Interview: ‘Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the moral courage of ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’
Actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II didn’t start acting professionally until 2017 but, since then, he has rocketed to fame, thanks to noticeable and critically-acclaimed roles in movies such as Aquaman, The Greatest Showman and Us and television shows The Get Down and Watchmen, for which he won an Emmy last year for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie.
Abdul-Mateen is currently getting serious Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Bobby Seale in writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s powerful drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Mateen delivers a monumental performance, standing out among an ensemble of incredible actors, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, and Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance.
And the hits will keep on coming, as he is set to star in a slew of big-name projects coming up, including Candyman, Matrix 4, Furiosa and Aquaman 2.
I had a chance to chat with Abdul-Mateen about what it was like to play Bobby Seale, how he used his own physicality to show restraint, what exactly he thinks The Trial of The Chicago 7 is really about, and why he loves how his episode of Black Mirror still makes people so uncomfortable.
Catherine Springer, AwardsWatch: I was just talking about how much football there is this weekend. Do you have a team? I know you’re from Oakland and Louisiana.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: I’m from New Orleans, grew up in Oakland, California. I’m not a Raiders fan at all. Never was. I want to get that clear. 49er fan. 49ers and the Saints. The Saints are going to the playoffs, can’t say the same for the 49ers. I think this week though, I’m just relaxing and reading a script. And I’m gonna kick my feet up and ease my way into 2021.
Right?! I’m sure you’re thrilled to be talking about this movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Congratulations on all the deserved kudos and buzz you’re receiving for this performance, it’s amazing.
Thank you so much.
You play legendary Black Panther founder Bobby Seale, of course. We’re introduced to Bobby so memorably in a light hearted, short exposition scene, but the rest of the time we spend with him is very much the opposite. How was it to balance those two tones?
Well, the wound was always on the inside. I always knew what he wanted to get back to, he wanted to get back to Oakland, get back to his love. He wanted to get back to his kitchen, he loved food, loved to cook. In an interview, even when he was in prison, he talks at length about making a stew, about wanting to get back home and make a stew. It helped because the strong attachment to those ideas and people and values that he loves is what actually caused a lot of the frustration in the latter parts of the film. He’s there because he’s been wronged. And now he’s being held against his will, and he wants to get back to the life that he knows. So it gave me something to defend. And I had enough fun in between the takes, you know, to be able to do my job once the cameras were rolling.
You play him with such humanity and dignity. You’re a very physical actor, so how was it to stay that restrained and still tap into the character?
Yeah, well, that was that was my responsibility, right? I think the entire exploration of figuring out Bobby Seale, and portraying Bobby Seale in this particular situation was an exploration in restraint. He deserved so much more, he deserved better treatment, but he also deserved to make more of a scene than he actually did. He was on trial and he should not have even been there. As he puts it, he believes that he was thrown in to make the group look a certain way. But then the most blatant thing was that he was on trial without representation. And that was so obvious and so blatant. He had every right to stand up and say, “Hey, I don’t belong here. And if you’re going to have me here, I need a lawyer. My lawyer is not present. Everyone knows it.” And he should have been making a lot more noise. But he knew that he couldn’t, he could never get away with coming in and pulling some of the antics that his co-defendants came with and so he had to restrain himself and to negotiate how and when to voice his displeasure. And that was fun for me. Sometimes it was fun to let my body go completely slack because he just couldn’t do it today. Other times, I sat up and I said, “Okay, well, you know what— I don’t have a lawyer, so I’m going to play the lawyer.” So I’m extremely attentive, I’m even taking notes, you know, and he would stand up and try to put on the mannerisms of a lawyer. And other times he’d be completely dejected and disengaged. And so it was a very fun, exciting exploration of figuring out how I will get what I want. And restraint was one of the biggest parts of that.
And how was it discovering that and working with [writer/director] Aaron Sorkin? How much leeway did he allow you in those moments? I imagine when it’s the writer who’s directing, he’s really got in his mind how he wants it to be.
Aaron’s writing is so intuitive, you know, I think if you get a good actor, and you give them Aaron’s writing, you don’t really need much more. He definitely was there to have a have a light hand and to guide us in the right direction and to sort of curate. But his directing, for me, was very much in the writing. And when I had questions, I raised my hand and said, “Hey, Aaron, what do you think about this?” and we would come up with little negotiations on the side. But the beauty of working with someone like Aaron, is that there’s so much of the direction in the writing. And a lot of that performance was intuitive, based on what was on the page. So I was really, really fortunate in that way.
Aaron Sorkin talks about how he wanted to get this movie out before the election, because he thought it would be so timely. And it’s almost even more timely now, two months after the election. It’s a movie about protests after a year that was dominated by protest. What do you feel this movie is about?
Well, I think this movie is about moral courage. And it’s about the question, what are you willing to lose? You know, what are you willing to do? In asking that question, one has to also be willing to face losing something. For some people, it was losing your social status. Some people it was losing your parents’ good fortune, or losing your reputation. For a person like Bobby Seale, it was as extreme as losing your life. So, I think it was about that question, what are you willing to lose, and what do you have to gain? I think this movie asked us to look at ourselves in the mirror, and align ourselves with our moral courage and to have a responsibility to find something, find a cause to speak out about and to get out and to be active, you know, but it also says that everybody isn’t going to have the same role. Everyone’s job is not going to be to protest. We need great lawyers. We need good judges. You know, we need people making phone calls and organizing. And yes, we do need people to create good trouble, in order to push our causes over the line.
I can’t let you go without talking about Striking Vipers.
Black Mirror is one of the best shows ever. And this episode is just phenomenal. Did it scare you off video games? Do you play video games?
Yeah, I do. Of course! I play sports though. I play basketball. But no, I’m a fan of video games. The thing I love about that most is that so many people are just so uncomfortable around video games after that, and the subject of bros playing video games. It’s cool, because that means our episode landed on them and caused them to think about some things and have some conversations. But yeah, that’ll always be a fun topic of discussion.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently available to stream exclusively on Netflix.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II image credit: Ron Adar / Shutterstock; The Trial of Chicago 7 image credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix