Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
The Performer: Ramy Youssef
The Series: Ramy
It’s rare that an award-winning actor gets featured in this column, but as Ramy Youssef put it in his 2019 Golden Globe acceptance speech for Best Actor in a Television Series (Musical or Comedy), “Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show. Everyone is like, ‘Is this an editor?’”
It’s time for people to see it (if you haven’t already).
With season two now officially on Hulu, Ramy is a revelation in TV/streaming — from its content to its artistry. In the ground-breaking series, Youssef plays Ramy, a somewhat self-doubting millennial born to Egyptian immigrants who is coming to grips with what it means to be a first-generation Muslim in America. He’s on a constant quest to grow, but often finds himself fighting inner demons that fly in the face of his faith and what most would call “good choices.”
Season two arrives with a porn-obsessed Ramy ready to dive deeper into his Muslim roots in hopes of filling a massive void. This leads him to a local mosque where he befriends Sheikh Ali (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) and separately, his daughter Zainab (MaameYaa Boafo).
Coming off a break-up with his Egyptian cousin (yes, you read that right) at the end of season one, Ramy is resolved to become a better person at the urgings of his friends and begins to ingratiate himself to the Sheikh with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, as we’ve come to learn, the best of intentions don’t always pan out for Ramy, and drama often follows in his wake.
Without giving too much away, first, Ramy goes all-in on befriending an American Iraq vet suffering from PTSD, introducing him to the Muslim faith before that goes a bit sideways.
Then, after exploring a new relationship with the Sheikh’s daughter (despite reservations from the Sheikh), Ramy explores the potential to screw that up while pondering a polygamous future.
Sprinkled throughout the series (and this is what makes it somewhat genius) are Ramy’s rather entertaining asides with his family and friends as he consistently tries to achieve growth.
There’s a brilliantly uncomfortable episode when his friends take him to Atlantic City for a quick bachelor party getaway. It involves a stripper seductively hijacking his prayer beads and lending a hand to his wheelchair-bound friend (Steve Way), who suffers from muscular dystrophy.
Throughout it all, Youssef (who is the show’s creator as well) plays the imperfect Ramy rather perfectly, exuding vulnerability out of every pore as he wraps his head around a human struggle that plagues all of us. That is, how to be a better person in the face of other programming, parental pressures and the temptations that the American cultural backdrop provides on the daily.
There’s also the constant battle between old-world thinking and new, best summed up by Ramy’s dogmatic Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli), the owner of the jewelry store where Ramy works. He tells Ramy in rather oblivious, offensive terms that his Jewish customers “Want man like you… who feels a little bit like a woman but is still officially a man. Maybe transsexual.”
But no character is exactly like they seem in Ramy, which is something that makes the series incredibly layered and smart. All highlighted by a talented ensemble cast — lead by Youssef.
The 29-year-old Youssef was born in Queens to Egyptian parents and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey, where Islam was influential in his upbringing. Being a devout Muslim in modern-day America is not only at the heart of the semi-autobiographical Ramy, but over the years, has informed his standup act, which can be seen in last year’s HBO special, Ramy Youssef: Feelings.
After briefly attending Rutgers University before dropping out to pursue a comedy career at age 20, Youssef’s acting career started rather typically with roles in short films from 2009-2013.
After bouncing around for a few years, Youssef hatched the idea for Ramy while on the set of the Scott Baio-led sitcom See Dad Run (2012-2014), where Youssef was “praying in between takes” according to Rolling Stone. That’s where he met creative partners like Ramy co-creator Ari Katcher, who eventually introduced Youssef to EP Jerrod Carmichael and his other co-creator Ryan Welch. Together, they all hoped for the chance to create something that would serve his Muslim-American viewpoint. Little did they know that Hulu would soon green-light the show.
Other than a recurring role in Mr. Robot (2017) with that other Rami, Oscar winner Rami Malek, Youssef landed other small parts along the way in films like Why Him? (2016), where he played a coder and then a “drinker” in Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018).
But it was through his standup that he harnessed the act that would eventually lead him to Ramy.
Now, with a Golden Globe under his belt — not to mention a recent 2020 Peabody Award celebrating the series as an important contribution to American pop culture, Youssef and his signature backward-wearing baseball hats are looking at an even brighter future ahead.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.