Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is building a superpowered origin story: His own

You met him as a superhero on Watchmen and a supervillain in Aquaman. And now the architect-turned-actor is ready to take center stage — even if he can’t manage to stay in one place.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is trying to stay present. It’s mid-August and the rising star is working on Matrix 4 in Berlin, the latest in a long string of temporary homes he’s lived in over the past three years. He’s made a habit of moving with each project — Atlanta for Watchmen, Chicago for Candyman. Sure, he occasionally dreams of settling down in a place of his own, but for now he’s focused on enjoying the ride.

“I’m blessed to be in Berlin right now; I’m blessed to be relatively at peace,” the 34-year-old actor says over the phone (after a failed Zoom attempt — so it goes these days) as he considers the bright side of his nomadic lifestyle. “I’m open to embracing the moment. But also, [I’m] trying to make sure I plan for the security I need in the future.”

Walking that tightrope has served him well in his short yet successful career: He made his screen debut just four years ago, stealing every scene in Baz Luhrmann’s hip-hop drama The Get Down, and on Sunday he won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series for his role as the godlike superhero Dr. Manhattan on HBO’s Watchmen, a searing exploration of white supremacy. This fall was primed to mark that aforementioned moment with his turn as the tragic heart of Aaron Sorkin’s awards hopeful The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix, Oct. 16) and his ascension to leading-man status in Nia DaCosta’s buzzy Candyman reboot. Unfortunately, the latter's release date was pushed back to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We suspect Abdul-Mateen isn’t fazed by that, though, because he’s nothing if not adaptable. Look no further than his rapid rise; Hollywood success wasn’t always part of the plan. Born in New Orleans and raised in Oakland, Abdul-Mateen decided he wanted to be an architect at an early age. He idolized his father, who was an ironworker, but when he was 6, a security guard cautioned Abdul-Mateen against pursuing construction because it would wear his body down and suggested architecture as an alternative.

“As impressionable as I was at 6 years old, I said, ‘Okay,’” he recalls. “That was really the seed. It’s sort of like when a kid learns the word paleontologist and they want to be a paleontologist all of a sudden, because that's the best word they learned. At that time, I think architect was a new word.”

Credit: Yotam Shwartz for EW

Abdul-Mateen uses the word impressionable to describe himself repeatedly. His openness to other people’s ideas is a crucial component of his character. In his sophomore year at UC Berkeley, where he majored in architecture, a track teammate suggested he enroll in acting class after he performed impressions of the coaches at a team-building variety show. So he did, and caught the acting bug. After graduation, he worked for the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development by day and took acting classes at night. When he was laid off during the 2008 recession, he decided to survive on his unemployment check and concentrate on honing his craft in the hope that he would eventually move to Los Angeles and book a McDonald's commercial, which would hopefully lead to him being cast on a soap opera, which is what happened to someone he knew. But ultimately, the combination of seeing his classmates enroll in graduate school and his mentors’ encouragement inspired him to pursue his M.F.A. at Yale School of Drama instead.

“I find myself being pretty impressionable, although I don’t find myself to be an impressionable person,” Abdul-Mateen says. “I think I was sort of blessed with a curious mind and I believed in myself. So I was always willing to try things and take what I thought was good advice." He continues: "I’ve always been blessed with people who believed in me. I was very much an outsider who was just a kid trying on acting because it was fun, but had anyone told me that it wasn’t for me because I was Black or didn’t fit the mold, then I probably would not have done it the way that I did because I wouldn’t have challenged them. I probably would’ve understood where they were coming from.”

Looking back on his journey, he does recognize a connection between his two passions. “It’s all creativity,” he says. “[I’m drawn] to step into something that’s still art, that still allows me to create the world around me.” That said, succeeding in graduate school meant learning how to turn off the plan-loving architectural part of his brain and “open up for more possibility and for more space. To know when to be a thinker and to know when to just let go and let my body take control.”

Credit: Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

Ten days after graduating from Yale — the guy moves fast! — Abdul-Mateen hit the dance floor as disco impresario Cadillac on Netflix's The Get Down, jump-starting his career. “Baz shot me like a superstar.... I began to see myself in a certain way,” he says. “More importantly, or fortunately, the industry and viewers started to see that in me.” From there, Abdul-Mateen booked parts in Baywatch, The Greatest Showman, Aquaman, and Watchmen. And he isn't surprised he’s gotten so many big projects. “I always thought I was built for a very large format,” he says. “I have an appetite to take up space.”

He never saw himself in a horror movie, though. Enter Jordan Peele. Abdul-Mateen auditioned for Peele’s Get Out, but wasn’t cast. A few years later, Peele recruited him to play Lupita Nyong’o’s father (via flashbacks) in his intense follow-up, 2019’s Us, an unsettling exploration of a country at war with itself. Their collaboration was so fruitful that Abdul-Mateen’s name eventually came up for DaCosta’s Candyman, which Peele executive-produced with the director. “When I heard his name, I was so excited,” DaCosta says. “He has an emotional depth, but also he has this interesting, quirky side to him that makes all of his characters feel super-real and really human.”

In Candyman — a “spiritual sequel” to the classic 1992 horror movie starring Tony Todd — Abdul-Mateen plays Anthony McCoy, a painter stuck in a creative rut. Upon moving to Chicago's Cabrini-Green neighborhood, once-projects that have been gentrified, Anthony explores the legend of Candyman — a hook-handed victim of racial violence who haunts the area — to inspire his art, and awakens the vengeful spirit in the process. “I gravitated toward Anthony because [he] was not a fantastical character,” the actor says. “He was a pretty regular guy who was extraordinary in some places but who was trying to find balance.”

Credit: Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX

About a month after wrapping production on Candyman, Abdul-Mateen began filming his next project, Chicago 7, starring as Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale. Sorkin’s long-gestating film depicts the real-life case of Seale and seven anti-Vietnam War activists who were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot after a peaceful protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention spiraled into violence because of the police. (Sound familiar?) During the trial, the judge unjustly denied Seale his choice of counsel and thus a means of defending himself; the film often lingers on Seale defiantly holding his own in the courtroom. “One thing I noticed [in Abdul-Mateen’s audition] was the power he projects when he’s completely still,” Sorkin says. “That was going to be important in those courtroom scenes.” Adds Abdul-Mateen: “I connected to [Seale’s] deep desire to not be overcome by this oppressive system…. He never bowed his head and he never showed defeat.”

With their focus on racial injustice, Candyman and Chicago 7 complement this deeply resonant moment — and satisfy the hunger Abdul-Mateen keeps going back to. “Right now, I have an appetite for stories rooted in historical experiences,” he says. “It’s important to be a voice that represents the stories that need to be told right now.” So maybe it’s less about being present for him. Maybe it’s more about prescience. 

The Essentials: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II's must-see performances

Credit: Matt Kennedy/Netflix

The actor stars as a ruthless gangster in the 2020 drama.

Credit: Mark Hill/HBO

The omniscient Doctor Manhattan is made painfully human in his hands. 

Credit: Jasin Boland/ ™ & © DC Comics/Warner Bros.

Abdul-Mateen is out for vengeance as Black Manta, a role he'll reprise in Aquaman 2.

A version of this story appears in the October 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale now and available hereDon’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.