“Acting skills? I really work hard on those”: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Jordan Peele’s new leading man can do it all...

As names go, it’s a hell of a one to drop. But then Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a hell of a guy — and his considerable talents far outnumber the syllables of his distinctive moniker. “I love my name!” laughs the actor, “and it’s served me well — so far…”

Indeed it has. The 33-year-old may have only been professionally acting for three years, but he’s already faced off against superheroes, danced circles around Hugh Jackman and seen himself plugged into the Black Mirror matrix. And, after a recent role in Jordan Peele’s Us, the actor has landed the lead role in the horror director’s next project, a remake of cult classic Candyman.

"You can’t take yourself too seriously. How could you? You’re standing across from someone called Aquaman. I mean, the guy talks to whales."

“Jordan’s such a smart director,” raves Abdul-Mateen II. “I’ll follow him anywhere. He’s got a real voice; a clear, strong aim to be relevant. And when you start to challenge the minds of the audience — make them have arguments — that’s when art is really doing its job.”

It’s not all stony faces: Abdul-Mateen II has played the dramatic spectrum. He may most recently have been seen glowering his way through HBO’s dark adaptation of Watchmen, but the actor has also proved his comic talent, scourging the sea as supervillain Black Manta in 2018’s Aquaman.

“Those entertainment projects just come back to play,” the actor admits. “Pure imagination. And you can’t take yourself too seriously. How could you? You’re standing across from someone called Aquaman. I mean, the guy talks to whales.”

yahya abdul-mateen ii

Abdul-Mateen II on stage at Comic Con with his Aquaman cast members. Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

Abdul-Mateen II’s path into acting was suitably unconventional. Laid off from a job in city planning at 27, he decided to enrol at the Yale School of Drama, where he became a classically trained stage actor. “For me, theatre is like the gym. That’s where you go to get good, to work on your muscles. Film and television is like the beach — that’s where you go to show off.”

Abdul-Mateen II’s career so far has demanded he master disco dancing, hand-to-hand combat and how to swing the trapeze. But he’s found every challenge exciting to overcome — and considerably easier than acting. “Acting is not like riding a bike,” Abdul-Mateen II laughs again. “I have some natural ability, and some natural charm and charisma. But acting skills? I really work hard on those.”

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