How Mo Amer Turned His Family's Refugee Story Into Netflix's Latest Must-See Show 'Mo'

Complex caught up with comedian Mohammed “Mo” Amer to discuss 'Mo,' his new Netflix show about his family's life as Palestinian refugees living in Houston.

Mo Amer Netflix Interview

Image via Netflix

Mo Amer Netflix Interview

Mohammed “Mo” Amer was on a mission to tell a real American story with Mo—and he succeeded. 

Season 1 of the comedian’s new Netflix series hit the streaming service on Aug. 24, and that’s good news because this is the kind of show you’ll want to watch front to back in one sitting. The comedy-drama is loosely based on Amer’s real-life story of how his family fled his birth country of Kuwait during the Gulf War in the ’90s and emigrated to the United States to settle in Houston, Texas. The show follows their 22-year struggle as Palestinian refugees who are constantly living one step away from asylum on the path to U.S. citizenship. Amer co-created and stars on the show as Mo Najjar.

The first episode titled “Hamoodi” kicks off with Mo driving around Houston while listening to Paul Wall’s “Sittin’ Sidewayz.” Within the first five minutes, there’s also a Selena Quintanilla mention, instantly setting the tone for what’s in store. At the start of the episode, viewers get to watch along as Mo loses his job at a mobile store because he doesn’t have a work permit. “It’s not the first time ICE runs me out of a job,” he says as he walks out with his last paycheck in hand.   

The show aims to uncover so many of the hardships immigrants face that most people aren’t familiar with, like Mo having to deny medical care after being shot, resorting to criminal activity to make ends meet, and dealing with a disorganized system that makes seeking asylum extremely challenging. The show marries its most raw, honest, and heartbreaking moments with a touch of comedy and humor that make their troubles easier for viewers to absorb and understand without cheapening their pain.

Mo Amer Netflix Interview

Complex spoke with Amer prior to the show’s release and he opened up about wanting to tell this story after never seeing a Palestinian family on American television before. “I felt like it was really important to relate to an Arab family, a Palestinian family, and a Muslim family, that has immigrated to America in such a universal way. Because in the end, this is a story about belonging, by being seen as an equal human being, as the person next to you,” Amer explained. “I think we did a really good job of that. It was all very conscious and meticulous and went through everything with a fine-tooth comb, to make sure that it was a genuine experience.”

Part of making the story so genuine is adding so much of his culture, his religion, and his family’s interactions, as well as showing what it was like to grow up in a city as diverse and rich in culture as Houston. Mo features appearances and music from some of the biggest names to come out of the city, including Tobe Nwigwe, who has a recurring role as Mo’s best friend Nick. Growing up in Houston also exposed Amer to other communities, especially the Mexican community, and Teresa Ruiz plays his Mexican girlfriend, Maria. Through the season, Amer flows from English to Arabic to Spanish seamlessly, further displaying how growing up in Houston impacted him. 

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Amer created and executive produced the series alongside Ramy Youssef, who is his longtime friend and co-star on Hulu’s Ramy. The A24-produced Netflix series is off to an outstanding start, and Season 1 is masterful with its revisiting of Mo’s childhood, the flashbacks of him leaving his father and country behind, and sharing the struggles his family faced as they tried to assimilate into their new home. The story will not only resonate with millions of people who have shared in that experience, but it will also be a learning opportunity for those who have not. It’s not easy to make light of the pain we go through, but through his humor and transparency, Amer’s purpose is to help us all see the humanity in one another. 

Check out our interview with Mo Amer below, where we talk about creating Mo, feeling nervous about sharing his most personal stories with the world, representing Houston, the musical influences on the show, and more. 

Mo Netflix Interview
Mo Amer Netflix Interview
Mo Amer Netflix Interview
Mo Amer Season 1 Interview

This show is based in Houston and I feel like it’s a love letter to Houston in a way.

It absolutely is.

As soon as we start there’s a Paul Wall song. I don’t want to ruin it for people, but we hear a Selena mention within the first 10 minutes of the show…

It literally jacks me up when I think about it. It’s a big part of the show side, sorry I didn’t let you finish it, because I get so pumped up about it. Because whenever people relate to it that way, it gets me really excited. It’s a big part of it to immediately just feel like you’re in Houston, it was so important to me for that to happen. To have it in the dialogue, Selena was a big part of my life, too. When she was killed, it hit me as well. It was so tragic. Just to see somebody’s life cut short when she had everything. She was literally going to take over the global culture.

The effect that she had was so deep and really meaningful. I was excited to see her grow. As a little kid watching her, and seeing my friends react to her death was so hard. To see the impact that she had was inspiring. So I had to have a line in there for Selena, for sure, and at the gate. I was tipping my hat to her and her family, keeping her name alive was important, knowing she’s from Corpus Christi, down the street from us, essentially three hours away to the south, it was important all the way around to have that. 

When I was describing to our directors of photography how I wanted the show visually to look, I described it as an urban Western, something that’s bright and show the richness of the clouds from the Gulf, and to have it as a character in the show. So absolutely that was all deliberate and meaningful. The fact that Paul Wall is a dear friend of mine now, or Bun B, these guys that I looked up to as a kid, now calling them my friends and my brothers and collaborators, was just incredible. I wanted them to be in the show in a meaningful way as well. I didn’t want them to just be like, “Hey, here comes a Paul Wall cameo, here comes a Bun B cameo.”

I never wanted that. That’s why it was hard to put all the hip-hop artists in there. It was just really hard. I wish I could have everyone in the show from Slim Thug to Trae tha Truth to Z-Ro, but the best I could do is get their music in the world. So hopefully in Season 2, we’ll be able to have them come to life more and more. But I definitely didn’t want it to be a hokey cameo, ever. This is a really serious show, serious topics. It’s funny, yes, but I wanted everything to be grounded and real at the same time.

Mo Amer Season 1 Interview

Ramy Youssef is an executive producer on the show. You worked with him on Ramy before, what is it like working with him on your own show now?

Doing the show Ramy was important to show that I can act. Nobody’s ever really seen me do my thing as an actor, as an artist in that way. So it was really important to be involved in that. I wrote the [Mo] flashback in Episode 7 almost nine years ago now. That’s something I shared with Ramy before that inspired him to go on and do his show. We inspire each other and we work together. We always wanted to make a show around my life because he found it so fascinating. I just wasn’t ready. I wanted to do my specials first. I wanted to get my stand up out there. I felt like that was the best introduction to who I am and my background.

When the opportunity came to do my show, I was ready and I’d already been writing and putting things together, so we went ahead and went forward with it. So it was exciting to work together in that way. Ramy—this was the most important part of it—understood that the show was in my DNA and it revolved about tapping into what was real in my heart and my experience, and how we could fictionalize that and take it to another level. 

What is it like having Tobe be part of the cast?

That’s my brother, I love this man so much. We became really close in a very short period of time. We’ve known each other for almost five years now. I knew him when he was just first starting to make videos. I always joke around with him like I made his career. I introduced him to [Dave] Chappelle, and then Chappelle introduced him to [Erykah] Badu, and he made a song about Badu. I FaceTimed him when I was backstage at The Tonight Show and introduced him to Black Thought, and they went on to make a song together. It was just real love, right out of the gate. And an appreciation and understanding for what he was creating and what he was putting together. It was really similar to what I was doing and planning. So it was just this incredible relationship that ensued after that. 

We became really tight. When the show became a reality, I was like, “Tobe, this is what the show is about. This is what I want to do. I want you to play my best friend in the show.” Alief has one of the biggest Nigerian populations in the world, outside of Nigeria. It’s like, “We got to have you in it.” And he was like, “Anything you do, I’m in. I understand how much time and effort and how”—he calls me a psychopath—“how much you think about things is crazy. And I know that it’ll be a phenomenal show and I’m in.” So it was so exciting to have him on board, and he’s such a natural.

Any doubts that anybody had about him potentially doing it, of course, understandably doesn’t have an acting resume, in turn, became such a special experience. And he’s from my neighborhood. He’s from Alief, he went to Elsik High School, Hastings and Elsik are literally next to each other and we shared an annex right in the middle. So we have this really spirited rivalry between each other, but also we’re very close.

All Season 1 episodes of Mo are streaming now on Netflix.

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