During a break in filming on the set of James Wan’s Aquaman last year in Australia, I got to participate in a group interview with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. While you might not yet know his name, I’m pretty confident after you see Aquaman, that’s going to change. I say this because of what I saw and learned on set. In the film, Abdul-Mateen II is going to cause a lot of drama for Aquaman as Black Manta, and it’s only going to get worse if they get to make sequels. If you’re not familiar with the character, in the film, Black Manta is a high-seas pirate and mercenary named David Kane, which puts a spin on the character’s comics origin story.
During the wide-ranging interview, Abdul-Mateen II talked about how he landed the role, Black Manta’s costume, why his character is after Aquaman, how it’s heavily influenced from the comics, what he learned about the character while doing research, how he prepped to film the action, what sets Manta apart from other villains, if it’s difficult to work under the helmet, what it’s been like collaborating with Geoff Johns, and a lot more.
Check out what he had to say below.
Question: I got to say, the coolest thing I’ve seen today, I think, is that Black Manta costume. It looks so goddamn cool!
So what’s it like wearing it?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: So you saw pictures of it?
Yeah, we did, we saw pictures of it.
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Okay, cool. I’m like, I’m like, what did you see? I’m like…
Peter showed down the shot from your first day for tips.
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Okay, cool. I’m like, nope, not going to get it out of me. Man, that thing is just badass, man. It’s like, you know, I put it on, and you know, we have our ideas about what the character’s going to be, and so I bring all of that stuff to it. But then you put that thing on, and you see yourself in the mirror, and all of a sudden, I’m, you know, 10 feet taller in that thing, and I feel like I could bust through a wall. I talked about wanting to run through walls, and just break shit in my, you know, in my meeting with Peter, when I auditioned for the job. And, I put on that suit and everything’s just coming full circle, so…
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Yeah, I’m excited. I know the fans are going to be really excited too. I kind of…
It’s directly ripped from the comics?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Yeah. Which is what they want to see, you know, everyone, they kind of ask about what the themes are, what the ideas are, how are we going to mix it up, because in their minds, it’s kind of difficult to pull off in a cool way. You got this guy with this really big helmet, but I think we’re doing a really good job of taking care of it, and making sure that he’s accurate from the comic, but still proportional and still looks really cool.
So, from a character standpoint, what’s the difference, what are the similarities between playing Cadillac and playing Manta?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Oh, no, they’re two, they’re completely different people. I mean, I think, you know, when I think about Cadillac… When I think about Manta, I’ll describe him as the guy at the party who does not get the jokes, you know? He doesn’t have a great sense of humor. He doesn’t really have much time for humor and things like that. So, Cadillac is the life of the party. He needs to be loved, he needs to be seen. He needs more, more, more. This guy is, he just has a business side, and he’s all about business and revenge, you know what I mean? You know, but they still have what I like to put in all my characters which is a very strong “pleasure principle,” which means that, whatever they’re doing, they enjoy it, you know? They get that utmost fulfillment from it. But no, this guy is just much more of a straight, straight line, a straight-lacer. Cadillac is the guy who dances around. He takes more time with his interrogation and things like that. With Manta, he’s got other things to do.
Do you do any sort of accent for Manta? Do you have a regular American accent, or any other way of speaking?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Well, I didn’t place him in a particular region. But I think you would notice some different things about my own character in my vocal carriage and things like that, that would be different from what I would sound like in an interview, or what I would sound like on some of the other things that I’ve done, things like that, and that’s been fun. That’s been a challenge too, because, “How do I want this guy to sound?” you know, where do I want him to lie on the age spectrum, how cool is he, how in-touch is he with himself, and what does he care about, all that informs how he sounds to me, and that’s all. I’m excited about it.
Are you wearing the scars as well?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: Not going to comment on that.
We’ve heard a lot about how the events on the submarine that shapes the relationship between Manta and Aquaman, so if you could share your perspective that relationship?
ABDUL-MATEEN II: We meet Black Manta at a time where, it’s just him and his dad, and he’s riding on high, you know. He’s just come off of his win, and there’s a changing of the guards, so to speak. And then, this guy, Aquaman, comes in, and crashes the party. So, for Black Manta, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an opportunity, “I just got this promotion, let me go prove myself, and step myself up and, you know, step it up once more.” So, in that first confrontation, you know, I’d like to think that Black Manta’s very excited about, “Okay, what it’s going to be like? This is that guy from around the way, who I’ve been hearing all these things about. And he’s supposed to be a badass, and now is my time to go show him who the real badass is around these parts.” And he’s riding on high, and at the climax, he loses his father. And so, we meet him at a time when he’s just, he’s on top and then, bam, immediately, an event happens, and he’s at the bottom. And he’s lost the only person who he’s ever loved, and cared for, and been able to show any type of, you know, expression, or those types of characteristics to. And then, from then on, you know, “It’s Aquaman’s fault!” He has very little else to live for, and so it becomes that revenge story. You have the relationship between fathers and sons, and the revenge that happens when a son loses his father, and then you have Aquaman, who is the heir to the throne, who doesn’t want to be king, so it’s an epic story.