'Watchmen' Star Yahya Abdul-Mateen On That Twist And The Love Story We Didn't Know We Needed

December 09 2019

*Editors Note: Spoilers for the plot of HBO’s Watchmen through episode 8 below. Stop reading if you don't want spoilers!!* 

For the past month and a half people have been glued to their television sets every Sunday night watching the best show on TV, HBO’s newest hit, Watchmen. Based on the 1986-87 DC Comics graphic novel of the same name, Watchmen stars Regina King as Angela Abar (vigilante alias Sister Night) as she tries to solve the murder of her police chief while also processing generational trauma and reconnecting with the grandfather she never knew existed. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Cal, Angela’s sexy, strong, supportive husband who stays home with their three adopted children while she kicks ass as Sister Night when the sun sets.

In a shocking twist, the audience learned that all this time, Cal is so much more than what we thought. Yes, he's a perfect husband, but it's because he's an actual god. In fact, he is the only true superhero of the series, Dr. Manhattan. Thankfully, this isn’t a situation where Cal has been lying to his wife or hiding who he is. He’s been honest with her about being a god from the moment they met and fell in love. Because he wants to have a normal life with her, he sacrifices his godhood, wipes his memory clean, and hides his glowing blue skin. At the morgue, Angela picks out a dead body for him to inhabit--someone with no next of kin who also happens to be fine and Black (they are getting married and moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma, after all!). So, Dr. Manhattan the god embodies the shell of Calvin, so that he could love her the way she deserves. An icon!

Of course, it may not quite be a traditional #BlackLoveStory, since we learn that Watchmen is sticking to canon here and Dr. Manhattan was a German Jewish man named Jonathan Osterman before he was turned into a blue god in a freak accident. Wannabe god Adrian Viedt (Jeremy Irons) even makes a joke in episode 8 about Dr. Manhattan "appropriating" a Black man by taking on this form. But still, Dr. Manhattan's transcendent godliness in the form of a Black man, sacrificing himself and fiercely loving a Black woman is definitely a love story we didn't know we needed.

Shadow And Act caught up with Abdul-Mateen to talk about the show’s big twist, Black love, and how the show is changing the way we think about generational trauma, Black history and reparations.

Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Angela Abar (Regina King) come face to face after ten years of Dr. Manhattan living as Cal Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Angela Abar (Regina King) come face to face after ten years of Dr. Manhattan living as Cal

SHADOW AND ACT: How did you go about preparing for the role…did you know the Dr. Manhattan twist all a long or were you as surprised as we were?

YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN: No, I didn’t know all along. I auditioned for Cal, and that was dope. I said that if I was going to do television, I wanted to do high-class television, and this had all the ingredients, with HBO, Regina King, Damon Lindelof, and the Watchmen, that was just a four-for-four. So, I said, I’m going to go in there and I’ll do whatever my responsibility is, especially knowing that I was going to be playing opposite Regina King, but I didn’t know [the twist].

We shot the pilot, and somewhere between the second and the third episode, I had a conversation with Damon about the backstory of my character, and about the future of the character, and that’s when I found out that I was playing Dr. Manhattan. I tried to play it cool on the outside, but on in the inside I was going wild at this opportunity. I get to play a really cool character, the most powerful being in the universe.

For starters, I had to get in shape, that was really the first part of my preparation, I had to get my body right. (Editor's note: um, well done!) In terms of my approach to differentiate the two characters, I really liked the person that I had already began to create with Cal: he is a supportive husband, he is a strong man, a stay-at-home dad, who wasn’t conflicted, and I liked those things. I liked that he could be an anchor for Angela, so I really tried to build him up that way.

When it came to Dr. Manhattan, I tried to differentiate him by making him, more of a rigid character. He’s not necessarily cold, but Cal is very loose, a sweats, t-shirt, and tennis shoes guy. Dr. Manhattan wears a suit when he’s not wearing his birthday suit, so this is a guy that is much more meticulous, he parses out his emotions, his gestures, and his feelings, so I started to investigate what the differences were between the two characters, what were their motivations, which led me to the differentiations between the two. 

S&A: Up until this week’s episode, we’d only seen Cal as the loving father and doting husband of Angela Abar. Do you think that Angela at some point made a separation between Cal and Dr. Manhattan?

YA-M: Well I think that, they fell in love, but Angela fell in love with Dr. Manhattan. But as we see in the episode, Dr. Manhattan is a very hard person to be in love with; it was hard for that to be the person you need to depend on, you can depend on him to protect you, and you can definitely depend on him to be honest with you, but in terms of emotional connectivity, to be a good listener, for warmth, for consideration and care, you’re not going to get a lot of those things from him because that’s not his primary mode of existence. That’s not the way he moves in the world. I think she was always in love with Dr. Manhattan, but I think she began to appreciate him in the embodiment of Cal. I think Cal was always Dr. Manhattan, but he is the expression of the love within Dr. Manhattan that a lot of Dr. Manhattan’s own facilities didn’t allow him to bring to the front.

S&A: Dr. Manhattan is a blue god who was formerly a white human man now embodying a dead Black man's body so that he can be with Angela and give her the life she deserves. Adrian Veidt even makes a joke about his "appropriation" of a Black man being "problematic." But it's so great to see Cal and Angela loving each other so fiercely and swapping gender roles. Do you consider Angela and Cal/Dr. Manhattan's relationship something we can still champion as "Black love"?

YA-M:I think the show has come too far not to call it Black love. In a story where the antagonist is white supremacy, salvation comes in the love between a Black woman and her partner, who learned to love her best in his Black body. Momentarily (10 years) it’s undoubtedly an example of Black love.

S&A: The chemistry between you and Regina is incredible. Were you two friends before filming the show, was there anything that you guys did to establish that chemistry, or was there instant chemistry between you two? 

YA-M: Honestly, I felt like from the moment we met, she walked into the room, we sat down and we started reading and she was just so game to play, and I was game also, we just went at it from the first scene in the audition. I remember walking out of the audition and saying, “Wow, that felt so strong. That felt, so good.” For the two of us, it really felt like something natural from the beginning.

Then, we always made sure to be playful on set, to be playful during the takes and in between the takes, and to really take care of each other. The story didn’t give us a ton of real estate to build that familiarity. I think we were just patient with each other, and really trusting with each other from the beginning, we really leaned into one another in order to tell the story of two people that felt like they were familiar for a very long time. I think that was a testament to Regina and myself just being game to play with each other. We had a sex scene in the very first episode, that was maybe the first or second day that we shot something together. So from the beginning, I think our relationship was really built on communication and trust, and really leaning into one another, to go on that journey, which is not unlike what Angela and Cal were already doing.

Regina King and Dr. Manhattan Angela Abar (Regina King) and Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) first meet in Vietnam

S&A: There are a lot of Easter eggs in the show. Agent Blake, who used to date Dr. Manhattan, is always telling Angela how attractive Cal is and how lucky she is to have him. Were there any that we might have missed that would have clued us in to you being Dr. Manhattan the whole time?

YA-M: I don’t think that there were any deliberate Easter eggs. Not that I know of, but at the same time, Damon didn’t mind if people thought they figured it out. But I don’t think that he was attempting to lead the audience there at any point. I think it was one of those things where, if you watch it back the second time, then maybe some things would start to make sense. I think the answer is yes and no, if you were to watch it again with the curse or the gift of knowledge, it will sort of lead you on that path, but I don’t think it was something where the audience was supposed to get it before they did. But, even saying that, a lot of people did. There is a huge part of the internet, the “Watchmen watchers” community that did guess that Cal was Dr. Manhattan. But I had a lot of fun watching the theories come together, I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that, even if they did guess it, no one knew how the reveal was going to come out. I know that everyone was surprised by the last five minutes of Episode 7.

S&A: The show has done a great job at rewriting the history of the Watchmen, first with making Hooded Justice a Black man, Angela’s grandfather Will Reeves, and now with Dr. Manhattan being able to take human form and choosing to embody a Black man. Do you think that it will begin to change fan’s minds about non-traditional casting when it comes to superheroes? 

YA-M: Yeah, I think it already has. I don’t think that we’re the first, I think that there are several other instances in recent history where that has been done, at least I hope there has. I think it’s only right that it has. I think that it’s really cool that we are pushing the needle even further. If God can come down on Earth, inhabit a Black man, and can exist in the physical nature as a black man, then why can’t any superhero character in the history of storytelling also be a black man. I think we’ve opened the gates to say that in terms of representation in film, television, and storytelling, there are no limitations. We don’t have to, but we justified it beautifully. In this world we created where white supremacy, is the key antagonist, I think its only right that our protagonist and our heroes be the embodiment of black bodies. Its really cool to be apart of that imagery and people are also being inspired by that. I’ve been following the conversation closely online and its something that people really enjoyed. People say, “I can’t believe that Dr. Manhattan is Black.” Representation really matters, and seeing yourself on the television, seeing yourself in media represented in powerful ways really makes a difference.

S&A: Watchmen tackles real events in history that have never been seen on screen before such as The Tulsa race riot where the Ku Klux Klan destroyed Black Wall Street, and German soldiers dropping flyers from planes in an effort to solicit Black soldiers during World War I, as a Black man, how did those scenes effect you?

Those were parts of history that I was already aware of, and I am proud to be a part of something that responsibly put that part of history back into the conversation and made it current. The show doesn’t shy away from the realities of that history and those conversations. I think at first, I was surprised it was in the show, but then I was happy with being a part of something that would put those topics into the conversation with our execution of it. There is always an opportunity to really reflect and acknowledge that this was really a part of our American history. What I really like about the show is that, it shows how historical trauma from one hundred years ago, can absolutely be relevant today.

A lot of times, when we talk about history, slavery, and oppression, people say, “Well, that was so long ago, no one who did those things are still living, get over it.” Our show shows how easy it is for trauma to travel through a lineage, to travel 100 years forward, and still be affecting people who are alive today. Trauma really does travel from generation to generation. Our show shows how it doesn’t take much to do that at all. It’s really a point of pride for me to be a part of show that is moving the needle and having people engage in important conversations about our people and how we got to where we are today.

S&A: Reparations is a huge Democratic issue now; do you think that the show and its depiction of “Redfordations” will help to start a different conversation in today’s society about reparations? 

YA-M: Personally, no. I think that “Redfordations” in the show is a mechanism to tell the story that we’re telling, a political solution. I think that it is a plot tool and a conversation starter. As far as reparations in America, at the end of the day, we’re still in America, you know what I mean? I think it would take a whole lot to even begin those conversations in a realistic way. But I don’t know. That’s probably the pessimist in me. Maybe the optimistic part of me feels that it is possible to begin those conversations. But I don’t know. We’re talking about it right now, even in this interview so maybe the answer is yes!

S&A: Is there anything else we should know about the show and how it’s going to end?

YA-M: It gets fun. There’s so much more to see. At the end of episode 8 ,there are still a lot of unanswered questions. I know that people are wondering how we’re going to cover all this ground in episode 9. But I think people are in for a wild ride and a surprise. Also, there is a continuation of a love story. At the end of all this historical information, there is still a love story, or it begins to be a love story at the end of episode 8. It’s fun to take the lighter and more emotional side into consideration when thinking about Angela and Dr. Manhattan’s journey and how they got together in the first place. I’m really excited for people to go on the emotional journey, to experience more of what it means for these two people to fall in love.

S&A: Ok, last question. So, is Dr. Manhattan gone for good or will we see him again? 

YA-M: You’ll have to tune into Episode 9 to find out the answer to that.

Watchmen airs on HBO on Sundays at 9 PM.

This interview has been edited, condensed and updated.

READ MORE:

Is Watchmen A Bold Critique Of White Supremacy Or More 'Copaganda'?

What Are 'Redfordations,' And How To Black People Qualify For Them On 'Watchmen'?

How HBO Recreated The Tulsa Race Riots Of 1921 On 'Watchmen'

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