Hiam Abbass with Brian Cox in Succession
Hiam Abbass with Ramy Youssef in Ramy
On HBO's Succession, Hiam Abbass portrays Marcia Roy, the elegant and enigmatic third wife of media mogul Logan Roy, a woman who can hold her tongue in the most trying of situations. As Maysa Hassam, mother of the title character on Hulu's comedy Ramy, she routinely spouts awkward, insensitive and politically incorrect comments.
"I laugh a lot with Maysa. Her mouth never stops talking," Abbass says. "I also love the mysterious Marcia. When I get into her skin, I am just Marcia."
Abbass doesn't know exactly how she arrives at her characterizations. "I try not to model any character on anybody." She takes cues from the writing and lets the individual personas emerge without forcing them. "You step into the character. And you let it be."
For Ramy this season, that meant assuming Maysa's usual clueless, linguistically challenged self. Maysa, who drives for Lyft, insults a transgender customer by asking if she is going to a costume party. She then stalks her to a bar to apologize and makes things worse by greeting her with "Hello, they."
"I can't believe that it's me who did that," Abbass says. "If you judge it, it's ridiculous. Who speaks like this? Who does things like this?" At the same time, she relishes playing Maysa. "The more Ramy [Youssef, the show's creator–star] trusts me, the more I want more and more fun."
Born into a Palestinian family in Nazareth, Israel, Abbass yoked herself to acting at age nine, after portraying a mother who loses her son. "I cried, and everyone in the audience cried. I was like, 'Wow, this is magical. This is a place where I can exist and where I can be effective.'"
In addition to roles on TV and in such films as Munich and Blade Runner 2049, Abbass cowrote, directed and appeared in the 2012 feature Inheritance.
She speaks fluent English, French, Arabic and Hebrew and sponges up dialects as needed. "They become music to me," says Abbass, who finessed the Egyptian vernacular for Maysa. For her upcoming role opposite Jeff Bridges in FX's The Old Man, she's Afghani.
Marcia, on the other hand, comes from Lebanon by way of Paris and is tantalizingly inscrutable, composed in a way that would be impossible for Maysa.
When pushed, however, she aims her daggers with deadly precision. Last season, after Holly Hunter's opportunistic Rhea got too cozy with Logan, Marcia pulled her aside and inquired, smiling, if she was up to date on her STD testing.
"Reading it, I was like, 'Wow, this is enormous. Am I going to be able to do this to Holly Hunter face to face?'" Abbass recalls, laughing, adding that they hugged after each take.
Playing super-wealthy Marcia does come with some inconveniences — Abbass must maintain impeccable hair and nails. "I have to keep up with her. It is a lot of work."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2020