NEW YORK — If Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was told nearly a decade ago that he’d trade in reading blueprints for movie scripts while he worked as a city planner in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community, he’d start checking his watch.
“I’ve always believed that I could have multiple lives and that I was supposed to do something bigger than whatever it is that I was doing... I was always a dreamer,” said the 34-year-old. “I would be excited about it — I’d have no idea how it was going to happen, but I’d be interested in going to figure out the path.”
It’s been a strange and bittersweet year for Abdul-Mateen, capped with an Emmy for his acclaimed performance as Dr. Manhattan in HBO’s lauded series “Watchmen.” That role, along with performances in the films “All Day and a Night” and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which he portrays Black Panther Bobby Seale, has earned him the recognition of one of AP's Breakthrough Entertainers for 2020.
“This year has been obviously, personally, just a little bit strange but there’s a lot of good things going on the professional side,” said Abdul-Mateen. “This year has really just been about a lot of the loose ends of my career finally coming together and making a strong statement.”
Previously, Abdul-Mateen played opposite Jason Momoa as the villainous Black Manta in the 2018 blockbuster “Aquaman,” shined in Jordan Peele’s “Us” in 2019 and starred in the “Striking Vipers” episode of the lauded, tech-paranoia thriller series “Black Mirror.”
It’s an impressive array of roles for an actor whose first major credits were in Baz Luhrmann’s 2016 highly regarded, but short-lived Netflix hip-hop series, “The Get Down.”
“It goes back to my training, having the confidence to try on different roles,” said Abdul-Mateen. “I think my calling card right now is that when I show up on the screen, that you never know what to expect. I think people have come to expect a strong performance, and I work really hard to ensure that. But I also work with spontaneity and I chase my appetite which changes from time to time.”
Born in New Orleans with his family eventually moving to Oakland, Abdul-Mateen graduated with a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley. Although he took a theatre class in college and continued to take a weekly class while working as a city planner, it wasn’t until he was laid off that he decided to put all of his eggs into the acting basket. He’d eventually earn an MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
His Hollywood dreams visited him later in life, but he wants to use his example to help young people who come from backgrounds and neighbourhoods similar to his to recognize that working in entertainment doesn't have to be a pipe dream.
“The thing that I want to do is let young people know…that this is a viable career path, this is a viable profession. So whether that be acting, writing, designing, set design or any of the various parts of this of this profession, that it’s a reality,” said the former Div. 1 hurdler. “I was one of those people who learned very late, but then who was talented and fortunate enough to learn how to turn that into something. And I want (young people of colour ) to get a head start.”
Although he may have been late to the profession, his success has been right on time. Abdul-Mateen’s future is not just bright, but blinding: he’s the lead in the buzzworthy film “Candyman” set to premiere in August, he’ll be seen with Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix 4” and will also reprise his Black Manta role in “Aquaman 2.”
Abdul-Mateen is also set team up with fellow 2020 AP Breakthrough Entertainer Anya Taylor Joy in “Furiosa,” the prequel to 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and it was recently announced he’s been cast in the Michael Bay thriller “Ambulance” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal.
“This all started with me chasing my curiosity, but also making a real strong commitment to saying, ‘OK, well if this is something that I’m interested in doing, let’s put everything that I have into it,’” he explained.
Follow Associated Press entertainment journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at twitter.com/GaryGHamilton.
For more on AP’s 2020 class of Breakthrough Entertainers, please visit: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-breakthrough-entertainers
Gary Gerard Hamilton, The Associated Press