When it comes to iconic characters from the canon of modern comics, you can’t do much better than Doctor Manhattan, aka Jon Osterman, the bright blue man-god created in Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins‘ seminal comic series Watchmen. The most powerful being in existence, Doctor Manhattan can grow himself to gigantic sizes, explode ahuman beings on command, experiences all of time at once, and spent the last two decades on Mars. Or so we thought.
In HBO’s stunning Watchmen series, set decades after the event of the original comic, we’ve learned a few more of Doctor Manhattan’s powers, including the fact that he can disguise himself to look like a normal human. And in the cheekily titled penultimate episode of the season, ‘A God Walks into Abar’, we learned that he’s been using that power for the last 10 years in Tulsa, Oklahoma under the fake identity of Calvin Abar.
Played by Aquaman baddie and star of the upcoming Candyman remake, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Cal is married to Regina King‘s Angela Abar, aka Sister Night, and spent most of the series quietly on the sidelines, supporting his wife’s wild journey through masked law and vigilantism. And after Episode 7 dropped the Manhattan bomb, ‘A God Walks int Abar’ gave us their gorgeous, mind-bendy love story — not to mention the true story of what Doc’s been up to since the end of the comics.
Now that Cal’s real identity is revealed for all to see, I recently had the chance to hop on the phone for a quick chat with Abdul-Mateen to discuss the big twist. He talked about what it took to step into Doctor Manhattan’s extraordinary mind, why he thinks Jon wanted to return to Earth after growing tired of humanity by the end of the comics, why, even when you’re playing a genius with cosmic powers, love story was the most important part, and what he hopes people take away from next week’s finale episode.
First of all, I just want to say congratulations. The show is extraordinary. You guys did amazing work.
ABDUL-MATEEN: Thank you. Thank you I appreciate that. That means a bunch.
It’s just phenomenal. It’s one of my favorite things this year. And judging by your delightful Twitter video you enjoyed last week’s twist as much as the audience did.
ABDUL-MATEEN: Yeah, I was watching. You know, it’s always cool. I always find myself in these projects where I have to hold a secret or something like that where I can’t talk about much. This one was probably the most rewarding and I got to watch it play out in real-time. So when I was laughing, that was actually my response to just scrolling and updating Twitter, updating Watchman, Twitter and just saying, “Oh my God, Oh my God. Oh my God.” And surprised. People just who really just could not believe it. And yeah, I got a lot of excitement out of watching that.
That was a fun night on Twitter! Last time you spoke of Collider, you said that you kind of jumped into this role blindly with a lot of faith in Damon and Regina, so when did you find out the truth of Cal’s identity?
ABDUL-MATEEN: I think I might’ve been maybe three episodes in when I found out. I had a meeting with Damon and we sat down on the couch and he basically laid it out for me and told me where I was going to go. And you know, my first reaction was, it was just, I was very, very surprised. I knew that Cal — that there was something mysterious about Cal. But I didn’t think that that will be it. And then that’s when the role really got, it really turned into something that was just really, really an honor to be doing. First working with Regina and HBO and working with Damon. That was one thing. But then to be asked to come in and to play this character. That was just really a gift of a role.
Something I thought was funny, rereading that interview, was you said you were really attracted to Cal’s simplicity, which is pretty hilarious given where the character ended up.
ABDUL-MATEEN: Yeah. Well, I mean the truth of that, I can say, is that that was really just my answer for Cal. I was not really attracted to Cal’s simplicity. I mean that ended up being something that was kind of … it was fun to play Cal’s simplicity, but it was fun to play that because eventually, I knew that there was something on the other side, something that I got to do. But the truth is that going into it, I was just really excited about playing opposite Regina and working with HBO. And Cal was cool. Cal was like a cool outlook who I had the opportunity I really love what Regina and I created with everything. It’s an awesome love story. A true relationship that a lot of people have gravitated to. But knowing that Doctor Manhattan was waiting on the other side of the character was really rewarding and really, really excitng.
So talking a bit about episode eight specifically, are those your hands in the bar?
ABDUL-MATEEN: Yes, yes they are.
As an actor, how do you approach the challenge of having to play out such an important scene essentially through hands and voice?
ABDUL-MATEEN: One, as an actor, I think one did it just a little bit disappointed because you know as an actor, we want … we couldn’t have worn our faces out there. You know, I want people to see me. I want to shine. But then after that, it just becomes a physical challenge that the actor has to go and has to figure out. And we had a lot of fun. Because Nikki was very smart about how she crafted that scene and we knew going into it that it was a long bar scene in that we were very limited in how much we could show my face and how much of me that we could show. So it was pretty cool to go in and find moments to articulate his speech and to really still make him a human and to make that a two-person scene rather than a one-person scene where the camera will be on Regina all the time.
It was fun. But I do wish that the camera was … that we got other options sometimes. Or at least I think while we were shooting, because actors, we tend to want the attention. But that was fun to do.
Once you did know the full truth of who you were playing, how did you approach the line between honoring that character without sort of tipping the hand to the audience?
ABDUL-MATEEN: You know, once I found out, I just said I’m going to act this as if I don’t. I think by then I had a relationship with Cal that I grew for myself, that I understood. I knew that Cal was a protector. I knew the Cal was very patient. That he led with being a husband and I wanted to craft a character that was a really good husband. And also knowing that Cal was going to go away. Then I said, well let me make him a very likable person, let me make him understanding and patient and kind and smart and loving, and not worry about Doctor Manhattan. So I just chose to try to make him two different people. Because Cal had no real idea that he was Doctor Manhattan. I think subconsciously there was something in there, but that was something that I just left up to the camera and left up to the audience. And then not try to really get in the way of my character by giving Cal too much to handle.
That’s interesting, because Angela ask him, “If you forget everything would you still be you?” And it sounds like you’re understanding is a little bit of yes and no.
ABDUL-MATEEN: Yeah. Well I think at that point, even in the bar, Dr. Manhattan refers to a period of darkness, I believe. He refers to a period of 10 years where he doesn’t know what happens. And so his love for her is something that will not go away and he may not have specific memories of himself in that moment or he may not have memory of what occurred during that period of darkness, but he will always have the love. I think the love is really the through-line for the Doctor Manhattan character. I think that is also why Calvin was able to be a character who led openness and led with love because that was I think the strongest force between the two of them that couldn’t be erased by that period of darkness.
In the comic, the last time we saw Jon he was pretty much done with humanity so how did you track that internal journey to him wanting to, not only return to earth but become a part of humanity again in such an intimate way?
ABDUL-MATEEN: I justified it by saying, at some point, you want to feel something again. I think he’s emotionally intelligent, he is invincible. But at some point, I think he wants to feel human again. Even though he knows how it’s going to end, I should say, I think he’s a character who… The gods, at some point, want to be human and the humans want to be gods. And I think he turned them down in a moment where he was susceptible to that, and found a person who needed love and I think his own need for love and his own need for human connection brought him into that bar.
Once you got to the point where you’re playing Doctor Manhattan proper, what was most important to you to get right about this show’s version of the character?
ABDUL-MATEEN: It’s still a love story and I tried to lead with understanding and love. And it’s interesting because he’s a character who historically has not shown a lot of emotional range. And so, because he didn’t need to, he was always a hundred steps ahead of everyone else. And so I wanted to build him as a person who was human, but who had lost so much of the human touch. Rather than playing a god. I wanted to make him someone who had lost a lot of the human touch and who was looking for that again.
And so I think that version of him was, I think there was a Doctor Manhattan who also had a longing to be a human again or a longing to feel something. So I think this Doctor Manhattan showed a bigger heart than I think the Doctor Manhattan that we’ve seen in the past. But at the same time, it’s still very difficult for him to do that because of his limitations. It’s kind of ironic to talk about someone, about a god with limitations. But because he’s a god, he has certain emotional limitations. And so I tried to make him a character who led with love within the given construct, within the given constraints of his own abilities.
It’s impossible to believe with this many mysteries and dangling character threads and deep themes that there’s just one episode left. So what can you sort of tease about the finale and how do you hope people feel after it’s all over and those credits roll for the last time?
ABDUL-MATEEN: Well, I can say that with each episode, I think with each episode … one of the responses has been “Wow, that was the best episode yet. I don’t see how they can top that.” And my hope is that after watching episode nine that people have that same feeling. That, okay, we’re building to something fast and with only one episode left, there’s a lot of ground to cover. So that episode nine is going to be, it’s going to be a wild ride. So I would say, don’t blink. And I hope they have the same feeling that they’ve been having for the past eight episodes.
And it’s Damon Lindelof so I’m ready to have my mind rattled a bit.
ABDUL-MATEEN: [Laughs] Yeah, I think there’s going to be some pretty big surprises.