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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Talks To Us About HBO’s ‘Watchmen,’ ‘Aquaman 2,’ And Jordan Peele’s ‘Candyman’

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is, to put it mildly, currently experiencing an exciting career arc where he’s seemingly everywhere. In the past year alone, he splashed into comic book-adaptation territory as Black Manta in Aquaman, featured in one of the trippiest Black Mirror episodes in existence, and appeared in Jordan Peele’s Us as well as starring in the horror visionary’s upcoming Candyman reboot. Yahya also recently scored a lead role in Matrix 4, and he’s appearing in HBO’s Watchmen TV series, which bears very little resemblance to the 2009 Zack Snyder movie.

In the Damon Lindelof-created series, Yahya plays Cal Abar, the husband to Angela (Regina King), who moonlights as a masked police detective on the Tulsa Police Force. Yep, the story isn’t set in New York City as with Alan Moore-written graphic novel or Snyder’s movie, and let’s just say that Angela leads a complex existence, which presents some unique challenges for Cal as well. Yahya was gracious enough to speak with us about his increasingly jam-packed career and how Lindelof’s Watchmen updates Moore’s epic work for a 2019 audience.

I never imagined that Oklahoma would be the setting for a Watchmen series.

Yes, that’s kind of awesome, and I think it will be really nice to bring attention and awareness to the history and the particular history that our story deals with the Oklahoma riots. I don’t think that’s common knowledge, so I think it’ll be really cool for people to watch something that’s not set in New York or Chicago or a place like that. To set it somewhere like Oklahoma but to also tell that other side of history that a lot of people don’t know about.

Were you aware of the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921?

Yeah, I was. I’m not sure when I became aware of it, but I’ve known about for about 12 or 15 years. It was something that I read about, and I was surprised, so I’m glad that our show, well, it doesn’t give an in-depth history, but it does give an introduction to it that I think, and more people will be surprised that it was a real thing. Or maybe not surprised, and that’s a tragedy in its own [right].

I have to say that Cal’s a strong character, but he’s also married to a pretty badass woman. From the handful of episodes I’ve watched, Cal’s hard to pin down, but he seems like a very patient guy, who knows just enough about what Angela does?

Yeah, I think “patient” is a great way to describe him. He and Angela, they have a partnership. It’s not just a friendship and a partnership, although that’s there, but I think you can look at their relationship, and they have agreements. They’re taking care of kids, and they have a lifestyle, they’re keeping up appearances, so to speak, but they’ve agreed about how they’re gonna do that. You know, Cal is very patient throughout the series. We’ll hear him say, “Okay.” She says, “Or I need you to do this, or not do this, and he’ll say, Okay.” Eventually, we begin to see that it becomes more trying for him to just say, “Okay.” And at some point, I think he wants to know more information, but he is a very patient and loving husband and partner, and currently, his job is to protect the fort and hold down the domain.

This series sits in the superhero realm, and you obviously brought experience from another DC title, Aquaman. How do you feel about how the Watchmen series treats the idea of superheroes?

We really are working in a way where we allow our superheroes to be flawed, and I don’t know how much to even call them heroes. Everyone has flaws in our world. The people who wear the masks, they get to get away with, well, they wear the mask in order to hide, to get away with something that they couldn’t if they were not wearing the mask. So our treatment of heroes — we’re not celebrating all of these characters, we’re saying that these characters are complex. We’re also saying, “What are heroes? What are heroic acts?” I think that sometimes the people in our world who are indeed the heroes are gonna be the people who aren’t wearing masks. Or maybe they do their most heroic actions when they’re not donning the character, so it’s definitely different. We don’t introduce them by saying, “These are the good guys, or these are the bad guys,” like we do in something like Aquaman. In Watchmen, it’s really nice to create these characters who are more complex and to really say that at any given time, we could be operating on either side of the spectrum.

While we’re on the subject of comic book adaptations, you recently tweeted at James Gunn and suggested that you auditioned for The Suicide Squad when he tweeted a cast list. I assume you were joking?

Yeah, I was just having fun. I’m a big, big fan of The Office, and I really loved Suicide Squad. I got into that when I was studying for Aquaman, following Black Manta. So that was just poking fun, a little, “I wanna be in the party, I wanna come over and play.”

You just wanna be in everything!

I just wanna play!

Well, it definitely looks Black Manta will be the primary villain in Aquaman 2.

Aquaman 2 is happening! It is happening, and we can look for that, I believe, in 2022. So I’m excited to be part of that. Black Manta will be back, and hopefully, he’ll be causing a lot more trouble than he did in the first one.

So you’ve got several years lined up in your career, and that’s pretty cool.

[Laughs.]

C’mon, you recently wrapped the new Candyman movie with Jordan Peele.

Yeah, Candyman was awesome. It was nice to be in Chicago, I’d never been to Chicago before. It’s a beautiful city. And it was also really cool to be working on IP that the world knows, and it’s important in the horror-genre canon, so you know, it’s really cool to be part of something that people know about, but also to have the opportunity to retell that story while also honoring all of the good things that were about it. Obviously, I think Jordan [Peele] has a certain perspective, and it’s always nice to bring social commentary into the work that we do. So we definitely inject that into our work, and [director] Nia DaCosta is an up-and-coming filmmaker. She was already very good, and I’m glad to be able to work with her before everyone else knows all about her because she’s really, really good, and so I’m really happy to have something to share next summer with what we did with Candyman. I think it has the opportunity to be really special. And scary.

Also, you have a history of appearing in musical productions, so I want to note that in Watchmen, there’s an Oklahoma! scene. I did not expect that, ever!

It’s one of those things where you never know what to expect, and the first episode really teased that up with the audience, and there’s so many different turns, and so, be aware, and keep your eyes open, be on the edge of your seat. It really says that things can turn at any moment.

Your character isn’t part of that production, but did you know that Oklahoma! would be a thing in this show?

No, I wasn’t aware, so that was a pleasant surprise for me. I wasn’t in that scene, so it was nice to sit back and to wonder what that was going to be like. It was a strong addition, and it’s something that’s so otherly, even our version of Oklahoma! — I think there’s even a joke that it’s The Black Oklahoma! There’s a distance, there’s a sort-of separating from reality. We know that there’s something different, a little bit strange, a little bit off about this world. It’s nice to be breaking those conventions and toying with people’s expectations of what they’re gonna see, and what normal is in our world.

HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ will premiere on Sunday, October 20.

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