How the ‘Ramy’ CDs Find Talent to Fit the Show’s Singular Comedic Tone

Article Image
Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

Hulu’s “Ramy” is a first-of-its-kind show based on comedian Ramy Youssef’s standup material, which is based on his life growing up in New Jersey as the son of Egyptian immigrants. Despite the specificity of its premise—navigating his secular American interests and his family’s Muslim traditions—the series has resonated with audiences from all walks of life. After our hero, Ramy, spent Season 1 tripping over romantic exploits, he set out on a more faith-focused path on Season 2 with the addition of new actors, including two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as a wise and patient sheikh. The casting team behind the second season, Jessica Kelly and Rebecca Dealy of New York–based office Chrystie Street Casting, was also a new addition. They shared their process with Backstage and explained why actors always need to do all their homework.

How to become a TV actor.

How did the casting process for “Ramy” Season 2 work?
Rebecca Dealy: We have to be perfectly honest, we did not attach Mahershala Ali. They had already sort of broken Season 2 when Mahershala reached out. Then it was a whole new season all of a sudden, knowing that they would have Mahershala in mind and what that means to have an actor like him, a human like him, on the set and in the show. It changed the tone of it. We knew going into it, that they’d be building towards something and the guest stars would be recurring and more important to the story and to Ramy’s story and his evolution. It felt daunting because that’s a mix of a particular kind of comedy and being able to handle the emotional circumstances that we knew were coming. 

“He is really excited by new people; he loves giving people a chance—newer actors, people that he saw do comedy or saw in a short, or saw anywhere along the way.”

Rebecca Dealy

Casting Director, “Ramy”

Jessica Kelly: There wasn’t a mandate to have major stars, which is very cool for us in any project. I think they even said to us at the beginning, they would prefer for some of these arcs to be more unknown actors so you could just follow the story and not be distracted by the star.

So how does that directive manifest when you’re casting?
RD: It’s our favorite way to work. I think the Dennis role was really the first. Even though he’s only in two episodes, it became so important because it was also the beginning of this pivot to what the season was going to be like. We had been auditioning incredible New York actors. Jared Abrahamson is a young actor that we love as a person, too. He brings a thousand percent of himself to every role. We knew it was going to be a match, not just to the role, but also the way Ramy works because he’s coming from a comedic background. He doesn’t stick to a script. With that Dennis character, in particular, you’re having actors go through a very extreme dramatic arc and also having Ramy say things like, “Don’t worry about the script. It doesn’t exist.” That’s how Jared likes to work, too.

How standup comedy can help your auditions.

What were some of the challenges that came with casting Season 2?
RD: In certain episodes, it’s not just that they have to be Arabic speaking, but it has to be with this specific accented Arabic. That’s something that’s very important to Ramy, and he knows what it means for the Muslim and Arab community who watches the show. Then there are some actors that you know are amazing so you want them to do this part that has five or six lines, and maybe they’re used to doing a little bit more, but we could convince them because the show is so great. 

How do you work with Ramy while casting? 
RD: He tells you what he’s looking for, why something’s not right, or what he sees enough of that he can absolutely work with. He is really excited by new people; he loves giving people a chance—newer actors, people that he saw do comedy or saw in a short, or saw anywhere along the way. He would connect us just to give people opportunities. I think because he’s been given such a great opportunity he also instills that spirit in the show. He would work with anybody that he found interesting and natural and truly themselves. He wanted it to feel really representative of New York City and parts of Jersey where he’s from. 

“It was probably the most collaborative, supportive production we’ve ever worked on....There was something special when an actor came in who had watched the show previously because it is such a specific tone. Actors are going to come in really understanding the world of ‘Ramy.’”

Jessica Kelly

Casting Director, “Ramy”

(Read More)

A new big role this season was Zainab, Ramy’s love interest. What was the process of casting that role?
JK: We were looking for somebody you wouldn’t automatically expect Ramy to be with. This would be a gradual relationship based on who she was as a human being, filled with intelligence and beliefs in her religion. 
RD: We searched far and wide. It’s a love interest for Ramy, so it was important to him to get that chemistry right. Mahershala being his Sheikh and being a black man and his daughter being a black woman and Muslim was also a huge part. It became really specific in the casting process of finding who could be a love interest, have chemistry, have a bigger part of the arc of the storyline, and also be fun because it’s Ramy. It’s a funny show. MaameYaa [Boafo] was shooting something so it was all off Skype and self-tapes, even the chemistry read.

What actors can learn from comedians.

What is unique about casting “Ramy”?
RD: It was really exciting to be a part of something that was a great collaboration. We knew how much it already meant to some people and we knew how much we could help make it great for a second season, too. I think one of the things that was most gratifying for us is actors would come in just in complete reverence and appreciation that the show existed. There was this sense that they were honored to be there because it meant so much, or it was the only show they watched with their family, or it’s the show they talk about with their friends because for the first time it’s reflecting their own experience. This had a really wonderful energy around it, of everybody being happy to be there.
JK: It was probably the most collaborative, supportive production we’ve ever worked on. Even if they are all catering to the actors, there was something special when an actor came in who had watched the show previously because it is such a specific tone. Actors are going to come in really understanding the world of Ramy and how specific his comedy and reality are.

Where are some of the places you like to look for talent outside of submissions from agents? 
RD: Everywhere. I’ve asked Bodega guys if they want to act or their wives want to act. 
JK: We have the guys who run our building staff. Real characters, real New York guys.
RD: Certain community organizations. Schools, places like the William Esper Studio, where people are about to graduate and come up. We will reach out to contacts we know. Also New York theater, especially Off-Off-Broadway, is a great resource. Small places that have put different plays on that are more representative of certain cultures and religions; you can get to know actors that way and look at their reel, find their websites, track them down. Sometimes on Instagram we get into a spiral, and it has nothing to do with their following. It’s a network now. You can see if they’re friends with other actors or creatives, or sometimes if it’s a physical skill we need. It is a way also to see people and observe them, especially if you can’t in person. And all the undergraduate programs all over the country, any conservatories, we try to cast a really wide net.
JK: If they have a special skill, like if we’re looking for a basketball player which we’ve done or with great musical instruments, it’s the camps, it’s colleges, it’s outreach. 

What advice do you have for actors?
JK: We really value the study of it. It’s important for people to get the experience of trying on many different characters. All of the experience really helps them once they get to the audition room. Just to remember to listen. The camera’s right on your face. The only thing the audition is showing is your face and it doesn’t lie. It can tell when you’re not really there and present and in the moment. 
RD: Listen and respond truthfully, which can look like anything. So often I think actors try to guess what people want it to look like. You think there’s some sort of right answer or right way to do it. The hope actually is that nobody knows what that looks like, and it gets created in the moment. There’s nothing more exciting as an audience member—whether it’s us in an audition or in a play, musical, film, television show— than when something is dynamic and alive in front of you. We also know how much courage that takes, so we encourage actors to do whatever it is they need to to give themselves that clarity and courage to be able to act with abandon.

What makes an actor memorable in an audition?
RD: What we notice is that combination of training, presence, confidence,

“One person gets the part, and there are so many reasons why. The thing we notice is that combination of training, presence, confidence, openness, and their level of commitment. It might not be this role, but we’re going to keep searching for the one that is.”

Rebecca Dealy

Casting Director, “Ramy”

openness, and their level of commitment. It might not be this role, but we’re going to keep searching for the one that is. Sometimes it’s a spark in front of you and it magically works out and sometimes people need to get to know each other a little bit and see what people have underneath that maybe they don’t lead with. Sometimes that’s a part of our process of getting to know an actor, to know where to best place them or who to introduce them to in terms of directors or shows and have them create together.
JK: I think also it’s when they’re able to fit into the web of the entirety of the show and not just stand out in their bit part or their one line. They leave their ego at the door and understand that their role is to fit in sometimes and not overshine or overpower a scene. 

What shouldn’t an actor do in the audition room?
RD: You’d be surprised how many times in auditions I’d ask if they’d seen the show and they’d say no! I’m just like, OK, noted forever. Would you not crack open the book before you’re about to take a quiz at school?
JK: They spent the time learning the lines, working on the character, getting to our office in New York, sitting in the waiting room, if they actually really want the part that one little extra step could do wonders. 

Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!

Author Headshot
Elyse Roth
Elyse is a senior editor at Backstage, where she oversees all casting news and features content, including her weekly casting director Q&A series, In the Room. She came to New York from Ohio by way of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism, and now lives in Brooklyn. She might see and write about awards-worthy films, but Elyse still thinks “Legally Blonde” is a perfect movie and on any given night is probably taking in some kind of entertainment, whether it’s comedy, theater, ballet, or figuring out what show to binge next.
See full bio and articles here!