Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Saw Little Fires Everywhere as an Acting Master Class

The actor said Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon’s performances were a highlight of his in quarantine, when he would watch shows and later do recaps with family and friends.

Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II pays tribute to his favorite quarantine show, Little Fires Everywhere. Photograph by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II for W magazine, September 2020.

For W’s 2020 TV Portfolio, we asked 21 of the most sought-after names in television to embody their favorite characters from their favorite shows of the past few months—and to explain why we should all be (re-)watching The Sopranos, Ozark, Schitt’s Creek, and, yes, Floor Is Lava. To see all the images and discover their picks, click here.

Five months ago, the actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was, as he described it, “lonely, stressed, and isolated.” Like the rest of the world, he was stuck indoors, quarantining at home. Fast-forward to the present day, and he’d like to set the record straight: He’s doing better. “I think that was a rough time for everyone, no matter your background or economic situation,” Abdul-Mateen recently explained on the phone from Berlin, where he’ll be stationed “for a while,” filming The Matrix 4. “No one was exempt from the difficulties that were brought on by Covid.”

By going to Germany, Abdul-Mateen was able to get back to work and have some semblance of a normal lifestyle—plus, the country put its government into overdrive to bring its virus numbers down and take care of the pandemic as quickly and efficiently as it could. “The only things I don’t have here are my friends and family,” he said.

His community, it turns out, was largely what helped him navigate the tough times of lockdown. And then there was the television. Together with his family and friends, Abdul-Mateen planned to watch certain shows; they’d convene on the phone after they were done with a set number of episodes and share their thoughts on the characters, themes, and intricacies of each show. One of them was Little Fires Everywhere, which the 34-year-old actor identified as his favorite. Each time he turned it on, the series—which stars Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, and Lexi Underwood, and is based on the novel by Celeste Ng—provided escape, drama, and an opportunity to study masterful acting.

Abdul-Mateen himself is no rookie to the game; in the next year alone, he has a number of highly anticipated works set to release. He’s starring in the upcoming adaptation of Candyman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and what might be the most talked-about and iconic of action movies: The Matrix 4. In our interview, the Louisiana-by-way-of-Oakland native discusses why intergenerational trauma was key to understanding his character Dr. Manhattan in the hit HBO series Watchmen, and what he can (and cannot) share about filming The Matrix.

Why is Little Fires Everywhere the show that got you through quarantine?

I watched a lot of shows over quarantine, and that one was all about the performances. It was about the smallest surprises and gifts in the form of performances from the actors. I’m a big fan of Kerry Washington, a fan of Reese Witherspoon. And I thought that they did really dynamic character work with those roles. And the kids, also—to me, the show was about drama and suspense and trust and betrayal and teenage angst and the difficulty of being a single parent and being poor. There was such a wide variety of subject matter that it kept me on the hook. That was something that I could call my friends and family and talk about. I feel like television and film were very important over quarantine; for me, that became a way to connect to other people. And instead of talking about sports or talking about whatever event was going on, or where we were going—the variety of things that can happen in a day—my conversations, a lot of the time, switched to television.

Do you have a favorite performance from Little Fires Everywhere, an actor that you particularly loved?

I think it may be a tie between Kerry and Reese. I really liked the place that Kerry was working from—that natural, grounded place. And I’ve seen that in other parts of her work before, but her character was so patient. She was so, so patient, and that was nice to watch. I was very drawn to her. And then with Reese’s character, she was sharp. She cared a lot for her family, and it was important for her to keep up appearances and to do things correctly. She had a good heart, but she didn’t always operate, or her intentions didn’t always come off as good. She was a complex character as well, and I think she did not hold back on the acting at all. It was a very complementary energy between, you know, between those two actors.

I want to discuss Watchmen with you, because it is arguably the role that people most closely identify you with as an actor. I read this quote where you said you saw how important it was for other people to see Dr. Manhattan embodying a Black man—to see the story about Black love between a god and a Black woman. Was the character in the script originally written this way, or did you give input to the directors?

In terms of the words, I didn’t add anything; in terms of the story, the arc, I didn’t have to add anything. I think they were attempting to make a real slice of a love story between Angela and a version of Dr. Manhattan who was hoping to be vulnerable and who was open to receiving love. The story was also aided, outside of the excellent writing and directing, by the chemistry between myself and Regina. That’s my girl. That was something that I felt like we had from the jump, from the moment that she walked into the audition when I was testing, and she came right in; she was so kind and warm and playful. We really took care of one another on set, and believed in the partnership. Cal and Angela have a very, very strong agreement and partnership between the two of them. That relationship is all about trust, which is the only way that Dr. Manhattan could have survived inside of Cal for so long.

You discussed revisiting the theme of intergenerational trauma when you were getting ready for this Watchmen role. You said you entered into that conversation online with fans of the show. Can you tell me the circumstances of those conversations? What were they like?

The theme was more so on my mind, and it was a theme that I was picking up. I learned that term from my sisters—one is a clinical psychologist, the other has a yoga and holistic wellness practice—who studied trauma, trauma in women and traumas in families, that’s passed on from generation to generation. So it was very high on my radar at the time, but I was making Watchmen. I had more of a voyeuristic relationship to the conversation of Watchmen online—I would look up the Watchmen hashtag on Twitter, and I would watch what people were talking about. I saw a lot of people validate the history of trauma in this country, and the ways in which a traumatic event can happen to someone in one generation, and two generations later you see their offspring or their grandchildren still dealing with that. To me, that idea is very important to legitimize because we live in a society, in America specifically, that is so much in a rush to move past all the dark parts of its history. There’s so much of a rush to just put that behind us, that it often causes us to ignore, to not deal with it. And it causes us to not be able to realize the way that we still perpetuate it and create an environment for that trauma to continue to exist and persist.

What can you tell me about filming The Matrix 4 in Germany?

I can’t say anything. It’s one of those things where I haven’t been given license to mention anything about The Matrix yet. But I think it’s going to be really, really cool. I’m excited for it. I already want to see it.

What’s your personal history with The Matrix?

I remember seeing it in theaters. I’ve watched it plenty of times over the last 20-plus years. I remember it being a big action movie. I remember everyone tried to do the bullet-dodge move. It was just such an iconic piece of storytelling that holds up. I always say that you could put the original Matrix in the context of now, today, and it would hold up from the standpoint of story and the dramatics and the graphics and the action scenes.

For the The Trial of the Chicago 7, how did the role of Bobby Seale come about? Did the script come across your desk, or did you seek it out?

It was one of those come across the desk things, with a phone call. They were starting to shoot, getting ready for production, and I was still filming another project. I was a late addition to the film. I read it and I said, I have an opportunity to do something special with this role. I saw it as an honor and an active challenge. They had an amazing cast already. I wanted to get into the room with Aaron Sorkin, and his words, too.

Having grown up in Oakland, being aware of the Black Panthers and Bobby Seale—I think Oakland carries a revolutionary energy and mind state. People from Oakland, they tend to be rebels. Their attitude is to go against the grain. They tend to be extremely well-spoken and good with words. This was an opportunity for me to highlight those big hometown attributes, in addition to the righteousness and the political verbiage the Panthers had.

You were in Us and are starring in Candyman. Do you feel there’s a resurgence in Black horror films happening?

I think that Jordan Peele, with his work, has ushered in a new era of filmmaking that takes advantage of the opportunity to tell a different type of horror story, or to define horror in a different way. Now we’re talking about psychological horror—the terror that one feels when being pulled over by the police, or the terror that one might feel being the only Black person at an institute of higher education. Then validating them as a certain subset of horror and terror, and then dramatizing it and telling stories about that experience. That’s something that the horror genre lends itself well to. Once Get Out was released, people started to think about horror in a more dramatic way.

What are you most excited about regarding TV right now?

With as much content as there is out there—on Amazon, Hulu, HBO Max, Netflix—that means that more actors are going to be working. And it gives me a chance to discover a lot of actors for the first time. Actors who we are used to watching in film, they’re also doing television—myself included. There’s a lot of work out there, which makes for a wide variety of creativity and conversation. And most of all, employment, for a lot of really, really good actors.

Related: Watchmen on HBO Has a True-Life Backstory You Might Not Know About