can get there. I think it's just a muscle that you have to keep working on. And I do think, for some people, that might be easier than others. I don't know where I fall on that scale. I really don't, cause I only know myself. But I do think that that's always the goal, is to find something that I haven't had a chance to experience.
I don't have a desire to play another Washington lobbyist or whatever, unless it was so different from the one I've already played. So, I feel like it's probably just the Aquarius in me that always wants to be doing something different and experiencing something different and probably have a little ADD tucked away up in there somewhere where I have to—It's only going to interest me if it's something that is new, and that really grabs my attention and scares me enough for me to really stay focused on the outcome in a sense of it coming to life and feeling like, "That feels alive." After you read it or after you do a take or two, because I can also hear when it's falling flat, I can feel it when it's not alive yet. And so, that spark—
Ramy: Like music. Yeah.
Mahershala: Yeah. When it comes alive, you feel chemistry. And working with you, I felt chemistry. I felt it. There's times when you walk through and it's like, "Okay, that's cool." But then you get in take three and something pops and happens that you can't quite put your fear on, and you go, "That's what I'm looking for." And once you've experienced that before, you're constantly on the hunt for that. And if a day or a scene falls short of that, it's hard to live with that disappointment, for me. It's not a great feeling. So, it's really just wanting to meet a new character, wanting to meet a new person, wanting to meet a new opportunity. And as best I can, try to prep myself to make that character believable to myself and to the audience. And so, I think that's where the work is, because the rest, it has to kind of just happen with the magic of the day. You have to just be open to that appearing.
Ramy: It's so interesting too because you talk about even putting your head down on the mat. And I think for me too, having prayer as part of my life or approaching this spiritually, you realize how spiritual this business actually is, in a beautiful way. Because it's like there's these pages that have been written that we're trying to bring to life, but we don't see them yet. It even sounds like a parable when you talk about what it takes to make a movie. There is so much believing in the unseen and there is so much, "What can we find of ourselves in this and bring it?"
And when any of it ever comes together, I don't think— I just haven't met any great director that isn't expressive of the fact of, "It's a miracle that thing came together." No one seems that cocky of, "Of course this was going to work." I think everyone is like, "Whoa, it's a miracle that all that worked out. It's a miracle it didn't rain, it's a miracle it did rain. It's a miracle that we didn't die." There's so much faith and hoping and gratitude in it and it’s super spiritual.
Mahershala: And it's really humbling. It's a really humbling profession, in a way. It blows my mind if I meet someone that is in this business and they're arrogant, cause I'm like, "So much can go wrong." [Laughter] And so, I constantly feel really humbled by this business and by the task of storytelling.
Ramy: I don't know how anyone is arrogant. And I think speaking too of, there was something I wanted to bring up on the podcast that I think a lot of people wouldn't know, that almost really fractured our working relationship. We were in the middle of shooting and I challenged you to a one-on-one basketball game. And I think you showed up with some arrogance of, "I'm going to win this." And you had this, "Of course I'm going to win this." And I think we played five— ?
Mahershala: I had a robe on, man. I had a robe on. I couldn't even go between my legs in that thing.
Ramy: I think we played the five and I won. And there is footage. There's footage.
Mahershala: Oh my gosh.
Ramy: I don't know where it is. But, how did that feel? How did you re-conjure the serenity of the Sheikh after, you were pretty defeated, I think, after that happened?
Mahershala: It made me feel like next time I play you, I need to have on some shorts. That's what I felt like. [Laughter]
Ramy: I was wearing jeans. I don't think either of us were dressed for the game, but I was beating you off pure shots. It wasn't-
Mahershala: You got me. You got me. I will admit you got me. Unfortunately.
Ramy: That happens to me all the time though in basketball.
Mahershala: I wasn't quite prepared for your game.
Ramy: I think I get so underestimated in basketball that I usually win the first game and then I lose the next six because whoever I'm against is like, "Oh, I can't believe I let you do that, and now I'm going to—" If you noticed, I did not accept the second game because I knew what would happen. I know we haven't talked about that in a few years now, but I felt like—
Mahershala: We probably got called away from lunch. This is probably what happened. Next time, I'm not playing with just my left hand. Next time I'm going to use both hands.
Ramy: Here’s the thing. I think for me it's really important that there isn't a next time. I think we just— that's it. That's our record against each other. I want to know. And we never play another game.
Mahershala: You got me. You got me.
Ramy: It's really important to me.
Mahershala: You got me. I will admit. I want to ask what space feels most organic for you when you think about all the things that you do, that you're doing? Just on Ramy alone, you could— I used to joke with you because you just did everything, whether it's standup or acting, show-running, writing, producing, on maybe the ten other things that I don't know about that you do and are into. Is there a space that feels more of a— Not even a strong suit, but that you just feel most comfortable in? Or is it all of the above? Is it all the same for you to some degree?
Ramy: No, I think it's about— Well I kind of related to what you were saying when you were saying you feel like there's that ADD tucked away. And I feel like there's this big conversation about ADD-ness that is definitely a big part of our culture because I think all of our attention is getting so fractured. And so, I feel like that's naturally happening and I think there's certain people who are on top of that more prone to where their attention goes. I think part of why I enjoy doing so many things is because it truly keeps me focused. I actually can't look away and I think I like that it demands that of me. So, sometimes I would have this fear of, "Okay, if I'm only doing one thing, then I drift away and I come back."
But when I'm doing three things, it's like, "Okay, maybe I looked away from this." But I can't because this other thing is going to pull me back in. I'm not just acting, I'm not just this, I'm not just that. But I also think that there's some, in a way, there's some youth in that too. And I think as I've gotten to make the show, we've been making the show since 2017 and I think now I've been doing this for six years. And the more that I do it, I'm just starting to take my time more and just zone in on one part of the process more, like this season I really made an effort to, "Okay, how many things can I direct where I'm just not in it?" cause that brings a lot of joy to me to just only be focused on that for a day while I'm on set.
And so, I think the answer is really, for me, I don't think that I've gotten to a place where I can actually say one is genuinely better than the other. But I will say lately I've felt that when I'm directing something I've written, I think the combo of that feels really focusing because I still get that thing where I can't really look away. Because it's not just getting it on the page, but then there's all these other decisions we got to do as we're shooting. And so, there's something about balancing those two things where I feel really comfortable and then I like not having to be in shape. Or I'm not as aware of pimple management. I can get away with—
Mahershala: Relax the vanity of it, right?
Ramy: Yeah. Because the vanity will drive me. I could just chill and not cut my hair for a while. Although, part of this season I actually cut my hair. Our season, my hair was too long. I looked back, that was one thing where I was like, "Man, my hair was long." I gotta grow up.
Mahershala: The Egyptian Afro and silhouette.
Ramy: Yeah, I know.
Ramy: It was a vibe, but I stepped away and I was like, "Man, I looked a little raggedy there a couple of times." It just looked like— It fit the character. He was not taking care of himself. But I do think I've been enjoying that. But to your point, I think being in situations where I'm acting in something that— I got to do the film with Yorgos that's coming out this year. And that was what you described in a sense for me where I said, "Oh wow, I'm here. It's late 1800s. I have a British accent. Okay, this obviously isn't me." And again, there's some of it that has parts of me, but it did feel like the beginning of— It felt the beginning of I'm flexing something that I don't know. And that was really replenishing.
So, that's why I'm saying, I don't think I can— I think what I do like, and this is probably the immigrant kid in me, the thing I probably wholly net out at with the writing-directing piece, enjoying it even more, is that I feel like I have more control of it. There's part of me that's like, "I'm not waiting for a phone call. I don't have to worry about does somebody like me. I don't have to. I'm just built like, "I want to make stuff." We finished shooting this season, this third season, and I finished post and I was so exhausted.
I was like, "Man, I can't work." And then four days went by, five days went by and I had one day that I was by myself and I was just like, "All right, let me sleep in." And then I was just thinking of something that made me laugh, and I started writing on my notes, on my Apple notes on my phone. And then I started being like, "Oh, I don't want to wait to put this in the show. Maybe this could be a short film?" I met this guy at Prospect Park, he had a nice camera. "Maybe we could just shoot this as a short next week?” And all of a sudden I'm like—
Mahershala: This is who you are.
Ramy: "I have a problem.”
Mahershala: This just who you are.
Ramy: All of a sudden you're like, "Oh, shit!" But there's this thing that does feel like "Okay. At least I know I could do this." And maybe some of it is there's that safety in it. Growing up with the anxiety of “How are we going to pay our bills?” or just kind of making it but any check we get, we're sending a bunch of it back to Egypt. There's always this, “Nothing's ever really enough.” You're never quite where you need to be and all these things that I really respect my parents for going through. But then I look at myself, I'm like, "Oh yeah, I have that." And maybe I do feel more comfortable knowing "Okay, no matter what, I could write. And even if I lose my hands, I could dictate. And even if I lose my voice, I'll figure something out." You're always planning for a disaster.
Mahershala: When do you feel that calling to do standup? That must feel like a unique feeling when you feel— And what surprised me, just in spending time with you, I remember being surprised by how eager and at ease you appear to be about just going up on stage and not really knowing what you were going to do. I don't understand that. That's not a thing I understand. That feels really brave to me, but I doubt you’d describe it that way.
Ramy: I think the more you hang out with standup comics, it's hard to assign bravery to any of it. The more you're with a bunch of comics, you're like, "Oh, this is an elevated sickness that people have been duped into thinking is modern day philosophy." But no, I think it's this desire to connect. For me, it feels exciting to just, have an idea. And I like it because we're making the show, we're writing and whatever, it feels so— Every moment feels so precious and you want precision and we’ll battle back and forth about a line and do all that. And eventually, you'd find that precision in standup. But you don't need to have that this Tuesday night. This Tuesday night, you can just try the half-idea. This Tuesday night, you can try something you thought of Tuesday morning and it could connect or you could learn about the idea. There's no gap.
So, I think the part of me that loves the instantaneousness of it, loves the feeling of that feedback and back and forth. That, I really like. And I think it is fun to talk to people on stage. I don't really do the crowd-work thing where you go up and just zing people. It almost feels too easy. But I do where you do talk to people and find something and weave it into something that you were already carrying. And I think that's been really fun. I think it's funny, we have this whole storyline in our first season where Ramy falls in love with his cousin, but it came out of this crowd-work interaction I had at the Laugh Factory. I don't know if I ever told you this, but it was at the Laugh factory, and I thought this couple was on a date. And they looked at me like I was crazy. And he was like, "No, dude, this is my cousin. How can you think we're on a date?"
And I was like, "So what if she's your cousin?" And I just remembered the whole room being like, "What are you…?" It was this mix of laughter and disgust, and I was like, "I'm going to be honest, a lot of people in my family are each other's cousins." And everyone was like "Ugh." I was like, "Oh, I like this." I like that this is so real for me and so weird for everyone. But then there were a few people in the crowd who were like, "Oh yeah, I know what you're talking about." I remember the first time I started talking about that, it almost felt like this 15 minute town hall of someone being like, "That's gross!" "No, no, I get it." "Wait, what's the science of it?" "Wait, this is messed up. We shouldn't do it." Someone be like, "No!" It was this whole thing and that felt— I walked away very inspired.
Mahershala: And now that couple is married.
Ramy: [Laughter] I got a letter from them, they're like, "Man, you really changed our lives. You gave us the bravery to do what we didn't think that we want to do." Yeah, man. I almost did it when I went to go see you in Atlanta. That's really fun too. Go to a different city and then just get up there. It's a great way to just be in a city and meet people and just see what are the sensibilities here? They’re different everywhere.
Mahershala: Yeah. I never really considered how that's definitely part of the experience and adventure of being up there is doing comedy in Atlanta, and where you're doing it in Atlanta, would be totally different from doing it in Southern California or Jersey or New York or wherever else.
Ramy: Or London. You know?
Ramy: I just did stand up in London, and it's so clear how funny they find us. And not in a—
Mahershala: Not in a good way?
Ramy: In a, "You guys are fucking funny. You guys are weird. Running around with guns and no healthcare." You feel— It's not even a judgment, it's accuracy from a different point of view where you're like, "Oh my God." And that's always really— I think it's the same thing you're talking about of digging into a character. I feel like you get to know characters so you can get to know people and get to know the human, “Why are we here in this condition?” And it's the same thing— it’s getting to do this, get up on stage, do all that. It's just to get to know people and to feel something different for a night. Yeah, that's been something that feels so fun to then figure out, "All right, how does this work on screen?"
But yeah, man, something that I did feel with you, in terms of roles, because it's the question that: I'm waiting for Mahershala Ali, the director, and when that's going to happen cause I know it's going to happen.
Mahershala: Yes. Me too.
Ramy: I know it's going to happen. What's going to take that to happen? cause I felt it when we were working. "This dude knows everything that's happening right now." Which was, for me, actually comforting. At first I was— You made it not intimidating because you were basically like, "I'm so on your side. And so, here's a suggestion, here's whatever, because I love this and I want to be here." So, I was like, "Whoa, I have this instant teammate." But I was blown away by how much you did see of everything that was going on. And when does that happen?
Mahershala: I hope sooner than later. And I definitely, we've spoken about this, I definitely wanted to do that on your show. But I say a huge part of my comfort in just— I'm pretty good about communicating my ideas to whatever director I'm working with. But it was hugely inspiring working with you because you made something that is extraordinarily difficult appear to be fairly easy in how you carry yourself, how you make choices, how you feel relatively confident in the choices that you're making, and how you interact with your crew, incorporate your DP into the idea. You might go, at that time, check in with Chris Storer about something, the way you do the dance, it's clear that you're aware of how much falls on your shoulders but you do a wonderful job of bringing people in the way in which you operate with a light counsel.
But again, you're clearly the lead here, and the way in which you navigate and communicate your ideas. It definitely left an impact on me. And I'm still blown away at as to how you do it all and how you manage it all. Some of that is just who you are, but the way in which you just handle yourself as a director, I love how you don't appear to overthink. There's a lot of trust in how you work and operate. And, for me, I think it was the first time where I felt, in real time, that I want to direct. I do. Where I admitted it to myself. A lot of that had to do with just watching how you operated and did things. I think, if anything, I felt freer just to communicate, "Hey, why don't we try it like this?"
And you really do welcome, at least with me, I felt like my thoughts and ideas were always heard and embraced. If it worked, cool, and if it didn't work, it didn't work. We'd try something else. Or you tell me why something may not work and we just wouldn't do it. But a lot of that just had to do with just being in proximity to you. Because I can be heady at times. And I get a little bit anxious about wasting work opportunity or moments. And I’m thinking, just your presence encouraged me to relax a bit. And so, I just appreciate it, how you approached it all.
Ramy: It means so much. You made it— Again, made it really— You injected this whole new life into it. And that was part of being able to feel so much ease and faith too, because it was straight up like, we're going with this miracle of, "Wow, we're all here and we're all doing this. And who would've thought?" So, that had so much of the energy flowing through it. And it's funny too, even mentioning Storer, we didn't have him on season three cause he was doing The Bear, which is awesome.
Ramy: It's so good and—
Mahershala: Oh, I've seen it.
Ramy: And it's funny because I've been talking with him and he's been telling me about it and we've been talking about that show for years and talking about kitchen culture and—
Mahershala: It just made me, real quick, it just made me think about, "These dudes and food, man." Ramy and Chris and food!
Ramy: I know. That was the thing where you were like “You do everything” because we would, every day, organize a lunch order. It didn't matter what was going on, even if there's a rewrite, even if whatever, we got—
Mahershala: You'd show up to my trailer, I'd be like, "What is this sandwich?”
Ramy: We've got this! We looked up this sandwich. Most of the shoot would be like, "What?"
Mahershala: We're in the middle of Staten Island somewhere. How'd you find the sandwich?
Ramy: No, we would hunt people down. We'll grab random people and be like, "What's the restaurant I don't know about?" And we have a huge casting issue, there's a fire going on, we lost the location, we're dealing with all that, but then same urgency, “Where are we eating? Very important.” We're researching. We got a food map. But I got to know, not just Chris, but his sister, Courtney. And I love— So much of what they portrayed, it was just this whole, "Yes, chef. No, chef." But I remember talking to someone at a restaurant, they were like, "The only correct answers are, "Yes, chef.", "No, chef.", or "I don't know, chef."" And I think my favorite one is, "I don't know, chef." cause it has this assertiveness and I feel, even to talk about light counsel and having a light counsel around or, to me, the way that I enjoy having teams, and we build teams. The show is such a team effort. I'm maybe—
I was watching this great opera video on YouTube, and the conductor is sweating and doing all this and whatever, but this one dude has this solo and it's so amazing. And you're like, "Yeah, that guy is the star of the show. It's the guy singing. The conductor is doing the thing, but the guy is singing." And it's just that visualization of it and watching how that can take place. The best sets feel like that; everyone gets that moment to shine. Everyone knows one thing the other person doesn't know. And so, how do you leverage the knowing and not knowing into something that has harmony as opposed to needing to feel like you know everything, or needing to feel you're manhandling or controlling the thing?
And I think that's what I find fun about it, is how do we make that happen. And we keep learning and it keeps growing and all of that. And that's been the fun part of the journey with it. So, I think it was cool, man. It was cool talking to you about it afterwards and feeling like, "Oh, shit. I wonder what movie Mahershala is going to pick to direct." And I don't know what vibe even has sat with you in your mind of what you'd jump into, but it’s definitely something that I'm looking forward to.
Mahershala: I can tell you what type of movie I want to act in, that I'm hoping you'll write and direct.
Ramy: Tell me, please.
Mahershala: But I feel like I should tell you offline so that it can actually happen.
Ramy: [Laughter] Yeah, tell me offline.
Mahershala: I've changed my mind. I'm not going to tell you.
Ramy: Yeah, don't put it out. Don't tell me now.
Mahershala: I'm serious though!
Ramy: No, I'll come to Atlanta. Fine, I'm coming again next month.
Mahershala: I'm serious. So, I need to— The Sheikh is cool, I'm down. I'll pop back in. But I want to do something else.
Ramy: Oh my God, I'm taking this as a season four-
Mahershala: [Laugter] I just got to get out of Atlanta, man. I'm up here killing vampires for years, bro. I got to finish killing these vampires and I could leave Atlanta for a second.
Ramy: I was talking to Tyson, our line producer, about that. I was like, "I don't know what his look for Blade is, but we want to do this fourth season. We want it to be the last one. We'll just go to Atlanta and just get— We need the final Mahershala scene!” We'll just go to Atlanta, even if he's dressed as Blade, we'll figure it out. I don't know.
Mahershala: Inshallah, I'm doing it. Fangs and all, bro. Good thing is, I should have a beard. So, I should be ready to go.
Ramy: There you go.
Mahershala: But you know what? Sheikh needs a fight scene, that's all.
Ramy: Dude, I think everyone wants to see the Sheikh-Ramy fight scene.
Mahershala: It don't have to be you. Maybe he saves you. Maybe he saves you. He just starts whooping ass. [Laughter] So, I'm totally down, but yeah, man. So, I do look forward to working with you again because it is truly, sincerely one of the, not only great joys of my career, but just one of the great joys of my life. You are really one of those people who does impact people's lives, man. You really do. And I've seen it. So many people, there's a long line of people who would be like, "Ramy really impacted my life, man." And you wouldn't even know, it's just what you do. But it's just a real blessing getting to work with you and to share time and space with you and continue to just be in contact with you. And I need more of it. So anyway, I'm just putting it out there.
Ramy: Same. I can say the same exact thing back without any hyperbole. What you did to our show and my life is never to be— is never forgotten. And then we get the commemorate a little bit of it, I guess, on this podcast. [Laughter]
Mahershala: Yeah. Beautiful.
Ramy: Just a slice. Just a slice of— Yeah, man. I love you, man.
Mahershala: Love you too, brother.