Streaming TV’s newest critical darling is Ramy, the already-renewed Hulu original starring comedian and co-creator Ramy Youssef. Primarily about a Muslim 20-something, portrayed by Youssef, who’s walking a social tightrope between the expectations of his faith and Northeast progressivism, Ramy has been widely praised for its thought-provoking writing and Atlanta-like rawness mixed with surrealism. It’s also scored high marks because of its cast diversity, most prominently highlighted by the presence of Steve Way, Youssef’s real-life best friend who has muscular dystrophy.
Way, 28, from Rutherford, New Jersey, is a stand-up comedian as well as a public speaker who raises awareness about people living with disabilities. He supplements his income as a substitute teacher at Rutherford High School, where both he and Youssef graduated — though their buddy status dates back to the first week of fifth grade, as it similarly does on Ramy. Near the end of the fourth episode, after a preteen Ramy is ostracized by his classmates for the crime of being Muslim on 9/11, the young Steve wheels up to him on his way to school, shouting, “Hey, terrorist!” After a brief conversation, the episode closes with the two outcasts traversing the route together, side by side, beginning a beautiful friendship.
The older TV version of the pair continues to find themselves in unsettling situations, allowing the for-real twosome to splay their comedic acting talents. Way shines on the show as the somehow straighter man to Youssef’s straight man who sometimes breaks a little bad.
Vulture sat down with Way at one of the many midtown Manhattan Starbucks locations to talk about his work on the show, a near-death experience, and the one scene on Ramy that, at first, made him “so uncomfortable.”
Ramy has just been picked up for a second season, so congrats on that!
How does that make you feel?
Really good because now I have that job security, and I’m just really excited to see what ideas Ramy has — for the whole show and for my character.
Are you going to stick with substitute teaching for a while?
Yeah, I always want to have that job where I don’t have to work hard at all to get paid. I otherwise sit at home all day and do nothing, so I might as well sit at school and just make sure my students don’t murder each other and get paid for it. I can’t throw that away yet.
Do you enjoy it?
I love it. The students are super respectful, super helpful. They’ve been nothing but welcoming and accepting. I always tell people I never wanted to teach younger kids because that would be too much of a distraction. The high-school kids get it. Most of them know who I am anyway. They’ve seen my work online — my speaking and my stand-up.
What was the process like to get you on Ramy?
Ramy was a big advocate for me. He used a lot of my stand-up and I did some audition tapes. It’s very, very hard for people like me to be on TV. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone who looked like me on TV or in a movie?
I can’t remember, ever.
Exactly. There are just so many excuses out there: “Oh, can he film a full day? Does he have the strength to do it? Is he even good enough for it?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten in front of a casting director and they just cut me off before I even do my lines. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve auditioned for a disabled person’s role and I was the only disabled actor, and I still didn’t get it.
I saw this interview on Good Morning America with Bryan Cranston, whose work I love. But he was promoting The Upside where he played a quadriplegic person, and he talked about how he researched for the part by meeting with disabled people. He was trying to sound really sensitive about their struggles, but I was taken by how he made them all sound like huge sympathy cases. He wound up sounding really insensitive to me.
He did an interview about that, and his exact words were it was a “business decision” to play that role. And it’s like, not only is that really offensive, but it’s really hurtful.
I was thinking at the time that there’s got to be someone who lives with that same disability who could give a more authentic performance, perhaps, if they have any kind of acting chops.
There are thousands of disabled actors, writers, and directors, but they don’t give us a chance. Obviously, having a nondisabled actor play a disabled person’s role is bad, but I think the real problem is having a nondisabled writer write a disabled person’s role. To have a movie like Me Before You, and people come out of it thinking, Oh, wow, people with disabilities just want to kill themselves because they feel like a burden and they’re incapable of love. And then you see a movie like The Theory of Everything, where at the end you have Eddie Redmayne get up out of his wheelchair, and people come out of that theater like, Oh, that’s what disabled people dream about. And it wins a fucking Oscar! Like, it’s a joke. It’s really, really harmful to people’s perceptions of disabled people.
Maybe we’re getting into a place now where we can have these discussions, culturally. With your presence on TV, maybe we can have a broad perspective shift about people with disabilities being represented in media.
I really hope so. A couple years ago, with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy put out a statement about diversity, and they listed all the marginalized groups that they want to put more emphasis on. “People with disabilities” wasn’t even in that statement. I mean, how much harder do we have to fight?
How far back do you and Ramy go?
We’ve been friends since 2001. We met in fifth grade, the week before 9/11. So that episode of Ramy is somewhat true.
How long have you been doing stand-up?
I started in 2010. Ramy, along with two other friends of ours, had a sketch-comedy group, and they did a show at this old movie theater, with a stage from like the 1920s, in our hometown. They wanted to turn it into a charity show for muscular dystrophy.
And Ramy had you in mind in arranging that, right?
Obviously! It was a year after he and I had graduated high school, and we’d worked on a bunch of projects, like sketch videos — this was during that big sketch-comedy YouTube boom of the late 2000s. Our high school had a full TV studio, so we always had access to equipment. But one day during the summer Ramy was over at my house and said, “I want you to write a stand-up set.” Two weeks later, he was over again and I said, “All right, here it is.” And he said, “Great. You’re gonna perform it at the show.”
So he kind of tricked you?
Not really, but I think he knew that would be a way to get me to do it, because otherwise I’d be scared. It was in front of like 300 people.
How did it go?
It was amazing. You know, I have been public speaking since I was 10 years old with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, just helping raise money and raise awareness. So being onstage was never a problem for me, but to do, like, an organized set, it was so different. But it ultimately felt natural. It felt right.
Where do you usually perform stand-up? What’s your material like?
I mostly perform at the PIT — the Peoples Improv Theater — mostly because UCB was never wheelchair accessible. The PIT was my only option. I can’t perform at the Comedy Cellar. I can’t perform at the Village Underground. They’re not accessible. People don’t realize that comedy is not really accessible to all people in New York. I’ve been trying to change that for years. It took so long just to get a ramp at UCB East to get up on the stage. I’ve been fighting for wheelchair accessibility in all buildings since I was 10 years old.
So I don’t perform as often as I’d like, but I do the PIT. I do SubCulture now. I usually do like eight to ten minutes, and the audience is automatically an obstacle. It’s not every day they see somebody who looks like me, so it’s really my job to get them on my side as early as I can.
Do you have an opener that you do to help with that?
I say, “Let me get this out of the way: No, this is not my Make-a-Wish.” And then they say, “Okay, I can laugh at him.”
In episode three of Ramy, Ramy gets really high, goes over to your character’s house, and sits with him and his mother. He starts talking about how your character is going to die relatively soon, that his mother’s life sucks because she has to take care of him all the time, and that she’ll one day be at her son’s funeral, for sure. How did that scene come together, and what did you think of it?
Ramy wrote it, and I remember reading that for the first time, and it made me feel really uncomfortable. So uncomfortable. Then I gave it an hour and I read it again. I thought, Oh my goodness, this is brilliant.
What changed your mind?
I understood the absurdity of it, while still getting the realness of it. Because obviously we talk about [my death], but not like that. So to have that conversation in that situation is so funny.
Did he ever confess to you that these were thoughts he really had, or was he just getting creative with the friendship?
With me, it’s implied. I mean, I almost died when I was 14. Ramy saw me in the hospital.
When I was in the eighth grade, I had back surgery to correct scoliosis. It was getting to the point where if I didn’t have this surgery it was gonna kill me because it would’ve just crushed everything inside. So I have the surgery, I was in the hospital for ten days, and I came out and I got so sick. I couldn’t eat or drink anything because my throat was so swollen from being intubated during the surgery. I couldn’t get comfortable. I couldn’t sit up, couldn’t lie down. I’d wake up like every hour when I was trying to sleep. It was like this for five weeks, and it was really the only time in my life I thought about suicide. I wasn’t depressed, but I was scared to live the rest of my life like that — just constant pain and discomfort. And then five weeks after I came home, there was one day where I felt worse than usual. The whole day my dad was asking me if I wanted to go to the hospital and I said, “No, I’m fine.” I woke up at like 2 a.m. to go to the bathroom. I’m on the toilet and my dad asked me again if I wanted to go to the hospital. I don’t know why but I said yes, and if I’d said no I would’ve gotten back in bed and I would’ve been dead.
So we’re on the way to the hospital. I stopped breathing two minutes out. They get me on life support. I weighed under 40 pounds because I didn’t eat anything, and the surgery gave me pneumonia. My right lung was filled with fluid, but I was so weak I didn’t realize it. They sucked it all out, and then they accidentally overdosed me on Ativan and I was in a coma for a day and a half. I ended up being on life support for two weeks. I was in the hospital for a month, and I really didn’t know what was going to happen. That was really the moment that made me realize life really is too short.
Ramy saw me and helped me get through it all.
I also wanted to ask you about that episode where you’re trying to hook up, knowingly, with a drunk 16-year-old girl.
It never happened! I’ve never been with an underage girl! I have to say that every interview.
[Laughs.] I didn’t think so, but how did that episode come about? Are you proud of it, and what do you enjoy about it?
I think Ramy really wanted to have my character in a situation that would challenge people’s morals.
You’re just like everybody else — you can kind of be an asshole, too.
Yes. [But in the episode] I’m still in a situation that nobody else is in. I have different circumstances. In that episode I’ve gotta be flexible. So when I’m doing that, it’s morally wrong, but, you know, Ramy, I think, drafted it in a way where he wanted the viewer to be like, “It’s kind of okay for him. It doesn’t feel right, but I get it.”
How is your health, overall?
Thankfully my health is pretty strong right now. I’m at the point where if I don’t have any major setbacks, I’m really not going to lose any strength. The bad thing is, if I were to have a setback, such as a long illness or an injury, I would lose strength and I would not get it back. So barring anything like that, I just take it one day at a time.
How frequent are your public-speaking engagements, and what’s your message?
They’re starting to pick up more now because people are aware of me. I mostly do it at schools, all different grades. I talk to the students about tolerance, overcoming adversity. I think hearing it from someone like me kind of hits a little differently, and it gives them a bit of a different perspective on the world around them. But I love doing it because it gives me the opportunity to meet new people and to share my story and to hear theirs.
What’s next for you in showbiz? Are you hoping for other parts in other shows or movies? More stand-up?
Honestly, I’m up for anything. I love acting. I love being able to tell my story to a live audience. So now if more studios and networks can see me and say, “Oh, okay, he can do it,” hopefully they’ll take a chance on me and others like me. But I am a straight white guy, so it’s going to be easier for me. That’s a fact. I don’t know what it’s like to be disabled and black, disabled and gay, disabled and trans, and those people deserve to have their story told, too. It’s just as important, if not more important than mine. They’re more marginalized people than I am. It’s weird to say that because I am disabled, but there are more marginalized people out there that have less of an opportunity than I do.
So here you are saying you’re one of the lucky ones, in a way, right?
Absolutely! On the surface, again, it’s so weird to say that, but it’s true.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.