Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on Playing Bobby Seale in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ and Auditioning for ‘The Matrix 4’

Marc Malkin
·6 min read

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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II may be starring in the fourth “Matrix” movie, but don’t ask him to explain what the franchise is about. “No one understands the Matrix except for Keanu Reeves and Lana Wachowski,” Abdul-Mateen tells me. So how did the actor approach his work? “You learn to find meaning, and then you go test it out,” he says. “If no one says anything, then you just trust that you ended up doing the right thing.” The “Matrix” audition wasn’t as intense as one might assume. “It was maybe two days,” Abdul-Mateen recalls. “Lana and I did more conversing than we did acting in that audition because she’s building a family.”

He was in a New York hotel room for work when Wachowski called him on FaceTime. “She said, ‘I would love to invite you to the family,’” Abdul-Mateen says. “I had the biggest smile in the world, because I’m going to be in the ‘Matrix.’ I was on top of the world, man.”

Abdul-Mateen, who won an Emmy last year for his work on “Watchmen,” is an awards season contender for his portrayal of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale in Aaron Sorkin‘s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” In a horrifying sequence, the judge orders Seale to be bound and gagged to prevent him from speaking up for himself. “What actually happened … was much more gruesome than what made it into the film. In actuality, Bobby Seale was bound and gagged for three days,” Abdul-Mateen says. Even so, “my head is up because I’m a man, and my chin is up because I’m still a man. That was the mantra that helped me through it to make sure that Bobby was victorious and not seen as a victim.”

Abdul-Mateen recalls preparing for the shoot. “Aaron told me, ‘Whatever you need, let me know. If you need to cut just say so. You have total control,'” the actor says. “I told him, ‘Let’s just do it.’ We knew what we were making so there was no effort to spare my own feelings. What was important to me as an actor was that I had the trust of the set, the trust of the crew and the trust of the director. And in situations like that, I asked everyone not to hold back. You do your job and I’m going to do my job. If we all do our job well, then we represent Bobby Seale.”

He continued, “Bobby’s experience in that trial was all about humanity. It was all about never losing sight of his humanity, never compromising.”

Looking toward the future, Abdul-Mateen says he wants to direct. He’s considering projects that focus on his childhood hometowns of New Orleans or West Oakland, Calif. “I want to do something fun, I want to do something with music and something epic,” he says. “These people are larger than life. We live larger than life. We experience the highest highs and the lowest lows and we’re resilient.”

Congrats to Joseph Hutchinson, creative director of Variety sibling publication Rolling Stone, for receiving the Richard Gangel Art Director Award from the Society of Illustrators.

Aldis Hodge, another awards season contender, is quite busy in front of the camera. He plays Jim Brown in Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” he’s shooting Showtime’s “City on a Hill” and he’ll appear as Hawkman in “Black Adam” opposite Dwayne Johnson. Now Hodge tells me that he has co-founded 9B, an artist collective specializing in entertainment projects. “What we really want to do is prioritize opening up a lane for artists of color,” he says. Sounds like he’s taking a page out of the playbook of Brown, who became a successful businessman beyond his football and film careers. “He knew his value as a businessman,” Hodge says, “and then he wanted to spread that business acumen to the people and help educate the Black community on economic potential and power.”

Hodge says he and King decided he shouldn’t reach out to Brown to prepare for his portrayal. “At the end of the day, it was really a creative decision to sort of work within what I saw of him to be because I wanted to present what I felt was a celebration of who I found him to be,” he says. “I hope I did okay. I haven’t spoken to him personally about it, but I heard through the grapevine that he saw it and he was happy with it.”

Hodge says he doesn’t know when “Black Adam” will start shooting. However, he will certainly be packing on a lot more muscle for the job. “It is not a game and the Rock is always throwing up videos on Instagram,” he says, laughing. “Every time I see him I feel like he’s gained 100 more pounds. And I’ll just be up in the gym looking at myself with the little subtle flex and I’m not getting anything. Nothing is happening to me. It keeps me motivated because I’ll be in the gym taking a minute on a bike or something like that, and then I see him in the gym all swole and I’m like, ‘I must do better.’”

Over Zoom, Hodge shows me a photo of a Hawkman figurine his 5-year-old nephew made at a Lego store. “He spent a whole bunch of time searching through the bin just to find two little black arms to put on it,” Hodge says.

For the first time in its six seasons, “Chicago Med” had a reshoot. “We realized that by the time the fifth episode airs, frontline workers would be getting vaccinated,” executive producer and director Michael Pressman tells me. “So we went back and added a vaccination scene.” That doesn’t mean the entire season is focusing on the pandemic. “We felt it was necessary to start the season with authenticity … but then we dialed it back,” Pressman says.

The first episode featured a woman who had to use FaceTime to say her final goodbyes to her husband, who was dying of COVID. “I got a lot of responses from that episode where people said, ‘You know, I’ve heard about this, but now that I’ve seen it, how devastating and heartbreaking it is,” Pressman says. He’s confident that when the pandemic is over — or at least, safely manageable — Hollywood will experience a swell of creativity. “I think it’s all going to come back like the roaring ’20s,” he says. “When this passes…there’s going to be a starved country for escapism entertainment. It’ll explode.”

LA Family Housing has named a new group of actors — Phoebe Tonkin, Emma Kenney, Max Emerson, Miles Brown, Alyson Stoner, Chloe East, Chrissie Fit, Emily Tosta, Lilan Bowden, Nico Greetham and Raegan Revord — as its 2021 Young Action Committee to bring attention to the housing crisis amid the pandemic.

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