Speaking to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a calming, grounding experience. The actor, who gained acclaim after starring alongside Regina King in Watchmen, is a self-assured presence, full of insight and great stories. It's no wonder that he's become one of the most significant talents to watch in Hollywood—not only did he appear in Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Jordan Peele’s Us, he'll also be in the upcoming Candyman reboot and Matrix 4. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Abdul-Mateen touches on the best acting advice that he ever received, and discusses how his hometown informed his approach to playing Bobby Seale.
Did you ever have a nickname growing up?
I have had a couple of nicknames. My basketball coach called me Yachty. My mama got a nickname for me, but I'm going to keep that one close.
Growing up, I went to 13 different schools, so I was always the new kid. I would introduce myself—go and stand in front of the class—and the teacher would say, "Hello, everyone say hi to Yahya," and every single time, the class would break out in laughter. High school was the first time that I wasn't the new kid, so that didn't happen in high school, but all the way up to eighth grade, plenty of times, that was my experience.
In The Trial of the Chicago 7, you play Bobby Seale. Growing up in Oakland, did you already know about his background?
Yeah. I represented for Bobby Seale, being from West Oakland, where the Black Panthers were a very large figure and presence in the community. It's tough to grow up in Oakland without knowing about the history of the Black Panthers and those revolutionary actions. Oakland's a very revolutionary city, energetic and passionate—definitely something that bled into my household as well.
When you played the part, did you do a lot of research into his life or did you just go with what was in the script?
To play Bobby Seale, I had to do extensive research. I wanted to. It was my honor to do that. I spent countless hours on YouTube. Aaron Sorkin did an amazing job of giving me great words and great moments to play with, because he used the words directly from the trial, using the court transcript for the majority of Bobby Seale's dialogue. That was really just a gift, being able to re-say and re-speak the actual words that Bobby Seale spoke. Researching for Bobby Seale was one of the most rewarding parts of taking the role.
Was there anything in particular that got you into the character?
Costuming is usually the way I get into my characters. I remember a perfect example was the character Cadillac—my first job, Cadillac, on The Get Down. I brought one guy into the audition, and that's the guy that I prepared [in my mind]. That's the guy that I booked the job with, and I'm getting ready to shoot and I go into my wardrobe fitting, and this guy has on this all-cream suit. He has on a snakeskin-printed shirt that had buttons that went only halfway up the chest, so the whole chest was out. Then he had on three chains and the chain with a lion, a belt with a lion, a ring with a lion. Then I said, for Bobby Seale, "Oh, this is who this character is. I know who this character is."
The thing that unlocked Bobby Seale for me was his mustache. Bobby is a very confident person. He loved the way he looked. He loved to entertain, loved to hear himself speak, and so I let myself lead with that look. When I saw myself with his mustache, it gave me the right attitude. And all those clothes from the ’60s and ’70s take a certain amount of swagger. Men weren’t afraid to be sexy. It’s always nice to lean into those roles and take some of that back into your home life.
You shot the most intense scenes on the actual anniversary of Fred Hampton's death. Can you speak a little bit about that? What it was like to shoot the scene in which you were bound and gagged?
There's so much history behind the scene. In those very high-intensity moments, I make it my job to not get ahead of myself as an actor. I want to always stay in the moment and honor the moment. I may only get to do it once. Filming that very intense scene on the anniversary of Fred Hampton's death, there was a lot in the air. With a moment like that—when you bind and gag someone in the court because they're speaking out for their rights and for the rights of other people and trying to hold on to their humanity, and act like that isn't designed to silence them—my goal was to make sure that I held on to my humanity.
That act was designed to break his spirit. And so I remember that day, I kept on repeating to myself, "I'm a man. I'm a man. I'm a man." And when they sat me down in the chair and then they punched me in my stomach, “I'm a man.” And when they handcuffed me to the chair, “I'm still a man.” When they held my head and opened my mouth and started to stuff my mouth with the rags, “I'm still a man. I'm still a man.” When they tied the rags around my mouth and I couldn't speak anymore, then it became my thoughts: “I'm still a man.” That allowed me to hold on to my manhood, to represent a Bobby Seale who would not be broken, who was constantly victorious. That way, you honor the legacy of Bobby Seale.
What was the first movie you saw that made you want to go into this business?
There are so many. I grew up watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Hook, Peter Pan. I love Hook. I get a lot of personality from that, but I would fast-forward a bit and talk about Training Day. Even now, I watch Denzel's performance and it sends me back to do my homework.
In terms of acting, has anyone ever given you some advice that you think about all the time?
Yeah. When I was doing Us, Jordan Peele told me, “Don’t do it if you don’t love it.” And that was important advice, especially if you are lucky enough to have choices and opportunities. When you have momentum and talent, it’s easy to say yes. But it’s even more crucial to do only what you love.
Do you have any other rules that you live by?
When I audition, I wear mismatched socks. I do that because then I already know that I messed up; it takes the pressure off.