x

Get Stronger in 3 minutes (or less)

World records, results, training, nutrition, breaking news, and more. Join the BarBend Newsletter for everything you need to get stronger. Join the BarBend Newsletter for workouts, diets, breaking news and more.
BarBend Newsletter

From Bodybuilding to ‘Ramy’ and ‘Ms. Marvel’ (with Laith Nakli)

Welcome to a very special episode of the BarBend Podcast, one that covers a bit more ground than normal. Today we’re talking to Laith Nakli, a star of stage and screen probably best known for his roles in The Long Road Home, The Wall, and as Uncle Naseem in the hit TV series Ramy. He’s also a cast member on the upcoming Ms. Marvel series on Disney Plus. Before his acting days, Laith was a competitive bodybuilder, winning the title of “Mr. Syria” before retiring from the sport. In our conversation, we talk about Laith’s bodybuilding career, the discipline and focus it helped teach him in pursuing acting, diversity and representation on screen, and much, much more.

Laith Nakli on the BarBend Podcast

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Laith Nakli about:

  • The famous montage of Uncle Naseem lifting in the show “Ramy” (01:50)
  • “Bodybuilding is a through-line in my life” and an homage to Laith’s former bodybuilding career (3:30)
  • The beginning of Laith’s bodybuilding career earlier in life (7:03)
  • Making the transition back into acting, and how Laith’s international upbringing shapes him to this day (10:10)
  • Leveraging the discipline and self-belief that bodybuilding helped him develop (13:10)
  • Landing the role of “Uncle Naseem” in the hit show “Ramy” (16:35)
  • Humanizing characters that might be difficult to relate to, and why there are a lot of “Uncle Naseems” in the world (21:50)
  • “Ramy’s” fan base and getting recognized in public (28:10)
  • Striving for representation on stage and screen (30:00)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

There’s always these down moments. There’s moments where you feel down. There’s moments where you feel, “I’m not good enough.” There’s moments where you feel like, “Maybe this is not for me.”

 

You just have to go back and remember…For me, it was remembering the dedication that I applied in bodybuilding. Then I would be OK.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to “The Barbend Podcast” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao. This podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Welcome to a very special episode of The Barbend podcast today. One that covers a bit more ground than normal. Today, I’m talking to Laith Nakli, a star of stage and screen probably best known for his roles in, “The Long Road Home”, “The Wall” and as Uncle Naseem in the hit TV series “Ramy.”

 

He’s also a cast member on the upcoming “Ms. Marvel series” on Disney+. Before his acting days, Laith was a competitive bodybuilder winning the title of Mr. Syria before retiring from the sport.

 

In our conversation, we talk about Laith’s bodybuilding career, the discipline and focus it helped teach him in pursuing acting, diversity and representation on screen, and much, much more.

 

Also, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the barbend podcast in your app of choice. Now let’s get to it.

 

Thanks so much for joining us. This is an episode I’m especially excited about. A little bit different than what we normally do on The Barbend Podcast.

 

The first question I have to ask for those who might not have seen the show Ramy season two, there’s an episode called Uncle Naseem. It opens with a montage of you pumping iron and lifting with some heavy metal music playing in the background.

 

I have to ask, was that something the writers of the show wrote specifically for you, the actor and your background?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

It’s a mix of everything. It started like, Episode Two in season one when my character was introduced. [laughs] I improvised something in the end of that scene when I tell Ramy, “Did you know that I was Mr. Egypt? Did your mom tell you that I was Mr. Egypt?” They liked it. Then Ramy changed it to Mr. Egypt runner-up. You know what I mean?

 

It was just funnier. We established, I figured I’m this burly man. I’m muscular. I can’t hide it, no matter what. We added that, and knowing that it would come into Season Two or the future. Then when we discussed things of Season Two, I would always jokingly say, “I want my own workout montage.”

 

I love my own little, rocky montage like Uncle Naseem gym montage. It’s my element. It’s like I’m very comfortable in that element. Bodybuilding, no matter what, it’s a through line of my life. Regardless of my emotional attachment or relationship to it, current and past, it’s a through line of my life.

 

I wanted a whole merge to bodybuilding and working out. It was great. It opened up the episode. I didn’t expect it to be as amazing [laughs] as it came out. It was really good. It’s a mix of a great creative team and also my desire to do something like that like all the pictures and everything on the wall, so it’s all my pictures.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m curious when they were doing the blocking for it and putting together the montage, did you say which movements you wanted in that montage?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

Yeah, absolutely, 100 percent. Even the stuff when I was doing the posing and stuff, that was all me feeling comfortable in my element.

David TaoDavid Tao

I was a little confused because you’re doing leg-press and bicep-curls on the same day in that montage. That’s what confused me.

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

I was doing what?

David TaoDavid Tao

I saw in that montage, you’re doing leg press, but also the same montage, you’re doing biceps. I guess you were doing legs and biceps on the same day? [laughs]

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

No, the way I actually work out now, I’ll go to the gym three times a week. I do a full body. It’s the way I work out anyway, now. Someone who’s late 40s, 50s is not going to train like someone who’s 20. I’m not going to train as hard. I’m not going to be as intense or detailed.

 

I put my whole body through a workout. Then I do cardio. I run or do my bike, five days a week too. That’s my routine anyway. That’s why. If it was back in the bodybuilding days, it would have been a weird…although back in the day, I used to do legs and shoulders on the same day.

David TaoDavid Tao

Interesting. I’m curious, as you’re a New Yorker, and during COVID-19 I see on social, you’ve moved a lot of your workouts outdoor, or and you’re adapting to not having the same gym accesses as everyone else. How’s that been going for you at adapting to that style of training?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

It’s been good, unfortunately because I had a kidney-stone surgery. I haven’t been able to work out. I’m starting now. I have the cables and stuff like that. I do body resistance. I use my body weight. I don’t use weights. I run and I ride my bike.

 

It’s amazing because once you’ve built muscle it just takes a little bit to trigger to wake them up. I can move my arms right now 30 times. I can do with no weights. I’ll get a nice pump. I’ll feel it like three hours from now still.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] You still have that solid base. You mentioned bodybuilding has this through line throughout your life and career. I’m curious how you first got into bodybuilding and what your first inspiration was in getting involved in that aspect of your life back when you were really active in that in your 20s?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

I started bodybuilding…I lived 10 years in Syria. I started lifting weights when I was around 17, 18. I had a relative who was the only person who ever won a world championship from Syria. His son was a very good friend of mine. We trained at the gym.

 

Then, one day I decided — I was 19 — to do a contest. I had no idea what I was doing. They said, “Don’t eat bread and shave and get a tan.” I did. I stopped eating bread, and I was training. I was very skinny but I was so dedicated.

 

Then, I remember, it was a novice competition. When I went to the contest, all my friends were there. I literally had no muscle. I was so excited. I remember the official after the weighing, I was the first one to weigh then. Right before we were about to start, he sent me and a few others home and said, “Come back next year.”

 

It was the biggest disappointment. It was so humiliating. That was always in the back of my head. Then I came to New York. I wanted to be an actor that didn’t work out in the beginning. I was so young. I put my attention on…

 

The gym helped me with my own insecurities. I felt it’s something I owned, and I controlled. I control that narrative of the gym. Nobody else can. The weights are there. I go train or not. My body started taking to it. Some people said, “Oh, you should compete.”

 

I remember back in the day, I’m like, “No, I don’t want to compete.” I remember what that was like. I ended up doing it. I did a couple shows here. I was invited to do Mr. Syria. I went back, went to Syria. Ironically, the same official who told me to go back home was still there. [laughs] The relationship was much different now.

David TaoDavid Tao

Did he recognize you? Did he remember sending you home as he did?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

He didn’t, but I told him that story in front of his kids. His kids were really embarrassed that he did that. That’s how life is. It was a fun moment.

David TaoDavid Tao

I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that you had moved to New York when you were in your early 20s to pursue acting. That didn’t happen immediately. That was put on a hold. You pursued bodybuilding. When did you start making that transition back into acting and giving it another go?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

I grew up all over the world. I was born in England. When I was 10, we moved to Syria. When I was 20, I moved here. I was 29, and for nine years before I’ve got back into acting, I would always talk about it as if I was in it.

 

If people wanted a recommendation for a film, they would ask me. I would’ve watched everything. I would’ve watched foreign films, I’ll go to the theater. I’ll do things that normally the average person would not do. I would do it excessively.

 

My heart was always there. I’d always quote people, quote actors. A friend of mine said, “Well, why don’t you take an acting class and see if you like it?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” Then I did. I was 29, and I did, and it made me so happy. I realized that as much as I loved bodybuilding, I wasn’t as happy.

 

I’m talking about myself, I’m not talking about…it’s just to be clear. It brings so much joy to many others, and it did bring joy to me at the time. Then it stopped, and I wasn’t happy. I started evaluating, “Why am I doing this? Am I doing it because I wanted to be Mr. Syria? I want to impress? I want to prove that I could do something, or is it because I love it?”

 

I wasn’t super in love with it anymore. I took that acting class and never looked back, and that was 21 years ago.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m curious. Having pursued bodybuilding and been successful at it, how did that change your mindset, 29-year-old you trying to be an actor versus 20-year-old you? You’ve mentioned when we were chatting-off the recording about the discipline that bodybuilding helped impart and taught you. I’m curious about how that mindset shifted?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

The mindset you need to have as a bodybuilder, you really need to believe in yourself and believe that you can do it. You need to keep on going until you get where you want to go. I never had the ambition to be Mr. Olympia, or to become an IFBB Pro here and compete. I didn’t. I wanted to be Mr. Syria.

 

I did. I kept on working hard towards that, and I achieved it. It’s a long process. I did not compete for a long time. As you know, bodybuilders’ peak in the mid-30s. I was 28, 29 when I quit.

 

The discipline and the self-belief, I had to use that. Also, pursuing acting, and even when I started finding success, I’m working. I’m talking about when you get your first gig on TV, and you get your SAG card and you have two lines, and that’s huge. You wait sometimes years to get that.

 

I was working all the time, but there’s always these down moments. There’s moments where you feel down. There’s moments where you feel like, “I’m not good enough.” There’s moments where you feel like, “Maybe this is not for me.” You have to go back and remember.

 

For me, it was remembering the dedication that I applied in bodybuilding and then I would be OK. Bodybuilding, when you’re dieting, that’s one of the hardest things ever. On top of that, you’re training and you’re on a strict diet. You’re doing it for four months. It doesn’t get any harder than that.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s a full lifestyle commitment. I’m curious as to, when you were an up-and-coming actor, especially in stage productions in New York, TV productions, any characters that stuck out in your mind where you had to dedicate yourself to becoming that character and it might have reminded you of some of that dedication or that intensity back in your bodybuilding days?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

Let me think. I don’t know. My process over the years, of course, has gotten easier, because you understand at some point you work so hard to achieve the simplicity of it in the end. When you start your career, you tend to sometimes complicate things and force yourself to even work harder.

 

My philosophy of work, my training is on Meisner. I use my imagination and I commit myself to whatever it is. I lend myself to whatever it is I’m doing.

 

Each character is different and I tell people when you start feeling that it’s you, then you’re on the right track, because you have a few with an adjusted point of view or with an impediment or with something, and then you end up becoming that character.

 

Everything that’s happened in my life has informed me of how to understand human behavior? How to understand characters? How to understand what motivates people to do certain things? I don’t go too deep into remembering something or whatever, and all that stuff. Does that make sense? Does that answer…?

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, totally. Obviously, I’d say your career is very much on an upward trajectory, and hearing the Marvel news was super cool as a fan of yours. Not to not the fanboy too much.

 

The show that brought you to, I’d call it mainstream attention, or at least the mainstream television audience was Ramy. Tell us a little bit if you don’t mind about how that came about and how you ultimately became Uncle Naseem?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

I’ve known Ramy since he was 17. We started a sketch group together called The Sketchy Arabs.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

[laughs] Memorable name.

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

We were supposed to resurrect it. Like, to do a show this year, you plan this holiday because the last show we did was “Sketchy Arab for Christmas.” Then COVID took over. One day, we’ll resurrect and do a show.

 

We would do shows for five people sometimes. I’ve known him and we’ve always stayed in touch. I’ve seen him, I’ve always believed in him. He was on to a lot of things, working and writing. I remember he told me a few years back, he said, “I’m working on something. I’m writing a role for you.” Of course, you hear that all the time, everyone is writing a role for someone.

It’s always like, “Yeah, I love you. I’m writing something for you.” [laughs] When the time came, he did his pilot. It got picked up and he contacted me. I got the size and everything. I still had to, because people will say, “Oh well Ramy gave him the part.”

Ramy wrote the part with me in mind, but I still have to earn it. I still have to show he’s not the only one. You have Hulu. You have Disney. You had so many people involved, 824. He knew that too. He knew that I would kill it. He wanted to not give anyone a reason to say, “Well, we like this other guy better.”

I remember the night before the…I always tell this story. I said this one time before in another interview. I always tell people, “Well, I got the part. Well, I got Ramy into my bedroom.”

 

Let me clarify. It’s not what it sounded like. It’s not what it sounds like right now. What happened was, I was here the night before the audition. Then, I get a call from Ramy says, “What’re you doing?” I said, “I’m working on your audition for tomorrow.” It was the second part, meeting the producers and stuff.

 

He’s like, “OK, I’m downstairs, can I come up?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” He comes up and right now my office and everything is in my bedroom. I was exactly where I’m at right now. He comes in. We said, “Let’s read it.” We start reading it. We just work on it.

 

We start improvising. He says, “I’m going to record this just for me.” He records and we improvise for half an hour. Then he’s on his phone texting. Then I go in. A week later I get the part. The story is that he says that he was texting Hulu video from his phone at my place. That’s when decision was made.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m curious what your first reaction was when you read the initial sides for the character. He has a lot of development over the course of the seasons we’ve seen so far. There’s a lot going on there.

 

From the first moment you’re on screen in Season One, it leaves an…I remember my reaction to watching that. I couldn’t look away from this character. What was your initial reaction to this character? Were you at all intimidated by having to portray this personality that I can tell is a hell of a lot different than you? [laughs]

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

 

Of course. Without repeating the first line I’m like, “Oh, my God.”

Literally the first line. Ramy does this with everything. He walks the fine line. It’s so easy to tip over on the other side. Just like with my episode, that episode could have been a disaster, if one of the things did not work.

I read them. I also saw when I read the whole episode, this person is a real human being and especially what he does, when he helps that woman in the end. He stands up for a stranger. This person, when you humanize him and make him real, it doesn’t matter.

I personally don’t like any of his point of views. As a character, too, I know so many people in my family are like that. Everyone has an uncle who’s like that, who speaks his mind. It doesn’t make them a horrible person. They say horrible things. Sometimes it comes from ignorance.

I tell people who spent their whole life in the Middle East, and then you bring them here, and they’re 50, 60, they’re not going to understand. They grew up watching movies and seeing how people are portrayed in movies. They’re afraid of black people.

There’s so much propaganda going on there because of what’s happening in the world. The Israeli conflict and all that stuff. In their mind, they’re like, “OK, we hate Jews,” stuff like that. They grew up with that. They could be the nicest people, but they don’t know any better.

Uncle Naseem is one of them. I don’t agree with anything he says, but I love his journey. As you see, there were some big surprises in Season Two.

David TaoDavid Tao

What has been the reception that you’ve been able to glean from the Arab-American community regarding the show, and its reception? It’s one of the most visible outlets we see right now for Arab Americans on TV.

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

For the most part and I say, the most part, it’s incredible. Just like anything else in life you do, whatever it is, there are always going to be some people who are not satisfied. There are always going to be some people who complain, who criticize, and no matter what you do, they won’t be happy. They’ll find something.

 

The most misconception that I see is that, when people have issues with the shows, because right away, they’re associating it well, like this is the Muslim show. It’s about Islam. It’s not. It’s about one guy and his journey with Islam. It’s one person. It’s one family. It’s a bunch of people.

 

We’re not educating people about like, “OK, this is how Islam is.” This is this kid and his journey. He’s not running away from his faith. He’s a millennial. That’s the biggest misconception.

 

Of course, you have people who are arrogant and not going to accept certain things, like people who loved Uncle Naseem, then all of a sudden when they saw that episode, like, “No.” You know what I mean? We don’t like him anymore which is fine. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

One thing I love about the show, and if you don’t watch Ramy and you’re listening to this podcast, do yourself a favor and go start with Season One. Watch it all the way through, the character arcs are fantastic.

 

One thing I love about it, is the conflict doesn’t necessarily come from anything specific to one family oftentimes, or even specific to anything about the characters A lot of it is just conflict. I love the intergenerational conflict, especially what happens when Uncle Naseem is interacting with Ramy or with his sister. These are generational issues.

Exactly.

You mentioned, everyone has that Uncle, I don’t care if you come from an Egyptian family, or an American family, or a Syrian family, whatever it is. When you say we all have that one uncle, we all know exactly what you’re talking about.

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

Exactly.

David TaoDavid Tao

There’s kind of universal human elements here. One of the last questions I really want to ask you is, we see characters on TV. We internalize that. We’ve heard that people who play villains on TV will often get stopped on the street, people be mad at them. They think that they’re the personality of that villain.

 

Like the guy who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. He’s like, “People are so mean, because they think I’m actually like that, but I’m not.” I’m curious if you ever have to explain to people who might meet you in person after seeing the show, like, “Hey, this isn’t me. I’m not actually like that. I’m an actor, that’s a character.”

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

I haven’t had to do it. Usually those people can sometimes maybe they don’t want to approach me, or they don’t want to say anything. I haven’t had to deal with it. I deal with some arrogant comments like, “How does it feel to play that?”

 

I’m like, “What kind of,” my episode, like, “What kind of question is that? Well, what do you mean? Am I supposed to feel like uncomfortable or wrong? What does that mean?” It’s something that people are not used to seeing anyway.

 

If you were to guess, what would happen to Uncle Naseem, you could, a hundred things, and you wouldn’t say what actually did happen in that episode. I haven’t, plus this year has been very different, because I’m wearing a mask all the time, and I’m quarantined. I haven’t been interacting a lot.

 

I’ve exercised a few times in the park and people come up to me and like, “Uncle Naseem,” random people. If I go to certain places where there’s more like the Arab-American community. Yes, it’s odd because most people who do recognize me, they’re not really of Arab descent. They’re people who are very touched by the show.

David TaoDavid Tao

I was wondering if maybe even with the mask, people could see the beard, they could see the hair. They could be like, “That’s the guy.”

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

It’s just odd. Sometimes they do. From the eyes, I’ve had that happen. I was at Mamoun’s Falafel once. I was eating a falafel sandwich. Then there was a table with six people. You could only see my eyes. I had a cap on my eyes. It was a whole table. Six people, like, “Uncle Naseem, we love you.”

 

I’m like, “how did you know?” There’s sometime I’m talking to someone literally. They can see everything. They can see my face. They talk about how much they love the show. I’m like, “You know, I’m Uncle Naseem.” They look at me like, “Hey.” They can’t connect.

David TaoDavid Tao

Some people are very audio-based when they try and recognize people. They’re very voice-based. Your normal speaking voice is obviously quite different than your…

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

 

Yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

That might be it. Some people are faces, some people are voices.

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

 

I do have a very distinct voice too. Someone in Georgia, I was at the supermarket. She said, “Your voice sounds so familiar.” I looked at her name tag at the supermarket she worked in. It was an Arabic name. I said, “Do you watch Ramy?” She’s, “Now I got, Uncle Naseem.”

David TaoDavid Tao

 

[laughs] That’s got to make the years of really grinding and working and questioning in being an actor. It’s going to make it a little bit easier to recollect that or those when you have those recognitions, now and you bring that light to people’s eyes.

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

It’s nice. What’s more important for me too, is everything I’m striving for now is about representation. I also write and producing stuff. It’s all about representation and proper representation. That’s been happening lately. It started with Ramy.

 

There was a point, three or four years ago, I said, “OK, that’s it, I’m done. I will say no to any job. That does not represent me.” It doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to play bad people. It doesn’t mean I’m not willing to play a terrorist. These people exist. I’ll play it. It really depends on the context and who’s telling the story and all that stuff.

 

We need to be represented. Just like any other minority group. It’s changing. It’s getting better now. Honest to God, if you think of Ms. Marvel, is it a [laughs] Muslim superhero? I was getting major production. That’s unheard of.

David TaoDavid Tao

That would have been unheard of even 10 years ago. That would have been unheard of.

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

It’s ridiculous. It’s being treated like anything else. It ventures like anything else. It’s part of the universe. It’s absolutely incredible. To be part of it is amazing.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I’m really excited to see what life you bring to your character on-screen. I speak for a lot of people when I say, no pressure, but we’re [laughs] excited about that. Where’s the best place for people to keep up to date on the work you’re doing be it on projects, like Ms. Marvel and Ramy or things that you’re producing yourself and other products like that?

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

 

For now, I post on my Instagram, which is my name. That’s about it. For now, I don’t have a website. I don’t think I want to have a website.

I own the name. Nobody else can…

 

…the website, but I don’t know. Anything that is positive and good, I will post. I’m working on a couple of projects that I will announce soon. I’m going to be busy with this and then doing a film in between. Then we shoot Season Three of Ramy in the summer. I got a full deck, it’s good.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I really appreciate you taking the time.

Thank you so much giving your perspective and your history in strength and in acting and the transition between the two. It’s always cool to explore that relationship.

Laith NakliLaith Nakli

 

Thank you so much, David. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Leave a Comment