Interview: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on Why ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Came Along at Just the Right Time

Kelvin Harrison, Jr (Left), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Center), and Mark Rylance (Right) star in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 — Courtesy of Netflix

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a very busy man these days. In just three years, he has appeared in The Greatest Showman, Us, Aquaman, and more. Last year, he took on his biggest role to date, starring opposite Regina King in HBO’s epic limited series, Watchmen. Abdul-Mateen won his first Primetime Emmy award for his work, and made him a star to watch.

His upcoming films include the highly anticipated Candyman from Nia DaCosta, as well as Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix 4, and George Miller’s Furiosa. He can currently be seen playing real-life civil rights leader Bobby Seale as part of one of the year’s best ensembles in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.

It was of this project that we had the chance to speak this week, on a relatively calm afternoon in the middle of a week of chaos and uneasiness. “I’m relaxing,” he said at first. That was an important point he would circle back to later. The national news was a strangely fitting backdrop for a conversation about Sorkin’s sophomore effort, in which eight men were arrested and tried for their role in the riots that broke out during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968. Abdul-Mateen plays Bobby Seale, a civil rights activist who co-founded the Black Panther Party in 1966. It was a role he was honored to play, and that came about exactly when it needed to.

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: This film is one that has been kind of bouncing around pre-production and planning stages for years, but it feels like it just came out at exactly the right time. Can you talk about how you were able to become part of this amazing cast?

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: This was timing. I was wrapping up Candyman and I was on my way to go and take some time off. And right before I finished I got an email that said, “Hey, there’s an opportunity for you to do this if you’re interested.” I saw the names attached and I said, okay, that’s something cool. That’s something special.

I got about 10 pages into the script and I said, okay, yeah, I want to do it. I’m in, I’m in, I’m in, automatically. Just the chance to, to portray Bobby Seale and to kind of give some hometown hometown love to to one of our heroes, you know, it really, really meant a lot. And then the words come from the page, written by Mr. Sorkin. There was a lot that was right about this project. And I was very fortunate to be able to come on.

KP: Is there a difference for you, in how you prepare to play someone who is a real person, someone who’s so important to history, versus how you play a fictional character?

YAM: I try not to let there be so much of a difference, I think. One of the things that I have the luxury of doing when it’s a real character from history is I have more resources that I don’t have to make up in my brain, you know? I actually don’t have very much experience with this, but I’m looking at the way that I approached this performance and the way that I approach others. I have my roadmaps, and with this one, I had the luxury of having resources. I wasn’t able to get in contact with with Bobby Seale, but I read materials. I read his autobiography, I watched hours and hours of interviews to align myself with his personality, and his causes, his spirit, to figure out what he was concerned with at the time.

But at the end of the day, after the preparation, I think there is more of a greater responsibility to tell a truth; to identify with something true and righteous. So I definitely put that at the top of my list of my priorities with this one.

KP: Seale’s role in the trial — and therefore your role in this film — is very separated from the rest of the men. How was that experience for you? Did you keep yourself separated from the rest of the guys while you were filming? Or were you just as much a part of the group off-camera?

YAM: I was all the way in the mix. This was a this was a very tight ensemble. We knew that. We knew and felt that we were making something special. And I think everyone was genuinely delighted to be in the room with the other actors. And so I almost stayed glued to Mark Rylance, and we would we would play games and things like that in between on the set, and I’d go up to Frank Langella’s desk because he usually stayed up there. So I’d go up there and I be looking up at him and we exchanged stories and he’d asked me, “So where’d you come from kid and do you do theater?” I’d ask him about old Hollywood stories and things like that. So this was definitely one of those experiences where we bonded tightly as a cast.

But that was necessary, I think, because there was so much adversarial energy once the cameras started rolling, and a lot of times it helps to have a really good relationship in between takes, in order to exchange that energy and to not hold back once the cameras are rolling.

KP: This is a topic that has come up again recently about method acting, and certain actors, in a situation like yours, where their tendency would be to completely isolate themselves from everyone else. And so I love that you’re talking about how important it was to not do that.

YAM: I mean, that was for me. I understand that, though. I don’t knock it because at the end of the day, it wouldn’t help if I was chummy and best friends with everyone else but I didn’t have it once the cameras were rolling. I think at the end of the day that’s what our job is, is to be prepared. But for myself, and for a number of us on the cast, we were able to have a relationship in between the takes and then still still bring it when the cameras were rolling.

KP: Can you talk about working with Aaron Sorkin, not only as the writer who just is so well known for his dialogue and scripts, but also as a director?

YAM: For me, Aaron, as a director, he was very hands off. Had a very clear vision and he’s very hands off, because a lot of his direction was in the brilliance of his writing, so much to the point where a lot of the performance was just intuitive. He puts a lot of direction — and when I say the direction I don’t mean only stage direction — but there’s a lot of direction in the language itself. And so for me, I was able to find the answers in the writing first. A lot of times you can’t do that. You have to go find the writer, and then you have to find the director and have a meeting and figure out what things mean. But for this, a lot of the things that where otherwise would have gone to the director, I could go to the writing.

And then as a director, he was extremely supportive. This was a very taxing performance, emotionally, physically. It was a very vulnerable position to be in. At the beginning and end of the day, I was one of the only Black men in the ensemble. I was portraying a character who was incarcerated for the great majority of that of the story. And it takes a lot of delicate eyes and awareness in order to be able to cultivate a healthy filming environment. That all started with him. He let me know, “Hey, this is how we’re going to do this. If you need anything, you let me know. I’m here to make sure that you’re comfortable at all times.” He really made sure that there was a safe and secure set in order to be able to perform and to do my job, and to go home at the end of the day without any residual effects about the material and things like that.

So, that was a huge kudos for Aaron. That was a huge part of his job that he did extremely well, making sure that it was a safe set for me.

KP: Every scene you’re in is so emotionally charged and so vital to the story. What did you have to do to get yourself into a place emotionally to be able to carry out those scenes so powerfully?

YAM: I think I wanted to connect to something real. For me that was Bobby’s manhood. I had to have an awareness of history, had to have an awareness of the given circumstances of what it’s like to be a Black man in America. What my experience is, what my father, my grandfather’s experience was, what Bobby’s experience was at that time. Before my first day on set, I gave myself an idea that I’d say this is what I’m going to hold on to, and this is what I’m going to protect for the duration of this performance. And that was my humanity, and my manhood.

I think that every good story is a love story. And in that story, you have figures who are in love with a person or an idea. And then the plot of that story is going to try to take that thing or that person or that idea away from the character. And it then becomes my job to defend it against the plot. And for me, that was my manhood and my humanity. So in every moment when my humanity was attacked, I had a reminder to myself that I’m a man. No matter what, I’m a man. And that helped me to keep my dignity and my pride through those tough moments. When he’s being beaten and bound and gagged, I remind myself, I’m a man. When he’s brought out in handcuffs for show, I’m still a man. When he’s being brought out with a gag in his mouth, and he’s being treated like an animal, I have the voice that’s reminding me that I’m a man through all of this. And so it helped me to hold on to my dignity in my performance and being victorious and to not succumb to the circumstances of the story.

KP: What is something you learned about yourself while getting to be part of this story?

YAM: I learned that I have an appetite for stories like this one. That I want to be a part of stories that talk about history, that talk about moments in time, or moments in the future that are close to myself. I really enjoy…being able to be an advocate for other people, and I think that it definitely grew my appetite for those types of stories. I think my resume shows that I that I love adventure, and I love play, and I love to play a different scale and larger than life and things like that as well, in imaginary circumstances.

But in this one, I really learned that it was so rewarding to step into honorable roles where I can tell a story. And there’s real weight and responsibility and an opportunity for me to be an advocate for someone else. I think I had to be. I love to do this because it’s fun. But I also love to be in service of other people as well. And so through this experience, my performance felt like a service, like a responsible service. And I got a lot out of that. I’m looking forward to getting some more of that in my career.

KP: This is definitely a film that like feels like it could just as easily have taken place last summer as 1968. What does that mean like for you to know that it’s still so relevant?

YAM: I think it means that we’ve got work to do. At the top of the conversation I said that I was relaxing. And I am. I’m chilling, because I think — and I’m not equating myself to a revolutionary, but putting myself back in Bobby’s shoes — I think revolutionaries deserve a day off. They deserve rest. Too often they run themselves into the ground. But at end of the day, we know that they are going to stand up, put their boots back on and get back out there. So, you know, it tells me that that there’s still work to do. And as long as there’s work to do that, hopefully, this film has lit something amongst our viewers and in society that causes them to align with their moral courage to step up and to do the work when there’s work to be done. So that’s my hope for this film, and how it resonates in this time.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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