Last year, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II seized the chance to engage with politically conscious storytelling, capturing the world’s attention with a pair of weighty, dramatic performances. On the heels of his Emmy win for HBO’s Watchmen, the actor returns to the awards circuit with The Trial of the Chicago 7, in which he portrays civil rights icon Bobby Seale. Infamously beaten, bound and gagged in the courtroom during the landmark trial, simply for demanding his constitutional rights, the Black Panther Party co-founder inspired Abdul-Mateen with his self-sacrifice, his indomitable spirit, and his tireless advocacy on behalf of others.
DEADLINE: What were your first impressions of the script for The Trial of the Chicago 7? I know the language was a draw.
YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: It was a big draw, and a really incredible story, and that’s outside of the responsibility and opportunity that came with playing Bobby Seale. This was an opportunity to participate in something that was intended to reenergize the young people in this country—to energize them around getting themselves involved in the political process, and voicing their opinions on things [where] they felt displeasure or outrage. And I thought that was perfect for the time that we were in, in this country.
I got the script in 2019, and I thought that this was something that would definitely speak to the world, especially in an upcoming election year. So, I was very excited about the themes.
DEADLINE: What qualities of Seale did you see in yourself? What did you admire about him?
ABDUL-MATEEN: I think the first thing is self-pride, Black pride. Pride in the way that he built himself up as a man, and built himself up as a respectable human being. One of the things that strikes me as so impressive about Bobby Seale, and I say this with the utmost respect, is that he loves himself. He has a deep self-love, and he’s invested in himself. He’s built himself up, he’s educated himself, and he’s made himself a very well-rounded individual.
I think that’s one of the reasons why you have a person who fights so vehemently for the preservation of his own humanity within this story, is because he believes in himself, and he’s invested in himself. So, that was something that I was really, really attracted to. He has an excellent way with words, he’s extremely charismatic and outspoken, an extremely passionate leader, and I like to think of myself the same way, when it comes to things that I care about.
DEADLINE: Can you recall your first conversations with Aaron Sorkin and the cast before the shoot?
ABDUL-MATEEN: We didn’t talk much. I know that there was a table read, and everybody came, and everyone was so impressive. I really looked up to the actors in the room, and I found myself sitting across from Mark Rylance. I knew that the majority of my scenes, with the exception of one, were opposite Mark, and so I did deep, deep preparation to be absolutely ready.
Aaron told us that it wasn’t a remake, that this wasn’t supposed to be a one-for-one retelling of the story. It’s more of a painting than it is a photograph. But he did want to get across that we were making something that was important for people to see today, in order to awaken our own civic responsibility in ourselves.
We knew that we were coming up on a very, very important year, and so we wanted people to be able to look at the past, but also to be able to relate that to the present. And the world changed so much between those words being spoken, us filming it, wrapping the film, and then when the film finally came out. So, we didn’t even know how important of a film it was that we were embarking on.
DEADLINE: How did you prepare?
ABDUL-MATEEN: I read [Bobby’s] autobiography, A Lonely Rage, and I tried to really get close to his words and his personality. I watched interviews; I read the court transcripts. He talks about his time in prison, and one of the things that he misses so much was cooking. So, he talks about his food. He’s deep in prison during this interview, and he goes on and on, for 10 minutes plus, just talking about food, gravy, and what he would do with some onions and potatoes and sausages, and how he does that. He does it all with such charm and grace, and then at the turn of a dime, he’s talking about the judge and his case. He’s passionate about the people, and he’s talking about all of the wrongs that are going on.
He was just a champion, and that’s what I tried to connect to, knowing that I would have to go in and tell this story, and eventually go through this pretty harrowing experience, this very inhumane experience. It was my job, in the beginning, to just understand him and the things that he cared about, to understand the world that he was in at the time, and then live that experience through the process. A lot of it was learning his words and really learning about the things that he would be advocating for, and then setting that down in 1960s America, and understanding the repercussions of finding himself in the position that he was in.
DEADLINE: What else did you discover about him in the research process?
ABDUL-MATEEN: His smile is what I really latched onto. I really admire him, and he has a great affinity for people, a great affinity for relationships. I looked back at several interviews and he’s extremely charismatic and witty, and he has a smile, which we didn’t really get a chance to explore and show, so much, in the film.
So, that let me know how much pressure he was under during this case. I wanted to latch onto something on the other side of prison, on the other side of those walls, which was his family, his wife, food, having a quality of life. And it’s not something that I learned, but I intuited that he was a winner. So, I knew that no matter what, I would have to make sure that he came out on the other side a winner—not broken, and not defeated.
DEADLINE: Seale is the first real person that you’ve played. Did you find that especially challenging?
ABDUL-MATEEN: Well, I think I try to give the same amount of attention to all of my work, but this one came with some responsibility because a living person would be looking at the story and judging the portrayal. So, I had a responsibility to be an advocate for him and his experience, and I wore that like a badge of honor. I was so proud that I was the actor chosen to walk in those shoes. It kept me up late at night, and it woke me up early in the morning. This was a hunt. From the beginning, until the last moment on set, I was constantly mining for gold, trying to find the moments that would make him human, and that would make his story ring true.
DEADLINE: In one sequence, Seale is beaten, bound and gagged in the courtroom. What was that like to shoot?
ABDUL-MATEEN: It was difficult. I tried to call on my experience as a Black man in America. I tried to call on what I imagined Bobby’s experience would have been. I thought about my father, my uncles, my grandfathers, and I thought about all the instances in history where Black men and women have been silenced, have been beaten, gagged, murdered for speaking out, and for attempting to hold onto their humanity, and for attempting to speak for the humanity and the freedoms of other people.
So, I armed myself with all of that history. I went in as an advocate, and I just prayed for strength, but it was incredibly difficult. I think it was humiliating, as well. But it was my responsibility to step into that space, to allow that experience to be portrayed, and most importantly, to come out on the other side victorious. I’ll always say that, because to beat him, and bound and gag him in a courtroom, it wasn’t just because he was speaking out. It wasn’t just in order to silence him. That type of act is specifically, I believe, designed to break him, to break his spirit, to make sure that not only did he not disrupt the court, but he did not disrupt the status quo in America, once and if he was ever free again.
I knew that moment was about more than an outburst in court. It was about trying to break his spirit, and trying to break his will—not only his will, but as he was a leader, to break the will of the people he influenced. So, there was a great deal of pride that I instilled in myself in those moments, and wanted to instill in my character, so that he could not be broken, so that it was impossible to break his spirit. And although he didn’t have the facility of using his words, his voice and his opinion would still be loud and clear.
DEADLINE: 2020 was a difficult year, on so many levels. What have you found key in preserving your own spirit and sense of hope, in the darkest of times?
ABDUL-MATEEN: Well, I have a couple of nephews. I have a nephew who’s turning 18 years old in a couple of weeks, and he’s looking at me, watching me. I have sisters who look to me for protection. I have another nephew who’s three years old, and he has no idea what’s going on in the world, but he’s going to grow up, looking at me as an example of a man. My father, who’s passed away, and my grandfather, who has passed away, they were denied all of the opportunities that I have, and all of the experiences of a full life and freedom that I have.
So, for me, I remind myself of the people who are looking up to me as an example. I’m fighting for them. I look at my position and I see that I have an opportunity to make their lives better, and to make their lives more meaningful, by living my life with a certain dignity and purpose and courage, in the same way that the ones who came before me did, in order to make my life what it is today.
I know that there’s a lot of people—maybe people who don’t even know me—who are depending on me to stay strong, and who are depending on me to locate my own courage, and live my life in a way that will inspire others to do the same. And I’m willing to do that. I’m willing to do that through my life, and through my art, as well.
DEADLINE: Were there specific highlights to your time on the set of Trial? Memories that you’ll treasure, when you think back on the project?
ABDUL-MATEEN: Yeah. I was so thankful for having Sacha [Baron Cohen] there. He really went above and beyond to make sure that he was an ally and an advocate for me on set, and that’s when everyone else did their proper job, to make sure that I was taken care of, with a lot of those very, very difficult scenes. He was one that went out of his way to be on set, to be in the back room, making sure that I was taken care of, making sure that the gag wasn’t too tight, making sure that I wasn’t doing more takes than I wanted to. Just making sure that I was safe and comfortable. That goes back to some of the themes of this film, which is thinking outside of yourself, and being an advocate for other people, and that was just one of the many examples from that set of those guys being an advocate for me. And that means a lot because in a lot of ways, I did feel like a newcomer to the set. It definitely helped a lot, with an experienced ensemble like that, to know that we’re all on the same team.
DEADLINE: In the film, Seale says, “There’s no place to be right now but in it.” And in recent times, we’ve seen young people living out that truth, getting out to vote in record numbers and making their voices heard, in the wake of police brutality. It must have been heartening to see their level of engagement with the world’s problems.
ABDUL-MATEEN: Absolutely. I think the message of the film resonated with a lot of people, but also, the sentiments of the people resonated with the film. I think we were hopeful that the film would resonate, and the film, I think, turned out to be very much of the moment. I think the spirit of the people was congruous with the spirit of the film. I think a lot of the film is about courage, and the courage to be an advocate for someone else, and I think we saw that so much.
We saw that with advocate coming out, making themselves allies for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. We saw examples of allies from all across the world, people who had no connection to American culture or American politics, directly, but they saw a connection to humanity, and saw an opportunity to align themselves with other people across the world, who were also speaking up for humanity.
So, that was a very, very bright spot throughout the year. When I look, I see people of all generations, but I’m so proud of young people—and I include myself in that category. But [also], people who are younger than me, [in] high school, who couldn’t wait to vote—or who couldn’t vote, and so they marched. They got out and led protests of their own, and things like that. So, I’m just really glad that it seems like the world is making an effort to push back on this very old ideology that is trying to hold on to the old ways. I think there’s a youthful energy, there’s an optimistic energy that is tired of it. When I talk to my uncle, when I talk to my elders, they’re very optimistic about the future, and that makes me happy.
DEADLINE: You have so many extraordinary projects coming up. Over the summer, you wrapped filming on The Matrix 4. Subsequently, you signed on to George Miller’s untitled Furiosa Spin Off, as well as Michael Bay’s thriller Ambulance, in which you’ll star opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. What can you tell us about your upcoming projects? What are you most excited about at the moment?
ABDUL-MATEEN: I’m very fortunate. I’m very blessed. I’m keeping the recipe the same. You know, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. [I’ve] followed my appetite and aligned myself with the tastemakers, and there’s still so, so much that I have to offer, that I haven’t had the chance to [display] in television and film just yet. So, I’m looking forward to those opportunities, with all the upcoming films, to continue to show different sides of my art, and my voice, and my personality, and my abilities, and I’m just really grateful for the chance to do what I do, at a very high level. I think all of those projects are diverse enough that they give me an opportunity to do that, and then hopefully grow my platform, so that I can really get into the driver’s seat, and come with that project that’s just going to knock it out of the park.
DEADLINE: Is there a dream project for you? Something you’d love to be a part of, either on stage or on screen?
ABDUL-MATEEN: There are several things. I think what it all comes down to is…Chicago 7 gave me an opportunity to do this, and I really want more. I just really want to work on excellent writing. I think that’s really where the opportunities are to shine. I think that’s going to take some patience, just really mining what’s out there, and maybe that means that I have to write it myself, or find a way to develop new voices. But I think that’s really my appetite right now, is just finding the right piece of material, finding that piece of material that is excellent. I’m looking for the right space and the right scenario of relationships, and it’s a game of patience, but I don’t think it’s too far.
DEADLINE: In the past, you’ve spoken to your desire to produce. But are you actively pursuing material at the moment, with that goal in mind?
ABDUL-MATEEN: I definitely am. I’m in the process right now, working with my manager to start my production company, and one of the things that I’m going to do with that is find new voices, find voices from places like the places where I come from—West Oakland, New Orleans, Louisiana. [I’m going to] really mine those places for the stories that should be told, for those universes, and the adventures that go on in those places. I think that once I get in the position that I find myself in, it’s my responsibility to make sure that other people have the same opportunity to walk in the same shoes. They have amazing stories and experiences to tell, so a lot of it is finding and cultivating talent, and things like that, so that we can not only develop and serve those communities, but get new, fresh voices and stories. I definitely want to be a part of the body that ushers in that new energy.
DEADLINE: How did the events of 2020 affect you? What did they lead you to reflect on?
ABDUL-MATEEN: Well, it’s interesting. You know, if I look at what this year has been for me from the outside, it looks like an incredible year. And it has been an incredible year. I’m very grateful for where I find myself, but I’ve also been constantly moving, and working, and working, when a lot of the world has been at a standstill. So, what I’ve learned is the value of standing still, the value of not being in a rush, and looking for life, and looking for activity. Sometimes, there’s a lot of value in standing still, and waiting, and being patient, and I think that’s what this year taught me. It hasn’t necessarily taught me patience, but it definitely taught me the value of rest, and the value of patience, and family, and important relationships.
So, I think those are a couple of the things that I’m working on now, is slowing down, being patient, and resting. Resting is very important. When I think back even to the themes of the film—advocating for other people, and finding your courage—this year was filled with a lot of civil unrest. It was filled with a lot of chaos, and I think for everyone who was out there, marching, and protesting, and making a difference, it’s also important to find a time to rest. Because we want to be healthy and available to take care of ourselves. We want to be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor, as well. So, that’s one of the things that I’m working on, that I would encourage other people to do, when we so rarely have the luxury to do that. That’s kind of the mindset that I find myself in right now.