Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on that stunning episode: 'I never imagined it turning into something like this'

By James Hibberd
December 08, 2019 at 10:02 PM EST
Mark Hill/HBO
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Dr. Manhattan may know his entire future, but the actor playing him in HBO’s Watchmen had no idea he was going to be portraying the iconic god-like character when he first started filming the breakout drama series.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II had earned critical acclaim for his roles in The Get Down and Aquaman when he signed on to writer-producer Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of the graphic novel. He was told he was playing Calvin “Cal” Abar, the husband of series star Regina King’s police detective Angela. It was only after shooting a couple episodes that he was told his character’s big secret, one that’s generated a surge of positive reactions since it was revealed in the show last week.

“Online I’ve been really surprised by how much people are moved by Dr. Manhattan living in the embodiment of a black man,” Abdul-Mateen tells EW. “People have been really moved. I didn’t see that coming. I was just playing the guy who happens to be the vessel but I’ve been noticing how important that is to people — to the see the possibility of a ‘god’ living in a black man. Especially in a world where the antagonists are a white supremacist organization. It’s really powerful imagery we’re putting forth and I’m proud to be part of that imagery of representation.”

Below, the actor discusses Sunday’s stunning episode, “A God Walks Into Abar” (which was co-written by Lindelof along with former EW writer Jeff Jensen):

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, what did Damon originally tell you about this role? 
YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: I went into it not knowing I was playing Dr. Manhattan. I went into it knowing I was playing Cal. He did say it would be a good role and worthwhile, so I thought maybe Cal would go on some type of adventure, but I never imagined it turning into something like this. Somewhere between the second and third episodes, I had another conversation with him where he wanted to talk to me more about Cal’s journey and I came to his office and sat down on the couch. I think his words were, “Cal is Dr. Manhattan.” We had a long conversation about what that meant. I remember being on the couch and keeping it cool. He was very relaxed and matter of fact and that’s how I was receiving the information on the outside. But on the inside I was tearing up the room, I was all over the place. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be the person embodying Dr. Manhattan. I said, “I guess I got to get in shape.”

It’s funny because around episode 4 I was thinking that you’re this big name but your part seems pretty modest. Were you ever concerned before he told you that the supportive husband and father role wasn’t giving you enough to do? 
That’s the actor in me who wants to get out and be a part of the mix. I was only working a couple days per episode and had a lot of free time on my hands. I was sort of waiting my turn. I will say I was happy with what I was doing with Cal and the relationship I was building with Regina. It was fun playing the supportive stay-at-home dad who was great with his kids and wasn’t conflicted. There was no conflict centered around him getting back out into the world. I was hoping that would grow into something more significant. Cal is a very patient person, so I thought maybe at some point his patience would run out. Once I realized the Dr. Manhattan part of it, everything made sense, and it made sense that he would be supportive and secondary character until the reveal. 

And since even Cal doesn’t know he’s Dr. Manhattan that freed you up to just play it straight, what’s on the page, as the supportive husband and good dad. 
Exactly. I didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves. Cal was a good guy and he didn’t need the distraction of knowing he was the most powerful being in the comic universe.

What was your reaction when you got episode 8 and read it?
It was wild. Just reading it and realizing how all these things are connected, there’s a lot of plot holes to be filled when episode 8 came together and started to connect things. This is a story about history, about race relations in America and inherited trauma passed down from generation to generation. But at its core its a love story. It’s a really beautiful revelation to step into Dr. Manhattan’s shoes and play those three versions of him.

Mark Hill/HBO

I didn’t think that was you doing Dr. Manhattan’s voice in the scenes in the bar but I’m told that’s you as well?
It was. I thought about the most intelligent people I could think of that had a different vocal quality and that happened to be Steve Jobs, James Bundy (the Dean of the Yale School of Drama), and Damon Lindelof. So I did a mixture between the three and played around with those vocal qualities where I felt I could express them and still be honest.

Dr. Manhattan has a certain tone and cadence that partly comes from how the character was originally written. Obviously, he’s been performed before as well. Did you look at [the 2009 Zack Snyder version] at all? 
I tried not to. I had it in my memory because I watched the movie when it came out. But I didn’t rewatch the movie because I didn’t want it to influence what I was doing with my performance and I knew subconsciously that it would. I tried to lean on my own interpretation and make him calm and patient and meticulous and that’s where we landed.

Once you’re inhabiting the character fully, did you have some debates about how to portray an all-powerful person, and how much emotion to put into that?
Yeah, that was one of the challenges of the episode. I really had to go one step at a time. If I try to play a god, I’m going to lose. In my mind, this is a god who wants to be human. So I wanted to find some of the god-like qualities, but also some of the human qualities he was looking for as well. But it was difficult because he doesn’t exercise the same emotional range as you or I. He’s so intelligent and so above a lot of the emotions we express and so things don’t weigh on him the same way. At the same time, he’s not an emotionless being. There were times where [director Nicole Kassell] would say, “That’s too much, you got to pull back.” I felt sorry for Regina sometimes because I wanted to say, “I’m sorry, I want to give you more as an actor, but I’m working inside this very specific container.” It makes it hard to be in a relationship with Dr. Manhattan because sometimes you want to feel the fire — the emotion and passion in a relationship — which is why there was a need for Cal.

You also obviously get rather naked in this. What were the conversations around that?
I knew as soon as I heard I had to get into shape. My thought was this is HBO and it’s Dr. Manhattan so let’s step into it and have some fun. I got into the best shape that I could so I could look good. I’m playing a character who is above shame. He’s confident in who he is. It was fun for me to step into that space. I was joking in Aquaman I have a Black Manta suit, in Watchmen I have my birthday suit.

And what was it like shooting those scenes?
Walking around naked was so liberating. It felt really good! We had an intimacy coordinator — that’s something HBO does whenever there’s nudity involved. I always had a choice in how we would shoot the scene and what they would show. They made sure I was comfortable and that I always had the choice, even at the last minute on the day. They definitely took care of me.

I’m assuming your character isn’t actually dead at this point, right?
A recurring theme is “Nothing Ever Ends” and that gives us something to hope for for the future of the character.

You mentioned Black Manta. Any update Aquaman 2?
We have a date of December 2022. Hopefully, that will hold. Black Manta will be back — I feel confident in saying that. I’m excited to step into that world again and cause some more trouble. I really want to add more personality and more character to David Cane and flesh him out in Aquaman 2 and give him more of a journey. 

And anything you can tell us about your Matrix 4 character?
Nah. I would love to talk about The Matrix! But I’m very excited to do it. A great team and I think there’s going to be a lot of … it’s a very exciting relevant script that I’m honored to be a part of.

Watchmen airs Sunday nights on HBO.

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