Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Didn’t Know He Had Another Role in ‘Watchmen’ Until After He Shot Two Episodes

Ben Travers

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[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 8, “A God Walks Into Abar.”]

When Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was cast in “Watchmen,” there was only Cal Abar. In his audition, he read “something from the pilot” and another scene from the second episode “that got cut” — nothing else. During his chemistry tests with Regina King, he was embodying her capable, dutiful, human husband. That role was enticing enough for the “Get Down” and “Us” star, and no one told him to expect anything else.

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“I took it script by script,” Abdul-Mateen said in an interview with IndieWire before the season began. “I just built a guy who was very comfortable in his own skin; who was able to be a rock solid counterpart to Angela and the chaos of her world. […] He’ll play his role up until he has to play a different role.”

Little did I know, Abdul-Mateen was secretly referencing an actual separate role: Dr. Manhattan. As revealed at the end of Episode 7, Cal Abar turns out to be a human shell concealing the blue, glowing superhuman who went by Jon Osterman before a nuclear accident turned him into a God-like being. That happened in the comic, and throughout HBO’s “Watchmen,” viewers were told Dr. Manhattan was on Mars. Instead, he was hiding on Earth.

It was a big reveal — one fans had been waiting for all season, and one Abdul-Mateen didn’t know about until he was “two or three” episodes into shooting. Being kept in the dark like that could spell trouble for some actors, especially if they were uncomfortable with the role’s expected nudity. (Dr. Manhattan appears fully nude in the comics, as well as in Zack Snyder’s film adaptation.) But Abdul-Mateen took the news in stride, keeping his cool when showrunner Damon Lindelof first told him, while “going crazy” with excitement on the inside.

As soon as the episode ended, he let it all out, posting a video of himself sitting in the back of a taxi laughing his head off.

“It’s been really fun watching the show and watching people get an attachment to Cal, and then completely surprising them and having the opportunity to introduce something else,” he said in a recent interview with IndieWire.

Episode 8 laid out Dr. Manhattan’s backstory from the end of the comic through the series’ present, outlining how he and Angela met (at a bar, hence the pun in the title), why Dr. Manhattan became Cal (with a little help from Adrian Veidt), and what his unveiling means for the present situation in Tulsa. In the lightly edited interview below, Abdul-Mateen discusses his reaction to being surprised with the role of a lifetime, why he had to forget Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” film to prepare for the part, and what it was like being covered in blue paint for weeks on end.

I saw the video you posted to Twitter — how hard has it been to keep this secret?

That video was honestly just me, sitting on Twitter, refreshing my scroll. I think that was about the 55th minute of the episode — those last couple minutes when people’s brains are starting to connect the dots. I just thought watching the reactions in real time was so hilarious. It went from curiosity, to possibility, to disbelief, to ‘oh my God — what just happened?’, to ‘I knew it all along.’ It was kind of wild.

Damon Lindelof said you weren’t told Cal was Dr. Manhattan until after they cast you as Cal. When did they finally tell you about your other role, and what was your reaction?

I think it was a couple of episodes in — two, maybe three, I forget. But I definitely had filmed a couple episodes by the time I found out. I tried to play it cool in front of Damon. I might’ve said something like, ‘Oh, wow. Really? Are you serious?’ But on the inside, I was just going crazy. So then I said, ‘Oh, well that means I’m probably going to be naked. I better get to the gym and start working out, really fast.’ Those were my reactions, in order.

So what did they tell you about the nudity and what would be expected of you?

We always worked with what I was comfortable with. We had a lot of different conversations about variations. We were always prepared to give me the option to go either way on the day, and I think everyone was very respectful about it — just making sure that my comfort and privacy was first and foremost. There was never really any [one] decision, I would say, but we always had the options, and I think what ended up on screen was the option we went with.

My attitude toward [appearing nude] was: I’ve been working out, I’ve been getting in shape, it’s HBO, and I’m young. [And] guys can do it, too. Nudity on television was one-sided for so long, but times are changing, where it’s not that big of a deal and guys are being asked to carry their own weight, if they’re willing. So I said, ‘I think it will be fun,’ and I was confidant about getting out there and stepping up to the plate. I was really happy with how it all turned out. I think we tried to make sure everything was tasteful — tasteful and comfortable.

Dr. Manhattan’s voice is so important in general, but especially in this episode, given the bar scene doesn’t show his face. How did you settle on his tone?

Well, I’d seen [Zack] Snyder’s film when it came out, and I don’t think I’d seen it since. I remember there being some remnants of that in my head, but I tried to immediately get all that out. I went back to the comics and looked at his speaking patterns. Then I started to [think about] the most intelligent people I know in my life. I went through different samples, listening to Steve Jobs, soundbites of the dean of Yale drama school James Bundy, and I listened to Damon [Lindelof] also — I think that writers tend to write, whether they intend to or not, in their own likeness. So I eventually landed on a blend of those three and tried to lead with the person who was the furthest away from myself.

It was really fun. I had a lot of sessions with Nikki [director and executive producer Nicole Kassell], trying to figure out what that voice would be like. I wanted him to be distinct, and I knew he used to be a white guy, so I used a lot of different characters who were Caucasian to play around with the voice, but then also tried to find someone who wouldn’t just be a caricature — I wanted to make sure I still had the flexibility for emotional range.

I assume that was you sitting in the bar — that it’s not just your voice?

Yeah, that was me. That’s me in the bar.

Was it challenging to shoot a scene where so much was dictated by precise movements, or just the back of your head, but never your face?

I mean, only in terms of my ego. As an actor, I was like, ‘I want to be on camera damn it! This is my episode! It’s my time to shine!’ [laughs] But we had to hold off for reasons shown in the episode, so the challenge was just to stay focused and make sure Regina [King] had all that she needed from her acting partner. Also, it was practice to figure out how I articulated myself as Dr. Manhattan. [The challenge] was two-fold:

  1. You have to shoot a 16-page bar scene and make it dynamic and make it interesting, while only really being able to show one character — that was a challenge.
  2. But my own challenge was making sure I was giving Regina enough to work with, staying invested in the scene, and finding physical gestures and different ways to tell the story so it reads as a two-person scene and not a one-person scene.

It seems like the process of getting into character would be extremely beneficial or extremely annoying — maybe both. When you’re not glowing, are you just caked in blue make-up? Is that how that worked?

[Laughs.] I’m layered. It’s a spray — a whole airbrush process that took… I don’t know how long it took. The first time, it felt like three hours. I don’t think we ever went quite that long, but it’s a couple of hours for the whole process, and it went from being very uncomfortable to very routine in a matter of a couple weeks. You go in, you sit down, you get sprayed up, and then you stand up and they do the rest. It got real personal in that makeup trailer — a lot of hours in there.

Did the paint come off easily? I’m thinking of you putting on the suit or picking up the beer glass.

No, coming off was one of the easier things, but [it took] alcohol and oils. There were some days, after really long nights, that I would just say, ‘Listen. We’re not going to do my feet.’ And I would just put my socks on, go home with blue feet, and soak them in shaving cream.

On the way home, I just prayed I wouldn’t get pulled over or get into any circumstance where I’d have to take off my shoes for some reason — for one, I’d spoil it, and then two, if I didn’t do that, I’d just be an oddball who walks around with his feet painted blue. I’d have a tough time explaining it.

When I read the comic, I was never sure if Dr. Manhattan was actually in love with Laurie. I thought it might not be possible for Dr. Manhattan to really feel love, especially as he’s losing touch with humanity. But here, when he forgets his powers and becomes Cal, is that time as a human what allows him to feel love?

It’s interesting: He says, ‘I was always in love with you.’ That let me know that he’s always had the capacity for that. I think this love with Angela is a love he’s destined to experience. I don’t think he’d be able to identify the start or the end of that, but it was a journey he had to take. When you look at Dr. Manhattan in the canon, I wouldn’t describe him as a very loving character or loving figure, but the relationships he’s gone through have had highs and lows. This particular path is one where he was more compelled to exercise that love or investigate that love. There was some reason he came back down to Earth, to have that experience he was destined to have, and I think love and companionship were really the driving force for him to come back.

“Watchmen” airs its series finale Sunday, December 15 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Episodes are now available to stream.

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