Mo Amer on his rise in Hollywood and 'paying it forward'

The Palestinian-American comedian shared his experiences on working in Hollywood while speaking at the Red Sea International Film Festival

Mo Amer spoke of his experiences in Hollywood and the comedy circuit at the Red Sea International Film Festival. Getty Images
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As far as Arab representation in Hollywood is concerned, Mo Amer is leading the way.

The Palestinian-American comedian has become a household name around the world following his two Netflix stand-up specials, his role in the Hulu series Ramy, his Netflix series Mo and most recently Black Adam, in which he stars alongside Dwayne Johnson and Pierce Brosnan.

This success, however, did not happen overnight and came after two decades of patience and perseverance, Amer said during a talk on Wednesday at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

“I had to be very, very patient to get to where I wanted to be,” he says.

Speaking about his series, Mo, which has been described by fans as a “major moment for Palestinian representation”, Amer said he spent 20 years trying to narrow down the story he wanted to tell.

“I spent all that time thinking about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, which is what made the show so timely and timeless,” he says. “This show will live on forever.”

The semi-autobiographical series tells the story of Mo Najjar, a Palestinian refugee adapting to his new world in Houston, Texas, as he embarks on the path to US citizenship.

Born in Kuwait, Amer fled to the US with his family in 1990, before finally obtaining US citizenship in 2009.

“A Palestinian experience in America, or anywhere really, that is put out on the biggest global platform on planet Earth is so spectacular,” he said. “To tell a Palestinian story that’s real, that’s grounded, that’s from Houston and shows the city as a character, is so special. I’ve never seen anything like that so that’s what keeps me going, telling stories that are so unique, but yet very global. That’s not just for us, but for everybody.”

“We were as honest as we could be in every part of it,” he says. “In episode three, when we see my grandparents’ house, that is actually my grandparents’ house. The house address in episode seven in the flashback, which I wrote over nine years ago, is the address that we fled from in Kuwait.”

Mo also stars Limetown actor Omar Elba, Narcos: Mexico actress Teresa Ruiz and rapper Tobe Nwigwe. Several Arab talents are also featured, including Daughters of Abdulrahman actress Farah Bseiso, Saudi rapper and comedian Moayad Alnefaie and Egyptian comedian and doctor Bassem Youssef.

Amer serves as executive producer in the series, along with his Ramy co-star Ramy Youssef.

The diverse cast of characters, Amer says, was meant to accurately portray the cultural fabric of Houston.

“My backdrop is Houston, and it has a lot of cultural representation,” he says. “Not showcasing or highlighting anything Americano is ridiculous. It’ll feel really fake. I wanted to put as much [as I could]. I wanted to have Latinos based in Houston, Nigerians based in Houston, but in the end, it’s the story. I’m wedded to that. That’s the number one thing.

“I also thought it’d be interesting to have an Arab and an Americano together,” he continues of Mo.

“That’s a super fun thing to play with. The languages are intertwined. The history of Arabs in Spain for over 700 years, what that’s like and just having that experiences. We have differences, but we are still alike. I also speak Spanish, so it’s also showing that universality. There are a lot of Arabs that moved to Houston that own businesses in heavily populated Spanish communities or Americano communities. They end up learning Spanish and when you walk in, you don’t even know if that guy is Arab or Americano.”

Amer also spoke about attending the Black Adam US premiere in October with his mother, who wore a traditional Palestinian thobe for the red-carpet event. The moment marked, Amer says, the first time in 22 years that his mother had gone to the cinema, mainly because she had been fed up with how Arabs, particularly Palestinians, were represented in Hollywood

“[Arab] stories in American culture are really impure,” he says. “If you look at the history of Hollywood and look at what they’ve put out over the years about Arabs, it’s been really terrible. There were moments where I had the opportunity to audition for certain movies where it was all terrorist-based roles. Can you imagine if I got this really big role in a movie and I’m going to take my mom to the premiere, like ‘look at what I did, Mom’.

“We went to the Black Adam premiere,” he says. “She wore a thobe, and it was an incredible moment. A historical moment. Last time she went to a movie was over 22 years ago. She went with my brother and randomly chose a movie, which turned out to be The Siege, which is the most racist and problematic film that etches Palestinians as terrorists. My mom had a pickle in her hand and threw it at the screen and had not been to a movie since.”

Now that Amer has established himself in Hollywood, he says he is trying his utmost to “pay it forward” and make sure that more Arab talents have the kind of access that he did. He credited several big names who were fundamental to his success, including comedians Dave Chappelle, Danny Martinez, Jon Stewart, as well as his high school English and theatre teachers.

“It's very important to pay it forward,” he says. “I do it all the time. Just depending on the situation. I was performing in Chicago this past weekend, did six sold-out shows there, and there were a group of Palestinian comedians that came up and I made sure to grab them because they really care about the art form. I’m not going to spend any time with somebody that doesn’t take it seriously. Whoever wants this knowledge, I’m ready to give it to you. You just have to really care about the artform.”

Amer also had a few encouraging words for Arab comedians who are yearning to develop their craft.

“Stand up is all about repetition,” he says. “Learn your craft, understand the history of it and what it means. Hit up open mics. Open mics is where you earn your stripes and figure out who you are and what works. Then you can do a show. It’s repetition. It’s the 10,000-hour rule. You have to love it. To really love it. The thing about stand-up comedy is you can’t trick it. There are no shortcuts. Because if you don't have that then your flaws will show on stage really quickly.”

Updated: December 08, 2022, 7:52 AM