Mohammed "Mo" Amer hasn't been acting long (his first professional credit is an episode of Crashing from 2018), but he is already making a big mark with the characters he portrays and the stories he tells.
After spending two seasons as a supporting player on Ramy Youssef's self-titled Hulu comedy Ramy, the comedian, actor, writer, and producer is now starring in his own self-titled streaming comedy, Mo for Netflix. It is a show he also co-created (with Youssef) and for which he pulled "99-percent" of stories from his personal life.
"It was just one of those things where the things that I went through in my life were so good for the show. Maybe not good for me living through at that time, but they're just so good for the show," Amer tells Metacritic.
Set and filmed in Houston, Texas, the first season of Mo is rich with both comedy and conflict as Amer's eponymous character, who has been fighting to get asylum in America since he immigrated as child from Palestine, gets fired from a respectable retail job when his boss fears ICE raids. This leads him to sell "merch" out of the trunk of his car, which can be short-term lucrative, but ends up getting him in over his head with a bigger criminal enterprise and having to transport drugs for the kingpin.
After surviving a shooting at a grocery store (that is completely unrelated to the criminal he gets involved with, by the way), Mo chooses not to go to the hospital and instead hits up a friend for help with the wound and a way to ease the pain, resulting in an addiction that he battles throughout the season.
He also juggles his relationship with his girlfriend (played by Teresa Ruiz), who is Mexican, with his familial obligations, arising in additional complications because his Palestinian mother (played by Farah Bsieso) does not approve of her as suitable marriage material for her son. (To be fair, she also doesn't always approve of her son individually, either, getting more upset when she learns he has a tattoo than when she learns he was shot.)
The family experiences the pitfalls of the American immigration system, including incredibly long waits for court dates and ill-equipped counsel. But Mo is determined to make things better for everyone even when it costs him. He drops everything to help his brother (played by Omar Elba), and he strikes a deal to propel a family business of making olive oil forward by promising to retrieve stolen olive trees from a local grove. Unfortunately for him, that latter plan goes awry when he ends up in the back of the truck with the stolen trees, crossed over the Texas-Mexico border, with no way back into the U.S. because he isn't a citizen and doesn't have papers.
"This TV show culminates my life's work. Everything is coming to a head for me," he continues, noting he was constantly thinking about "How much can I put in here to influence and culture and remind them what was actually going on, or is going on, and what a family goes through?"
"It's meant to be a show about inclusivity, a show about belonging, about wanting to belong. I put everything I have into it," he continues.
Here, Amer talks to Metacritic about specific story pieces he pulled from his own life, what filming Season 1 taught him about his own grieving process, and the symbolism within the finale.
You were already telling such a detailed and important immigration story by focusing on what it is like for this family to seek asylum for so many years, but then the end of the first season adds another layer by trapping your character in Mexico while the family is still seeking asylum. What inspired you to do that?
One of my favorite lines is, "I just deported myself." [Laughs] There's several layers to it. No. 1 is just to highlight how difficult it is for him to travel. You can't travel; if you wanted to, you have to wait until you get asylum, and even then you get a refugee travel document. He couldn't just walk back. Even though he did nothing illegal, you can't really come back into America that easily. Once you're gone, you have to stay put in one particular location and the next thing you know, you miss out on everything. So we're going to explore that in Season 2.
The parallels with the wall in Mexico and with the wall and Palestine was something that was really important to me. I think it's the same method of trying to create a partition wall, and it doesn't help anybody and it doesn't stop anybody. And I thought it was just such an interesting plot twist to just have him stuck in Mexico.
You already brought up Season 2, and while it's not confirmed yet, you certainly left the show in a place that showcases how much more there is to explore. Yet, you also covered a lot of important ground in the first season. Was that pacing because you can't leave anything on the table in case you don't get the second season?
There was so much that we had to scale back. Thankfully and unfortunately my story is very rich — it can be painful. I held onto a lot; there's a lot of leftover stuff. You could make a whole movie just on my mom's experience during the Gulf War. I initially wanted to do an entire flashback episode of me being in America and my mom being overseas, but that wasn't as on par for what the story was, so we fictionalized it to where my father stays behind and my mom comes.
[When it comes to Season 2] I'm already writing it myself, just trying to see which way it goes. I have all these ideas set aside.
Your stand-up is also very personal, and yet there are things you can talk about differently on screen in a narrative way than you can when it's just you on a stage. What are some specific pieces from Mo that you lifted directly from your own experiences?
In Episode 7 [when the family is in court for their asylum hearing] the judge had to recuse himself because he knew my deceased father; that was real. You couldn't make that up; you couldn't pitch that in the room! Me finding out about my father, in Episode 3, was tortured and had cigarettes put out on him, that was real. And I found out through my lawyer, actually: I saw the pictures on his desk. I was looking through [our file] and I was like, "What the hell is this?" And I realized while I was filming that I never mourned it in my personal life. I didn't have a moment where I really focused on and understood how incredibly traumatic that must have been for my father. And it had a profound effect on me while we're filming. I broke down, everyone was like, "Man, that was amazing," but that was real. It was cathartic and it was good for my heart.
The addresses that you see in the flashback in [Episode] 7, that's actually our house in Kuwait. The dream sequence in Episode 3 where you open up in Palestine, that's my grandparents' house in Palestine; I sent somebody there to go get that; I just made sure that everything was authentic in the show. I was very adamant about everything being grounded. That's why we were filming it in Houston: There was no substitute for that.
And recreating these flashbacks from my childhood — my first day at school, that was real. We played with the students and stuff, but that was really how my teacher introduced me; I didn't fake anything with that.
I don't have a lean addiction, though. We thought it would be a great layer of complexity for the character throughout the season.
What was the origin of that through line: Were you looking to comment on the state of addiction in America and connecting it to healthcare made that the way in, or was it the reverse?
It's both. It's about not having access to proper health care. I think mental health is something that is so completely disregarded in America; it is just so sad. A lot of people resorting to self-medicating, and that's one commentary. Also, the emotional pain that comes with it, as well, and just trying to put out there that it's not good for you: You're going to spiral out. It just felt very natural in the storyline.
Going back to the flashbacks you already touched upon, why did you want to add that element, and do you consider those a multi-season journey?
There's so many origin stories: my mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, historic origin stories like Palestine and Israel. There's a lot of stuff that we can play with and bring back. And I think that connects you to the characters even more: when you see him as a little kid in fifth grade and when you see him as an adult in his early 30s. Like, what's going on? Why is it taking so long? This guy's an American. I wanted the audience to be like, "Get this guy his citizenship already!" This is how I felt, and I wanted the audience to feel that too.
Then there's so much to mine because if he gets asylum he has to wait five years to get his green card, and when he gets his green card, it's another five unless he gets married and then he has to wait three years. That's a shortcut. That's why we want to play with it, too, with the matrimony episode: to show how people can skip the line. And we thought it was really interesting thing: Is it out of love or is it really just citizenship?
As we watch those flashbacks, we realize Mo may have more to grieve and heal from than just losing his father and now learning about the torture his father endured. You mentioned that you just realized some things you needed to process while filming the first season, so how do you see Mo's trajectory of grief compared to your own?
We want him to be successful, but when we're in it, we want to be in it: We want to allow those moments to breathe and truly have those character development moments where he really is pondering and thinking. We don't want to skip over anything and be like, "OK he's fine now." That was something I was really particular about in post-production; it's more so in editing. I love sitting in it. If there's silence, like my brother coming in in Episode 1 where he's just staring at me, I didn't want to just gloss over that; we have to lean into the weirdness if it's weird. And if it's emotional, we have to lean into that, and if it's funny, we have to lean into that and give it its space. I think that's really important for the story and the development of each character.
We talked about the symbolism of the wall in the finale at the start of the conversation, and I want to bring this full circle and end on another finale question because everything Mo does in that episode is to set it up so his mother can sell her olive oil. Where did that olive oil storyline come from?
As a Palestinian you just can't live without olive oil!
But specifically the selling of it.
I just thought it would be such a cinematic and emotional moment for my mom to add an objective in her life. And it's her touchstone to being back home in her homeland and it was something that was really inspiring. And that song that I picked for that moment is called "Yamo," the same title as the second episode, which is Syrian slang for mother. It comes from a really popular and iconic show called Ghawar. The main character is called Ghawar and he's a mischievous character, and there was an episode where he's in jail, and his friends are in jail, and it all takes place there and it's Mother's Day. He sings that song, and there are two times I've seen my father cry: When we were watching this when I was about 5 or 6 years old and then when my grandmother passed away. It's something I always wanted to put in American television; it's so iconic. And I ended up getting permission from Ghawar himself — Duraid Lahham, the actor-creator — who's in his mid 80s and wrote me a letter saying I could use the song. It was so incredibly emotional to me tying back to when I was a little kid in Kuwait, just watching all these adults get so emotional over it, and now I'm using it my series.
I thought it was a really special moment to honor mothers; there's no way to ever pay back my mom for the sacrifice, but I chose that moment. The olive oil is the connection back home; the olive branch is a symbol of peace; and they do steal and destroy olive trees of Palestinians back home.
We knew that there were olive farms in Texas, so I also thought it would be a really cool opportunity to show a different side of Houston as well; that olive farm was 40 minutes outside the city. For those who grew up in Houston, we never had a narrative sitcom here, so that inspiration is priceless. Equally for people in my background who look at me and say, "Hey that guy did it, anything's possible." That's very important.
Get to know Mo Amer:
Amer is a stand-up comedian with specials ranging from Mo Amer: Mohammed in Texas, to Allah Made Me Funny: Live in Concert (Metascore: 53), and Mo Amer: The Vagabond. He guest-starred on the second season of Crashing (73), acts in Ramy (85) and the 2021 film Americanish, and will soon be seen in the DC-Warner Bros. superhero blockbuster Black Adam.