How May Calamawy's Biggest Insecurity Became a Ramy Storyline
As the show's title betrays, May Calamawy isn't the star of Ramy. But her performance as the title lead's justice-minded sister, Dena Hassan, is the kind that sticks with you, her presence felt even when the camera pans elsewhere. But that's the beauty of Ramy — every character, no matter how small, leaves an indelible imprint on the series as a whole. Calamawy plays a supporting role, but like the rest of Ramy's talented ensemble, she more than holds her own.
"Your sheikh is really fucking hot," Dena tells her brother in the first scene she shares with season 2 guest star Mahershala Ali, breaking the tension in an otherwise dramatic act. It's the delivery of unexpected asides like these that cement Calamawy as a versatile anchor for the Hulu series — or, more bluntly, a star.
Calamawy and I speak on the phone during Ramadan, while she's fasting. She's been staying at her father's home in Chino Hills, Calif. through the pandemic, an experience she likens to being in Narnia. "It's weird how you can forget what's going on, when you're just sitting in a garden all day," she tells me. "I don't go out at all."
Dena, like her brother Ramy (Ramy Youssef), struggles to reconcile her faith and the rigid expectations of her parents with her position as a young person living in America. She wants to have pre-marital sex; she wants to revel in her accomplishments on social media ("you share it with friends before you share it with God," her mother Maysa [Hiam Abbass] chides); she wants to leave the house without clearing it with her parents.
Last season, Dena's spotlight episode focused on her decision to lose her virginity to a seemingly charming barista, Kyle (Jake Lacy, of course) — spoiler: the charm wore thin when they moved to the bedroom, where Kyle requested Dena keep all her clothes on, asked her to speak Arabic, and defaulted to dirty talk in which he referred to himself as a "white infidel." This season, Dena's big episode is more personal to Calamawy — she and Youssef adapted it from her own experience with stress-induced hair loss, known as alopecia areata.
"No one talks about [the disease]," the 33-year-old tells me. "No matter how much work you do on yourself, when your hair is falling [out], it's devastating."
Read on as Calamawy discusses Ramy's second season, her hopes for Dena, and that time she auditioned for the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
InStyle: How have you been coping with quarantine? Have you picked up any new hobbies or anything?
May Calamawy: At the beginning of the [pandemic] I started reading this book called The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod, it's about how to change your life before 8:00 AM. At the time, I was staying at my brother's place, and he has two kids, 7 and 5, and they would barge in at 9:00 AM.
After that, there was nothing I could get done for the rest of the day. I would read the same paragraph 30 times before giving up. The book sort of gives you this frame to read for 10 minutes, journal for 10 minutes, meditate for 10 minutes, visualize or give yourself affirmations for 10 minutes. I started doing that and then I realized I needed more time with that.
Then I started waking up at 6:00 AM every day, just so I get everything done by 9:00 AM. And then when I moved to my dad's, I just kept that habit up. And it really changed my day. I've chilled out a little, but I'd wake up and be like, "Oh my God, I'm excited!"
Starting at the very beginning, how did you get into acting?
I always wanted [to act], but I grew up in the Middle East, and there was nothing to do with acting growing up. I always felt embarrassed to say that I wanted to do it. And I went to [the Massachusetts College of Art and Design] in Boston, because I wanted to study acting, but my parents were not cool sending me to the States for that. And then I discovered Emerson, and I auditioned, and I was halfway through my first year at Art school. I was just like, "If I get in, I'm going," and I didn't really give [my parents] a choice. I got in. And it's been a journey because I studied, I went to New York for six months, I met some people, who I still know and work with, and then I had to move back to the Middle East because my mom got ill. I went to take care of her and then I didn't move back to the States until five years later when I moved to New York in 2015 to study again, and to just really, really go for it.
I know that Ramy is based loosely on Ramy Youssef's actual life, but I wasn't sure how closely his family in the show reflects his actual real-life family. Have you been able to meet Ramy's sister?
Yeah. She's great. I'd say that there are elements that are inspired by her. But I think in the first season he was trying to really not base it on her, but maybe tie it into her, or what he knew of her, at that time. And then this season, we just used my own personal story.
How did that come about?
Ten years ago, [when my mom] had cancer, my hair started falling and I developed alopecia areata. It wasn't my whole head — just in certain areas. At the time I was in Dubai, and no one really knew what was going on. They were just like, "You're stressed, and [you] just have to wait for the hair to grow back." It was a traumatizing experience. And then, last summer, I noticed that I had a spot on the back of my head and it was so weird for me, because I was like, "What is stressing me out right now?" I didn't even really know. It's just like a guessing game, really. And then going into season two, I was just so scared. I would tell hair and makeup about it. And I was like, "They have to like, be really careful with how we style my hair, because I don't want anything to show." And then I'm not sure how Ramy found out about it, because I thought I was being discreet. But we were having trouble with my episode a little and then he came to me and was just like, "Hey, what if we made it about that?" And my heart just dropped. And I was like, "Oh, I don't know." It's like the one thing I was trying to hide the whole time. Meanwhile, everyone knows. And then he was like, "No, it's great. If it's scaring you, then let's do it." And then we just ended up brainstorming. We only had like two weeks with that idea. We formed the script.
I realized [the story arc] might not be for everyone, but it helped me accept the alopecia much more. If just one person watching it is experiencing that, and can feel that sort of connection, then I'm happy.
[It's like in] season one, I didn't really want to wear my hair curly. I wanted it in waves, but because it was so humid, it had to be curly. And then so many women approached me, and were grateful that I wore my hair curly and they felt represented and seen. And I've been wearing it curly since. So it was healing for me through them. It's that feeling of not being alone and opening up that conversation. It's so comforting.
Speaking of opening up conversation topics. I read this interview with Ramy recently where he said that watching the show helped his family speak more openly about sex. Has watching the show opened up any topics for you and your family?
Yeah. I've spoken a lot with my dad because he was a little uncomfortable with a few of the scenes that I did in the first season. Like, "Why was this necessary?" He wasn't mad, he was just inquiring. I don't think any of those scenes were indulgent. They were just trying to show that [Dena] can't even get a second alone to herself in the bathroom. He was like, well, as a dad, I think it's always just going to be a little hard for me to see that. But he heard me more when I would explain the point of the whole discussion behind it, around what women go through.
And we've definitely been able to touch on that subject. I do think in many ways it's made him more understanding, a little more open-minded, and by open-minded, I don't mean that he's let go of his values, but it's just more of a realization that this is something that's happening. Regardless of if it's right or wrong, it's happening. Women want to explore themselves as well. I feel like they're not always aware of that. I mean more so in the States, but in the Middle East it's like, "Oh wait, what? You have a body too? And desires?"
Right. Sort of going off of that, there was this article published by The Atlantic last year right around the premiere of Ramy. And it was about how the writer thought that the show let down its female characters because many of them appear to be limited by their culture and religion. What is your response to critique like that?
Well, first and foremost, the show is called Ramy. It's not called this Arab Family, and then only talking about the guys. From my perspective, I find it so incredibly generous that he even gives the mom and I episodes, and hasn't just made the show about himself, and a love interest of his or whatever. I will say it's given me a hunger to want to tell more, and share more. And I see people want that. For me personally, I'm like, "Great. I know what I want to work on right now."
If you're going to look through a lens, you're going to see anything to support what you're looking at. I guess I just didn't want to look through that lens because when you know Ramy, he's so intelligent and he really thinks about everyone. It just doesn't really make sense. But I again understand, from the outside, why it might look that way.
Mahershala Ali is a big part of the season. I love that your character is just obsessed with him, which is very relatable. What was it like to have him on set?
It was amazing. It taught us all so much because he's so humble and he's obviously done a lot, but there's nothing about him that's ostentatious or showy. And I remember the first time I met him, he was getting his makeup done next to me. He was just going through lines and lines in Arabic, and he's like, "Is this right?" It was so sweet. And he was an open book. He wasn't trying to act like he knew more than anyone.
Dena's parents are really protective of her, more so than they are with Ramy, which I know you've mentioned is sort of a cultural thing. Do you have any personal experience with that sort of dynamic?
Definitely. My brother's seven years older and we grew up in the Middle East. It's kind of what it is here on steroids, but in the same way, it's not. Sometimes people who grow up here who are Arab hold on to their roots so much tighter because they don't want to let go of that identity. Whereas people in the Middle East let go a little. It switches in different areas, but I always had a curfew growing up. And my brother didn't. My brother would come home at 6:00 AM, and no one cared. Because all my friends were on my curfew, or it was known that girls had to look after their reputation, if you will, I was never fighting that, because where would I go? None of my friends are going out.
Although I see with Dena, she's in the States, and her friends are going out, she knows the other women are going out, and she's feeling trapped. That's even more frustrating.
What do you think about how the show handles racism on screen?
What I like about the show is, again, I feel like it just brings a little magnifying glass, or shows you things that are happening, but doesn't give so much of an opinion about it. It's like, "This is what's going on." And it shows you the other side of it too in a different way, not necessarily in the same moment. I think that Ramy taps into people's pain. And you can almost understand why certain things are said as coping mechanisms.
Right. What about in the case of Jake Lacy's character in season one?
That's so funny, I've never experienced anything like that before. I guess it just felt like a joke. I didn't even know how to react to it when I was reading the script because he came off so knowledgeable, and it was so easy to talk to him, and to be met with something like that ... It's two ways, right? You're always like, "Oh, don't chide someone for their sexual fantasies," but I don't know this guy. It's not like we've been dating or anything. And it's not a safe space between us. What is he asking of me right now?
And I don't know if that resonates with me in a racist way. It didn't trigger me in that way. I think it was more of an irritation that, "Is this all you wanted? Was there nothing beyond? Was there no connection?" Because I thought maybe there was something else. Instead, this is just a little fantasy you're trying to tick off your list.
I'm really ready for Dena to have a win. I'm hoping it's coming in season three. Something is always undercutting her successes. What is your hope for her?
I know. My hope for her is that she steps into herself more, and finds her identity — and that's a big statement. [I hope she] starts to take ownership, more unapologetically, of her choices and her body. I want to see her find more of the confidence in the decisions that she makes without having to look outside of her, to question if it's right or wrong and to be OK with making mistakes. I want to see her move through life kind of messily, and not be so affected by it. And somehow learning how to take more space. I think if she gets closer to her faith in a way where it just gives her more confidence. Because I feel like she still deals with guilt and shame in many ways, and that's why she gets triggered easily when anyone in her family says something. Also, she should move out.
What is your favorite item of clothing that you own?
A light pink Rag & Bone corduroy jacket that's oversized. I just feel like I can put it on with anything. It makes me happy.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Thackery Binx — the guy in Hocus Pocus before he gets turned into a cat
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
My childhood bedroom had this twin bed, and I had shelves with a bunch of books. And then I had this huge Barbie house, which I was very proud of, that had an elevator.
What is the one hair product you can't live without?
It's so funny, a year ago it would have been like a hair wax, but now it's a leave-in-conditioner. I can't not use it after the shower. It's Philip Kingsley, and it's specifically for maintaining your hair. I went [to the Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinic] after, to check my scalp and everything. And then I realized I just loved how it was on my hair.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Death Becomes Her, The Fifth Element, Chocolat.
What was your last binge watch?
Do you cook? And if so, what?
Generally it's just simple meals, but my favorite thing to cook is this Arabic dish Molokhia. It's almost like a spinach. You add water to it and lemon and garlic and coriander, and you get into sort of a soupy consistency and then you add chicken to it, and you do it with rice. And then on top you add vinegar and some chopped onions. It's really good.
Do you have a worst audition story?
Yeah. I first started auditioning in 2017. I was either going out for roles where I was like an Arab woman crying over ISIS taking her son or something like that, or I'd go out for like 17 year olds, which was so funny for me. I have a bit of a baby face. I didn't feel like I had agency to sort of push back, and say no. And so my agent was just trying different things and that sent me on these roles. They sent me on an audition for Sabrina. And it's like, "I'm not Sabrina." And I was like, "They're going to want a blonde girl, who is actually 17, why are you doing this to me?" And it was the worst audition. I couldn't get it right. It was a monologue. It wasn't happening. And I kept forgetting the lines, I was so hard on myself. And then later I was like, "Why did I even go out for that?" A part of me was, "Why can't I do this?" And another part of me was like, "This is not for you, she's a kid." Sometimes you can prepare, and sometimes you just say "No."
Season 2 of Ramy is now streaming on Hulu.
Join us for some Small Talk as we sit down with some of Hollywood's biggest breakout stars.