‘Watchmen’ Star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II On “Relentless And Courageous” Storytelling Of Damon Lindelof’s HBO Drama & Doctor Manhattan’s Real-Life Inspirations

After his experience with Watchmen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has been thinking a lot about disruption. In the show’s timely exploration of systemic racism in America, the actor plays two roles—stay-at-home dad Cal, and the Black god known as Doctor Manhattan. The HBO series’ reception was so powerful that it changed the way he thinks about art, and the roles he wants to pursue going forward, Abdul-Mateen says. “Watchmen was the first thing that I was a part of, where I saw its potential to be a change agent. That was a really good feeling, and I want that feeling again.” In his interview with Deadline, Abdul-Mateen also speaks about his physical transformation into Doctor Manhattan, his 16-page dialogue scene with Regina King, as well as other high-profile recent roles, including his guest-starring turn on Black Mirror.

DEADLINE: What resonated with you, when you read the scripts for Watchmen?

YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: From the very first episode, we were into that story of the massacre in Oklahoma, and the way that it was very descriptive and detailed, and leaned into that history in a way I hadn’t seen before, I knew it was doing something special.

I got each story one at a time, and as the scripts continued to come in and unfold, I saw the way they were writing this story about heroes, about the often untold side of American history. They were being very relentless and courageous with the content they were writing, telling the story of systemic racism in America, and the story of generational trauma, while also being a love story and a really exciting hero’s journey, and that was very exciting.

Outside of the cast and the excellent artistic company, it’s really nice to be doing work that also speaks to the state of the world. We filmed this in 2018 and ’19, when the world was a lot more quiet than it is right now, but still, a lot of things were going on underneath. So, that definitely spoke to me.

DEADLINE: Obviously, the series’ exploration of systemic racism in America couldn’t be more relevant than it is right now.

ABDUL-MATEEN: Yeah. One could look at it right now and the impulse is to say, “Man, Watchmen was right on time.” Or maybe, “Watchmen was ahead of its time.” But the truth is that, if we look at history, our Watchmen is probably 50 or 60 years late.

I think our Watchmen was needed because we talked about those issues head-on, in a way that did make a lot of people uncomfortable. I’m very proud of being part of a show that had the dialogues that made people uncomfortable, in the ways that is important for us, as a society, to be uncomfortable, and to look at our own selves, so that we can get back on the right path and start to heal, and start to weed out the bad apples, in a sense.

DEADLINE: Going into Watchmen, you thought you’d only be playing a supporting character, only to find out a couple of episodes into production that you’d also be playing a god, the most omnipotent being in the series’ universe. That revelation must have made your head spin.

ABDUL-MATEEN: Harking back to the material in the first episode, Watchmen was a great opportunity for a young actor, for myself to step in and play the role of Cal, supporting Regina King and playing a husband who went against the typical images that we see of a husband. He was a stay-at-home father and husband, who was comfortable in his position, as a protector and a support system for his wife. That was amazing, to be in that role, and telling that story well. Cal wasn’t a guy who was restless, out trying to be something else. That wasn’t a point of conflict between him and his wife. So Cal, in and of himself, was really a gift.

Then, I found out that I was playing Doctor Manhattan. Damon [Lindelof] brought me in his office and revealed that to me, and of course, I had the moment of disbelief and excitement, and things like that. But then I was very, very excited about the opportunity to transform it and make it a different character. I get up to Episode 6 and I’m working on my version of Doctor Manhattan, saying, “Wow, I get to play two different characters.”

I went in and started to do my research. Then, I get to the episode where I get to flex a little bit more, and I find out that, “Oh, I’m not playing two characters. I’m actually playing four.” I’m playing three different versions of Dr. Manhattan, and Cal, as well.

So, this job, for me, was really an actor’s dream. I got to do a lot of character work. I got to do work that was rooted in very important history, but I got to do physical work; I got to do vocal work, and really challenge myself to test my limits, so that I could show as much variety as the story required, and that was really an actor’s gift for myself, to be able to flex those muscles a bit.

DEADLINE: Tell us a bit more about the work that went into portraying Doctor Manhattan. Was it challenging to inhabit the life experience of a god?

ABDUL-MATEEN: Well, I had to try to make it simple. There was no way that I could play all of these things at one time. I think a good actor would try to play two things at one time; sometimes, it’s hard enough to do one thing. But I wanted to make sure that he had humanity. He is a god, but at the same time, I said, “Well, he’s a god who left earth, because it was too much for him to bear. Why would a god come back?” The answer to that was because he wanted to be in touch with humanity.

So, I made it my mission to make him a godlike figure, but to have him be someone who was also accessible, and who also had a desire to be human. I tried to imbue him with patience, and understanding, and a lot of love, but then also make him a bit distant, as well. Because if you’re a god, there’s some things he just couldn’t afford to relate to.

Then, when it came to creating the character, to creating the physicality, I looked towards voice samples of people in my life who I thought were hyper-intelligent, and tried to model myself after those voices, people whose vocal posture was different than my own. I looked at Steve Jobs; I looked at the Dean of the Yale School of Drama, James Bundy; I looked at Damon Lindelof, and I tried to make a combination, and figure out some of the things that were common amongst them.

I found this whole new voice, and that was fun to experiment with, but it all came back to humanity. It all came back to the theme of, how does this character use all of those tools to get back to what he wanted, which was a second chance at love, and a second chance at being human?

DEADLINE: In Episode 8, “A God Walks into Abar,” you shared a 16-page dialogue scene with King, as Dr. Manhattan. That must have been pretty challenging to tackle.

ABDUL-MATEEN: It is, but at the same time, that’s the job. I look at something like that, and by the time I get to that episode, I’m licking my chops for something like 16 pages. The humorous part about that is that I get to it, and there’s all this dialogue, and then I’m wearing a mask. My face isn’t on camera for nearly all of the 16 pages, but that’s when it became really important to lean into those vocal exercises. The acting exercise then was, how do I tell this physical story? How do I convey my narrative and my emotion and my feeling for the other person, without having my face on camera?

So, that’s when it became really important for me to make sure that I’m very specific with how I articulate myself physically, to make sure that I’m listening, to make sure that I’m giving as much to Regina, because I wanted to be a very good screen partner to her, and make sure that she has enough. I even told her a couple of times, in between takes, “I’m so sorry if you don’t have everything that you need right now.” Because sometimes, with a character like Doctor Manhattan, you’re not going to get the same amount of pushback. You’re not going to get the same feedback or validation that you would get from a person who was able to be emotionally affected.

But the bar scene came down to talking and listening, really sharing the space and buying into the vision.

DEADLINE: As demonstrated in that episode, Doctor Manhattan experiences all of time simultaneously. Was it difficult to grapple with the structure, and the temporality of this piece?

ABDUL-MATEEN: I think it would have been challenging, had Damon and [director] Nikki [Kassell] not really coached me through that. I think the theme of that episode goes back to the theme of Doctor Manhattan, as I approached him as an actor, and that was, I can’t do two things at one time. For Doctor Manhattan, he can be everywhere at one time; Yahya can’t. [Laughs] So, I said, “Look, I understand what this is doing.” But in order to be able to tell those stories, I had to make sure that I was never ahead of myself, which is sort of like Doctor Manhattan.

One of the difficulties about him is that he’s consistently in the present. He’s also simultaneously in the present, in every moment. But that was sort of a gift to me because it told me, “Hey, you don’t have to worry about the past. You don’t have to worry about the future. Just worry about the present, and as long as you stay present in every moment, the story will make sense.” The thing that I told myself was that only by being in this moment, in the present moment, can you be in every moment, all at the same time. I don’t know if that was just actor talk, or psyching myself out, but it did help me to not be overwhelmed by the narrative, and by playing a character who did have the ability to be everywhere at the same time.

DEADLINE: Was Doctor Manhattan, with his glowing, blue skin, the first character you’d played, where you had to go through a dramatic physical transformation?

ABDUL-MATEEN: I had a bit of a physical transformation for Aquaman, just getting in shape for that, but I went above and beyond what I did for that. Even the physical transformation to get myself muscularly in shape was an entire journey. Then, sitting down for the makeup, and getting in the blue paint, at first, it was like, “Oh man, I get to wear a bald cap. I get to be blue.” They’d paint me white first, and then they’d paint me blue, and then another type of blue. Then, they’d come in and do the fingerprints, and the eyes, and everything.

I’m a kid in a candy shop in the beginning, but after about three or four times of doing it, because it takes two and a half hours, I could not wait to the end of the day to get out of that paint. Sometimes I went home half blue. Nobody knew, but I said, “Okay, guys. I’m done for the day. I’m going to just put on my pants and my socks. Just give me three cans of shaving cream, and I’ll go take care of the rest at home.”

DEADLINE: Were there specific highlights to your experience with Watchmen?

ABDUL-MATEEN: There’s so many. I think about Regina walking into the room for the first time, being so nice and gracious, and the chemistry that we had. She really took care of me, as an actor. That’s what you look for in an acting partner, someone who’s going to challenge you and throw interesting balls and be fun, but also someone who takes care of you, and makes the work easy. Regina was that, from the very beginning.

Second, just being able to share the space with Lou Gossett, one of our legends in the industry—to watch how he navigates in the room, and orchestrates the entire room, and takes care of himself throughout the process of his work. He’s very patient with himself, and even at his age—I believe he was 83, at the time of filming—to watch the appetite that he has for acting…He’ll still talk to you about acting in between takes, and he’s still working on his craft and figuring things out. That let me know that the job never stops; the craft never stops. There’s always something to be curious about. I was humbled by all of my acting partners that I got to work with throughout that series—nothing but amazing actors that I was working opposite, and that’s one of the best experiences while filming.

I think after filming, one of the best experiences was watching the conversation online, and being able to be a part of the conversation, where Black audiences—not just in America, but across the world—[expressed] the sense of pride that they felt watching this story. To watch the heroes of that story be Black bodies, Black heroes, to discuss the importance of seeing God be inhabited in the body of a Black man on Earth, and to see this Black love story, I was so proud to be a part of that story. To be able to offer that image out to the world was really something that I’m proud to be a part of.

DEADLINE: In an interview with Jason Momoa, you said that your experience on Watchmen changed your perspective, in terms of the kinds of roles you want to pursue. 

ABDUL-MATEEN: It reminded me of the importance of the voice that art brings to different causes. Art can be activism, and our artwork definitely has the power to influence. It has the power to invoke a conversation that has the power to make people uncomfortable. Our art can be disruptive, and a lot of times, disruption is the best thing for illness. You want to find it, and you want to make it uncomfortable, so that it has to leave the body, and right now, especially in this time in the country, I think it’s important to be making art, and to be making statements that disrupt the status quo—that disrupt the way that we think, the way that we consume, the way that we create, the way that we think about creating.

So, Watchmen was the first thing that I was a part of, where I saw that unfold right before my eyes. I think I’ve looked for that, and I’ve spoken up for causes, spoken up for people in my life. But Watchmen was the first experience that allowed me to do that in my work, and to see the outcome of that. So, it definitely opened up my eyes to the power of our art. It’s the responsibility that I have to tell stories that are going to move us closer to where we want to be.

DEADLINE: Last year, you also starred opposite Anthony Mackie in “Striking Vipers,” the first episode of Black Mirror’s fifth season. What did you enjoy about working on that series?

ABDUL-MATEEN: Anthony is so talented, Nicole [Beharie] is extremely talented, and the whole creative team behind that. That was another script that I got and said, “Oh, I have to be a part of this, because this is just strange and cool.”

But to me, it came down to relationships. It was about masculinity; it was about analyzing oneself; it was about love, brotherhood, addiction. For me as an actor, there were so many things that were so satisfying to uncover and to chase within that story, and I said, “Okay, yeah. I think this is something that is really going to be a challenge.”

That’s another one that opened up a lot of conversation, as well, to people talking about friendships between men. They talked about toxic masculinity, and representation, and love, and all of the complexities that come with defining a brotherhood, and defining relationships, be they monogamous or otherwise. So, that was another one that was introduced to the world, at a time where everyone was sort of talking about those things. I thought that was placed very well into the zeitgeist, and another tool to help create dialogue around those things.

DEADLINE: You have an incredible couple of years ahead of you, with roles in Candyman, Aquaman 2, The Matrix 4 and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of The Chicago 7. You’ve said that portraying Black Party Panther co-founder Bobby Seale in the latter title was one of your biggest challenges yet.

ABDUL-MATEEN: I can talk a little bit about Bobby Seale. That was such an honor, man. I’m from New Orleans, but I grew up in Oakland, California, so the Black Panther Party and Bobby Seale, I was no stranger to their history and their work. It was really an honor because it also woke up the activist in my own self, reading his book, and being in that courtroom.

Aaron and the designers did an amazing job of really sitting us down in history. Once we walked inside that courtroom, we were in 1970, and the story was about using your voice. It was about standing up and speaking against the government, and putting yourself on the line, and being loud, and making people uncomfortable.

You know, I think that’s sort of a theme right now, in the work that I’ve done in the past year, is being a disruptor. And if I talk about where I am in my career right now, I’m really enjoying walking into the position where I can have a very diverse career, and also have a career that disrupts the status quo, that sort of disrupts the idea of what a Black lead actor can be and do.

To me, that means that I have the freedom to do a Trial of the Chicago 7, and then turn around and do an Aquaman 2, and then do something like The Matrix, and then do something like a Watchmen, and have these projects be shown on an international scale. And just for other young men who are aspiring to come into this profession, they can look at me as a disruptor of the status quo, saying, “Hey, if I want to be an actor, I don’t just have to do one thing. I can do adventure movies; I can do movies that have a social cause. I can do social cause movies that take you on an adventure.”

So, I’m at a place right now where I’m very, very blessed, and I’m learning the power that I do have. The thing that happens next for me, I believe, is that I put myself in a position to empower other actors, to empower other creatives, other writers, other people in financial positions, who can come onto the machine that I’ll be able to put together. I’ll be able to empower them to make more art, and to make a difference in the community. So, that’s the really exciting thing that comes next, with the position that I’ve been able to afford myself, is to ask the question of, how do I empower other people? I think I do that by the work that I do off-screen, but also by being a good example on screen, picking a group of diverse projects that speak to the nation and the world, in a way that we need right now.

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