‘Mo’ Creator and Star Mo Amer Keeps the Faith on His Netflix Series

At its core, Netflix’s Mo is a show about faith. There’s the faith Mo Amer’s character and his family have in the American legal system that they hope will make them citizens after years of living as refugees, but there’s also religious faith — Mo’s Islamic beliefs, his Mexican American girlfriend’s Catholicism, and the idea (present in most creeds) that everybody from any background could live together in harmony. But it’s also a show about olive oil. There’s a lot of it in Mo. The fictionalized version of Amer is very particular about it, and the liquid gold has a Proustian effect that recalls happier times growing up in another place, before his family had to run from their home in Palestine to Kuwait, then to America after the onset of the Gulf War.

So what does the real Mo Amer look for in olive oil? “I look out for the flakes. If it has olive flakes in it, then that’s the real deal. If it’s super clear, more bright yellow than dark green, then I’m usually out. I’ll cook with that stuff.”

The problem with faith, as many immigrants or refugees like Amer (who took a similar route as his onscreen persona, born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents who moved him to Houston, Texas, when he was a child) can tell you, is that it can set you up for crushing disappointment. That’s where Mo shines. Sometimes it’s a joke during a particularly heavy moment, but it’s also in subtle little bits — like when Mo interviews for a security job at a strip club. “You won’t be our first illegal,” the owner says, and without a hint of irony adds, “but you’d be our first Arab. That would be a historic hire here at Dreams.” It’s funny, but it’s also sad. It might take a second to understand why, but calling a man an “illegal” alone is a good start.

Mo Amer (left) as the eponymous character in his semi autobiographical Netflix comedy, Mo.

Courtesy of Rebecca Brenneman/Netflix

Amer deals with sadness in real life, and in creating his show, by making people laugh. Comedy and tragedy are supposedly one and the same, but putting them together can be like mixing water with olive oil. “It has so much,” says Amer of the series. “Trying to unpackage everything and then be like, ‘Whoa, is this still a comedy?’ Because there is some very sad stuff there, and we’ve got to make sure it’s balanced.”

Amer describes Mo as an exercise in comedic catharsis. “To be so vulnerable in front of a camera, it’s scary, man.” He recalls a mentor telling him that, when he acts, he should “be so honest that it’s hard to make eye contact with you.” He kept that in mind through the making of Mo. “And that happened,” he says — people not being able to look him in the eye after a scene — a lot. Making that work comedically isn’t easy.

“Parsing out the emotions was probably one of the hardest things we did,” he says of sketching out how the show would work. The whole experience of making the show was an emotional one for Amer. When he starts talking about a scene in which Mo’s mother — played by the scene-stealing Farah Bsieso — makes oil out of olives her son brought her, Amer begins to get choked up.

He’s also proud that his team tracked down a musical track from an old Syrian TV show called Ghawar. “I only saw my father cry on two occasions: When my grandmother passed away, and when he watched the scene from the show that used that song. It made such an impact on me. I always said that when I get my own show, I’m going to use that song. When I showed it to my mom, she started crying.”

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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