Ramy Youssef on Working With Bella Hadid, Exploring Polygamy in ‘Ramy’ Season 3 and Potentially Ending With Season 4

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched “Ramy” Season 3.

Ramy is suffering an identity crisis.

The character, that is. “Ramy” the show, as well as its creator and star Ramy Youssef, couldn’t be in a more confident place creatively. After Season 2 finale “You Are Naked in Front of Your Sheikh” saw Ramy confess to Zainab (MaameYaa Boafo) on their wedding night that he’d cheated on her with his own cousin (Rosaline Elbay) the night before, Season 3 begins with a full embrace of the dirtbag Ramy has become. He’s left his job with his uncle Naseem (also a dirtbag, played by Laith Nakli) to start his own competing business in New York’s diamond district, and having lost the religious guidance of Zainab’s father, Sheikh Ali Malik (Mahershala Ali), he is nothing outside of his work. He’s rich now, but nearly friendless, especially neglecting his longtime best friend Steve (Steve Way).

Ramy’s only comfort comes from Boomer, the dog that the Sheikh had him rescue in Season 2. But even that goes away. In lieu of God, Ramy searches for meaning in his nights with a sex worker named Olivia (Sarita Choudhury), and the two accidentally kill Boomer. With so little remaining connection to his old life, he finally begins to self-reflect. The finale, “We Gave It All Up For Hot Dogs,” ends with the implication that Ramy could find redemption.

With Season 3 now streaming on Hulu, Youssef spoke with Variety about sex, drugs and the end of “Ramy.”

Season 3 opens with Ramy making a difficult decision about whether or not he should travel to Israel for business, being a supporter of Palestine and the BDS movement. Was it a difficult to decide to shoot on location in Jerusalem?

Shooting in Jerusalem was a no-brainer. We worked with a really amazing Palestinian crew that supports a very vibrant, up-and-coming film industry that we were excited to be a part of. Annemarie Jacir, who directed the episode, was an amazing collaborator.

This is an episode that we put a lot of thought into. We’re a writers’ room that has Muslim writers and Jewish writers, and [the episode] is a very diverse palette of the conversations we have. This is a pretty heated topic, obviously, and what I always thought could be comedic is, how do you take this big situation of Israel and Palestine, throw Ramy in there, and somehow he’s the biggest asshole of the whole thing? How can we unify by him bothering everyone on every side of the conversation? And in doing so, bring out the most human themes: What is a nation state? What does it take to have a nation state? We talked about [Noam] Chomsky in the episode, and to me, that’s always been the biggest takeaway from it. There’s a really high cost to have a country. We examine that in a pretty universal lens where Ramy has to think about what it means to be an American in the same way that we probably all do.

The next hot-button issue: Bella Hadid making her acting debut as Steve’s awkward girlfriend. How did you build Lena’s character, and why is she so obsessed with “The Office”?

We were just joking around in the room. A bunch of people found that they were just mostly watching “The Office” when they were dating somebody — this joke of “The Office” being enough to keep two people together. Ramy can’t believe that Steve has this really beautiful girlfriend, but they are just together because they love “The Office.” That is the most important thing in their relationship. It was really making us laugh. It was one of our bigger swings as an episode, and then it became Bella. She did the script as written, but brought something to it that was so different and really, really unexpected.

Ramy’s inability to support the relationship becomes a turning point for him and Steve. Why did you want to break up their friendship?

Ramy is going through this crisis of faith, and he’s dug himself into a really difficult place, and it’s [caused] a separation between him and not just his family, but his friends. The way the episodes are designed, we see Ramy alone a lot, and we see his family and even his friends together without him. Like, we started this series with Mo [Mo Amer] hating Steve, and now Mo and Steve are hanging out and Ramy is not there! And where we leave Ramy, it feels like this glimpse at what could be a new chapter for him. As we think about what would be happening in our next season, I think there’s another big chapter for him and Steve.

So much of what Steve struggles with is needing people [because of his disability]. Ramy was always there for him, and stepped up for him in this really weird way in the second season [reluctantly helping Steve masturbate], but there is all this shame and confusion about that from both of them. The way old friends can fight, where so many years pile up and you need to step away for a little bit.

“Ramy” has dealt with multiple customs that are considered taboo in 21st century America. In Seasons 1 and 2, it was dating a cousin; in Season 3, it’s having multiple wives. What’s the thought process behind those storylines?

In the room, we started talking about open relationships, and then we started talking about polygyny, and reconciling these things in a modern framework. To give an answer or even a specific opinion about anything religious is not something that this show does. What we do is show people getting really messy with what they think they should be doing. The conversations that Ahmed [Dave Merheje] has with his wife [Rana Roy] and his prospective new partner [Ahd Kamel], and with [an advisor’s first wife played by] one of my favorite comedians, Zainab Johnson, were really exciting to put next to each other. And you can’t do that if you don’t put these guys into a mess!

Boomer is another victim of Ramy’s crisis of faith. Is the dog’s death a symbol for Ramy’s separation from Zainab?

Yeah. In Season 2, the Sheikh makes it clear to Ramy: “You should take care of this dog because you’re not picking up the teachings, and maybe to unconditionally love something that’s not yourself might be your saving grace.” Then Ramy spectacularly fails. It felt like his subconscious would be holding on to that, so he becomes overly protective over this dog. He’s more concerned about the dog than he even is about his mom because of this subconscious guilt — more than guilt. He’s in a deep state of shame the whole season, and he breaks, fully, when he loses the dog. 

That leads us to the discussing the sex worker Ramy meets, whose drugs cause Boomer’s death. Ramy has a cliché fixation on her — until she turns out to be a full character with her own thoughts and motivations.

Ramy and her are having these disconnected, transient experiences. They want more, but at the same time, they don’t know where to put it. Writing her was definitely something that I talked through a bunch with Sarita Choudhury, who is such an amazing actor. I called her, like, “Look, I really want you to do this character, and I’m putting you in a tough situation because if you don’t do it, I actually don’t know who could do it.” Her character is kind of emblematic of something we always do as a show, which is to take something that might be classic or even trope-y, but go into it in a way that feels unexplored. There’s so many conventions in this show that feel like a traditional sitcom — the two wives episode feels like a sitcom premise, but you’d never see that on “Seinfeld” … but, like, you totally could see it happening on “Seinfeld.” But that’s not the lens in which they live life.

Even wider than Islam, to be exploring spirituality through the context that we do in this show feels like this really cool way to look at things that might be trope-y through a totally different frame. A lot of the things that we write, in my head, I’m like, “This is pass or fail. This is either gonna work or it’s not. There’s no middle.” That’s what’s fun about having the right performers, too. Sarita made Olivia feel like this really real person. And it’s obviously a person who totally plays Ramy, to have all spoilers on the table. He’s having all these revelations, and she’s totally clocking the situation and gets out with what she needs.

The theft is implied, but we never see it on-screen — but you’re not leaving that for interpretation? She definitely steals the watch from him while they visit Boomer’s grave?

100%. Without a doubt.

Ramy’s freakout upon losing the watch becomes a spiritual breakthrough when he starts thinking about his daughter. Even though we don’t find out about her until Episode 8, her birth informs so much of the season’s events. At what point in the writing did you decide that Zainab had gotten pregnant from her one night married to Ramy in Season 2?

This show has all kinds of little miracles and questions of what was meant to be and what wasn’t, because we’re dealing with spirituality. So we left the end of Season 2 thinking, “You know, they did have sex, and that could be funny…” Going into the third season, pretty quickly: “This feels right, but we want to deal with it in a different way.” When you rewatch the season with the knowledge of it, it’s very clear, like with the energy of the lawyers coming to get the debt from Ramy, his Islamic duty for not just the divorce, but the nature in which the divorce happened. It’s very clear with him trying to reach out [to Zainab] and not getting her. We wanted to build it in a way where he’d be finding out at a moment where he had to find out.

Ramy’s breakthrough at Boomer’s grave is really intense, with him jumping into freezing waters before shrieking his prayers. Is it genuine? Has he finally found a way to connect to God, or has he gone crazy?

This show can be a bit of a mirror for how someone views what we’re talking about. There are people who are very uncomfortable with sex, and they watch the show and go, “Man, all these people are doing is having sex!” But then there are people who, religion is really not for them, and they watch like, “Man, all these people are doing is praying!” So I do think, for spiritual people, that is a real spiritual break. For me, and for the character, that feels like this really real breakthrough. But I think if that’s not something that someone has a scope of in their own life, it just looks like the guy’s insane. When we shot it, I felt like it could be either and it could be both.

I couldn’t tell for sure: Does Ramy take his socks off before making wudu and cleansing himself in the ocean to pray? It seemed like a reference to the pilot, where a stranger at the mosque lectures him for not cleaning between his toes.

He doesn’t. It was a moment! We talked about the socks out there in the cold for like half an hour. I really put myself to the side and was like, “OK, don’t worry that you’re cold. Just: Should the character take off the socks?” We really are excited about doing one more season, and we felt he wasn’t quite at the socks place yet. He was so overtaken by this moment. We’re excited for what he’s going to step into in what will probably be our last chapter.

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