Yahya Abdul-Mateen II isn’t quite a household name yet, but he’s definitely someone memorable. Most widely known for his portrayal of Cadillac in the critically acclaimed Netflix series The Get Down, Mateen is a name you don’t want to forget. Having smaller roles in films like Baywatch and The Greatest Showman, Mateen takes on his biggest role yet in Aquaman. He plays villain Black Manta, the high seas pirate who loses his father and vows vengeance on Aquaman, whom he blames for his father’s death.

But that’s not all you’ll be seeing him in. Hitting theaters next year comes Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated Us, the writer-director’s follow up to the critically acclaimed Get Out. It co-stars Abdul-Mateen with Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, and Elisabeth Moss.

We spoke with Abdul-Mateen during a press day in Los Angeles to talk how everything Aquaman, his character, representation and more.

On How His Yale Drama School Training Prepared Him To Take On “Aquaman”

It might be hard to make the leap from a dramatic, classically trained background to a big tentpole blockbuster. But Abdul-Mateen said as long as he can find a reason to stay grounded in it, it works. And he got that knowledge from his training at Yale Drama School.

“Aquaman was probably one of the most difficult things that I’ve done thus far, and I’ve always imagined that this would be easy. I’m a classically trained actor, I can act. I can go to Aquaman. But it actually took a whole lot more work, because I have to act and put it at a very large scale. But I had to make sure that it was relatable, you know? That’s where the drama training came into work, to make sure that everything I was doing was rooted in the truth. So, then I could be as large as I wanted to be, as long as my reasoning was rooted in something that was real and that was true. The plot definitely helps to pull from everything that I need in order to tie in that acting experience with the large imagination at the same time.”

On How He Connected With His Character, Black Manta

Like tackling the role itself, finding commonalities between yourself and a character with crazy tech or superpowers might be a stretch. So how did Abdul-Mateen find that connection? He looked at the human in the villain.

“The resourcefulness. I think I’m a very resourceful person. You know what I mean? I think also, his ingenuity, his drive, very dry, dry sense of humor. You know, and his wit. I think I try to tie in those parts of myself into him. And just let everything else just play along the lines of an “as if” scenario, you know what I mean? ‘Now, I’m going to just act as if X, Y, Z.’ But the script, it didn’t really require me to lean in to my own experiences or anything like that. I think it gave me just enough to work with so that I would just be able to open up and let my imagination fly.”

On Transforming Himself Physically To Play Black Manta

Yahya Abdul-Mateen as Black Manta in 'Aquaman'

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta in ‘Aquaman’

Let’s face it, getting into superhero – or supervillain – shape isn’t easy. Sure, it’s easier when you have trainers and dieticians helping you, but the work itself is still grueling and transformative. Abdul-Mateen admitted that it was a grind getting into shape to play a villain who could go toe to toe with Aquaman.

“I don’t enjoy working out, I don’t enjoy working out. I enjoy the eating part of working out, because that’s fun. I could do that until I’m sick of myself. But you know just being in the gym and really challenging myself to push my body. Okay, you know, let myself know that you can do more, you can do more. You can do better. And really seeing what this body can transform into. That was challenging but it was also very rewarding. There wasn’t a day that I left after the workout that I regretted having gone. So, it was more definitely, always more mental than it was physical. But it was definitely a challenge. But the type that was always rewarding afterward. Both mentally and based on the physical results, you know?”

On Being Part Of One Of The Most Diverse DCEU Films To Date

Representation at the theater has been slow in coming, especially for blockbuster tentpoles, but it is coming. Abdul-Mateen recognizes how lucky he is to be part of it.

“I think it’s just really cool and I think it’s really a testament to some of the priorities over at DC. We had James Wan at the helm, and telling this story, and it still comes together in a way that it doesn’t disrupt, and everybody who walks in to that theater are going to be able to relate to it. And are going to be able to see a representation of a magical world that looks like the world that they actually live in. You know, and one of the things that I’m really excited about is that we’ve always been here. People of color who can do these, who have dreams of being in these fantastical worlds. And last case. And we’ve really just been waiting on everybody else to realize that it was a thing that was possible. We’ve always known. So it’s really great that we have these opportunities right now to tell these stories and to represent all people from all walks of life on screen. And I think it’s just really going to start to influence how we think about art and to be able to take more limitations off what we think art can be and what art has to look like.”

On Watching Himself On The Big Screen

“All of that stuff is such an adventure. You know, I spent a lot of time in the present just chilling and just not really thinking about it. Just watching it and allowing myself to be a fan of the moment. But every once in a while, I think about it, and it’s really cool. I never did imagine myself inside of that box. You know what I mean? You’d think that there was something that could be possible, so to see all of those things come full circle now, it’s just really made my world shift and it’s such a ride that I’m experiencing right now.”

Aquaman is in theaters now. You can get your tickets here.


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