The actor’s career has surged thanks to projects like “Aquaman” and “Watchmen.” He’s even become a Warner Bros. favorite. Now on the brink of movie stardom, he’s ready to steer.
“What time is it?” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II wondered. “I don’t know. I’ve been in this room …” He trailed off. “It could be any time of day right now.”
The bright lights and white backdrop of his windowless room conjured a void from which Abdul-Mateen had been videoconferencing for hours. He was doing remote press for “Candyman,” a new spin on the 1992 horror film with the 35-year-old actor playing Anthony, a painter mesmerized by the urban legend of a hook-handed killer. It’s said that Candyman can be summoned by speaking his name five times into a mirror, but as Anthony goes searching for the killer, he begins to see his own haunted face staring back.
Though the film is set in Chicago, Abdul-Mateen was beamed to me from London, where he has spent the last few months shooting a sequel to “Aquaman” (he plays the villainous Black Manta). It was a rare day off from the superhero film, carved out so he could spend time promoting another hopeful franchise-starter. Was Abdul-Mateen tired from working so much? Sure, he told me as he shrugged off his black leather jacket. But he was also used to it.
“People tell me, ‘Keep it going, man. If it’s hot, ride the wave,’” he said.
Abdul-Mateen has been caught up in a significant swell since 2015, when he graduated from drama school at Yale and promptly booked a showy part as a nightclub owner in the Netflix series “The Get Down.” That role served as a signal flare to Hollywood casting directors: Here was a brand-new, 6-foot-3 hunk with formal training, screen charisma and eyes that can lock onto his scene partner like high beams.
Men like that don’t come in droves these days, and Abdul-Mateen found himself entering a seller’s market: After “The Get Down” was canceled, he promptly began nabbing roles in high-profile projects like “Aquaman,” “The Greatest Showman” and “Black Mirror.” Last fall, he won an Emmy for the HBO limited series “Watchmen,” in which he played Doctor Manhattan, a blue, frequently nude superhero inhabiting the body of a Black man; months after that win, he made a strong impression as the Black Panther activist Bobby Seale in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Abdul-Mateen’s rise has become the sort of thing that everyone wants to get in on, and Warner Bros. is particularly enamored with the actor. In addition to the “Aquaman” sequel, Abdul-Mateen will be seen in December starring opposite Keanu Reeves in the studio’s “The Matrix Resurrections,” and next summer, he films “Furiosa,” the highly anticipated “Mad Max: Fury Road” prequel from the director George Miller.
That is the sort of keys-to-the-kingdom access that Warner Bros. has historically reserved for a handful of stars like Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck, and Abdul-Mateen doesn’t take the studio’s investment for granted. Still, he has recently discovered a brand-new superpower, something he never dared to employ on his path up the summit: saying no.
What has he been turning down lately? “Jobs, appearances, meetings, people,” he said. “It’s like ‘no’ is one of my favorite words.” He mulled it over some more: “Sometimes you’ve got to get to zero in order to get back to one, two, three and beyond. You get so far down the line, it’s like, ‘Wait, where did zero go? Where’s the ground?’”
Over the past six years, in addition to earning all those jobs, “I’ve been learning life,” he said. “I’ve been learning bills and debt and burying family members — life and death, heartbreak, location, relocation. And having success coincide with all of those things is interesting, because I’m also missing the birth of babies and weddings and things like that.”
Sure, it’s great to become a movie star, especially at a time when new ones have proved so difficult to mint. “But I’m also learning that you have to protect yourself,” Abdul-Mateen said. “You have to have balance with all of this.” He scratched his head and put it more bluntly: “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Look, man, I want to get off the wave and create my own.’”
THE YOUNGEST OF six children, Abdul-Mateen was born in New Orleans and initially lived in the city’s Magnolia Projects, where the kids would all play outside and the families took care of each other. “A sense of community was such a strong thread throughout my entire life that now sometimes it’s a bit strange to be out doing this by myself,” he said.
His family moved around often, and Abdul-Mateen treated it like an adventure even though it meant he went to 13 different schools before he became a teenager. In each new class, whenever the teacher introduced him as Yahya, the other students would burst out laughing at his unusual name. But within a week, he’d have worked to win them all over, a pattern that taught him adaptability.
That came in handy when Abdul-Mateen took an acting class at University of California, Berkeley, where he had gone to study architecture. He found playing different characters to be so much fun that after a short-lived stint as a city planner, he pursued a major swerve and applied to drama school at Yale.
Was he good at acting back then? Well, he was good at commanding attention, and that’s not nothing. But a turning point came during Abdul-Mateen’s first year at Yale, when he found himself stymied by the Stephen Adly Guirgis play “The ___________ With the Hat.” He couldn’t understand why his character would brush off a girlfriend’s infidelity, and he stayed up all night until he finally cracked the man’s motivation: Because he loved her, he was able to tell himself a lie.
“That’s when I knew that there was something else behind this that I wanted to figure out,” he said. “If I was going to be successful, I couldn’t just think like myself — I had to learn to be empathetic and understanding of other people’s perspectives and lives and outlooks. It would make me a better person, but it would also make me a better actor.”
According to his “Candyman” director, Nia DaCosta, that empathy is key to Abdul-Mateen’s appeal. “He is incredibly skilled at imbuing each character he plays with specificity, humanity and a lived-in individuality,” said DaCosta, who praised “his ability to draw you into the life of a character as though he were a new friend or a stranger at a bar you’re dying to get to know.”
That’s part of what made “Candyman” such a natural fit for Abdul-Mateen’s first major leading role: The movie is strewn with details that conjure something from his own lived experience. When Anthony is up all night painting, caught in the grip of an artistic revelation, it’s the sort of mania Abdul-Mateen knew from trying to crack Guirgis’s play. And when Anthony looks down and finds his hands smeared in black paint, Abdul-Mateen might have recalled his construction-worker father, whose hands were often covered in grease and motor oil.
The first “Candyman” grounded its story in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project, a place that has been long-gentrified by the time DaCosta’s film picks up the tale. That, too, hit home for Abdul-Mateen, whose work as a city planner in the highly gentrified Bay Area gave him even more perspective on the projects he grew up in.
“One of the first things that I did when I went to Chicago was to go to Cabrini-Green and put on that community planner hat,” he said. “And for a place that has a history of being as Black as that neighborhood was, that was not what I found. One has to wonder what happened to all of those families, all of those spirits? For every household, there’s a story, but when there’s no one there anymore to tell those stories, then that’s a tragedy.”
With the clout he’s beginning to accrue, Abdul-Mateen wants to make sure those stories are told right. He also knows that if he can bring even more of himself to bear on these movies, he can start steering the wave instead of surfing it.
Maybe it will help, too, once he feels he has a world to return to. Abdul-Mateen has spent the last few hectic years without a home of his own; even when he secured the keys to a New York apartment in January, he left the next day to film a new movie in Los Angeles. “This has been a very isolating experience,” he said. “I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t have to do that anymore.”
In the future, he plans to take more cues from his “Aquaman” co-star Jason Momoa, who keeps his family and close friends around him on set: “It helps him to stay true to who he is, because he’s not always the one having to speak up and support his own values all the time.” Abdul-Mateen hopes that will help the movies he makes feel more like himself, more like the homes he grew up in, more like the community that raised him in New Orleans.
In the meantime, he’ll bring that feeling with him. When I asked Abdul-Mateen if he could name the most New Orleans thing about him, he grinned and spread his legs wide.
“The way I take up space,” he said. “Somebody from New Orleans, they sit with their legs from east to west, they’re going to gesture big.” He waved his hands, then looked into the camera and fixed me with those high beams. “I don’t necessarily do that in my everyday life. But when I decide to take up space, nobody can take it from me.”