You would be hard pressed to find two TV characters in 2021 with less in common than Marcia Roy and Maysa Hassan. The former is the enigmatic, sophisticated wife of billionaire patriarch Logan Roy in the HBO hit Succession. While the series is dominated by huge personalities, she is a mysterious presence – albeit one who is despised by Logan’s children. The latter, on the other hand, is an open book – the unfiltered, sometimes offensively so, Egyptian-American mother of the title character in the Golden Globe-winning comedy Ramy.
But they are played by the same actor, Hiam Abbass, whose ability to switch from calamity to calm speaks to a varied career across theatre, cinema and, latterly, award-winning television series. Though she has lived in Paris since the late 80s, the Palestinian actor was born in Nazareth, Israel, and started her career with the then-burgeoning Palestinian National Theatre, El-Hakawati. Though the company toured Europe, it was far from an easy existence back at home. “The Israeli authorities didn’t like all of the activities happening at our theatre,” explains Abbass, a warm presence who is fluent in English, Arabic, French and Hebrew. “They would come in and close it down. Part of my work there was dealing with how, politically, we could stay open. Travelling to Europe opened my eyes a little to the possibility of breathing some different air. It was hard to work all the time to justify your being.”
Despite moving to Europe – first London and then to Paris – much of Abbass’s work has revolved around Arab cinema. She has played Tunisians, Syrians and Algerians among other nationalities on screen, and appeared in many acclaimed films, including the Oscar-nominated drama Paradise Now. In that movie she played a Palestinian. Abbass has spoken before about the danger of seeing Arab people as “a mass” and thought it necessary to raise concerns about her character, the mother of a suicide bomber. “The way she was written reminded me a lot of what we already see in the media,” she says. “She didn’t seem unique in any way. I spoke a lot with the director, Hany [Abu-Assad], and he altered a lot in the character. I felt I gave her an identity that was unique and different to the mass of women that we usually see. The media chooses to show you that image of the weeping Palestinian mother, almost as if she has nothing else to offer. Life’s much more complex than that, so stories and characters are far more complex.”
It wouldn’t be the last time that Abbass – who has also directed two short films and one feature of her own – would take a bigger role than just that of an actor. As well as acting in it, she served as a consultant on the 2005 Spielberg film, Munich, about the aftermath of the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics (“I felt like we were very much on the same page,” she says with a grin, calling Spielberg “a genius”) and assisted Alejandro González Iñárritu on the set of his 2006 film, Babel, acting as a conduit to the Arabic-speaking cast. “I spent three months with him just watching him work,” she says. “I would talk with the actors from Morocco, because I was an actor – I could be one of them. Alejandro called me his guardian angel. It was really beautiful – that meant a lot”.
Over the past decade, Abbass has featured in more English-language projects, such as Peter Kosminsky’s serials The Promise and The State, both of which aired on Channel 4 in the UK. This led, in time, to bigger gigs, such as the hugely popular Succession, which she has just returned from filming in New York when we speak. We talk about the indecipherable Marcia Roy, a figure so unknowable that her stepchildren perform a background check on her. “In the series, you know all of the other characters’ intentions, but I think Jesse [Armstrong, the show’s creator] wanted to do something a bit different with her. She’s a bit more noble, a bit more human”.
Why does she think a show with such hateable characters, and lavish displays of wealth, has proved so popular? “It’s funny you’re asking me this question, because I’ve asked myself that,” she laughs. “People are fascinated by power and money. One of my friends watched it recently and I said, ‘What did you like about it?’, and she said, ‘I love the fact that everybody is bad, it’s incredible’. It’s like watching Trump – you know how you feel about him, but you still want to know more. People want to know about the imperfection of human beings.”
Abbass speaks fondly of her Succession family – including her good friend Brian Cox, who plays Logan – and equally warmly of her other, very different TV brood on Ramy. Though it was her first time playing a comedic role, Abbass is entirely believable as Maysa, who mollycoddles her adult son, played by Ramy Youssef, while admonishing her daughter (in the opening episode, she quashes Dena’s criticism of Ramy’s job at a startup: “Habibti, give them a chance, they’re just starting up”). She is largely oblivious, inadvertently offending a trans woman and a black customer while working for the ridesharing app, Lyft.
“I’d never played a woman that had no filter,” says Abbass. “I don’t judge her. She’s not a bad woman – obviously she has feelings and gets hurt and often she means well. When her daughter tells her that she’s said a bad thing she tries to defend herself because she thinks she’s just telling the truth. It all comes down to how she is designed from Ramy’s side. There’s a very fine line I had to follow with her: if I take her a little bit over the top you would think she’s too much, if I’m under, it wouldn’t be enough.”
She deftly treads the line of an outspoken yet world-weary character, finding her independence after several decades as a housewife. Maysa isn’t your average comic character, and Ramy – where the action can take place in a mosque or a strip club, depending on the episode – isn’t your average comedy. How important is it to see a show about a second-generation Muslim immigrant on TV? “I think it’s very important, today more than ever, because we all have such complex, complicated layers, whether they’re social, whether they’re race, whether they’re colour, whether they’re just gender. I think it’s very important to be able to talk about the duality of identities, whether that’s Arab and American, Arab and British, Arabic and French, French and Chinese. We have to accept dual identities, and we have to see, what are people’s difficulties – what is good about them and what is not working. We do our job on an artistic side. And I think the next question would be, what would politicians do to help these kind of situations in their own countries?”
We speak about inclusion in society, and in the arts. “Theatre can have such an elitist way of thinking. For me it’s about, how do you work as an artist and how do you bring your thoughts to what’s going down in the street? Who is your audience? It’s the people who live with you – you can ignore their existence because you just want to enjoy Shakespeare and Molière, but you need to consider the people that basically made Shakespeare exist. Working with different organisations, my partner [the director Jean-Baptiste Sastre] and I find people that are so talented – la poesie is part of their daily lives. To go back to Ramy: yes it’s important to tell stories like this. It’s important to bring light to things that are dismissed in life.”
She is next set to appear alongside Jeff Bridges in another TV series, a thriller titled The Old Man. She has a passion for the job that doesn’t seem to be dwindling. “Don’t stagnate, don’t be certain about things, you never know. The road is still so long,” she says.
• Ramy is available on All 4 and airs Fridays, 11.05pm on Channel 4. Succession is available on Now TV with season three airing later this year.