It’s hard enough to make longtime Arthur Curry nemesis Black Manta look cool—with his diver’s helmet head and big bug eyes—on the page, but for Aquaman director James Wan to make the character look cool on-screen is an actual DC Comics miracle. A big part of it, though, comes down to the physical and emotional presence of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the Get Down star who stepped into the Atlantean super suit for the role of Black Manta, real name David Kane.
Before Aquaman‘s premiere, I sat down with Abdul-Mateen II to discuss the role. We also talked about what went into making the costume, shooting wide-open ocean scenes inside of a studio lot, acting inside of a sinking submarine, and more.
Collider: Without giving too much away, one of your first scenes involves you putting in a really emotional performance inside a sinking submarine. How do you balance the heavy acting side with the fact that you’re basically in a rapidly-filling water tank?
YAYHA ABDUL-MATEEN II: You curse in between the takes [laughs]. It’s kind of true, you know what I mean? Because with stuff like that you just gotta’ give into it. You say, “Look, I’m in this suit, my suit is wet, it’s heavy, it’s late, I’m hungry, I wish that this was a blue screen. But I got a job to do.” That’s one side of it. But the other side of it is, “Man, I get to do this. I get to work with Michael Beach and Jason Momoa.” He won’t rescue me and my father and it’s sinking. That’s the other thing, the water level is actually rising inside of that submarine. So you can just really use your imagination and lean into those given circumstances. Saying, “Look, if I don’t pick this up he’s going to die and we’re gonna’ drown.” Things really start happening fast.
The finished product of the Black Manta suit is so complex. What was the process like getting it made? Were there fittings, measurements, different designs?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: You know, I don’t know. I was very fortunate to just be able to come in and get my body scanned and show up X amount of weeks or months later and say, “Oh, here’s this suit that looks ready and perfectly designed for me.” But I know the guys at [Ironhead Studios] did an amazing job making it come to life. Also, I’m sure James went through several iterations. Because one of the challenges is, you can draw that on paper…it’s hard to draw that on paper and make it look cool. But even if you do, then you say “how do I make this actual thing look cool but make it practical at the same time?” It’s a difficult task. But they pulled it off.
For those aspects that are CGI’d in after the fact, is it something where on set you just kind of have to say, “I really hope this looks cool”?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: That’s all that you can do. It’s such a team activity, a team-building exercise making these movies. Because I for damn sure can’t get on the computer and design that CGI, you know? If I could I would try, you want to control as much as you can. So the best thing that one can do is lean forward and really believe, and sell out. It’s like, “Look man, I’m sitting up here, I’m in this suit, there’s a blue screen behind me.” You can’t take yourself too seriously. You really have to go for it and trust that everybody around you is going to hold you up and make sure it all comes together in a way that makes sense.
It’s interesting that the character didn’t really have a set backstory for a while. I think Geoff mentioned he didn’t even have a last name before the movie.
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Yeah, he didn’t have a last name. He has a couple origin stories but none of them were extremely complex. It’s all very simple, specific, something that his character can latch on to. But there’s a couple different iterations. I was really curious when I got the script to see which one they would choose.
Did you have any discussions about what your version of the character is up to before we meet him, outside of what we learn in the movie?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: No, not so much but I did know that he was a mercenary. I figured that it was him and his father. I kind of made the decision that there were probably not very many people, in terms of family, that he had outside of him and his father. That he was a mercenary and his father was probably his best and only friend. I wanted to make sure that we met him at a time when he was on top of the world. When he felt indestructable. So that when he experiences that loss he would go from feeling the best that he’s ever felt in the world to having all that immediately taken away. So that was my goal, was setting him up for success so that I could take that immediately away from him and gave myself everything I needed to move forward.
I’m always fascinated when movies shoot ocean scenes inside of a studio. I’m thinking of one in particular in Aquaman where Davis is sitting on his ship in the middle of the ocean waiting for the Atlanteans…
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Yeah! I was in the studio, on a lot, on top of a very large ship. Just sitting there, kind of bobbing up and down with the blue around me. I did actually do that one on the lot, I had forgotten about that. That was my only time doing that on the film. Sitting down with a whole lot of people looking at you.
I think the centerpiece of the movie is that action scene that takes place in Sicily, with Manta chasing down Mera and Arthur on the rooftops. What can you tell me about shooting that?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: No, that was definitely a lot of me standing on the side and consulting with my stunt-man—my very, very, very good stunt-man who I’m grateful for—to make sure it looked good and to make sure that it was also informed with own impulses. That was really cool, because I always figured that if you had a person doing your stunts it meant that you were on the side or maybe you weren’t even at work that day. But we worked in a way that I would say, “Okay so this is how I would do that. And make sure we’re telling this story.” James was always directing and our fight guys were always directing but that was also really, really fun to create that with another person to make sure it was informed by my own physical impulses.