For Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Fame Comes With Responsibility

The 'Watchmen' and 'Aquaman' actor opens up about his most demanding role yet, as Bobby Seale in Aaron Sorkin's 'The Trial of the Chicago 7.'

Written by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a denim jacket and a yellow beanie
Photographed and styled by Wolfgang Tillmans.

In Watchmen, the Emmy Award–winning HBO adaptation of the complex graphic novel, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II appeared completely naked. He played both Cal Abar, a supportive husband (in clothes), and the godlike Doctor Manhattan, who commands the planets wearing only a head-to-toe cerulean blue glow. When Abdul-Mateen auditioned for the show, he was told about only the clothed part of the equation. After he had already shot two episodes, Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Watchmen, which has evolved into a meditation on race in America, told him that he was also going to portray Doctor Manhattan.

“I was excited to hear about the additional role,” Abdul-Mateen told me, calling from his rented apartment in Berlin, where he is living while filming The Matrix 4. “And it turns out that being naked on set is liberating!” Abdul-Mateen, who is six feet three and ran the high hurdles when he was a student at University of California, Berkeley, did some extra training to prepare for the exposure. “I needed to get some pump to my muscles,” he joked. “Acting without clothes is a little like acting when you’re exhausted. When I’m tired, I do my best work. When you’re naked and painted blue, you don’t have the energy to care about other things. I studied the character beforehand, I did a few push-ups, and then I took off the robe. Being naked and having the audacity to be Doctor Manhattan, who runs the galaxy, was very freeing. And that surprised me, because I’m usually very reserved. I don’t mind awkward silences.”

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II wears a vintage Levi’s jacket; silk screen–printed T-shirt by Wolfgang Tillmans; his own hat.

Photographed and styled by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Abdul-Mateen won a Best Supporting Actor Emmy this year for his work on Watchmen. “I was genuinely shocked,” he said. He had changed into a navy and white–striped Louis Vuitton suit and waited up until 3:32 a.m., when he heard his name announced on TV. “It was surreal to win an award in my temporary apartment in Germany,” he said. “And I’m in the world of The Matrix, so I’m leaning into the idea that we’re not living in the real world anyway.”

Abdul-Mateen doesn’t have a permanent home. “I dream of having my own place, probably in New York, with a good mirror,” he said. “None of these rentals have a full-length mirror, and I’ve made some definite mistakes in my outfits.” Abdul-Mateen has been in eight different residences in the past few years—a testament to how busy he has been. After earning his MFA from the Yale School of Drama, in 2015, the 34-year-old actor has worked nonstop in different cities around the globe. Ten days after graduating, he was cast as Cadillac, the disco king, in Baz Luhrmann’s hip-hop opus The Get Down. A wide range of characters followed, from Black Manta, a villain in Aquaman, to the lead in the sequel to the iconic Black horror film Candyman (due next year) to what is perhaps his most significant role to date: Bobby Seale in The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is streaming on Netflix now.

Vintage coat; Carhartt hooded sweatshirt.

Photographed and styled by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Vintage Levi’s jacket and jeans; silk screen–printed T-shirt by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Photographed and styled by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like it was timed for this particular political moment in America. The riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which began as a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War and escalated due to the police’s excessive use of force, have particular resonance now in light of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. “The film became relevant in chilling ways,” Sorkin told me. “I started this project 20 years ago, and it stalled for a variety of reasons. We had no idea if the world would change and this story would simply be a history lesson. But the demonization of protesters by Trump at his rallies and the clashes with policemen in cities like Kenosha and Minneapolis have made this film current in ways that I wish it weren’t. If you adjust the color on the footage of the Chicago demonstrations and riots from 1968, the scenes on the news in 2020 look exactly the same.”

Vintage Levi’s jacket and jeans; silk screen–printed T-shirt by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Photographed and styled by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Bobby Seale was not actually one of the Chicago Seven—they were all white activists, accused of inciting a riot, conspiracy, and other charges after the convention. As the cofounder of the Black Panthers, Seale was added to the trial as a symbol of racial unrest. He never had his own lawyer and was eventually shackled, bound, and gagged in the courtroom. “Bobby Seale was not given any power,” Abdul-Mateen said. “They said, he’s Black, let’s do away with him. For Bobby, there was a constant internal negotiation of when and how to use his voice, how to show that he was a human being.”

By a strange twist of timing, the scenes in the movie in which Seale is shackled, bound, and gagged were shot on the 50th anniversary of the murder of Fred Hampton, Seale’s closest associate in the Black Panthers, as depicted in the film, who had been with him at the trial. “On that shoot day, there was a different atmosphere on set,” Sorkin recalled. “I repeatedly asked Yahya if he was okay, and he said, ‘Make it as hard for me as it was for Bobby.’ ” In actuality, the brutalization of Bobby Seale was much more severe than Chicago 7 depicts; still, it’s horrifying to watch an innocent man bound and gagged on the orders of a judge in a courtroom, and Abdul-Mateen becomes the emotional core of the film. “Even though I kind of knew about Bobby Seale growing up,” Abdul-Mateen said, “I didn’t know about the chapter in his life that took place at the trial.”

Vintage Levi’s jacket; silk screen–printed T-shirt by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Photographed and styled by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Abdul-Mateen grew up in Oakland, where the Black Panthers were formed. In past roles, he hadn’t given much thought to the possible implications of the characters he played. “When I graduated from Yale, I was still very bright-eyed and wanted to have fun,” he said. “But now I have my talent and a bit of recognition, and I’m thinking, What do I want to do with it? I’d like to keep that same sense of joy, but also add a mission, another layer of responsibility to tell stories that need to be told. Stories that will get people talking.”

The youngest of six children, Abdul-Mateen dreamed of becoming an architect rather than an actor. “I was very impressionable,” he told me. “When I was 5, I was shopping with my mom and saw a man with a utility tool belt. He said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I want to be a construction worker like my father.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t; construction work means wear and tear on your body. You want to be an architect. You want to be in charge!’ So from 5 years old on, I said I wanted to be an architect.” He graduated from Berkeley with a degree in architecture, but along the way, a friend suggested that he take a theater class for an easy A. “I auditioned for the drama class with the Ving Rhames speech from the film Baby Boy. I did an exact impression because I thought acting was like that—you do it just like them.” He laughed. “But it worked. I got in.”

Jil Sander+ by Lucie and Luke Meier shirt; Carhartt hooded sweatshirt; vintage Levi’s jeans.

Photographed and styled by Wolfgang Tillmans.

In 2007, when Abdul-Mateen was 21, his father died of cancer. They had been very close, and his father’s death shook him to the core. Abdul-Mateen has a tattoo on each wrist: a ladybug, because his mother calls him “Bug,” and two stick figures holding hands, to memorialize the bond between him and his father. After his father’s death, Abdul-Mateen “floated” for a year, and when he returned to school, he had a different attitude. “I didn’t want to have any regrets,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell anyone, but I started taking acting class at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco on Wednesday nights. I knew it was rebellious to pursue acting, but I also knew I had to try, that life is short.”

After being laid off from his job in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, Abdul-Mateen applied to drama school at NYU, Harvard, and Yale, and he was accepted at all three: “Even though it was scary at the time, losing my job was the best thing that could have happened to me.” He also found that he loved to audition, whether or not he booked the role. “I like to act,” Abdul-Mateen said flatly. “Auditioning gives me a chance to take on all sorts of roles. I’m a big fan of me as an actor.” Abdul-Mateen and his good friend and fellow Yale graduate Jonathan Majors (who stars in Lovecraft Country on HBO) have become the red-hot center of a new generation of unique and immensely versatile Black actors. People like Kelvin Harrison Jr., LaKeith Stanfield, Jovan Adepo, Aldis Hodge, and John David Washington (who is actually Denzel’s son), among others, have shone in recent roles. “There is a lot of talent out there,” Sorkin said. “But Yahya is particularly gifted.”

Although he welcomed the compliment, Abdul-Mateen bristled at the Hollywood-centric notion that there can be only one Black superstar at a time. “First it was Sidney Poitier, and now it’s Denzel Washington,” he said. “But the world is bigger than that. My mountain looks very different than yours or anyone else’s. When you put us all on the same path, it means that Black artists are competing against one another. That’s monolithic thinking and not good for either artistry or business. And besides, Denzel is still here! No one can do Denzel better than Denzel!”

Napa by Martine Rose jacket; stylist’s own T-shirt.

Photographed and styled by Wolfgang Tillmans. Grooming by Kim Keusen at Artistspool. Photo assistant: Dan Ipp; fashion assistant: Angus McEvoy.

Abdul-Mateen laughed, but he quickly became serious. He said he felt a sense of accomplishment and acclaim after Watchmen, Chicago 7, and winning the Emmy. “What would make me particularly happy and grateful is if there was some lasting impact from my work,” he said. “The feeling that something I created could change things or make someone see the world differently would be the best reaction I could imagine. It is my goal to have that power again and again.”

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