Laughing Through Trauma with Nasser Samara
Oct, 1st 2021
Nasser Samara serving face and body
One of my favorite things about creating this site is having an excuse to start conversations with people I’ve admired from afar. Fellow UCLA alum Nasser Samara is a friend-of-a-friend who has been paving his own path in the entertainment industry from writing, directing, and starring in his own projects, to working his way up to the highly sought-after role of a TV staff writer. We virtually chatted recently, discussing the only acceptable excuse for ghosting after a first date, the controversial script that gets him interviews, and how he has navigated the landscape of TV writing, leading to his sophomore series working on season 3 of Hulu’s Love, Victor. Believe me, everything Nasser says is absolute gold. He is serving mixed kid to a T, sharing his truth as a Los Angeles-raised Queer Palestinian Mexican writer & comedian.
Mikki: Living in LA, did you know anyone else like you outside of your family?
Mikki: Living in LA, did you know anyone else like you outside of your family?
Nasser: No. No. There was never another queer Palestinian, Mexican who I could share my trauma with. And what's funny is, I don't know if this was the same for you, but I think all of my friends were weird mixed kids growing up.
M: I definitely relate to that. We were mostly brown kids but didn’t speak Spanish. Queer but not out yet. The artsy Liberals in a very conservative environment. How did you learn to celebrate all that you are?
N: It's funny because it wasn't overnight. And at the same time, I'm fortunate enough to come from a really loving family, which was definitely something that a lot of marginalized communities don't always come from, particularly ones that are queer. Having a good friend support system of other mixed kids was great. But as much as I personally was choosing to bravely celebrate, that doesn't mean that life wasn't telling me not to celebrate those things.
N: The older I get, I have these weird memories of different experiences throughout elementary school, middle school, high school and even college where, I don't know, as a form of preservation, we maybe block them out and try to make sure it doesn't come up because it ends up sort of stifling creativity and such. But, now that I'm in my thirties, there is sort of a weird unpacking of a lot of traumatic shit that I didn't realize was traumatic when it was happening to me.
M: Absolutely. I've been doing a lot of unpacking myself. Wow, I laughed through a lot of things in high school. I made choices that didn't feel like choices. But I think it was a defense mechanism of just being funny or finding different ways to kind of survive it. There is a meme that's been going around and it says something like, “are you realizing that you weren't actually ugly but you were just surrounded by a lot of white people?”
N: Yeah! I think a lot of us mixed kids, we have to laugh through things as a defense mechanism. And I look at it both, as a positive and negative in my life because I sort of strictly only consider myself a comedy writer. I recognize comedy and humor and wit were a survival mechanism for being around the places we've been and very similar to you as well, I was mostly in white neighborhoods, white schools, etc. I think my comedic voice came out of being so othered. This is the way you guys can understand me. Or this is the way I'll win you over. But even having that, my core was always being surrounded by people that were not at the time, but now queer, just run the whole Colors of Benetton. No one was the same. It was a mixed bag of fuckery because we are like, I'm all of these things, and it's easier to relate to people who are not just one thing, you know? It really is.
M: Definitely. How did your parents meet?
N: My dad is a Palestinian immigrant and I’m first generation on his side. My mom would be considered third or fourth-generation Mexican American. It's not too romantic of a story, but they basically met in Los Angeles. I think it was kind of a meet cute situation through work or friends. But I think the only part that I romanticize a bit was after the first date, which apparently had gone well, my mom did not hear from my dad for six months.
N: Exactly. Which is insane. And my mom is a boss bitch who was probably very busy at the time. So she kind of was just like okay, whatever, bye.
N: Doing her own thing. And then she received a letter from my dad six months later. My dad had explained that his father had passed away and it was this whole fucked up process of trying to get my grandfather's body back to Palestine. And it was just, truly… I’m someone that doesn't always believe in second chances, but this one…
M: He had a solid enough reason.
N: This one feels like a good enough excuse.
M: Definitely. This is not fuckboi status. This is real shit going on.
N: So he explained the situation and then I'm sure said some very nice, flirty complimentary things to my mom. So that's what prompted the second date six months later. And then they dated for, like, five years before they ended up getting married.
M: Wow. And how much of an influence do you feel their cultures have played in your life?
N: Huge. But it's also that thing where I don't understand the impact fully because…
M: You were living it.
N: Yeah. People sometimes will… never a mixed kid, we’ll call them purebreds…
M: Yes yes. Purebreds.
N: … will ask these questions, “So like, which one do you feel more of or which one do you feel more connected to?” I don't even know how to answer that because my name is obviously Arabic, but I will never know in this lifetime what it would be like to have been raised by an Arab woman or an Arab mother. That's not an experience I can ever connect with. I know what it was like to be brought into this world from a Mexican woman and eat mostly Mexican food. And I'm closer in some ways, to the immediate family on my mom's side. My tia and my grandmother were two Mexican women with very strong influence over the way I go about the world. But then on the Palestinian side, I feel a stronger connection to my cousin’s cousins and extended family. And I think the themes of what it means to be Palestinian and the themes of what it means to be Mexican happens to be very similar.
M: What are some of those?
N: I think the concept of… stolen land. Claiming identity through a lot of adversity. There's a sense of an erasure within both cultures when it comes to, specifically, the state of America. Even aside from that, both have a strong connection to family, a strong sense of responsibility. It makes sense why my parents were immediately connected to each other.
For example, what's really common in most Arab households, specifically, in the Middle East is that your kids just live with you forever. In some of the villages in Palestine, the home will be three to four stories but really small. One floor is where you and your spouse live. The next floor is where your kids live. The next floor is maybe even where your brother lives. My dad obviously was coming from that when he came here. For most of my childhood, my mom's brother lived at our house. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, lived in our house until she died, which is when I was seventeen. I don't know a lot of men, specifically American men, who would be into the concept of like “Yeah when I marry my wife, your brother can live here. Your mom can live here...” And my dad without question was like, this is the house.
M: I love that. What was your journey like discovering your identity in Hollywood? You started off as an actor right, but stopped pursuing it I’m guessing because of the things I’ve experienced? Maybe thinking, god this won’t work because I don’t fit their image of what a Latinx actor should be or what an Arab American actor should be.
N: I started acting briefly right after college… but it wasn't my bread and butter. Very quickly I started realizing… I need to be writing my own things because no one really is going to be writing anything remotely close to the things that I want to do or things that I think I can do.
That's when I made my first short film [Temporary] when I was 25. And at the same time, I was actively working in television, as a production assistant. I was basically trying to set up as many train tracks moving towards what I thought was an end goal of writing, directing, or acting. I think at some point in my career, hopefully, I will still be able to go back to acting. But now that I've been in such a writer headspace for so long in terms of creating my own stuff, I almost don't even want to act in anything unless it's my words unless I fully believe in the project because it's just not worth it for me to act in something that I think goes against my belief of what I want for our community.
M: What is your idea of community and what do you want to show on screen and represent? What do you want to say?
N: I mean, I still think a lot of the images specifically, with my identities are very stereotyped. We've seen a few sort of queer Arab characters tangentially but they're never the lead, they’re sort of a sidekick, things like that. And I think as well when you look at the Latinx community, the opportunities that we see are… we love to see this family, but it's never really an original idea. Oftentimes it's, let's do that great, successful white family in the 80s and…
M: Remake it.
N: Yeah. We're kind of still there. And we've had breakthroughs. Every once in a while you get a show like Vida, right. But then, you know, it lasts maybe just a couple seasons. Those great shows feel like diamonds because we don't get them that often.
N: So my whole thing is, the amount of shows we see about white people hanging out in their apartments at age 20 to 33 – I can go down the list – I want to get to that point where I can watch this show about Mexican adults hanging out and I'm like, this is bad. I can watch this other show about Mexican adults hanging out that's good. Where there’s not an absolute sense of responsibility to watch the one [show] and that if it doesn't get enough viewers, then we don't get another one for ten years. I just want to get to the point where there's a plethora of content of mixed kids. Some of it's good, some of it's not good. And then it doesn't matter, because then that's when we've fully reached this level of equality when we have choices, you know?
M: Exactly. And not having it be that one tentpole movie that comes out and offends everyone because they think that that's the major representation of all people from that group. No, that's one film with ten characters. It should not be the voice of all people who look like that.
M: So can you walk me through what it's like to be a staff writer?
N: Oh sure. So for anyone that's reading this that wants to be a staff writer… I would say my advice is to understand what we are there to mainly do, which is to be a row in a ship...
N: We're not telling the show to go north. We're not telling the show to go south. Of course, you're going to be in a situation in a room where you don't necessarily agree with the direction it's going… Maybe you think it can go in another direction, but there has to be an understanding that other people have been given that job. And this is the direction that they think that they need to go in. So it's up to the staff writers to really help push it to that place.
So for someone like me, I think that's an important lesson to learn because when you're a mixed kid, of course, you're going to have an opinion on things that could be based on a lived experience. And the good thing about it is if you don't like the way it goes and that's the direction... It comes to television and people hate the creative decision, no one is going to say, “Oh my God, well, Mikki was in that room. That staff writer, she should have changed it!” No one's going to put that there. All we can do is speak our truth. Pitch it once. It was heard or not. And that’s the end of the job.
I would like to think on both of my jobs that my impact has been felt, which is great. I'm lucky in that way. And I can only hope that I can continue to work in rooms that do respect and listen to my opinion when requested. I know that it's not the same for every staff writer. The goal is to then keep getting those jobs, keep rising in rank. So then when you have the opportunity, hopefully to steer the ship and move it in the direction that you want to go, you can then set the room to look and be however you want it to be.
But the fact is we're still in a transitional state where we have an old guard. We have a new guard. Things are moving in certain ways and people are still holding on to power. So for a lot of first-time, younger staff writers breaking in, it's about understanding the landscape.
M: And with that, how do you protect your own joy?
N: I look at my checking account.
M: *snaps* Get that check!
N: You know, there're days, I’m telling you… I know this is maybe the shocking answer to hear from someone like me but 100% there are days where I'm like “why? why are we..? why is this joke making it in here? why are we going with this story?” And then I close my laptop. I open my checking account. And I say, at the end of the day, you're alright.
M: It's a job.
N: It’s a job. That’s the thing. But for people like us, we carry so much responsibility. And that responsibility is from ourselves, from our communities, our families, from the world. There's this sense of, I'm in. I can make a difference, and I can change. And yes, you can. But the world hasn't fully changed. Just because things are getting better doesn't mean we’re there yet. You know what I mean? Turn on MSNBC. CNN. You will see we are not even close to being there.
M: We are not. It's baby steps, and we have to look at history. We have come far, but we still got a long way to go.
N: Exactly. But in a serious way of protecting my energy too, it's just a sense of, like, self-care. I mean, I'm in my thirties now. So the idea of a good time is truly just a face peel mask and some jazz. But yeah, I'd say start with looking at the checking account once you get that job.
M: I absolutely love that. So far in your time working in different rooms and gaining opportunities, are you finding yourself gravitating towards other writers of color and forming community?
N: Um, yes! From my first writing job, which was on the reboot of iCarly, Franchesca Ramsey has become one of my best friends. And it's not a surprise that the one black queer female writer and I cling to each other. There's not a day that goes by that we don't text each other and we're [now] in different rooms at different jobs and I'm sure our careers will intersect later. But even on iCarly, the first season, another writer I connected with was Kate Stayman-London, who even though she's not a person of color, she's queer. And I think [she] was probably the first actual ally from a workplace, which is very different from an ally in life.
M: Yeah. Yeah.
N: Because when you have an ally in a workplace, especially in a creative space, you know… sometimes a joke or a beat or a scene that would offend you for example... it takes a lot to flag something. And to have someone else be the person that flags it before you or to ask you, “Hey, Mikki, does this bother you?” Just to know you're not alone in that, it's really important.
And, even on my current job, there's a good mix of different people. There isn't so much a sense of, who's bonding with who. We're all sort of collectively a group. But it always makes environments feel safer when you're not the only one.
M: What's your writing life like outside of the show? Are you working on any personal projects or have a writing process or non-process?
N: Short answer, yes. I have a few things in various stages of development, but in terms of a writing process… I think the nice thing about the current landscape of, at least television, in terms of pitch presentations, etc. is not everything has to be fully formed. You can sell things based on an idea. You can sell things based off of the pitch. Or you can sell things based off of the script. And depending on who you are and your credits and who you pitch to, it depends on which one is going to get that project forward.
I am generally a person that is really strong, I think, in big ideas. So I can easily come up with a general beat-by-beat structure. And that is obviously good at the early stages of something. When it comes to the actual writing, generally, I work well with a partner. I can also work well on my own but there is always a sense of censoring some of the beats because [I] think in terms of the practicalities as, what can get done, what can get made, what is getting made, what's not? At times that's sort of the thing that I struggle with because a lot of the ideas I come up with are things that are not only rarely on television, but I fear will never be on television.
M: Can you give an example of something?
N: Let's see... I had this one script. I still use this as a writing sample for interviews. So it doesn't mean that the script does not have any value, but it's definitely my anti-white vengeful...
M: Ohhh, okay.
N: Yes. Mixed kids situation. There's a lot of different marginalized communities sort of coming together during a very violent white interaction. And the script gets me interviews for different rooms. But in terms of, will this potential show ever make it to screen? Not entirely sure. It would be a fun ride.
M: Oh yeah. But it's too far gone. I mean it would be considered “reverse racism” or whatever.
N: Yeah it’s hard to dismantle systems we didn’t create, but here we are.
M: With that, do you have any influences of people who you are seeing doing that or do you consider yourself an original in dismantling those systems?
N: I think for me, I don't know many people that want to dismantle those systems through comedy. The script that I just told you about… you'd be like, this sounds like the least funny idea ever. But it is a comedy.
M: No, I think it would be hilarious!
N: I guess what we've talked about in terms of processing trauma and then also trying to heal from trauma, comedy is kind of the only way I see things. But also, I think comedy in a lot of ways can be like a Jedi mind trick, where it invites people in, in a much more… What's the word for it?
M: It's approachable. It doesn't appear as abrasive. You know, it kind of catches people by surprise, and then they have to think about it.
N: Yeah. I think, too, on paper, I don't fit the white definition of “approachable” with my name, the color of my skin, my features, etc. So there's a disarmament that can happen. I use it as a new tool because before I would say it was like, self-preservation like we talked about. But now I use it like, oh, no, no, no. I'm gonna invite you in and then I'm gonna fucking shove my opinion down your throat.
M: Yesss. I love it. You’re like *British accent* “Do you want some tea?” And then people come in because they're thirsty, and then you're like “Well, here you go! I'm gonna give you all of this.”
N: This is some brown-ass tea!
M: *more snaps* Any final words for people who are trying to make their voice be heard but right now, it feels like making it is too far gone?
N: I would say only speaking for myself and my experiences, three things. First, most important, is listen to your gut, because it's usually right. And that comes from whether or not you want to take on a project. Say yes to things. Say no to things. Your gut is usually right, especially mine during COVID, which expanded!
N: My gut is very strong. Number two is, expand your network horizontally, not vertically. You should be actively trying to make connections with friends, peers and people that are within your network on your same level who are also trying to break in. Because those connections are eventually going to carry you forward in an authentic way. In a real way. I find when people sometimes try to network vertically, they can reach too high, and then that can come off phony, that can come off desperate and needy. But when you're networking within your current collective group of peers that are also actively trying to break in, you’re writing scripts, they’re writing scripts. You can read each other's scripts. You can build that community together. That's really important.
And then my third piece of advice is basically that thing, where you really do have to be actively working in at least some form of the industry that you want. I took my first PA job in 2015 and I was working my way up on the production side since then. I became a writer in 2021. So this isn't an overnight success. I've been actively saying yes to that production assistant job, to that director's assistant job, to that show runner’s assistant job. No job in the industry, just because it has the word ‘assistant’ in it, is something to scoff at. And every job that you have is a way to propel you towards your next job.
Basically, if you have the luxury of creating your own projects and you have the finances, absolutely. But not everyone does. So if you can do that ”small” break-in job, absolutely take it because that's an opportunity that can continue to carry you forward. And if you can do both, then do it.
Dream Dinner Date: Nina Simone to discuss her experiences and collectively share stories related to navigating “white acceptance”.
Perfect Sunday: Weed. Rosé. House party brunch of six.
If you could spend a year anywhere in the world (and Covid disappeared): Greece to relive the last time I had fun having champagne poured over me while dancing in a Speedo. Palestine to see my grandfather’s olive trees. And Mexico City to see the museums and art.
Causes to Support:
Project Corazon provides holistic legal services to asylum seekers.
International Rescue Committee responds to the worst humanitarian crises such as the current crisis in Afghanistan.
The Institute for Middle East Understanding is an independent nonprofit organization aimed at providing education on what is happening throughout Palestine and the Middle East.
The interview has been edited and condensed.