Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. If you haven’t already, get familiar with this name because It’s here to stay.
We were first introduced to Yahya on the small screen in one of the breakout roles of Netflix’s wildly popular first season of The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s fantastical tribute to the origins of hip hop, as the disco-dancing, drug sniffing, dope dealer “Cadillac.”
Yayha, 30, didn’t always want to be an actor. Raised in Oakland by way of New Orleans, he describes himself as not necessarily the most popular kid in school, but special, perhaps. He stood out and was the kid from New Orleans with the “weird name and funny accents.”
The Get Down actor went on to earn an undergraduate degree in Architecture from the University of California, Berkley. Pretty soon after graduating, he landed his dream job as a city planner in San Francisco.
“Were I able to plan a career for myself it wouldn’t have resembled this at all,” he reveals. “I wanted to be an architect and I ended up at my job in San Francisco and if you would have asked me then, that was one of the greatest jobs that had happened to me in terms of my career.”
He loved it because it was always his desire to connect with and work among the people, and as a city planner he was doing just that. Little did he know, life had another way of fulfilling that dream.
It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “out of adversity comes opportunity.” And for Abdul-Mateen II, this absolutely rang true. He was laid off from his dream job. But it was then that he decided to gamble on a long shot.
“I realize how blessed I am to be in this position but one thing that I do know is that there’s no such thing as being stuck in one place.” Yahya laments on his mind state after being laid off. “Because the world is so big you can go across the street and be in a new place.”
Why not pursue acting? he thought. He consulted Google of all things for the best drama schools. That search yielded the Yale School of Drama among the top, naturally. He applied and got in. Lupita Nyong’o graduated the year before he did from the same school, and the two have since met in passing.
Yahya’s life has a formula that can best be summed up by one of America’s great philosophers, Big Daddy Kane, who uttered no truer words about making it in life, and that is: “Ain’t no half steppin.”
This, for Yahya, translates to if he wants to do something, he goes after it full force, and with only “the best” in his crosshairs.
“When I think about it, I was working very hard the summer before I applied to graduate school. I was going to the library every day in the summer, I read a play a day for about three months, I was taking audition classes and I was reciting lines to myself and acting as my own scene partner. But I was having fun. So when I think about those times, I actually never think about how hard I worked. I just knew that I had something that I wanted to do every day and that I wanted to get better at every day, and that made me happy.” Yahya revealed.
Abdul-Mateen II wants to learn to be an actor, so he goes to Yale. Abdul-Mateen II wants to be in movies, so he gets cast opposite one of today’s most successful actors in Hollywood: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in one of the most highly anticipated summer flicks, the Baywatch remake, as his first film.
This is not a fluke by any stretch of the imagination. Since shooting Baywatch, Yahya has gone on to shoot The Greatest Showman, opposite Hugh Jackman and Zack Efron, who by the way, also co-stars in Baywatch.
Yahya’s glow-up is real. He’s also already reached blockbuster status after being cast as “Black Manta,” the DC Comics archenemy of “Aquaman” in the forthcoming Warner Bros. blockbuster of the same name due out in 2018.
The Get Down actor is seemingly able to meander between comedy, drama and now action quite comfortably as we first witnessed in his role as “Cadillac,” making us laugh at his ostentatiousness, while becoming shook by his brooding darkness at the same damn time.
“Cadillac was funny but he was funny in a different way – some people say scary way, some people say in a corny way, some people say in a fly way. But I’m a clown at heart,” Yahya said honestly, as he related his role as “Sgt. Elerbee” in Baywatch. “And I just wanted to not be cool at all – just to leave cool on the other side of the room and just aspire for something different with this character. I had a lot of fun and hopefully it reads on camera.”
It does! All of Yahya’s scenes are lit and hilariously funny! But the actor, who was still in grad school when he filmed Baywatch, describes the experience playing opposite Dwayne Johnson in one word, Fun!
“I went in with very few expectations. I just wanted to do my job well. But once I got opposite of Dwayne, he had such a great attitude.”
Yayha and Johnson also bonded over disco of all things.
“In between takes we’d talk about our ideas for the scene and we’d talk about some personal things,” the star said. “I told him about The Get Down and he talked to me about disco and Richard Pryor jokes and we connected really quickly.”
Yahya also mentioned how Baywatch director Seth Gordon took a chance on him as a new actor and allowed him to be free and on set. It’s not lost on Abdul-Mateen that he’s entered the world of TV and film when people of color are finally getting their due both in front and behind the camera.
“I think the beautiful thing about that is that it shows that there’s an appetite for our stories. We’ve always had the writers, we’ve always had the directors and the filmmakers but now there’s proof that our stories make money …that there’s an appetite to see us on screen on film.”
Catch Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Baywatch when it hits theaters, Thursday May 25.