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Ramy Youssef on Relationship Between Max and Bella

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You might be able to spot Ramy Youssef for a minute in Gus Van Sant’s 2018 film “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Maybe.

“I think I’m in it? I don’t remember if I saw it,” laughs Youssef, who is credited for the role of Drinker. “There were so many times where I booked roles where the character has a name like Drinker or Guy in Kitchen, and then I would, like, not be invited to do anything. I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess I didn’t get in?”

So for all intents and purposes, his turn as Max McCandles in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” is his first-ever film role after years spent building a career in TV. And as the creator and star of “Ramy” on Hulu, Youssef is used to writing his own dialogue, so playing Max also gave him his first real opportunity to let go of some control. “Being with someone like Yorgos,” he starts, before correcting himself: “It’s hard to say someone like Yorgos, because there’s really no one like him. So, being with Yorgos, I don’t have to do anything other than whatever he tells me to do. And that’s really freeing.”

That became a sensible dynamic for creating a character like Max, who is good at taking orders to a fault. Max’s deference to his anatomy professor, Godwin Baxter, affectionately known as God and played by Willem Dafoe, lands him an apprenticeship of sorts: God assumes Max won’t rock the boat while working on experiments that border on the unethical, and for most of the film, that’s true. Max is clearly disquieted by the toddler-like Bella (Emma Stone) — a woman God “created” when he found a pregnant corpse, removed the fetus’ brain, and transplanted it into the corpse’s skull — but he follows God’s lead. He begins to develop feelings for her and accepts God’s offer of Bella’s hand in marriage, all while keeping Bella in the dark about the nature of her “birth.”

Lanthimos offered Youssef the role based on the shared themes of social taboos and messy morality in their work. “He’d seen my show, and I explained one too many emotions I’d had watching ‘Dogtooth,’” Youssef says. (“Ramy” has tackled topics like incest and polygamy while the Lanthimos film is about a couple who keeps their children confined from the outside world.) “When we were talking about comedy, there was just this connection around tightropes, and walking them. I immediately understood what he wanted, because [Max is] this character that could be totally overblown or creepy if not handled in a particular way.”

Youssef made sense of the character’s contradicting kindheartedness and inability to assert his values by zeroing in on that first scene, where Max watches God handle a corpse in the classroom. “From the first 20 pages, I saw that he’s amazingly curious,” Youssef says. “And he’s drawn to Baxter’s scientific curiosity. Then, he’s drawn to Bella’s emotional curiosity. So Max is joining curiosity of the mind and of the heart.”

That’s a cerebral approach to character work, but Youssef says he learned to embody that curiosity when the cast began “working with our hands.”

“We trained with a mortician, and used some organs of recently deceased animals to understand how to do stitches and find veins with late 1800s tools,” he recalls. “When I started that process, it was really weird, but after the fifth class, I had found this flow with cutting where a feeling occurred: This could happen with the character. He can start off more curious, wide-eyed, slower, and then step into something more assured and aware.”

“You probably only see me cut once, when my character is doing Baxter’s operation, but it wasn’t about the screen time,” he continues. “It was about seeing these organs for the first time, having a sense of familiarity with them, and placing myself within the story that way.”

Bella agrees to marry Max at first, but it doesn’t last. As Bella’s understanding of the world rapidly progresses, she begins to feel strong sexual urges, but Max refuses to touch her until their wedding day — not wanting to “take advantage,” he says. So she leaves him for an adventure with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a man who she knows cares little for her safety but will happily indulge her desire for what she calls “furious jumping.” Max is abhorred and heartbroken.

“There’s as much love as there can be when you don’t really know someone,” Youssef says when asked if there’s anything real about Max’s relationship with Bella before she leaves. “In scenes with Emma, something was more tender and raw, and with the understanding that Bella was really driving. I wasn’t, and I was trying to keep up again. He’s so tender, and she opens that up in him.”

And musing on the power dynamic created by the fact that Bella has a baby’s brain, Youssef adds, “This is fantasy. And I what I understood it to be, in fantasy, was that she’s obviously in this full-grown body, and her mental state was not actually that of a child, but more so this allegory of someone who is not burdened with preconceived notions. It’s not literal. It never has to be creepy, because all the characters in this film work to put certain things on this character, and she never allows those weights to stay on her. In dealing with fantasy, you’re dealing with a character who’s unburdened, which is a very un-human thing. Somehow, the more burdens that are put on her, the less she pays attention to them.”

Years down the line, a fully adult-brained Bella comes back complete with a penchant for socialism and a career as a sex worker. On the latter, Max says, “I find myself merely jealous of the men’s time with you rather than any moral aspersion against you.” Now aware of how she was created, there are fewer walls between them, and Bella recommits to marrying him — until Alfie (Christopher Abbott), the husband of the woman whose dead body God used to create Bella — shows up and complicates things.

After that hiccup is violently and creatively resolved, the film ends in a sunny scene where Bella lounges in the garden of God’s house, studying for her upcoming medical school exam surrounded by everyone she’s closest to. While Max is there, smiling, it’s not clear whether he and Bella are romantically paired again — in fact, they’re also joined by Toinette (Suzy Bemba), Bella’s friend and lover from the brothel.

“For me, that scene is a new family that’s been earned. The definition of when people say ‘chosen family,” Youssef says. “It’s a beautiful commentary: Baxter does everything to keep Bella in the house, and she pushes to leave, and then by the end of the film, she’s back, but it’s her decision. It speaks a lot to human nature. When we want to leave the community, it’s not that we don’t want to come back. It’s that we just want to come back more ourselves.”

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