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Ramy Youssef Is Ready for Some Hard Conversations

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Ramy Youssef’s new HBO stand-up special, More Feelings, at its core, is about reaching a point in life where you’re able to recognize cycles—and the realization that you don’t always find yourself in the same role when those cycles come back around. Like Youssef’s first HBO special, 2019’s Feelings, the new offering was directed by Christopher Storer, now best known as the creator and co-showrunner of The Bear; this one was filmed at Jersey City’s White Eagle Hall, about a 30-minute drive from Youssef’s hometown of Rutherford. “The intention here is how do we keep it really intimate, really small,” the 32-year-old said, “and really kind of just focus on the material? I grew up in Jersey, and it felt nice to do something so close to home.”

Youssef’s profile has risen steadily over the past five years, since the premiere of his self-titled Hulu series, an autofictional depiction of his life as a first-generation Egyptian American navigating complex family dynamics, a struggle with faith, and the many iterations of Islamophobia in our society. In 2020, he won a Golden Globe for best actor in a television series–musical or comedy for his role in the show. Then, in 2022, he co-created Mo, a quasi-spinoff series about a Palestinian refugee trying to find his place in Houston. And last year, he hit the big screen, playing medical student Max McCandless in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, which earned 11 Oscar nominations and took home four awards at this year’s ceremony. Youssef has also been one of the most outspoken entertainers regarding Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Recently, he’s been calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and he’s dedicating 100% of the money from the show’s tour to Gaza relief efforts.

Ahead of the new special’s Saturday premiere, Youssef jumped on Zoom to discuss the pressures of being a Muslim public figure in a moment like this one (the “Mayor of Muslim disaster,” as he puts it in the stand-up), the real-life experiences that informed his new material, and his future plans in both television and film.

GQ: There’s a moment in More Feelings where you talk about being in the back of a car on the way to a gig, and getting a call from your mother, and being hesitant to speak to her in Arabic. It becomes about you feeling obligated to convince the driver, whose car is full of MAGA regalia, that you’re not violent. There's a very similar scene in the Ramy flashback episode set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I’m curious if this moment—with everything that’s happening in Gaza and all over Palestine, and the reaction to it—has taken you back to what it was like to be a kid back then.

RAMY YOUSSEF: Yeah. It's almost this weird time machine in a way. I think that over the last 20-plus years, there's been a slow feeling of, Okay, people are starting to get to know us more, and there's more understanding. And then I think something like this happens, and there are moments where you can sense that people [around you]—sometimes closer to you than you think—are curious whether you are okay with that kind of violence. It's incredibly dehumanizing, I think, and it's rooted in so much misunderstanding, and so it makes you feel, Okay. We didn't really heal. We just kind of put a Band-Aid on it. And then the optimist in me then says, Okay, cool. So this is where we're at. So now, let's actually do the healing, let's have the hard conversations, and let's actually be real.

No one's holding back right now, and that could feel like it's negative, but I actually wonder if the no-holding-back could actually be the beginning of a genuine reckoning or a genuine understanding. You can kind of view this spewing out as, Oh my God, we're more divided than ever, but I'm almost wondering—is this just a big release? And then maybe there could be something on the other end of it that's better. I think it's important to hope that there's something else that's better on the other end of it, because I think that could actually make that true.

Do you feel optimistic? Because, honestly, being a Black person who grew up in America, my optimism level is very low. I have hopes for personal progress. I have hopes for collective progress. But if you were to ask me, do I think it’s actually coming? That’s when I’m like, Ugh, I don’t know. History tells me that things change, incrementally, but overall I don’t know. Hearing you say that laying it all out on the table can actually get us somewhere—do you also have that voice in the back of your mind, like, This is kind of just what it is, and every now and then, people will actually say how they feel, but they probably just feel this shit anyway?

I think that I'm open to it leading to something that looks optimistic, right? I think that you kind of have to be open to that, or at least I feel like I have to be open to that, because if I'm not, then it might actually be impossible to function. Obviously, to your experience, being Black in America, there’s so much justification for a built-in cynicism about the system. And I think a lot of people who left countries in the Middle East or in Europe were under regimes that were also breeding a massive amount of cynicism.

The hope is that, okay, America kind of bills itself as the place where progress can happen fastest, where there are the least barriers to progress, where there is an encouragement for healing and for openness. And so I'm kind of in a position where I'm trying to say, "Hey, I'd like to take you up on that promise. I'd like to take you up on that offer."

And could [America] be that, instead of it looking more like all the places that we criticize? Instead of it looking like [a place] that's totalitarian, and actually, no, there isn't free speech? So I think my pushback is more, "Hey, I believe in everything you're telling me about this place, so why don't we do that? I believe in what you've told me about America, so let's do it, actually."

You’re really open in the special about the difficulties of being seen as a figurehead for the Muslim community—the mayor of Muslim disaster, as you put it, where people are reaching out to you like, “Yo, why didn’t you speak on the floods in Pakistan,” or “Why didn’t you speak on what's happening in Iran right now?" You're just one person, and it's obviously impossible for you to solve all these things—but the beauty of that, to me, is that it actually shows that the shit you’re saying and doing, even as one person, actually has a real impact. People look to you as a beacon of some sort. I’m wondering if you ever view it that way.

I guess it's hard to view it that way, in a sense. On one level, I just want there to be more touch points for people. I've always felt really bad for some of the communities I'm in, when my show or my work has been marketed to them as, "Hey, Muslims, here's something for you," right? Because what I do is incredibly specific. And so I think if I wasn't making it and I didn't fit the profile of who would like the show, I'd be like, "What the hell are you talking about? This has nothing to do with me," you know?

So, do I think about it that way? I guess sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I don't think I think about it that way when I'm creating the work, but I do try to figure out, "Hey. Okay. There might be some people who do care about what I say, and I do want to be thoughtful and try to be supportive in a way that I can."

We’re around the same age. Entering this stage of life, I’m starting to really recognize cycles, which is interesting. You talk to older people as you’re growing up, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah—these same things happened in the ’80s,” or whatever. But now I’m of an age where I’m starting to realize that in America, everybody who’s not white gets their turn at being the enemy of the moment. It could be Black people for a year, then it could be Latino people, crossing the border for six months, and then it could be Muslim people.

It could be Asian people.

Yeah. It could be anybody. It’s almost like recognizing this place has a personality. It's a country, but it has attributes that start to be predictable.

Wow. That's such a great way of putting it.

It’s like, OK, well, I know what I’m dealing with. Now, how do I figure out ways of maneuvering around it without driving myself nuts?

I think that's actually something that my dad used to say—along the lines of, "It's our turn," you know? I think when my dad showed up in the '80s, a lot of that was actually being done to Russians in movies, in cinema. That accent is associated with fear, espionage. There's something merciful about that framing, of, "Oh, it's just our turn.”

It’s bleak as fuck, but…

No, yeah. But it supposes that [you shouldn’t] take it personally, which for better or for worse, was helpful for me. But then I think that there's times when it's okay to be angry, and you should be, but what do you do with that? How do you take those feelings and make it something that could be an offering, you know?

Your family, and the complexities of navigating those relationships with family, is obviously a huge part of your work. There’s a bit in the special about going to Olive Garden with your father, and he breaks down to the waiter that Youssef is not your family’s real last name, and you’re finding that out in that moment.

It's funny. I grew up with a Jamaican stepfather in the house and I used to harbor this resentment for him. He’s not a soft or very emotive person, and I’d be like, "What is it with him? Is it an issue with me? Does he just not fuck with me?" My understanding of him was so fragmented. I grew up with this confusion, when I was young-young, and then once I hit middle school, puberty, I started to be like, "No. Actually, I'm not fucking with him whatsoever."

But watching your show and the new special, it kind of put some things in perspective. It makes you realize, we just don't know. They're our family, but we don't really know what they were going through before they came to this country. The shit that they had to leave in their past to be able to push forward.

My hope, and I hope it comes across—and I mean, you saying that makes me really happy, because the only reason I'm telling jokes about my dad is because, actually, they're all in support of him. Especially when you watch the whole special, and I kind of realize how similar I am [to him], you know? It’s this recognition and this understanding. Okay, yeah, there’s this disconnect, but I understand why. You don’t see your mother, so that I can go to school.

There’s all these tension points, but the older I get, the more I understand. And it's always been interesting too, hearing my father—even now, he'll talk about older members of our family, and maybe they're acting a certain way, and then my dad, really wisely will be like, "Well, I don't know. Maybe when I'm his age, I might act that way too." And I was just kind of like, "Wow. Yeah," because I now know that, just from things I thought about [him]. You grow and then you go, "Oh, wow. Okay, okay, okay. That's what that was," you know?

You put so much of your family life in your work. I'm sure all of it is not true to life, necessarily, but is that therapeutic for you? Because it feels like, a lot of times, you're answering questions that you might've just grown up with, or just making peace with certain emotions, or trying to understand them. I feel like something shifts in life once you realize, "Oh, my parents are just regular people that ended up having me." And I feel like once I reached that level, I'm like, "Okay. I'm not going to place all this shit on them anymore."

Yeah. I only really bring up my family in order for me to take personal responsibility for where I am. I think that a lot of the therapeutic pieces I figure out in writing, or I figure out in actual therapy. And then what I end up bringing to stage is what I figured out through those processes, and what stuck with me through those, and then I kind of put that interrogation on display.

It feels like the ball is really in your court right now. You have this new special coming. Ramy is a really well-received show, an impactful show. Poor Things just happened. Have you thought much about what’s next?

In terms of, quite literally, what’s next, after the special comes out, I’m doing SNL on the 30th, which I’m really pumped about. That’s a big, big bucket-list thing. And then I’m writing a bunch of different things and kind of seeing what's going to make sense to do next. I’m open to the right acting things, if they make sense, but I feel like the next thing I’m going to do is going to be something I’ve written. And I think that we will do more Ramy, it's just a matter of when. I don't think it's going to be immediately.

We’re talking a few days after the Oscars, where your film Poor Things did really well. You’ve said Yorgos Lanthinos told you that you should just be making movies, instead of TV. Is that something you actually want to do, and if so, what does that look like in your mind?

It's definitely something I've thought a lot about. Even the Ramy episode you were talking about earlier, the “Strawberries" episode in season one—that was the first thing that I had directed, fully, professionally, before. I'd obviously directed my own little things, but first time really doing it for a network and with a crew. And it was based on a movie idea that I’d had, but I ended up making it an episode. A lot of the episodes on Ramy can feel like contained little films, and so I think the idea of wanting to do a longer-play contained story and really sit in the world of a film has been exciting to me for a while. And then, yeah—obviously, getting that kind of push from Yorgos is pretty cool, even if he said it aggressively. So it's definitely taking shape, and I'm definitely circling, I think, a few areas that I haven't played in before. I'm really excited about getting to figure that out at some point over the next couple of years.

What was it about Poor Things that made you want to get involved?

Yorgos. I mean, he's just tonally unmatched. The way that he makes things funny while showing you things that you haven't really seen. He makes eating spaghetti look chilling, you know? That he's really good at keeping his tone, while also doing everything that he wants to do. It felt so exciting to be asked to go and play in whatever world he was making. And then when I read the script, I also realized, "Oh, wow. He's making a huge comedy, and that's really cool," and so that was very exciting.

You’re one of the few celebrities—I don't know if you identify as a celebrity, but one of the few public voices that have been extremely outspoken about what's going on in Gaza right now. And you have been, long before October 7th. It's been part of your work. You filmed in Palestine for Ramy. So I'm curious to know what your perception of Jonathan Glazer’s acceptance speech was.

I think that, in general, because things are really raw right now and really painful, everyone is getting incredibly caught up in what words he used. But I think it's all kind of pointing to the same thing, right? So when I am really passionate about calling for a permanent ceasefire, that's for everybody, right? That's for the Palestinians, who’ve [experienced] entire generations being wiped out. But also we've seen that a ceasefire is the only way that hostages have been able to return to their families. And it's what many of the hostage families within Israel are also asking for, right? So it's an ask to stop violence. And I think that if you look at what Jonathan was saying, it's just that. And so, it's actually incredibly simple. I think we have the luxury in America to argue over wordplay, while people there just want it to stop. And the obsession over how someone said something—I really wish that it was more directed towards, What are the things that we can do to reach what we all want to reach.

It's funny you said “identify as a celebrity.” I'm not trying to get into celebrity talk of “peace and love for all.” But you know what? Fucking peace and love for all. Yeah. I think there's nothing wrong with saying that. That's not cheesy. It is what people want, but I think that it's impossible to achieve that with the amount of force that's being used right now. And so I think that's what he was saying, and I think that it's what his film says so beautifully. His film is an amazing contribution to Jewish cinema, it's an amazing contribution to human cinema, and it's something that everyone can kind of look at and say, "What is on the other side of my wall that I put up in order to [go on with] my normal life?" Look at my relationship with my wall. Okay. We all have a wall. How high is my wall? Am I allowing myself to see things over that wall, or am I blinding myself? It's about understanding your relationship with your own blind spots. I saw a man speaking about his relationship to his blind spots and his relationship to what he cares about, and I actually think everyone critiquing [Glazer’s speech] cares about the same stuff that he cares about.

Originally Appeared on GQ