Mother Knows Best

The queen mother. Photo: Hulu

Hiam Abbass knows how to possess a screen. From the moment I first heard her speak as Maysa (the bold, bright, and lonely Hassan family matriarch on Hulu’s Ramy), I couldn’t look away. She is a star — and has been one in the French and Arab worlds for many years, with American audiences introduced to her on a larger scale as Succession’s mysterious Marcia. Abbass’s two American TV roles couldn’t be more different, but what never changes is her ability to find comfort in complexity and always make herself heard.

In the third season of Ramy, Abbass’s Maysa is more stressed than ever. The Hassan family’s long-standing dysfunctions have reached critical mass, and Maysa often feels she’s the only one doing anything about it. She tries everything, from delivering for Instacart to therapy, to get a hold on things. We spoke to Abbass about what it was like to direct and produce this season, what she thought of the show’s Palestine episode, and if she really vapes.

Light spoilers for season three of Ramy ahead.

What has it been like growing with Maysa for three seasons of Ramy?

It’s a great feeling, and it’s so enjoyable to go back to her. I think she’s funny, she’s spontaneous. The fact that she has no filter when she talks makes me want to discover, Gosh, how far can she go? I’ve been really lucky to have that part. I don’t want that to end. The day Ramy Youssef tells me that we’re not doing any more seasons, I think it would be a big, sad day in my life.

Mine too! It’s such a great show. In this season, I think the Hassan family, as a whole, is really going through it.

That’s exactly what I think. Every character is really worked on in a very, very deep way. So the journeys of all the Hassan family and the other characters feed one another. I love my relationship with Ramy, but I love everybody else on the show and what everybody is bringing. It’s a great pleasure going to that set. It’s very rare. Sometimes you wake up, you’re tired, you don’t want to go. With Ramy, as tired as you could be, it’s like, “Let’s go! There is a lot of fun waiting for us, so let’s go.”

What I’ve always loved about the show is how it devotes so much time to character studies. This season feels like it’s about what’s happening to the family as a unit, though they’re all on such individual journeys. I would love to hear your thoughts on how the characters’ family identities are clashing and intersecting with their individual identities.

Ramy’s father, Farouk, is in a split point in his life, where he is unsure about anything, and he’s trying really hard, but he’s not finding the right thing for that right business that he’s looking for. And Maysa cannot take it anymore. She needs things to move. She needs things to change. She knows they’re going through a crisis. And she doesn’t think that her husband is bringing any solution to that.

At the same time, she knows her daughter is taking the bar exam. Even if she trusts the intelligence of her daughter, she still wants to control her daughter, because that’s the Arab mother in her compared to the security they want for their kids. That’s why she goes on doing things that are none of her business. She thinks that it’s Ramy’s turn to return some of what they gave him — and at the same time, I think she’s trying, in this season, to get very close to Ramy, even though she’s really disappointed with the travel that he did in Israel. It seems that Maysa, this time, is trying to speak her mind in a different way; she’s more certain of herself.

The episode from season one that focuses on Maysa becoming an Uber driver is one of my favorite episodes — not just of the show but of television ever. Now she does Instacart deliveries, but unlike when she was driving for Uber, she’s a bit more jaded about the interactions she’s having with people. What were you thinking about when portraying that?

She’s more keen on doing the right thing now, because she’s followed by someone who is making mistakes — she wants to control the situation. I’m not sure, if Maysa was with Instacart on her own, that she would react in the same way. I think it’s because Farouk is there. And Farouk is not doing the right thing. She learned from her mistakes as well. She lost points doing whatever she was doing, and now she knows that she needs that job. She needs that money.

The first time, I’m not sure she went out to work because she was in need. I think she was in need for self-establishment as a woman, female independence, feeling that she’s useful and that she’s doing something. It wasn’t about the money. And I think that’s why she was careless. She was very careful about what she was doing in this season. I think she knows that she cannot mess around with things, because otherwise, her salary would not be there at the end of the month. Then with her husband and the situation he’s going through, he’s not doing right. He’s not the one who’s going to save her. She has to save herself.

You’ve had such an extensive, illustrious career in film both as an actor and director. And this season, you directed episode seven. What was it like to direct TV as opposed to film, and what drew you to that episode?

I didn’t choose really — Ramy wanted me to direct that one. I was very, very anxious and very afraid. I didn’t want directing to change anything about the dynamics of my relationship with Ramy and the trust, love, and appreciation that we have for one another. For two, three nights, I couldn’t sleep, and I was like, Why did I say yes? I should call Ramy in the morning and say, ‘No, I can’t do it.’ But then I think the director in me was pushing me toward going for it, saying, Okay, it’s a new experience. You’re going to learn. Just go for it.

In the beginning, I wasn’t trusting myself very much. But then I understood, at one stage, that you don’t direct TV like you direct your own movie. There are rules. And the rules are set, because the show already has its look and you have to respect that. It has its own cast and characters. There are some new characters that you have to cast yourself for the sake of the episode, but basically the show is there, right? So I thought, What’s the best approach to this? I’m going to serve. And I think if I serve, with my knowledge, something that is already there to someone that I love and respect, to a show that I really cherish, then maybe it would be easier. And honestly, from that moment on, it was easier.

It was such a wild episode! I love the “spiritual discretion advised” notice in the beginning because it involves some discussions of polygamy. How did you come up with that?

That was added by Ramy. When you direct for a TV show, you have your cut that you give to the producers. Then Ramy comes in and puts his hand in there. But one of the biggest compliments that he gave me, when finally he saw the cut, was “I don’t think there’s a lot that I want to change in there.” He would consider things in a very collaborative way. But to go back to that line: Yes, I think it was very clever. I think the episode really needs it. With that kind of proposition, that kind of story, you have to make sure where you stand.

The episode heavily featured Dave Merheje, Mohammed Amer, and Steve Way. What was it like working with the three of them?

The three of them are very funny — each in his own way. I didn’t have any expectations, because I’ve seen them in the show, and I’d seen that they’re funny. I happened to see Mo’s one-man show. So that gave me a little more knowledge of his capacity. The first day of shooting, I worked with Mo alone in that scene with May Calamawy. Then I worked with the three of them. I learned a lot.

With Dave, I started a little bit ahead. I rehearsed with him. We read. We focused on his arc. There were times when Ramy was around and we did more improvising. It gives you other ideas and feelings about how to direct them. From then on, it was easier. I’m an actor on the show, so to suddenly change hats and become someone that takes another place — I was very sensitive to this. I didn’t want them to feel that I am different from the actors.

I’m sure it helps having acting and directing experience, so you can understand what they’re experiencing.

Oh yeah. As a director, one of the most enjoyable processes is to work with actors, because it’s what I love most. Apart from deciding on the frame and the camera movement and whatever — like, once you do that, you go into work with the actor and direct toward different ideas that you have or he has, and it’s very interesting.

Have you watched Mo?

Of course! We knew about it, because Ramy was directing, and I was really looking forward to seeing the show. I think the show is very much who Mo is and what Mo wants to say. He wants to have fun, and at the same time, in this way of having fun, he wants to tell his story as a Palestinian refugee. He’s holding the traditions of his family and trying to forge his path in this new civilization. I think he has succeeded. I was very, very happy when I saw it, and I was very happy for him. He’s part of our Ramy family.

I thought the scene in Ramy where Maysa accidentally spills the perfume she took from the family’s friend, then absolutely insists it’s not that perfume, was so funny. It made me wonder: Do you have a go-to perfume?

Oh yeah, I’ve got one that I use. It’s a perfume that comes from a very small shop in Switzerland. I am lucky, because my sister lives there. When I run out, she sends it to me. It’s the only one that my body can bear. It’s called Musk. I think everybody knows me by my smell — you would never smell anything else on me. The day they stop making it, I’ll be the most miserable person. I’ll try to find another one, but it took me a long, long time until I found that one. Now that I have it, I don’t want to lose it.

I also watch Succession, and it’s so interesting to see you in both shows — your characters are in such vastly different positions in life, but there’s an inner strength that you bring to both roles. I wouldn’t want to mess with Marcia or Maysa. What do you think are their differences and similarities, and how do they both live within you? Do you think Maysa would want Marcia’s life?

I want Maysa to meet Marcia. I mean, that would be funny, because they were born at the same moment in my life — literally. We started shooting Succession when Ramy came up with his pilot, and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to do the show, because I’d started as a regular on Succession. I withdrew from my title as a regular in order to be able to be more free with my time. Whether Maysa would like the life of Marcia? I don’t think so. I think Maysa wants a little bit more, but I think she just wants to be comfortable. I don’t think Maysa wants to be rich. The big difference between Maysa and Marcia is that Marcia is after something ambiguous. Mysterious. Maysa is very clear. She is who she is. She’s clear about her intentions. You wouldn’t want to mess with either, but I think you would be more in danger if you mess with Marcia.

I thought it was such an oddly sweet moment when Maysa goes to the smoke shop for cigarettes and is given a Juul. Was that your first time vaping?

I was a smoker myself, and I stopped. For one week, I tried Juul, I tried vaping. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I told myself that if I am going to quit, I should quit completely — not just quit one thing to get attached to another. If you want to quit, you quit. That’s how I felt about it. So, to answer your question, I vaped for a very, very short period — I think it was a few days. I didn’t like the taste. I tried a few, and I really didn’t like it.

Was it hard, then, as someone who quit smoking, to have to smoke for the show?

It happened from season two. In season one, I was still a smoker, so it was easy. I was very afraid in season two when I was supposed to light the first cigarette. And it’s not really cigarettes, so it’s easier. But no, I really felt disgusted by them. So I said,Great! They’re not making me want to smoke.”

That’s very impressive. That moment in the vape shop felt like such a turning point for Maysa as a character.

What’s great about Ramy’s writing is that he brings all these things that are not expected. She’s angry. And because we have to be funny, you would think, Oh, she’s going there. The girl in the shop will say something, then we will laugh because Maysa is angry. But there are always these little human moments that come out in the characters because of his writing. The way he brings these moments — you don’t expect them, they come almost out of nowhere, though they are a total, legitimate continuity of the character.

A lot of the show is about the interaction of Arab cultures with American culture and the contradictions that living in both can create. As someone who’s had such an international life and career, who has lived in multiple cultures for so long, I was wondering about your experience with that.

I’m a traveler. I lived in England. I lived in Palestine. And in Palestine, I lived in a few different cities. Specifically through cinema and my work as an actor, this is where I get the most of traveling. But when you travel as an actor and you arrive to a place, you have to settle down, because it has to become your home in order for you to work. If you’re not feeling stable, I don’t know if you can really give that much to whatever you’re doing. Adapting every time between places, and taking them in, added a lot to who I am and to my luggage as a traveler.

We gave Maysa a double nationality. I mean, a third nationality, because she’s now American. But she’s Palestinian and Egyptian. So she is a little bit different than everybody else. Ramy loved that, because it coordinated very well with his idea of Maysa. His mom speaks French, but she’s Egyptian — totally Egyptian — and American. He knew that I came from France and speak French, so he wanted to bring the French into the character. But at the same time, Maysa’s brother, Naseem, wasn’t speaking French. We had to make a whole story line behind the scenes to explain Maysa and Naseem being of the same family and having the same origin. Because Naseem is from Syria, and he has a whole different story.

So we thought that this could be all about the Palestinian diaspora. One sibling could be in Syria, and another could be in Egypt, then could’ve gone to France and lived in France for a while. We invented this whole thing, because it felt right for who Maysa is. From wherever you are, wherever you go, you have to try to make this home again in order to feel that you belong. This is one of the biggest questions in season three as well: belonging.

This season, Ramy goes to occupied Palestine. You were born in Palestine, and your character, Maysa, is Palestinian. Maysa has a really strong reaction to the trip. What was your reaction to that episode?

I really love the idea that he does this. It’s a great episode, and Ramy asked me to help a lot with that episode — being from there and knowing the dynamics of the society and the struggle and the conflict. He asked me to co-produce with him. When we were shooting there, we had a language barrier sometimes. So I was the one who was going between Hebrew, English, and Arabic — basically helping for the episode to happen. I love that Ramy went there. It’s edgy. It’s great. It’s making a point. But from the point of view, as well, of Ramy — a guy who is really kind of a naïve sort of Arab American who comes to visit a place that is so loaded.

It can be such a hard place to discuss because of the way that American media tends to talk about it.

We’re not going to censor ourselves and what we want to express. As long as you’re fair with what you say, you’re fair with yourself, because all you’re looking for is fairness in life, right? So whatever the media wants to do with that, like, it’s their choice, of course, with a lot of respect on my behalf. But I think it’s great to be able to tackle subjects you’re not supposed to touch. We have to touch them, because if we don’t, we’re not moving on, you know?

Bella Hadid appeared on this season in a very funny episode. And she’s someone who is not afraid to speak out about Palestine.

I mean, Palestinians are people, right? We have to find a solution for their self-determination somehow. And we’re all results of that — this is my history; this is my family. Bella is the same. Mo is the same. Are we going to deny who we are and where we come from just to please? I mean, imagine if we asked you not to say we’re you’re from.

What I love about episode two is that it tackles this very “red light” kind of subject matter, but at the same time, it’s made with a lot of humor. And it’s nonjudgmental, which is a very good thing about comedy. Sometimes behind the laughter is a subject that has to be dealt with. And we should not forget that it’s all from the point of view of the character of Ramy. It’s not anyone else’s journey; it’s Ramy’s journey there. It’s Ramy’s eyes that travel in a reality that is there. We cannot deny it; it’s there. The checkpoints exist. The girl living there exists. If you have to go and see her, that’s the road you have to take in order to see her. Whatever we see exists.

Did you interact at all with Hadid during filming?

I did not see her much, because I didn’t have scenes with her, but I was once on set and she was there. She’s a lot of fun. She was very concentrated working that night — it was a night shoot. I was there for one hour, and we talked, and she’s a great person. She did a great job as an actress. Very believable. She’s humble, by the way, and very, very nice. She’s keen on her work and very honest. I loved meeting her.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Mother Knows Best