When Yahya Abdul Mateen II first signed onto Damon Lindelof’s small-screen “Watchmen” adaptation, he had no idea he’d end up playing the iconic Dr. Manhattan. Coming off “Black Mirror: Striking Vipers,” for which he is also Emmy eligible, Abdul-Mateen took on a role that appeared to just be the loving husband to Regina King’s Angela Abar aka Sister Night. His true identity wasn’t revealed until the end of the seventh episode, with the subsequent one (“A God Walks into Abar”) dedicated to explaining how the two got together and why their relationship was fated to have a tragic end. A pivotal restaurant scene had Abdul-Mateen II’s face covered, asking him to focus his performance on the emotion and inflection in his voice, body language and gestures with his hands.
Abdul-Mateen: It was important to me to connect with the story and with the relationship as much as possible. I had been waiting for so long to figure out what his journey would be, and then when I got those words — those 16-odd pages in the episode — I finally found out, so there was no way I was going to let someone else sit in and tell that story [even though my face was hidden in the restaurant scene].
So I sat, and I definitely did have performative moments, but I wanted to make sure that I spent as much time in that seat living through that experience and retelling that story as possible. And then also, practically, I just wanted to make sure to be a good partner to Regina — to make sure that she had everything she needed in those moments. There was no way I was ever going to miss the opportunity to go one-on-one with Regina, telling that beautiful story!
It was really about finding the pleasure in those moments, and finding the pleasure in whatever the challenge is. Sometimes my challenge is to gain 15 pounds and to fight and to run through walls, and this time my challenge was to play with stillness and play with a completely different energy and to communicate from more of an intellectual space, rather than a physical space.
It was another acting exercise for me, which was really a gift. I did the math awhile back and in that episode I got to play four different versions of Dr. Manhattan.
I definitely worked through that with Nicole [Kassell, executive producer and director]. For awhile I just did not know when I was which character or how many characters there were or if I was going to be playing all of them. It all made sense on the page, but I didn’t know what my responsibility was going to be until I sat down with Nicole and had her explain to me, “OK, who is Blue Cal? OK, now who is Dr. Manhattan? Now, what about John and what about regular Cal?” There were just so many different moments that were important to distinguish from one another in order to tell that story, and it was definitely a team effort to get on the same page about that.
Each one presented their individual challenges, but I had a really good time crafting Dr. Manhattan in the bar. The funny thing there is that’s the person who had the least amount of screentime, and he’s the guy I probably spent the most work on. But it was important to me to establish just who he was before he was Cal, and to establish the place that he started from so that I could then decide which attributes to keep and which to let go of as he went through the different transformations. That one took the most time because it was a completely new physicality and a completely new vocal set and a different set of intentions and aspirations. He was definitely the most complex thinker out of all of the versions of the character, so it took time to get to a place where I was comfortable bringing it to the camera.
For me, most of this job was a lot of “hurry up and wait.” I wasn’t in every episode, or I might have been in one or two scenes in episodes before I came on heavy at the end. So sometimes I’d work four days out of the month, and so with the production schedule, that left me plenty of time to do my acting work and to get prepared and to train.
I had to find a really good trainer that I trusted and do what he told me to do. The regimen was to get in there four times a week and eat really well. That part of the job was really about discipline. That part of the job was saying, “Hey, if you do these reps and you stick to this regimen then you will be happy in the end.” I just had to have the willpower to keep showing up.
What I was most excited about was how much of what I acquired before this project I was able to bring to it. I was able to bring in my training from drama school, I was able to bring in my vocal coaching, my breathing work, my physicality, just a different way to approach the text. I had been doing a lot of movement-heavy things from “The Get Down” to “The Greatest Showman” to “Aquaman,” but this was really a gift that allowed me to sit down and open up the more intellectual side of my craft.
One of the things I took away was just the response from the viewers. They tuned in and got to see a show that was about heroism and about history and strong women and love and gods, and they got to see all of those themes being played out through the vessel of Black American bodies. I saw that conversation play out online, and I also took away a lot of pride. I carried that, and I used that as something to look forward to for the next job I take on. It’s nice to put on that responsibility and speak to something that’s going to be socially important and relevant.
I’m coming up on five years since I graduated school and since I got my first job, and I entered into this work force with an amazing opportunity but also following my artistic appetite, and I think my resume shows that: I’ve been able to do projects like “The Get Down” and “The Matrix” and “Aquaman,” but then I also have “Watchmen” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” where I played Bobby Seale. I’m just fortunate enough to be on good projects where my appetite wanted to be: sometimes I want to be a clown and sometimes I want to be a revolutionary. And as I’m developing a greater sense of purpose and responsibility and taste and direction, I’m also asking, “What is it that’s important for me to do? What are the statements I want to put out into the world and what are the conversations I want to create?”
My view of the world is we need people to be more conscious of their actions and how it affects humanity, and I think that was definitely in my work in “Watchmen.” Also, our Dr. Manhattan was the Dr. Manhattan who came back from self-inflicted isolation, so that let me know that he was looking for something outside of himself. For him the answer was somewhere on Earth, and so in order to pursue that objective, I think he had to have some need from humanity and had to have seen some hope in humanity. That’s what I tried to bring to him: while still keeping him a benevolent being, I wanted him to be someone who did not lose hope in humanity. And I think that’s an important theme to inject into the world today.