Actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, 33, plays chess every day, mostly on an app on his phone. Lately, he’s been adopting a “very experimental” style. Sometimes, this means he plays against his own best interests, but in so doing, he says, certain truths are revealed—about the game, himself and his ever-expanding limits.
This, as it happens, is a near-perfect metaphor for his whirlwind acting career. In just a few short years Abdul-Mateen has taken on a startlingly wide range of roles, from a disco-dancing hustler in The Get Down, to a trapeze artist in The Greatest Showman, to a comic-book super villain in Aquaman. He has also appeared in the series The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror, as well as Jordan Peele’s film Us. And he didn’t even begin acting seriously until about five years ago.
Abdul-Mateen was born in New Orleans and grew up in Oakland, California. He was the youngest of six in a household that was both Christian and Muslim and, he says, a magical place where “everything was always fun, always good.” From age 6, he dreamed of becoming an architect, and in 2004, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley to do just that. While in school, he worked for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, teaching young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods the basics of architecture and urban planning so that they could weigh in on projects reshaping where they lived.
A string of events occurred that drew Abdul-Mateen to acting, first as a creative release, then as a career. At Berkeley, he was performing a skit with his track team, doing impressions of the coaches and making everyone crack up. One of his teammates told him he should look into acting classes, because, as the teammate put it, they were more like recess—pure play. Abdul-Mateen dived in, discovering that the classes were not simply fun but also helpful with his stutter, which disappeared when he was onstage.
Then, in 2007, his father, Yahya Abdul-Mateen I, died of cancer at the age of 62. It shook the tightknit family, particularly its youngest son. Abdul-Mateen was already rethinking his life when the funding for his project at the mayor’s office dried up in 2010. A year later, he was accepted into the Yale School of Drama. “I’m going to give myself three years to make significant progress,” Abdul-Mateen told himself of acting. At the end of the three-year program, he was awarded the school’s esteemed Herschel Williams Prize, given to one student per class. The same year he graduated, an agent saw him onstage as King Leontes in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and passed his name along for an audition for Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down. He landed the role before graduating and made his deadline.
Ever since, Abdul-Mateen has been living wherever the work takes him. In late July, when we meet in Los Angeles, he’s just left Atlanta, where he filmed Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s new and highly secretive HBO drama (out October 20). Over a bowl of oatmeal (his favorite food) at FOODLAB in West Hollywood, Abdul-Mateen reflects on his stint in L.A. a year ago, when he was chasing down role after role. The word appetite comes to mind. “Now,” he says of his current state, “I want to change that to gratitude.”
After wrapping the blockbuster Aquaman in 2018, he told himself, “I need some dirt—I need to actually touch the dirt.” He was soon flying to Ethiopia to film Sweetness in the Belly (premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival), in which he plays a doctor and love interest opposite Dakota Fanning. Abdul-Mateen is currently in L.A. to shoot some additional scenes for the upcoming film All Day and a Night, which he stars in with Jeffrey Wright. And then he’s off to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green to film the lead role in Jordan Peele’s remake of the cult classic horror flick Candyman, out in June 2020. “He’s one of those actors that has leading-man charisma but also the ability to be a versatile character actor,” Peele says via email, adding that Abdul-Mateen’s “tremendous training but also a clear sense of adventure” are what drew him to work with the actor.
After Abdul-Mateen’s run of roles in big-budget films, he says he’s aiming to showcase a different side. “I hope people know the simpler me,” he says of his upcoming work. “Not everything is flashy or big or shiny or super charismatic.”
This new slate of roles is also in line with his daily chess strategy. “I’m moving out of the experimental phase,” he says of the game. He is seeing several moves ahead in his career as well, thinking about where he’d like to be in the future. “I’m becoming more strategic,” he says, “more intentional.”
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