Yahya Abdul-Mateen II truly stood out in his breakout role as Clarence "Cadillac" Caldwell, a part-time disco impresario and full-time stylish gangster on The Get Down; his ostentatious mode of dress and darkly charismatic personality stole the fondly-remembered show. Since then, he’s made a splash as the foil to The Rock's character in the 2017 Baywatch remake, and took an even deeper dive into the ocean as Black Manta, the sympathetic mercenary villain in Aquaman.
Now, he’s returned to the small screen (but is still keeping his ties to the DC Comics universe) for HBO’s lauded Watchmen series, where he plays Cal Abar, husband to mysterious vigilante Angela Abar (portrayed by Regina King). It turns out there’s much more to Cal than meets the eye – and a stunning twist in the series propels his character to the forefront of the action. Unfortunately, this interview occurred before the actor could spill the beans about his big, blue, secret identity.
When he’s not living the dream, sometimes Abdul-Mateen remembers to pinch himself. “Every once in a while, usually when I'm traveling from one place to the next, I look up and say: ‘What the hell am I doing? How did I get here?’ And it's awesome,” he says. After spending his childhood in New Orleans, his family moved to Oakland, where he graduated high school and ran hurdles for the track team at UC Berkeley. For a time, he put his undergraduate degree in architecture to good use as a San Francisco city planner – but part of him still wanted to act. So, he ended up going to the Yale School of Drama, where he received his MFA in acting.
Abdul-Mateen broke new ground opposite Anthony Mackie in the Black Mirror episode “Striking Vipers,” a role that commented on modern masculinity and gamer culture in equal parts. While he doesn’t quite know what his next role will be, Abdul-Mateen is grateful for a career trajectory that’s let him have a certain degree of control. He’s in the fortunate position of only having to do what he wants, and that freedom is something he thinks about on a daily basis.
Lately, he’s also been thinking a lot about underdogs. “I love characters who come in second place,” he says. “The guy who [gets] silver at the Olympics, or who loses the championship fight... I really like investigating characters who were almost there. I would love to go on that psychological journey of knowing that you're good enough, and the world knowing that you're good enough, but still almost being the best.”
Despite his preoccupation with second bananas, 2020 will prove that Abdul-Mateen’s got the chops to be a leading man. After working with Jordan Peele on Us, he was tapped for Nia DaCosta’s Candyman sequel (written by Peele). He’ll also be taking on the role of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, alongside Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Michael Keaton.
On a New York afternoon, Abdul-Mateen reflects on his career thus far, what attracted him to Watchmen, and how he’s dedicating himself to explore what freedom means.
One of the things that interests you is the changing idea of “freedom” as it pertains to Black Americans. How would you define that term right now?
It's about happiness and choice. It's about being able to get to a place where I can move throughout the world, where I'm not worried about what anybody else thinks of me. I was walking down the street the other day, and I'm just smiling, laughing, and I'm by myself, listening to music. In several contexts, that could make a lot of people uncomfortable, because it's a little weird. Joy makes people uncomfortable, especially when you see it out of context. But that, to me, was so free.
As a black man, there are so many opportunities for us to be guarded. For us to be able to put down our cares for a while is a bit of a luxury, and it’s one that I'm still chasing. It's about being able to exist in a world where there's a lack of judgment and limitless possibilities.
Do you take that mindset with you when it comes to finding your next role?
I do like to feed my own appetite. I've been careful to make sure that my work is diverse.
Yeah, you have such a variety of characters.
That's been intentional on my part. That gives me the freedom of choice. It allows me to say: “Well, what do I want to do next?” not, “What do I have to do next?” The project I'm working on now, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is the perfect thing to do before jumping on another big project like The Matrix. I'm going to be able to dig into that, be joyful about it, and explore the character freely and openly.
I never want to feel like I'm doing a project just so I can pay my bills. I want to truly express myself as an artist, make mistakes, and make bold choices and decisions. I've been really blessed to be able to follow my appetite in a way that gets me very close to what artistic freedom is.
What drew you to Watchmen?
I had seen the movie and I had read the graphic novel – I had got into DC comics a year before Aquaman, and then a friend of mine said, "You should really check out Watchmen's graphic novel. It's a different tone." I read it and it was dark, it was gritty, and I dug it. So when Watchmen came along, that was an opportunity to stay in the DC family and do something that was more grounded.
Aquaman is very fantastic and whimsical; I knew that HBO wasn’t going to do the same thing. And then to get a chance to work opposite Regina King — I was a little bit nervous at first, because I didn't know what to expect playing her husband, and if we would have chemistry. As soon as she walked in the door during that test audition, all of that went away.
The onscreen relationship between you two is so good. There’s a sense of thinly-veiled transparency, like she still has some skeletons in the closet. But Cal seems empathetic to her situation, despite kind of being in the dark. How has it been, developing that bond between those characters?
I'm really, really happy that people are seeing that. That’s how we intended their relationship to come across. Regina and my relationship is very playful. There's a lot of trust, and we tease each other a lot. I don't think that we're two actors who need things to be complicated; I think we allow each other to be attracted to the simplicity of one another. Cal and Angela seem very familiar with each other – they build a lot of trust that way. It's fun playing a husband who is supportive, understanding, and who's at home.
It's sort of unconventional to see a husband like that. He’s not conflicted. He's not a guy saying: "I wish I was out there. I wish it was me." He's not waiting his turn; he's holding it down. He's very patient, but the world around them is changing very, very fast, so I think that's going to make for some interesting turns.
How does it feel to work with Jordan Peele again and bringing the iconic Candyman back for a new generation?
I'm proud as hell. Candyman was wild. As a writer, Jordan is very, very smart, and he has a very specific opinion. You talk about artistic freedom – he's [someone] I definitely admire. He does what he wants to do, he has a strong opinion, and he injects it into his work relentlessly.
I was working with Jordan on Us. I think he could intuit that I was going to get an opportunity to go and do a lot of different things. He said, "Make sure you only do it if you love it." I really took that with me. He also told me: "I want to give you your first lead."
A year later, I get a call saying that there was an opportunity to do Candyman. I really appreciated that, to have someone like Jordan looking out for me in the industry. As a new actor, it's so important to have somebody who trusts you and can lift you up.
One of my favorite characters is Cadillac from The Get Down. He’s a very charismatic and stylish dude, and so are you. Has he had any impact on your personal style?
Cadillac was really just a stage for me to rock my swag, and to do it on a grand level that has shot me like a superstar. That's kind of how I like to live in my head every once in a while. Cadillac was definitely me living out my fashion sense and confidence. He's a peacock. Still, I would describe my style as classic with a little bit of a left turn. I try to pick and choose where to introduce the Cadillac-isms.
You’ve been seen rocking suits from Abasi Rosborough. Any other brands you’re into right now?
I've been rocking a whole lot of the Fear Of God ESSENTIALS line. I'm all about comfy-chic, so sweats tend to get that done. If it's baggy, if it lets me be loose and comfortable, then I'm probably going to be in that.
What does acting do for you that the rest of life just doesn't give you?
It's escapism. I'm a little bit of an attention whore, but I'm also shy. I'll walk into a room, and I'll stand in the corner and be by myself until I want attention, and then I'll work the fucking room until I have everybody's attention. Acting allows me to dictate when they turn away. I get to be imaginative, have fun, and never have to grow up, and then I get to put on my hood and walk down the street – at least for right now – in almost complete anonymity. I like that, while I have it.