Interview: Laith Nakli on the Challenges of Playing Uncle Naseem in ‘Ramy’

It’s a surreal experience that Laith Nakli immediately recognizes you when you join the breakout room for the interview as a part of the virtual junket for Ramy‘s third season. I love Ramy. I’ve frequently expressed my love for the show on social media, and it was a rather unexpected but amazingly welcome moment when May Calamawy, Dave Mehreje, and Laith shared my review of the third season (which you can read here) the day before the junket. That prior Instagram interaction led to the best moment of any interview I conducted with a talent, which set the mood for the rest of the conversation.

There’s no denying that Uncle Naseem is a complex character. In the first season, it’s pretty hard to attach yourself to someone who consistently makes the most inane conspiracy theories and makes everyone around him uncomfortable. But a click occurs in the second season’s “Unce Naseem” episode where you start to understand where he comes from and feel for him, to the point where you’re now emotionally invested in the story. When asked about the challenges of playing a character like Naseem, who few audience members like in the first season until we start to know more about him, Nakli responded with the following:

“Not liking someone is okay. Because a lot of characters we watch on TV [aren’t likable]. But there’s a difference between not liking someone because you just don’t like that character, not liking him because you don’t like how he’s played, or that he’s two-dimensional. And this character is three-dimensional. He’s got his own things, and you may not like him, but he’ll show you there will be moments in there that will make you think.

I knew that we were going to go somewhere. There were going to be moments where people are going to be very conflicted. They’re going to go, “Oh my god! I hate him…but I feel for him.” And that’s what it’s all about. I don’t care about playing a character that people will not like, as long as they don’t like him, they don’t like the character, they don’t like what he’s doing, and not because of terrible writing or portrayal.”

Laith also explained his approach to play the character, by fully committing to Uncle Naseem’s truth:

“You have to lend yourself to that character.I go in, I’m Laith, right? I grow a beard, they groom it, slick my hair back, and put these ridiculous clothes on me. I put this weird accent on. I have these beautiful words, and all I have to do is commit to the truth of that character. Then the Laith in me has to be truthful to the moment and the circumstance, and the character will come out.

It doesn’t mean that it’s Laith. But I am committed to it. And it just grows out of that. You add all of these elements together, and when you have good writing on top of that, that’s a gift. In the second and third seasons, it was a piece of cake. I won’t start memorizing the script until I’m in the car going to set because they’re easy. It’s easy because it feels like Ramy is in the character’s head. He knows how they speak. And he writes perfect dialogue for them.”

I asked May Calamawy and Hiam Abbass the same question, but I also wanted to get everyone else’s input on why Ramy is such an important show to watch. Unfortunately, I had run out of time to ask the question to Ramy Youssef, but Nakli explained that the show is important because Ramy’s writing makes it relatable to everyone:

“For people of color, like us, for Arabs, whether Arab American or Arabs around the world, to see people like them portrayed on TV and see themselves on TV and these huge platforms. It’s something incredible. I’ve always strived to see some portrayal of someone I can fully relate to. But the genius thing about Ramy is that he makes it relatable to anyone else. Everyone has an uncle like Naseem, and the friction at home and many sisters in any family deal with all the double standards. Everything is relatable. He takes relatable issues to everyone and just throws them at this family and how they deal with them.”

You can watch our full conversation below and stream all episodes of Ramy’s third season when it premieres on Hulu on September 30:


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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