Just two years ago, 30-year-old actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was at the Yale School of Drama trying to take what started out as an “interest” to the next level. Mateen had previously been working in city planning and acting wasn’t necessarily the obvious next move for the Oakland native who, based on a recommendation from a friend, decided to take a class.
Who could have imagined that soon after taking that leap of faith, Mateen would end up working with director Baz Luhrmann, playing Cadillac in The Get Down, traveling to Australia to star as a DC Comic villain Black Manta in Aquaman and starring alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the new Baywatch remake? Mateen has certainly defied the odds, but as he would put it, he’s just having fun and “riding the wave.”
We talked to the handsome actor about his role as Sergeant Ellerby in Baywatch (hitting theaters today, May 25), watching Power Rangers instead of the show his new film spawned from and how he went from government work to Hollywood.
MadameNoire: You’ve come a long way. You were initially doing city planning and had a degree in architecture. So what compelled you to get into acting?
Yayha Abdul-Mateen II: When I was in college, it was on the recommendation of a friend of mine. He recommended that I take an acting class, and so, I kind of did. I was very open to feedback and open to suggestions. I had a little bit of space in my schedule, and I guess as the story goes, I went into an acting class and I kind of got the bug for it.
And so, I figured that it was something I had an interest in doing, but after graduation I got a job. I was working and while I was working I remember thinking about acting. I would be doing my job in the daytime and then going home and thinking about acting at night. So I just knew that if I ever got the opportunity to do it, I would pursue it because it was fun. I had a really good time while taking the class. Then I got laid off and it was the perfect opportunity to have some fun. My brother said I could pass on paying rent for a couple of months and he gave me that gift. During that time I went out and booked my first play and I guess the rest is just from there. So it was really just chasing fun.
You seem like someone who has a lot of confidence and personality. For people who go from one very serious type of work into acting, which is hard to break into, were you nervous about making that leap?
I gave myself a plan. I think I got a lot of security out of making a plan. That plan was that I would try acting for three years and that if I didn’t make significant progress, or what I considered significant progress by the end of three years, I would go back to architecture or planning. I think I found comfort in knowing I gave myself an out. But what I was actually doing was just giving myself permission to just go and have fun and chase something pleasurable. And once I found myself doing that, I was really just chasing the excitement, chasing this thing that really challenged my mind and it was really invigorating. It turned out to be something that was a perfect fit. The whole time I was on this ride and it was a fast ride and I was having fun, and then I got into school and I remember one of the first days of school I was faced with what the dean called “impostor syndrome.” He talked about how you have a whole lot of talented people, and when you gather them in one place, it’s very common for people to think that they don’t belong. So I went from not acting at all, not considering myself an actor, to suddenly being one of 16 in the top drama school in the country. And it was very easy to be nervous and to believe that I didn’t belong after initial success. And that’s something that still happens. Even now, I’m working on my sixth movie right now and I graduated just two years ago. It comes with nerves and things like that, but more often these days it’s about excitement than questions about my preparedness.
Did you watch Baywatch growing up, and if so, were you nervous to take part in remaking it?
I did not sit down and watch Baywatch growing up. But I do specifically remember it coming on and I remember it going off. I watched something that came on right before and then going back to that channel to watch what was coming on afterwards. I remember changing it to go watch Power Rangers or something like that and then making it in time for the slow motion, but I did not watch it growing up. But once I saw the script, the script was so silly. I’ll do drama, I’ll do romantic comedies and dramas, but I’ll do comedies in a heartbeat. This was one of the funniest scripts I picked up in regards to audition material. So when I got the invitation to join the team, I was just over the moon about that. It was such a fun team with silly, silly people.
Of Cadillac and Sergeant Ellerby, who do you find yourself most similar to?
I would definitely say… [laughs]. I would like for the answer to be Cadillac, but for some reason I think that I must carry around some of Ellerby’s tensions and things like that. He was an easier character to tap into than Cadillac was. I don’t recognize myself in Cadillac when I’m watching, but I do see myself when I’m looking at Ellerby, so it must be Ellerby. I’m not as cool as I’d like to think I am [laughs].
You can dance as well as Cadillac though right?
I like to dance, and I guess if I did it as Cadillac, that means that I can do it outside of character. But I tend to be really shy. But if the music is right and I got a couple of drinks in me, then I think I can cut a rug.
Do people see you and call you Cadillac or say, “I think I know you”?
In the [United] States, with my hair and with my beard, people notice me. But I forget that I’m an actor and I do this thing until I go to the cash register and I check out and someone looks up at me and says, “Oh my God!” And then I remember, “Oh yeah, I do this thing where people watch me do things on Netflix — on their laptops and on their televisions.” So they remind me. But since I cut my hair and cut my beard, no one knows who I am. And I think that’s pretty funny. I’m working on Aquaman right now and someone just yesterday asked if I’d done any other movies or things. I started rattling off a couple of projects and I said The Get Down and they were like, “Who did you play in The Get Down? I can’t tell.” So she started naming off a bunch of characters who weren’t me. I think she thought I had a small part. So I said, “No, I play Cadillac.” She said “Who?” I said “You must not have watched The Get Down.” She said “No, I watched the whole thing.” I said, “I played Cadillac.” She just couldn’t allow herself to believe that I was the same person. So I say all that to say people don’t recognize me, and I have complete anonymity without my beard and hair. So I’m excited to introduce this face to the screen, which is a lot different from Ellerby too because he has my beard and hair.
To see where you’ve come from, as you said, in just two years, and now you’re in the DC Universe with Aquaman and doing Baywatch, this has to be crazy for you.
Everything is moving really fast. I’ve been saying for over a year now that I haven’t had time to realize it all because I’ve been working. So now is about celebrating a bit more because I tend to keep my head down and work and work. That’s how I get jobs. But now it’s really about staying in the moment. Because not to use a pun about waves when talking about Baywatch, but this is a career that comes in waves. So, I’m just riding the wave and seeing how far it takes me.
Images via WENN