Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the Social Relevance of ‘Watchmen’ and the New ‘Candyman’

     October 19, 2019

From show creator Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers, Lost) and based on the iconic graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the HBO drama series Watchmen is set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws and the police conceal their identities behind masks to protect themselves from a terrorist organization, known as the Seventh Kavalry. It’s a story that is equal parts challenging and thought-provoking, as it looks at so many of the modern issues that plague us today, and questions who the true heroes and villains really are.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (who plays Detective Angela Abar’s husband, Cal) talked about how much he knew about the project in advance, why he was willing to follow this creative team on this journey, what has most surprised him about making the series, his own personal relationship with comic books, and his experience working with co-star Regina King. He also talked about what it means to him to be bringing the mythology of Candyman to a new audience, when that film is released in the summer of 2020.

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Image via HBO

Collider: There’s so much to talk about, with this show, and everyone does such incredible work in it. How much were you told in advance about the arc of the show? Did you know what the bigger picture was, or have those layers been revealed on an episode by episode basis for you?

YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know anything. The answer is none, at all. I went into this blindly willing to follow Damon [Lindelof] and Regina [King], and the strength of the work that HBO does. I was really, really fortunate, and not at all surprised, that it turned out to be a really fun, thought-provoking, meaningful journey. Once I did get into it, we worked episode by episode, and it was nice to do that. It was nice to not get ahead. Sometimes in television, there’s a need to want to know more. But I was attracted to something in the Cal character and his simplicity, and it was really nice to let that move, from week to week.

What has surprised you the most about making the show and the scripts? Have there been a lot of things that you weren’t expecting?

ABDUL-MATEEN: In the world that Damon creates, and the world of Watchman, it’s a world where anything goes. From the first episode, we have rules in place, but in a world where it can rain squids, or we add an extra star to the flag and change the shape, it tells us that anything can happen in this world. So, there wasn’t a lot that I was surprised that, but all throughout it, it was very nice to be able to be a part of something where we’re holding up a mirror to the current social climate, in the world and in the country. We can do that, and we don’t have to really be cheeky. We can be head on, as long as we change the rules, just a little bit, and make it not necessarily palatable, but with just enough distance so that people can’t say, “Oh, you’re talking about me.” It’s nice to be a part of something that’s gonna be socially relevant.

I know that you’ve dipped your toe in it a bit before, with the DC films, but what is your own personal relationship with and feelings about comic books and the superhero genre? Is it something that you were a fan of, prior to all of this? Is it something you feel like an expert on now?

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Image via HBO

ABDUL-MATEEN: No, I definitely do not feel like an expert. I’m so far from an expert. The experts are experts. They’re good. I’m still just a person who’s walking around and asking questions in the museum, so to speak, but it’s definitely fun. My introduction was in Aquaman, and then I said, “Okay, well, now I’m gonna go do Watchmen,” but Watchmen is something completely different. They’re grounded in different worlds. The rules for something like Aquaman, you just have to believe, as much as possible, and try to ground it with something real, but you have to take a big jump and lean forward. For Watchmen, it’s nice to be grounded and to not have to lead forward. You can believe the circumstances that are right in front of your face. We tell the story that the world of Watchmen is not at all very dissimilar from our present world. So, it’s nice to be working in a medium where the dangers are just as real and the consequences are just as real as the ones that we live with, every day.

I love the relationship between Cal and Angela. How would you describe that relationship, and what’s that been like to get to explore?

ABDUL-MATEEN: The word that comes to mind with them is partnership, when I think about them. They have a relationship and they have a marriage, but they also have a partnership, where you can tell that they gave it a lot of thought and a lot of care, and that they were very careful to create the rules of what their relationship and partnership would be. Cal is a guy who’s obviously capable of being out in the world. He’s can hold his own, out in the world. The way that he speaks, we get some hints that he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He could be someone who’s out in the world, probably donning a mask, or something like that, but he chooses and he’s perfectly comfortable with his role, staying in the home and holding down the for, and being the person who brings some peace and stability to oppose the chaos that Angela feels, out in her world. So, it’s nice to play a character like that, and it’s nice to play a character who contrasts the images of toxic masculinity that we see in the world right now. To see a guy who’s completely at peace with being an equal partner in his relationship, it was fun to tell that narrative.

What’s it like to also have someone like Regina King, who is so at the top of her game, to get to explore that with?

ABDUL-MATEEN: She’s awesome. I could go on and talk about her acting, but I won’t be saying anything new. She is very, very playful, and very, very generous, and she keeps the work simple. She makes it really, really easy, and that’s what you look for in an acting partner. She’s someone where you can come in, look her in the eye, and just say the words. With her, we always look to do things the fun way. We try to just be really simple, and to not over-complicate anything. She really, really made it awesome. We have a lot of fun, antagonizing one another, between the takes. She’s fun. She’s a lot of fun to work with. She’s also been around for so long in the business, and she’s a director, so she has a very quick and a very strong eye. It was nice to be able to look at her and watch the way that she works in the, and try to take some of those things back and pocket them for myself, as well.

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Image via Warner Bros.

It’s also very exciting that you’re doing Candyman. What does it meant to you to get to be a part of that, and to bring that story to a new generation of people who might not know that character?

ABDUL-MATEEN: It’s really cool. I’m really honored to be stepping into those shoes. They’re big shoes to fill because, obviously, that’s an iconic character and a story that people relate to. Even people who have not seen it, have ideas about it, or they’ve still been able to interact with it, and that iconography has penetrated their lives. So, it’s an honor to be able to step into that, and to re-tell that story, and to introduce the mythology of Candyman back into the world, in 2020, and to put our own social lens and our own spin on it. I think that’s gonna be a lot of fun, to put that iconography back into the conversation.

Much like with Watchman, it sounds like it’s also going to have its own take on it.

ABDUL-MATEEN: Yeah.

That makes it really cool because then it’s not exactly what you’re expecting.

ABDUL-MATEEN: Exactly. We get to give them something new and something relevant, while always honoring the source material and where the material came from. I’m really, really excited to be a part of two projects that are doing that with the material. They’re both taking older material, and making it cool and relevant for today.

Watchmen airs on Sunday nights on HBO.

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