The Vision and Values of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
The sun is shining over new-normal West Hollywood on a quiet mid-afternoon in early June. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is minding his own business after a workout, walking down Santa Monica Boulevard on the way back to his hotel. As he crosses the road, the palm trees stand motionless. But up ahead there is some commotion. The quiet is perforated by hundreds of people protesting. Chants of “Black Lives Matter” start ringing in Abdul-Mateen II’s beanie-covered ears. Texta-inscribed ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs arrest his attention, the ink still pungent.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Abdul-Mateen II tells us a few weeks later. “90 percent of the crowd was white.” He pauses, mulling over his words as he reverses his cap from front to backward. “I was shocked to see a predominantly white crowd out there saying, ‘Black Lives Matter.’” In that moment, he realised that a movement was really happening. “It made me realise that white people see there’s something about the conditions Black people like me live under that are inherently wrong. The protesters had a plan, they had a cause, and they were making people uncomfortable like it’s important to.”
If you haven’t already, you’re about to hear, see and learn a lot more about Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Recite his full name after us, because this 33-year-old actor from New Orleans holds the principles, talent and responsibility that the next wave of leading men ought to. Like the protesters in West Hollywood that June afternoon, Abdul-Mateen II has a plan, he has a cause, and he’s intent on making movies that will spark change and conversation around the world – and by doing so, make people feel uncomfortable.
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At a time of unprecedented racial tension, nowhere is his contribution more prevalent than in his role in HBO’s Watchmen, a rich, disturbingly prescient interpretation of Alan Moore’s 1986 comic. Since it aired in late 2019, it has brought to the fore poignant questions around systemic racism and outdated law and order catechisms. Directed by Damon Lindelof, the creative brains behind Lost and The Leftovers, it begins in Tulsa in 1921 amid the Ku Klux Klan’s attack on ‘Black Wall Street’, which is still mourned as the most notable incident of racial terrorism in America.
“To watch people watch Watchmen and then have new, more sophisticated conversations about the importance of telling the history of the Tulsa massacre – calling it a massacre not a race riot – fills me with pride. And with what’s happened to George Floyd, there’s a domino effect: now, we don’t have the excuse to ignore that part of history or say we weren’t educated,” says a visibly moved Abdul-Mateen II, whose unveiling as Dr Manhattan (comic-book speak for God) is the show’s main twist – a surprise bestowed on him well after he was cast.
In the context of Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie by the same name, which had an all-white cast and starred Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan, Lindelof’s flip-reversal of Black identity to be the default in the series demonstrates how crucial entertainment has become as a vehicle in better representing today’s society. That’s not to say the show received universal praise for re-imagining the status quo. “Some people turn the channel saying they’re not watching our f****** show,” says Abdul-Mateen II, animated on the sofa. “I may not have access to the demographic who choose to see something like our version of Watchmen and unfollow me on Instagram because they don’t share my beliefs. They’ll see the message from me, they’ll see my work and they’ll actively reject it as leftist propaganda. This is America, so they have zero reason to listen to me. But I can talk to my white friends and wider audiences who are enlightened and inspired to then go have uncomfortable conversations with relatives and co-workers. So I’m fortunate to be a part of that progress.”
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The overwhelming response to Watchmen and his ensuing steep rise in fame has made Abdul-Mateen II carefully consider just how he utilises his substantial newfound platform. “It’s so important to educate myself on our history so that when a microphone is shoved in my face, I have the right things to say and am sharp when I’m speaking about these issues. Because this race is still going – we are not there yet.”
No matter who you are, COVID-19 hasn’t been discriminatory. No one has been immune to its clutches, not even Hollywood actors. For Abdul-Mateen II, lockdown life has been eventful but also populated by an influx of messages on the family text chain. Welcome respite has come from him and his five siblings (he’s the youngest) adding their widowed mother to the group: “Now mom texts us so much she’s hijacked the whole chat,” he laughs. “Man, I feel like I’ve lived two, three or four different lives ever since the start of this. It’s definitely a chapter that I’m eager to put behind me, but at the same time it’s one I’ll never forget,” he says over Zoom, speaking from Potsdam just outside Berlin.
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In mid-March, still riding on Watchmen-generated hype, Abdul-Mateen II was in Chicago finishing additional photography for Jordan Peele’s remake of the classic horror film Candyman. Originally slated for June this year, this is Abdul-Mateen II’s first time in a lead role. Everything then shut down the day before he was supposed to fly to Berlin to shoot The Matrix 4. So, he rented a place in New York for about a month and a half, “went stir crazy” and ended up in Los Angeles to get a little bit of clarity and space, before eventually making it to Germany, where he is now.
“Really, work was the furthest thing from my mind because it’s been stable for the past five years,” he says. “I’d been putting life on the back burner. So when everything stopped, I started to make plans on simple things, like where and who I want to live around. And given the situation all around the world, I wanted to be careful to put things that are going to project a positive image out into the world, to make people feel good but make people move our conversations and actions in a forward direction.”
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This earnest desire for his acting to have a positive impact on humanity is even more admirable when you realise that in 2015, Abdul-Mateen II was still studying drama at Yale after a short-lived career as an architect. The prospect of acting as a career came into focus when he saw his friend and fellow Berkeley graduate Marshawn Lynch playing in the NFL on TV and realised that people on television were no different to him. It was a lightbulb moment.
“Before that, the only role models I had were athletic figures – like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali – who had charisma,” he confides. “And the closest thing to a celebrity I looked up to was Shaquille O’Neal. I loved basketball. He was big. He was silly. He made movies. He rapped. I mean, that dude had a good life.”
To Abdul-Mateen II, career is a learning curve for life, a new tool taught from every project. The air of calm he projects belies the fact that he’s navigated a series of stellar opportunities that have come knocking in quick succession. He hadn’t even graduated when director Baz Luhrmann first plucked him out of acting school to star as a 1970s king of disco in The Get Down alongside Jaden Smith. “Dancing was the challenge for that, showing the chest and moving the hips,” he reminisces, “it kept my curiosity sharp and ambitious, and now when ’70s music comes on, I can get into that groove.” That immediately opened up big-budget movie doors, like a role as a police officer in the lighthearted remake of Baywatch.
Greater acclaim followed as he played increasingly prevalent roles in huge hits like The Greatest Showman and Aquaman. “I did a few months of trapeze school with Zendaya. That was exciting and I definitely learnt a new skill,” he says of playing an acrobat in The Greatest Showman. “I remember joking with my brother that I’m in all these water movies like Aquaman but can’t swim. So I taught myself how to swim. Then I got to the movie and I didn’t even have to touch the water,” Abdul-Mateen II laughs. “I’ll be ready to move forward when part two comes around.”
The next project on his resumé, the horror movie Us, wasn’t a big part but its significance was huge: it marked the start of a blossoming relationship with director Jordan Peele.
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“In the past, I had told myself I wouldn’t do a horror movie, but Jordan has a very special perspective and a really strong message behind his art,” he says of the Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer. “I first met Jordan when I auditioned for a few parts in Get Out. He’d just done [action comedy] Keanu and was stepping into the filmmaking space, so we came together on that premise. I really respected the fact that Jordan said people expected Get Out to be a comedy. And he said, ‘This is not a comedy, this is a
horror film. I love horror.’ I respected that because he was a black artist standing his ground saying, this is what I’m doing. I saw the courage and vision and that’s why I got behind him.”
Though he didn’t get a role in Get Out, Peele tapped Abdul-Mateen II for Us. “That’s one of the most supportive sets I’ve been on and the morale rose through the roof. On that job he told me, ‘You’re really good, so you’re going to have a lot of choices.’ He said, ‘Make sure you only do what you love.’ And he also said that he wanted to give me my first lead in a movie, which has ended up happening with Candyman.”
Unlike with Watchmen, Abdul-Mateen II had seen the original Candyman starring Tony Todd from 1992 and knew what he was getting himself into. “I remember, as a child, Candyman was not a character that was based on the movie. The movie was based on Candyman – he was real to me. Watching it back for this role, I got a chance to understand more of the social commentary behind it. I got excited because there was an opportunity to go back to [Chicago housing estate] Cabrini-Green and ask what it looks like to have those grounds be haunted by someone today.
“The way I see it, Candyman was born out of the original Candyman, Daniel Robitaille, who was born out of an act of white violence,” he says, explaining what interested him most about this script. “He was a black painter who, because of his relationship with a white woman, was essentially lynched. And the repercussions of that action lived on for ages and ages.”
Abdul-Mateen II goes on to suggest that gentrification in America is also an act of white violence. “The movie shows the repercussions and ghosts that live on from those actions and takes it a step further to talk about systemic violence and how all those actions create stories. Stories create legends, which have implications and repercussions...” he trails off, wholly aware of how palpable these things are in the world today.
Candyman isn’t the only timely film Abdul-Mateen II finds himself at the centre of this year; another is Aaron Sorkin’s political thriller The Trial of The Chicago 7, alongside an all-star cast including Eddie Redmayne and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Based on the Democratic Convention of 1968 in the US, he plays Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers and one of the eight defendants put on trial for conspiracy to incite riot. Having grown up in Oakland California, he says playing Seale was a huge honour and that working with a Sorkin script “was so easy because the words were so good”. Always looking for life lessons in his work, Abdul-Mateen II says playing Seale taught him to never allow any oppressor to see him suffer. “That was a very important lesson for keeping my mind sharp: learning we have the tools within ourselves to combat fears by not allowing them to penetrate our souls, and turning oppression into our strength – to become stronger than the oppressive.”
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Sorkin has been making this movie for over a decade, so the timing of the release is now somewhat serendipitous. “There’s a strong message about putting your own convenience second and about standing up for the rights of what the Constitution in America says we are afforded,” he says. “The world is collectively saying, look, we’re holding on to old worn out ways and we need to move on. Those old worn out systems are holding on and they’re pushing back very hard but they’re going to topple soon. Soon may not be this year, but soon may be in the next 30 years.”
The same argument could be said about white supremacy and the film industry. There are signs of movement towards a more equal playing field – but the bigger picture may take patience and time. “For Black representation in Hollywood to improve, studios have to see that films like Black Panther can be a hit so projects coming from Black creators are not seen as a gamble,” says Abdul-Mateen II. “It takes Get Out to be successful and then Candyman to be successful in order to open the doors for someone to fund something like Donald Glover’s show Atlanta,” he continues.
Among his peers, Mahershala Ali, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan in particular command a high amount of praise from Abdul-Mateen II. “Michael’s showing what it looks like to be a young black producer – to be an advocate for women, for people of colour, and for giving to industry minorities.” Also from Oakland, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler is another talent Abdul-Mateen II has a lot of time for: “I haven’t worked with him yet, but I know once we get together, we’ll create something special.”
It is this air of confidence in everything Abdul-Mateen II says and does that makes him so likeable and compelling to follow. As he prepares for Candyman to premiere later this year, he’s hopeful about what the future might hold on a personal level.
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“When I put on my business cap, I hope Candyman does certain things for my career,” he admits. “There’s a lot of supporters of my work who haven’t really connected all of the dots; that Cadillac [in The Get Down] is the same person to play Dr. Manhattan [in Watchmen] or be in Aquaman and The Greatest Showman, you know what I mean? I have a great body of work out there and Candyman has an opportunity to put me out there as the common denominator amongst all of those projects, so I’m excited about the implications of that bomb.”
Such is Abdul-Mateen II’s shining star, even if this bomb were to bomb (which feels unlikely), nothing seems set to deride his ascent – his next role is destined to see him rocket into the stratosphere.
“I freaked out about it about a week ago. I was chilling and I said, ‘Oh s*** I’m in The Matrix!’ he says of being a part of arguably the most anticipated sequel of all time. “I can’t say too much but it’s so relevant and touches on themes people should be talking about in 2020, 2021, 2022. Keanu and I have been hanging out and he’s so pumped – so I take energy from him.”
In the time spent speaking to Abdul-Mateen II, subconsciously or not, every topic we discuss is another dot in an ideological matrix that sums him up – a world according to Yahya. His energy is infectious, his demeanour charming. And the key to much his success thus far: having faith, something he says he learnt from his parents.
“Growing up in a Muslim and a Christian household, I developed a very strong connection to God,” he says. His father instilled integrity and principles in him while his mother talked about faith. The result was he grew up with a really good dose of both, which helped him to be accepting and curious about other cultures and other ways of life. One memory about his upbringing that really sticks out is how his father would pray for his parents every single day at the end of his Dua. “He prayed for their souls. He prayed for their spirits. He asked God to forgive them for their sins,” confides Abdul-Mateen II.
This strong connection to faith may explain why he is so comfortable in his own skin – after all ‘Yahya’ is a prophet in Islam, commonly identified as John the Baptist. But as a Black man with a Muslim name, he credits being blessed with a certain naivety in his youth for the supreme confidence that precedes everything he does today. Starting out in Hollywood, he remembers being asked if he’d drop his last name to Yahya Mateen, or just have Yahya by itself. Abdul-Mateen II was adamant he’d never consider a name change. At no point did he decry that his name might impact his desire to become a household Hollywood star. He wanted to represent, always.
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“My father [Yahya Abdul-Mateen] prayed for his parents every day and took them along the journey with them,” he says with love in his voice. “I can only hope to do the same, and one way I can do that is by holding on to the second [in my name], because that means you have to acknowledge the first too: my father.”
As his name grows in stature among Hollywood circles, so does the enormous pride with which he carries it. The success of a name like his holds implications for others. “My name is not the name you’d pick out of a hat – Yahya Abdul-Mateen the second is no John Wayne, it’s not traditionally the guy at the top of the billing. And that’s why it’s so inspiring to people. I get messages all the time saying, ‘Thank you brother for representing for us Muslims. I was thinking about changing my name, but now that I see you, I’ll never change it.’
“For a lot of aspiring actors and artists around the world, America is the destination, the comparison. So to have my name at the top of the billing on my own for Candyman, right up there on Aquaman, and next to Keanu Reeves in a big production like The Matrix is huge,” continues Abdul-Mateen II, full of energy. “To be validated, to hold my own, and to go on talk shows where they say my entire name, that’s inspiring.”
Like we said: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, always representing.
Photography: Quil Lemons
Photography assistant: Denzel Golatt
Styling: Rusty Beukes
Styling assistants: Davian Lain, Zeid Jaouni, Zeina Muhtadi
Set designer: Daniel Horowitz
Producer: Malaika Naik
Executive producer: Emily Strange
Grooming: Kyia Jones
Makeup artist: Jessica Smalls
Production assistant: Lauren Dibello