May Calamawy Tells Us About How Hulu’s ‘Ramy’ Finally Lets Her Portray A ‘Normal’ Muslim Woman

When Ramy Youssef took home a Golden Globe for his performance in Hulu’s breakout comedy series last year, he joked that most of the audience hadn’t seen his show. That might’ve been true then, but as the series — appropriately titled Ramy because it follows the sort-of-true exploits of Youssef’s millennial Muslim, a kid trying to navigate the modern world while holding onto his sense of self – gears up for a second season, the vibe’s a bit different. Fans who have witnessed Ramy make pilgrimages to Egypt, hook up with married women, and survive the torture of living with his overbearing immigrant parents might be surprised to see a somewhat more serious version of the show: one that tackles Islamophobia, mental health issues, gender identity, and more.

That last bit is where May Calamawy’s character Dena comes in. As Ramy’s sister, she’s normally on the peripheral edge of the show’s plot, but halfway through season two, she’s recruited to help her mother Maysa (the terrific Hiam Abbass) track down a disgruntled Lyft passenger that might prevent her from gaining citizenship. It’s a wild, cringe-filled ride that touches on everything from mother-daughter bonds to what qualifies as “stalking,” and we chatted with Calamawy about season two expectations and playing a Muslim woman she can finally relate to.

Ramy’s first season did really well. I mean, you guys made it to the Golden Globes. And won.

Yeah, it felt really surreal. None of us knew what the reception would be. Nothing was expected.

Did that put any pressure on this second season?

I personally didn’t feel any of that pressure. [Laughs] But a couple of days ago, we posted some artwork for season two. That was the first time that I was like, “Oh my God, are people going to like this?” But I think the truth of the matter is we gave so much of ourselves to it, it almost doesn’t matter. I feel validated about our experience. If people’s expectations aren’t met, I almost don’t mind it. I really enjoy Ramy’s vision, and I trust it.

I think we all recognized how differently this show depicts Middle Eastern culture. Was that apparent to you when you first got the scripts?

Yeah, for a year, the only things I was auditioning for were Arab women who were in some sort of a struggle — who were veiled and in a fight for something. This one, she was just a girl. She felt like me. She was just figuring out who she is. It’s funny, there was nothing really to her that was going on, but that was what attracted me, because I was like, “Oh, wow, you can really get to see what someone is going through without all this other stuff on the outside.” I don’t know how to say “normal.” I guess I saw myself in her in a way. And I saw many women that I know in her.

In season one, Dena has one of the worst TV dates I’ve ever seen with a barista played by Jake Lacy. It’s a really uncomfortable interaction for her. Was it uncomfortable for you to shoot, too?

It’s funny because we were still working on that episode up to the last day, which was scary and also fun. I’ve never experienced anything like that before but I feel like, with Dena, she’s examining what she understands about womanhood. She wants to step out of that comfort zone, and redefine her identity. She’s also stuck in the pattern of constantly checking herself because of the system that she’s grown up in. She’s creating that control over her body, and her decisions. And in a way, even though the experience is the opposite of what she hoped it would be, just that act, or the choice, was liberating.

Yeah, she can’t help that the guy was a jerk.

I feel like she doesn’t wallow in that self-pity of it. Do you know what I mean? It’s more just like, “Are you f*cking serious? Okay. All right.” And that’s what makes it funny. And ironic. She finally decides to go do this, and then this is what happened.

That episode also opened up a bigger conversation about what Muslim women face. Do you think the show does a good job of trying to understand that struggle?

I think it’s an ongoing topic because no matter how much we talk about it we still don’t know what is right or wrong on this path, or in life. I mean, I grew up in the Middle East, but I’ve also spent time in America, and I have a mix of these views. I understand for women here, sex is really not a big deal, and it’s just intimacy, it’s beautiful and sacred. In the Middle East, it’s also considered sacred, but there’s so much shame around it and around trying to explore yourself before you’re married. I think the show did a good job of showing she’s stuck. Ramy is stuck, he’s sort of mirroring her in certain ways, but he’s allowed to make mistakes. He gets to be wild and explore whatever instinct he has. On the other hand, she has to think twice about going on a date with someone. I think that it’s so nuanced. I guess because I did it, maybe I’m like, “Yeah, I feel like we showed it.” For her, it’s this rite of passage to just get over with. I think that starts to happen to a lot of people who’ve grown up in conservative households when they start to come into themselves, and their logic doesn’t really match up with the logic that’s been put on them.

This season, we see Dena and her mom go through some things. There’s such a divide between those two. Is it more of a cultural gap or a generational one?

I think it’s both. In the West, you’re more exposed to certain things, so you can adapt really fast. Whereas, someone living in the Middle East will probably be really shocked watching this because some things that are common here aren’t common over there. It’s just the reality.

Right. Even when Maysa’s trying to understand, she ends up misgendering one of her Lyft passengers and makes the whole situation even more awkward.

Maysa sort of lived in her bubble. She wants to expand and wants to learn, but I guess our generation is just, again, it’s exposed faster — there’s more of a curiosity. Whereas, with the older generation, it’s like, “What are you doing? Why are you [a man] in a dress?” I feel like, for them, it’s just a harsher judgment because it doesn’t make sense in their head. I see similarities in my own dad. He’ll make comments, and I’m so shocked sometimes. I know how pure he is, he’s such an amazing human that I’m not mad at him, I’m just like, “Oh wow, that’s really where you’re living still?” Maybe full acceptance is still scary?

That particular episode with Dena and Maysa also exposes how hard women are on each other, and themselves. Do you think that’s another reason why their bond is so strained?

I guess sometimes women can feel alone. We put all these pressures on ourselves because they were put on us at a certain age, and unless we’re conscious of them at a certain point, we end up living with them, and they control us. You can be next to your own mom, and you’re both going through the same thing, and then you’re not able to connect, because you’re both trying so hard to, I don’t know, please. I feel like Dena looks at her mom and can see why she is that way at that moment and it really touches her heart. There’s a bit of an awareness, and a bit of compassion. And then that also opens Maysa’s eyes as well, because she really does want the best for her daughter, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Maysa needs someone to just give her a break. They actually both want the same thing. And if they can at least give it to each other then that’s [a start].

Hulu’s ‘Ramy’ arrives for a second season on May 29.