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Actress Kerry Washington looks past the camera

'She Wrote Her Own Rules': Kerry Washington's 'Little Fires' Role Reminds Her Of Mom

Washington is nominated two Emmys for producing and starring in the Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere, about an enigmatic artist adjusting to life in the suburbs. Originally broadcast April 6, 2020.


Other segments from the episode on September 8, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Septembeer 3, 2020: Interview with Kerry Washington; Interview with Ramy Youssef; Review of beautiful songs.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we have interviews with two Emmy nominees. The winners will be announced at the Primetime Emmy Awards September 20. Our first interview is with Kerry Washington. She's nominated for four Emmys. Two are for "Little Fires Everywhere" for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie and for outstanding limited series. She produced the series with Reese Witherspoon, who also stars in it. It's adapted from the bestselling novel by Celeste Ng. Washington also starred in the hit ABC series "Scandal" as a political fixer who has her own crisis management firm and is having an affair with the president of the United States. Kerry also played Anita Hill in the HBO movie "Confirmation" and played a slave named Hildi in Quentin Tarantino's film "Django Unchained." Along with Reese Witherspoon, Washington is a founding member of Time's Up, a movement of women working for gender equality and opposing sexual harassment. She also served on President Obama's council on the arts and humanities and worked on both of his campaigns. She hosted one night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention. We recorded our interview early last April.

Let's start with a clip from "Little Fires Everywhere," featuring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. To keep things straight about who's playing who, I'm going to use the actresses' names instead of the characters' names. So here we go. Reese Witherspoon is a part-time journalist who lives with her husband and their four children in a wealthy section of Shaker Heights, Cleveland. One day, she sees a stranger - Kerry Washington - asleep in a car with a teenage girl. Assuming that this is a homeless woman and her daughter, Witherspoon calls the police. Soon after, Washington responds to an ad for an apartment for rent. It turns out the woman renting it is Witherspoon. Feeling guilty about calling the police on Washington, Witherspoon rents the place to Washington and eventually offers her a job as her house manager. But when Witherspoon calls one of Washington's references, Washington's previous landlord, he says he's never heard of Washington. In this scene, it's evening and Witherspoon is at her home, and Washington is still working there. Reese Witherspoon plays Elena. Kerry Washington plays Mia.


REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) You really didn't have to say this late.

KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Mia) I need to talk to you. I saw your fax machine - the criminal record check.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) Oh, OK. Well, I feel terrible. But you were coming to work in the house, and I always trust my instinct.

WASHINGTON: (As Mia) I did lie. I had to break my last lease because I couldn't find a month-to-month apartment. So I put down a fake reference. And when you called me on it, I made my boss at Lucky Palace call you. I'm sorry. I've never been arrested. I'm not a criminal. But a lot of landlords, when they see a single Black mom, they don't want to rent to me. But you did because you're different. And I should have seen that and just been honest. So I understand if you're not comfortable having me work here anymore. I do.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) Why don't we have a glass of wine?



GROSS: Kerry Washington, welcome to FRESH AIR. How are you? How is your family?

WASHINGTON: Oh, thank you for asking. It's a real honor to be chatting with you from my bedroom. But...


GROSS: I'm at my kitchen table.

WASHINGTON: ...(Laughter) But we're OK. We're all OK as of now. And teaching at home, homeschooling, it's just a new world. And I know how blessed I am to have a home and to be able to be at home safely with my family right now in this world where we're all navigating exposure. It's a new balancing act, for sure, for a lot of working parents.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you about your new series, "Little Fires Everywhere," on Hulu. You know, in the novel that it's adapted from, the race or ethnicity of your character isn't mentioned. So when you and Reese Witherspoon decided to produce and star in this, how did race change the story and the subtext of this story?

WASHINGTON: It wasn't my idea to make me a Black. I didn't cast myself in the role. It was Reese Witherspoon's idea - and Lauren Neustadter, her producing partner. They had the idea to call me up and send me the book and ask me if I wanted to do it. And I thought it was an amazing idea. Of course, when I read it, I was reading it through the lens of Mia being Black because I'm Black. I think the novel is so much about identity and how the roles and the context of our identity contributes to how we live and relate to others in the world. So we knew that adding this layer of race would add to that complexity in an exciting way.

And then when I met Celeste Ng, the writer, for the first time, she actually admitted to me that she had always thought of Mia as a woman of color and that she had been drawn to the idea of writing Mia as a Black woman. But she didn't feel like she had the authoritative voice to do that in the right way. And so she was kind of vague about her race in the novel. So it was exciting that we were even in step with Celeste in diving into the places where she wanted to grow out the book in ways that already lived in her.

GROSS: The story is set in the '90s. And Reese Witherspoon's character lives in a privileged bubble and prides herself on being colorblind, which she isn't really. But how has the idea of colorblind changed? Like, how does colorblind sound to you today?

WASHINGTON: I think we all - many of us thought about being colorblind in the '90s, maybe less so people of color (laughter). Because it was, like, admirable that you could see beyond someone's race and to see them as just a human being. But when I hear it now, I think, you know, part of who I am as a human being is that I'm a woman, I'm from New York, I'm an Aquarius, and I'm Black. I'm also African American. Those are all distinct qualities that contribute to what I have to offer in a room.

GROSS: Your character is very observant but reveals very little about herself. And I assume that's out of self-protection. When she doesn't trust somebody, she's very careful on how she talks with them. She's very careful to not reveal much. And language becomes inexpressive and more of a barrier than a way of really communicating. You've said that in some ways you drew on your mother for that because when people asked your mother where she was from, your mother could say New York City or the Bronx or the South Bronx (laughter) depending on who the person was and how your mother wanted to be perceived. Can you talk about that a little bit?

WASHINGTON: Sure. I think there's so much of my mom in Mia. There is so much of my mother in Mia. And at some point, in the preproduction process, actually, Reese and I, we were looking at some costume boards that Lyn Paolo had put together for the teenagers, and we were saying like, oh, I had those shoes and I had that shirt. And it dawned on us rather late in the process, I have to admit - it dawned on us that we were playing our mothers because we were both teenagers in the '90s. And when I had that realization, it was like a door opened for how I could bring this character to life. And I realized that I really was being invited to step into my mother's shoes in a lot of ways. And one of the things I witnessed growing up was that my mom was very aware as a Black woman, as an academic, as the daughter of immigrants, she was aware of the assumptions that people would make about her, and she would play with those assumptions. She would - not in an aggressive way.

But she liked to watch people try to figure her out, and she liked to not fit into a box. My mom is not somebody who has ever really fit into anybody else's box, even in terms of, like, her - the performance of racial identity or her hobbies or interests or how she parented me. A lot like Mia, she wrote her own rules when she was raising me. I remember, like, a lot of her peers would - were shocked that she never hit me. I was never spanked. I think I was grounded once. There was - there were just, like, different - there were different approaches to life.

My mom didn't always feel the need to always make a situation comfortable for somebody else. If her answer was that she was from the South Bronx and that made the other moms who were living on Park Avenue - 'cause I went to a private school in New York - if that made - if that answer made them uncomfortable, she let it make them uncomfortable, I think, because as a teacher, she also knew that that was a learning opportunity for them.

If she walked into the school in a fur coat and spoke the Queen's English and came across as the academic that she was and then the response to where am I from is the South Bronx, that other mother was going to learn something about her own assumptions and prejudices and biases, and my mom let her have that learning opportunity.

GROSS: How did she talk to you?

WASHINGTON: Well, my mom is an educator. So I think, again, like, you know, there were lots of teaching moments that she let me have. Or there were, like, tricks. I think I was much older than I should have been before I learned that trunks didn't make a loud noise when they closed 'cause there were always lots of kids around - cousins and friends piling in and out of cars - and so my mom would say, everybody close your ears; it's going to make a loud noise when I close the trunk. And later on, I learned, like, oh, that's just so that nobody's hand got slammed in the trunk, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: Like, she told us to cover our ears so that all hands would be accounted for. So, you know, there were ways that she was teaching and taking care of us that weren't always completely transparent. But my mother is an extremely warm person. She's a reserved person. She doesn't - she's not very emotionally expressive. I think in some way, it's like - she used to joke that she worked very hard in life to learn how to not have feelings. And then I came along, and I'm just like - I was, like, a walking feeling, just like an id with legs walking around as a child.

But, again, my mother's warmth - even though she may not have been herself emotionally expressive and able to, like, meet me where I was, she quickly realized that she had to find an outlet for me. And so I was thrown into children's theater companies, where I could be emotionally expressive and have those big feelings in a place where it could be embraced.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kerry Washington. She's nominated for two Emmys for producing and acting in the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kerry Washington. She stars with Reese Witherspoon in the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere." Washington and Witherspoon also produced the series. It's nominated for an Emmy for outstanding limited series, and Washington is nominated for outstanding lead actress.


GROSS: You said that at some point, you realized you were playing your mother in "Little Fires Everywhere" 'cause it's set in the '90s, when you were a teenager, the same age as the children in the story. And in the story, your teenage daughter - who resents you for moving all the time from one place to another - now she has to enroll in a new school again. And because it's a kind of upper-class school where she's - and she's the newcomer and she's African American, there's a lot of assumptions being made about her.

You went to a private high school in New York that, you know, was a pretty elite school. Did you experience that kind of thing? Do you relate to what your character's daughter is going through in the series?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, there was so much that I related to in Lexi. You know, we were filming this scene - and this is both in filming and editing, we were having this conversation. When Lexi first walks into the Richardson household and she is taking in this kind of picture-perfect Shaker home with the mom who's baking cookies and the chandelier in the entry way, there was the belief among some members of our producing team that this was, like, a cheerful, happy moment where the music should be upbeat, where she was being exposed to, like, a magical wonderland of perfection that she'd never witnessed before.

And I was really grateful to be part of the producing team at so many moments of the show, but that's one that will stick with me for a long time because what I got to share with my fellow producers was - I remember distinctly the moment that I was standing in an elevator in an apartment building. And where I come from, you know, in the building that I grew up in in the Bronx, when the elevator door opens, there's, like, 20 apartments. And like most apartment buildings, you walk off the elevator and you find your apartment. And I remember what it felt like to stand on an elevator and the first time those elevator doors opened and that was the apartment - that the entire floor of the building belonged to one family.

And I remember it because it was such a complicated feeling for me. I did feel awed and mystified and impressed, but I also felt betrayed and confused and angry because I didn't know anyone who lived this way. I had never seen anybody who lived this way. And nobody that I knew, who looked like me, lived this way. And so it was as if there was a different society - mostly white people, wealthy white people - who were allowed to live a different quality of life that I didn't even know existed. I didn't even know to aim for it because I didn't even know it was possible.

And so that ignited in me a real complexity of emotions, and I remember hiding those emotions from the friends I was with because if I had expressed any of that, I would have identified myself as other in that moment. And so those feelings I wanted to capture for Lexi in that moment.

GROSS: So you grew up in the Bronx, and you went to this private school in Manhattan. Compare what the neighborhoods were like or what the culture of the school was like compared to your neighborhood.

WASHINGTON: The neighborhood I grew up in in the Bronx was a working, middle-class neighborhood. But we were definitely like - we were perceived as a more well-off family because we had two cars. We had a dishwasher in our apartment. My parents bought a cabin in upstate New York when I was in elementary school. Before that, we used to rent homes out in Long Island in the summer. So we were like a really - in my neighborhood, in my context, we were rich. And then I went to Spence, and I was, you know, in...

GROSS: That's the school. That's the name of the school. Yeah.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. Yeah, I went to Spence, which is a fancy school in the Upper East Side. It's where Gwyneth Paltrow went as well. And, suddenly, I was in math class with girls who had helipads on their Hampton's estates or where elevator doors open into their apartments or where they were flying first class to go on family vacations or flying private. And so it was a real culture change for me.

And I think in some ways, it was when I started to realize that we express identity through lots of different cultural symbols - right? - that, like, how we walk and how we dress and how we talk, these are all identifiers of who we are. And so I think it was, you know, that early exposure to code shifting, I think, was the beginning of my interest in acting in some way. And not that I was acting my way through junior high school and high school, but I did start to realize that you could shift perception of who you are by taking on different characteristics in the world.

GROSS: So can you think of an example of code switching when you were living in the Bronx and going to high school on the Upper East Side in Manhattan in a private school?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean, I think even today, if I'm on - and this was really pronounced in high school. But even today, if I'm on the phone with my cousins from the Bronx (laughter) and I get off the phone, you can immediately tell that I was talking to them because the - you know, I take on more of that sound and rhythm of just, you know, that girl from the Bronx, who's just - no, that's what I mean. That's what I told her. I told her to go to the store, and she didn't go, and she should have gone, right?

So there's a different way that, if I'm hanging with family, then this kind of media talk that I'm talking with you - which I think I'm trying in this interview to bring my, like, most purest, not code switching into anything, 'cause that's what I try to do in these sort of situations. But I know also that if this was an interview with BET, as opposed to NPR, that there would be a different tone to how I was talking. And that was really pronounced in high school.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. I'm not surprised to hear that the tone would be different. I mean, I hear code switching all the time, and I think we all do it to one degree or another.


GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: And one of my favorite Terry Gross moments ever (laughter)...


WASHINGTON: ...That we talk about a lot with friends because it's just so great is - you know, there's this thing in the Black community where you just say, at the end of a sentence, you know what I'm saying? And we say it a lot. Like, so that that's where I went, you know what I'm saying? And you had an interview with Lizzo, where she said that at the end of a sentence, and you said, I do know what you're saying.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: And it was my most favorite Terry Gross moment of all time (laughter).

GROSS: Did I sound very clueless when I said that?

WASHINGTON: No, it was fantastic 'cause it was, like - no, it was very real. It was very real. I thought, we should say that to each other more often.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: We're constantly saying, do you know what I'm saying? And nobody gets affirmed that we are hearing each other (laughter).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last April with Kerry Washington. She's nominated for four Emmys - two for her work on "Little Fires Everywhere" in the category of limited series or movie, one for acting and one for the series, on which she's an executive producer. We'll talk more after a break.

And we'll hear from Ramy Youssef, who's nominated for two Emmys for his semi-autobiographical comedy series "Ramy." Later, rock critic Ken Tucker will review three songs he finds simply beautiful. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last April with Kerry Washington. She's nominated for four Emmys, two for the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere." It also stars Reese Witherspoon, who produced the series with Kerry Washington. Washington also starred in the hit ABC series "Scandal" as a political fixer who has her own crisis management firm and is having an affair with the president of the United States.


GROSS: You and Reese Witherspoon are both founding members of Time's Up, which is the organization responding to the #MeToo movement working on gender equality, working against sexual harassment. And you played Anita Hill in the HBO movie "Confirmation." You were probably a teenager during the Clarence Thomas hearings, so I don't know how closely you followed what was happening. But playing her, what were one or two of the things that you found just, like, most disturbing about how she was treated and how the hearings were handled?

WASHINGTON: Well, I remember really distinctly when the hearings happened because it was one of the first times that I really saw my parents disagree on a social or political issue. Like, usually my parents were really in agreement around issues having to do with money or politics or Black identity. But because of intersectionality, this was a moment where I watched my mom and dad process this experience very differently as a Black woman and a Black man. And it was disturbing to me, and I'll never forget it. It really made me question who was in the right.

And I think Anita Hill is such a hero. And I wanted to be able to explore for both characters, for both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, what was at stake for them and what it cost them. Clarence Thomas, I think, is often perceived as the winner in that situation because he got to have his seat on the Supreme Court, but Anita Hill transformed society. She changed the shape of Congress and gave us language for sexual harassment, really transformed our cultural practices in this country.

GROSS: What did you learn about your parents hearing them disagree about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill? And I'm assuming your father defended Clarence Thomas and that your mother was on Anita Hill's side.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I think my dad - and I really - when I look back, I understand my Dad was devastated that this Black man who was going to, you know, sit on the highest court in the land was being raked through the mud. And he thought that Anita Hill should have had more loyalty to the Black community, that this was bad for Black people as a whole. I must say that my dad is now not of that opinion, that my dad has grown in his feminist ideology through the years. I would be remiss to not say that. But he was a product of his time and felt the way a lot of Black men did at the time, and my mom believed Anita Hill. And so I think it was one of the first moments that I realized the unique challenges of being a Black woman.

GROSS: My impression watching Anita Hill during the hearings is that she was trying so hard not to show any emotion, to just kind of give the facts, answer the questions and remain as firm but as emotionally neutral as possible. Did you feel that way, too, and did you try to play her that way?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean, I could probably recite the hearings to you now. I watched them so much. And I tried to approach playing her with the influence of Anna Deavere Smith. Like, I really tried to watch the video and listen to the audio and capture the cadence and the rhythm of Anita Hill. And I tried to figure out what I could learn about her personality from the placement of the way that she was speaking to those senators and even in her everyday life. But it's so very different from how I speak, and that difference is reflective of who she is. So it was really fun to kind of work in that way and wrap my head around her, using her voice and her posture and her walk in sort of an outside-in approach to the character.

GROSS: She had very good posture.

WASHINGTON: She actually - she did have very good posture, but she also has a little - I won't call it a slump because she's far too graceful and elegant to call it a slump. But she protects her heart when she sits, and so there's a slight curvature to her shoulders in the way that she protects her heart and doesn't let people have access to her innermost heartfelt feelings and identity. And in her...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Stop a second. I love the way you've turned her body, her posture into a metaphor.

WASHINGTON: Well, it is. I mean, you really - you know, you know you can study Alexander Technique, or you know how people move in the world says a lot about who they are. I used to go to rehearsal for "Scandal" in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, but I could not do the scene unless I had the shoes - high-heel shoes on, four-inch heels because Olivia Pope had a walk. And she had a posture, and she had a stance.

And I couldn't rehearse a scene in flip-flops or sneakers. Even when I was nine months pregnant playing Olivia Pope, I was in four-inch heels, sometimes wedges. But I still had to have that heel because that extra height and that extra lean forward and that extra tightness in the belly and the core that a heel requires - that's part of the steeliness of who Olivia Pope is. So I always say I don't know who a character is until I know what shoes they're wearing, until I figure out the walk, until I figure out how they stand.

GROSS: Thank you so much for this interview, and I wish you and your family and everyone you care about good health during this crisis.

WASHINGTON: Likewise. Likewise. Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Kerry Washington was recorded last April. She's nominated for four Emmys, two for the Hulu limited series "Little Fires Everywhere." Coming up, comic, writer and actor Ramy Youssef. He's nominated for two Emmys for the second season of his semi-autobiographical comedy series "Ramy." This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. The Primetime Emmy Awards are September 20. Today and tomorrow, we're featuring interviews with some of the nominees. Next, we'll hear from Ramy Youssef. He's nominated for two Emmys for the second season of his semi-autobiographical Hulu comedy series "Ramy" for outstanding lead actor and for directing. Youssef is a stand-up comic who often surprises people when he tells them he believes in God - or as he puts it, God God, not yoga.

His parents are immigrants from Egypt. His comedy is often about how he became an observant Muslim and how he also knowingly breaks some of the rules, like rules about dating and premarital sex. When the second season begins, Ramy is addicted to pornography and feeling guilty about it. In this scene, he goes to a Sufi mosque and confides in the sheikh, played by Mahershala Ali.


RAMY YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I feel like I have this hole inside of me that's - this, like, emptiness. And I'm always trying to fill it with something, like sex and porn. And I feel like the more people I'm with, the more alone I feel. And I've tried to fill it with God. I have. I won't lie. But I just - I don't know how. If I'm being honest, I started watching porn because I wanted to be a good Muslim. Like, I didn't want to have sex before marriage, so I thought I could just watch porn to fill that urge. It just made me do crazier things. Like, I had sex with my cousin, OK?

MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Sheikh Malik) You remind me a lot of myself when I was younger.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) You had sex with your cousin, too?

ALI: (As Sheikh Malik) Absolutely not. Have you ever thought about the actresses, Ramy?

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) What?

ALI: (As Sheikh Malik) The women you click on. Have you ever considered the plight of the performers, their pain, what they're experiencing? I've heard they don't even have beds, that they're just driven around in white vans. What if you met a porn star, if you looked her in the eyes? Have you considered her feeling?

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I haven't considered her 'cause I don't consider anything. I just consider myself.

GROSS: I spoke with Ramy Youssef in 2019 after the first season of "Ramy" started streaming. That year, he also had an HBO comedy special called "Feelings." Here's an excerpt in which he's talking about his father. It's going to take a surprising turn.


YOUSSEF: My dad is an amazing human being. He - just a hard worker. Just that thing you think about with, like, just anyone who comes to this country - that's my dad. He can do anything. Not just at work - comes home, he can cook, he can clean, fix the toilet, fix the car. He learned all these jobs just so he'd never have to pay another man. Like...


YOUSSEF: His nightmare would be to hand cash to another man and look him in the eye. And he started working as a busboy, and in 10 years, he became the manager of a hotel. And that hotel was in New York City. It was owned by Donald Trump. So I grew up with this photo in my living room of my dad and Donald Trump shaking hands. I saw it every day as a kid. And when you're a young Arab kid, anyone who's friends with your dad, like, that's your uncle.


YOUSSEF: And the last couple of years, I'm watching TV, and I'm just like, Uncle Donald? Really?


GROSS: (Laughter) That's Ramy Youssef. Ramy Youssef, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I - that really surprised me, that little twist. Is your father still working at a Trump hotel in New York?

YOUSSEF: (Laughter) No, he's not. But yeah, that is a true story.

GROSS: So how do you make sense of your father's success at a Donald Trump hotel in New York and Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions? Because as you say, Trump builds his business off immigrants, people like your father.


GROSS: So how do you make sense of that? How do you reconcile that?

YOUSSEF: You don't make sense of it. I don't think that there's a lot that adds up with a lot of the things that are going on, and I think that's part of the absurdity of it. I mean, I don't really find Trump to necessarily be something that's easy to joke about because it's pretty surreal to begin with. But I think laying out certain facts and kind of looking at something like, you know - and how it's tied not only to my family but many families, right? I think families like mine are in many ways the bedrock of most business in a lot of places in this country but, obviously, very specifically to his story and to where he's at.

GROSS: Is the picture of your father and Donald Trump still on the wall?

YOUSSEF: My dad hid it from me because he didn't want me to use it in anything.


YOUSSEF: He sometimes won't tell me things, either. He'll just be like, look - I'm not trying to be part of the stand-up routine, all right? So you just go about your day. And then we hug. And he tells me he loves me, and then he moves on with his day.

GROSS: (Laughter) So your parents came here as immigrants from Egypt. When did they come?

YOUSSEF: They came at different points in the '80s. They actually met in New York, which is kind of my favorite thing because they probably, you know, grew up very close to each other, maybe within 20 minutes and then travelled across the world to, you know, meet someone not far from home. And it really kind of encapsulates, I think, a lot of what immigrants go through, which is, you know, you put yourself in a situation where you really take a big leap of faith. And then you, you know, try to kind of find comfort and recreate what you know.

GROSS: So your character in your series has been trying to figure out what kind of Muslim he is, and I imagine you have gone through that yourself about where you fit in and what you're going to observe and what you're not going to observe within the religion. And I think so many people, no matter what their religion, go through that. So can you talk a little bit about what your process has been like and how much - how difficult it is to feel like you're not completely all in. Do you know what I mean? (Laughter) Like, you're really - you are a practicing Muslim. You probably practice it slightly different than your parents do. And you're not completely all in. I mean, it's clear. Like, you have premarital sex, for example.

YOUSSEF: Yeah. We would call it the picking and choosing. Sometimes we would call it Allah carte...

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: ...Where we're kind of, you know - everyone's got a different line, and it's really funny. There's the people who are like, OK, I'm going to have sex, but I'm not going to drink. And then there's the people who are like, no way am I having sex, but let's do acid on Saturday. And you know, there's kind of these really - you know, everyone has a code, you know? And I think that that transcends any specific culture or faith. We're constantly rationalizing where we stand and our own code and dealing with, you know, how you can be the best version of yourself.

And that's - I feel like since I was a kid, that was actually my only real goal that I ever felt. I always used to actually find it bizarre when people knew - you know, be that kid at 11 years old who's like, yeah, I'm going to be a rock star. And I would think that was insane 'cause I'd be like, well, how do you know? You don't know enough about yourself. That's just the thing that, you know, you think is cool. But how is that authentic? We're only 11. You know, that would be my...


YOUSSEF: That would be the way I looked at things.

But what I did know from a really early age was I wanted to connect with my higher self and kind of be, you know, the best spiritual version of myself. And I never really felt like I had to be religious. But as you get older, you know, you get pulled in different ways. You get pulled by your desires; you get pulled by your ego. And you sit in contradictions. And that has been the space that I'm trying to navigate, and that's kind of the space that, you know, I bring to the work.

GROSS: Why, at age 11, were you thinking about being your higher self and wanting to connect to your faith? It's not what most 11-year-olds are thinking about.

YOUSSEF: I wish I had a good answer. I don't know. As I got older, you know, I do think that, obviously, being Muslim became politicized and villainized in such a way that I definitely went down really deep kind of rabbit holes about who I was and what it meant to be this thing that supposedly was, you know, the root of all evil (laughter) in the way that it was framed and kind of coming to understanding that it's not that at all.

I mean, that was a big thing for me, and that was a big process for me to kind of work through. But I remember feeling even before that - even before 9/11 and before this narrative really took hold. But then, obviously, as that narrative took hold, you become even more introspective, too.

GROSS: Has trying to work through questions that you have about your own faith, about how you practice it, about your place in the world - has trying to work through that onstage and in your series helped you understand yourself better?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, absolutely. Just the choice of - in the series, we have 10 episodes. In the standup special, I have one hour. You're weeding things out, you know? You're deciding what you're going to talk about first. And so it's helped me realize - what are the priorities of conversations that are on my mind? What are the things that I feel like I'm uniquely qualified to talk about and then gravitate towards?

And then on a spiritual level, I am making this thing about being Muslim. And it's part of my career, and I'm making money off of it. There is this relationship that gets created now where I feel like I really have to be living at a higher level than my character is, you know, I - than my character in the show is, right? I don't want to be monetizing this thing that mean something to me and then losing it, you know? So it's something that kind of raises the bar for, you know, how I want to check myself.

GROSS: Ramy Youssef, thank you so much for talking with us.

YOUSSEF: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: My interview with Ramy Youssef was recorded in June 2019. He's nominated for two Emmys for Season 2 of his comedy series "Ramy," which is streaming on Hulu.

Tomorrow, we'll hear from two people nominated in the category of best host of a reality show or competition series. Padma Lakshmi is a host of "Top Chef." RuPaul is the host of "RuPaul's Drag Race." After we take a short break, our rock critic Ken Tucker will recommend some songs he finds simply beautiful. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. In listening to a lot of music over the past few months, rock critic Ken Tucker has come across some songs he finds simply beautiful. They're from a wide range of artists - singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews, the uniquely unclassifiable singer Swamp Dogg and the retro pop sound of Pokey LaFarge. Here's Ken's review.


COURTNEY MARIE ANDREWS: (Singing) Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Do you wish that I would stay? If I missed you, I wouldn't tell you. Best not to give ourselves away. That's how you get hurt. You let your guard down. You make a move, then it doesn't work out. That's how you get hurt.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I think if there's one thing we could all use this summer, it's some nice music. And by nice, I mean beautiful. But by beautiful, I don't mean merely pretty. And while I've been seeking out music that I find soothing, I'm not looking for anything sentimental or mawkish. Here's my first discovery. Courtney Marie Andrews recently released an album called "Old Flowers." I guess you'd classify Andrews' music as Americana, as the Arizona singer-songwriter has a bit of a twang in her voice and a predilection for rhythmic ballads. But nothing in her previous work prepared me for the beautiful ache in her voice in this knockout song called "Guilty."


ANDREWS: (Singing) Guilty. Oh, I'm guilty. I have fallen in love with you. I can't eat. No, I can't sleep. There is nothing in this world I can do. When I wake up in the morning next to him, it makes me want to cry. But I cannot bring myself to let it go and say goodbye because I know I'd hurt you, too, get bored, find someone new. I cannot give my love to you when I am guilty.

TUCKER: There's a different kind of beauty in the music made by Swamp Dogg on the album he released earlier this year called "Sorry You Couldn't Make It." Now in his late 70s, the man who was born Jerry Williams took the name Swamp Dogg to signify himself as the maker of unclassifiable work, mixing R&B, southern blues, funk and country. His voice is rough. And he knows how to bend it toward beauty on this ballad called "Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg."


SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) Laying here on my pillow, crying all night long. Stereo is playing some sad, sad songs. It's a natural fact - I can't live like that. Sleeping without you is a drag.

TUCKER: My third beautiful song is from the St. Louis singer Pokey LaFarge. A couple of months ago, LaFarge put out an album called "Rock Bottom Rhapsody." And the title refers to him hitting rock bottom in his personal life. In interviews, he's spoken of a difficult period that led up to the making of this album. The details aren't clear. But the quote that jumped out at me was, I was searching for peace and humility in the aftermath of carnage. The song I want to play is "End Of My Rope," a lovely piece about despair that sounds like a lost Ricky Nelson song from the 1960s.


POKEY LAFARGE: (Singing) Growing up was easy for some, but not me. And getting older is the same old story. They say I've come too far, too late to turn back now. So I guess there's nowhere left to go. Say it loud for the whole world to know - let me die onstage singing the last song I know. Let the spotlight shine the skin off my bones. Yes, I'm a long way from normal, and not much left to go until I get to the end of my rope.

TUCKER: Let me die onstage singing the last song I know, croons Pokey LaFarge. It's not a cheerful sentiment, but its fatalism has its own kind of splendidness. Each of these songs does a great job of confronting various cruelties of the world. And each insists that art can at least comfort pain through beauty.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed songs by Courtney Marie Andrews, Swamp Dogg and Pokey LaFarge. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interviews with New York Times Reporter Michael Schmidt about his new book "Donald Trump V. The United States" or Scott Anderson about his new book on the early years of the CIA or Cherry Jones about her life and acting career - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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