Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is making serious moves right now. In just over eight years he’s gone from Netflix gold to comic book stardom. But this is a man set for greater things... and not just in Hollywood.
On the face of it, it hasn’t really taken Abdul-Mateen long to force his way to the front of a queue of actors looking like the next generation of leading men.
But to dismiss his journey as simple would be a mistake. No precocious stage school life here, no back catalogue of adverts moving to child star territory and, eventually, damaged Hollywood star status. Nope, just a half career as a city planner and 10 years of hard slog. The result being naked ambition aligned with a sense of civic duty. But more of that later.
It’s mid-August when GQ Middle East catches up with Abdul-Mateen, and the temperature in New York is on the rise. As a result, he’s “taking things slow and dressing cool”, basking in the glow of the moment. It’s a justifiable warm weather flex, too. In the last three years he’s been busy at the zeitgeisty end of things, featuring in everything from Netflix Original The Get Down, to Baywatch, The Greatest Showman to Aquaman, The Handmaid’s Tale to Black Mirror. It’s hard not to notice the line of trajectory here, but he’s taking nothing for granted. He’s not really the type.
You see, although this was a late move into the field, his is a position built of careful planning. Whether that’s the months spent reading plays just to learn monologues (“the library was over the road and I read hundreds of good ones and even more bad ones”) or the time spent on acting programes – including Yale Drama where he took home the prestigious Herschel Williams Prize, just like course alumni Lupita N’Yongo. None of this happened by accident. But then a purposeful mindset was highly prized in Abdul-Mateen house from an early age.
“I was brought up in both a Muslim and Christian household, so I was I was raised with both perspectives,” he explains of life as the youngest of six. “My father would pray five times a day – and we would often pray with him. Then we were also welcome to go to church, too. Religion was a big deal growing up, but the differences in faith didn’t matter. It was all just about how to be a good person. How to please God and walk with a divine purpose. To have integrity and live a life that serves others. I certainly got that perspective from the religion in my own upbringing.”
Hooded top, trousers, prices on request, Louis Vuitton. Sneakers, price on request, Nike x John Elliott
So, for years Abdul-Mateen brought that fire and purpose to his life, first in an architecture degree and then to a job in the San Francisco City Planner’s office. It was a job he enjoyed, working, in part, on projects that would help create good quality housing for low income families.
But then, suddenly, it was over. A budget cut that would lead to opportunity. Necessity has a way of doing that, right? But there was something else, too.
Years earlier, in 2007, Abdul-Mateen had lost his father to cancer. The family knew the prognosis, but the death was sudden regardless, and it left the 21 year old devastated. At that moment he resolved to honour his father by living a life that made him happy. Suddenly out of work, it was time to take a risk. But it was a risk with roots.
“There was a lot of performance growing up in our house,” says Abdul-Mateen. “When we were young, my mom would watch old movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and we would all play along, pretending to drive flying cars or be chimney sweeps. As we got older, we would invent raps and dances while sitting on the stairs at home. I was like, ‘man, give me the spotlight.’”
The spotlight suits him well, too. And he’s built up a highlights reel packed with ringing endorsements featuring everyone from Baz Luhrmann to hip-hop royalty (“Grandmaster Flash would point at me every day during The Get Down and say, ‘that’s a bad man over there. A baaaad man’”). But you feel that the next 12 months are clutch.
The best way to make it big in 2020? Get yourself a superhero franchise. Abdul-Mateen has two – how’s that for planning? But while the mega-hyped HBO adaptation of Watchmen is set to go big, it could be the reprisal of another role that really opens the floodgates.
“We really only gave him [Black Manta] small instructions,” says Abdul-Mateen of his arch nemesis showing in 2018’s big budget Aquaman. “I was happy with that. We wanted to create a formidable foe, but moving forward I’m looking to introduce more parts of his character. I want us to get inside that submarine with him and really see what he’s all about.”
After 20 minutes or so with Abdul-Mateen, you get a clear picture of where his own motivations lie. Even with mega fame calling he’s still thinking about that job, the one back in San Francisco. He’s still trying to help people from low income families – only this time hoping to use his position to make sure people have access to the arts. “They’re poorly funded but such an important part of our emotional maturation,” he says. “It’s not just an outlet, it’s a career opportunity.”
In that respect, the chance has never been bigger or brighter. “The landscape is changing,” he says as we wrap up the interview. “The rules are different. You don’t have to be defined by one thing anymore. Be multi-faceted, capitalise on all aspects of yourself. I love that I don’t have to compromise on anything I want to do to be successful and to move forward. Comedy, drama, action... it’s all on the table.”
But no rules comes with a risk. To succeed you need that internal compass to keep you on track. “My philosophy is stay true to yourself and work hard. Keep refining the work, keep the integrity – in work and life – and have fun along the way. That’s what’s guided me this far, and I have no intention of changing my mind about it now.”
What you can learn from the biggest names in Hollywood
Baz Luhrmann [The Get Down]
Do not compromise. Go for what you want. Dream big. Actually, dream impossibly big.
Dwayne Johnson [Baywatch]
Charisma, charm and hard work goes a long way – and always give back to your fans and supporters.
Jordan Peele [Us]
Oh man. Take risks for sure. Enjoy your work, have a clear vision but most of all... have fun!