Ramy Youssef knows he's struck a chord with his semi-autobiographical Hulu series Ramy, but it wasn’t the critical acclaim or Golden Globe win that made it clear. Rather, it was the call from his aunt in Egypt, a dinner with a group of young rabbis, and the unexpected fan mail.
“I got an email from this guy in Nebraska, like, ‘I’m an evangelical Christian, and I am Ramy,’” says the series’ 29-year-old creator, star, writer, and director. “I couldn’t believe it. I feel really proud when people say, ‘[Ramy] made me think about my spiritual practice and want to connect to it more.’”
One of those people happened to be two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, who converted to Islam in 2000. Ali vividly remembers scrolling through Instagram and an ad for Ramy catching his attention. "I messaged it to my wife, just like, 'Oh, interesting Muslim content!' recalls Ali of the series, which follows first-generation Muslim-American Ramy Hassan (Youssef) as he struggles to balance his faith and millennial lifestyle. “I was so blown away by how honest he was about things that are really taboo in any religion, but in ways specific to Islam. He gets into what is problematic about taking certain actions and how as people we’re constantly having to wrestle with our choices and our desires, and at the end of the day really want to have peace and fulfillment and strive to do what’s right."
Ali reached out to Youssef to express how "brilliant" he thought the series was, and what began as a friendly chat ended with the future Blade star cast in the crucial role of Sheikh Ali. Youssef's original plan was to introduce a Sheikh character at the end of season 2, but that chance call quickly changed that. "From our first conversation, I was very clear in sharing that I didn’t want my presence to be so big on the show where it threw the balance and focus off," shares Ali, who jokes that the amount of episodes he was going to be in somehow kept growing. Much of that can be pegged to Ali's affection for Youssef and the culture he's built. "I've never been on a set that was that diverse — ever," he continues. "Ramy works in such a free way, and he's just alive and in his instincts. His desire is for everyone to be fulfilled and at peace. The way in which he has his hands in all things was awe-inspiring. Just a really fantastic and phenomenal talent."
The feelings are mutual, with Youssef being floored by the "dream scenario" of his movie star actor's ego-free presence. "I couldn’t have done it with anyone who wasn’t of the composure of him," he says. "It speaks to just how amazing this dude is, to meet someone who is this Academy Award winner two times over and walks onto the set of a sophomore show and says, 'What do you want me to do?' It’s really rare."
In what Youssef describes as a “more spiritual” season 2 (premiering May 29), Sheikh Ali serves as a mentor on Ramy’s path of self-discovery. “He’s a character Ramy goes to for answers,” says Ali. “But he’s challenged by Ramy in ways that no one else could.” For Youssef, it was a priority to create a religious leader who felt like a real human. "In one of my favorite bits of it, he says, 'As my teacher once told me, I don’t know,'" he shares. "Just hearing someone in that situation and position say 'I don’t know' is so powerful to me."
As the only show of its kind, Youssef understands the “pressure” to represent all Muslim-Americans, but he refuses to take on that “impossible” task. “I have a responsibility to do what I know to the best of my ability,” he says. “I never want to feel like we’re trying to check boxes and talk about everything, because that would be irresponsible, and just bad TV.”
While he says his show is “built to be criticized” and one that “people have an opinion about,” he’s got a passionate supporter in his new costar. “Stories that involve Muslim characters are very limited and narrow right now in scope, and so that diversity has to be expanded," explains Ali. "We need to tell stories specific to the Muslim experience. I think Ramy’s contribution is really powerful and important."
A version of this story appears in the June 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, which you can buy here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.