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How Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Learned About the Doctor Manhattan Twist

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

When Yahya Abdul-Mateen II joined Watchmen, he had no idea that he was actually going to be playing the most powerful being in the show’s universe. The actor, who’d previously played Black Manta in Aquaman, shot the pilot as Cal Abar, supportive husband to Regina King’s character, and then, further into shooting, creator Damon Lindelof pulled him aside and told him that Cal was actually Doctor Manhattan, the Watchmen universe’s most powerful being, a blue God in hiding in a human body.

“From the outside, I was cool, calm, and collected,” Abdul-Mateen recalls of that meeting, “But on the inside, I was tearing that room up! I was going crazy and I was so excited.” He also quickly realized that he needed to hire a trainer to get into godlike shape.

After a little bit of hinting, Watchmen revealed its big Cal-is-Doctor Manhattan twist at the end of last week’s episode, and then spent this week’s episode, cheekily titled “A God Walks Into Abar,” diving deep into Doctor Manhattan and Angela’s past. We learn about what he was up to on Europa, how Angela fell for him, and by the end of the episode, we see Doctor Manhattan operating in all his glowing blue glory, even if it doesn’t quite last. In advance of the episode, Abdul-Mateen caught up with Vulture to discuss how he approached playing several different versions of Doctor Manhattan, what it was like getting into blue makeup, and how he’s reacted to fans’ discovery of Cal’s real identity.

You posted a video of yourself cracking up right as the big “Cal is Doctor Manhattan reveal” happened on last week’s episode. It must be such a relief to be like, “so this is who I’m playing.”

I watch the show with my phone in my hand and I’m scrolling through Twitter just kind of watching it with the fans all at the same time. In that moment I wasn’t watching the show, but I was heading uptown to watch the show with my sisters, and I was just scrolling and updating and watching people’s reactions roll out in real time. It was just really hilarious watching them go on that emotional rollercoaster.

Were you laughing internally earlier in the season when people would be like, “So you’re playing a more minor character, Angela’s husband.”
That was fun. But I actually really like Cal and I think people really like Cal because he’s a loving, supportive husband. So, in a way, I tricked myself into thinking that Cal could last forever. I sat in the chair as a viewer to the experience and not really getting ahead of my own self. But eventually I just can’t deny the inevitable, and that’s when I really started to get some enjoyment out of watching people be caught off guard by that big reveal.

Did you know that Cal was Doctor Manhattan when you started filming?
No, I had already shot the pilot, and possibly episode two, at the time that I found out. I just took this job on the strength of Regina King and HBO and Damon Lindelof and having a really good acting opportunity to work in really good company. If I did television, I wanted to do really tasteful television, and those names in that category let me know that I will be in good hands. [When I learned Cal was Doctor Manhattan], I was in Los Angeles and Damon said he wanted to talk to me a little bit more about my character, and we sat down and very early in the conversation he said, “So, basically, Cal is Doctor Manhattan.” From the outside I was cool, calm and collected, but on the inside, I was tearing that room up! I was going crazy, I was so excited. Then I said, “Oh shit, I’m going to have to get in shape.” Then I went and got a trainer.

Speaking of, a crucial part of the character is that he’s nude all the time. Was there a conversation about how you would feel filming that?
HBO was very supportive throughout the whole time. We talked about all the options and every day where we had to shoot scenes, I had the option of doing it differently. But I said, “Hey look, Black Panther had a suit and Dr. Manhattan has his birthday suit.” I figured I’m going to do it, I might as well do it when I’m young and I’m also playing a character that is really above any notions of shame. For me it was really liberating to play inside of that, you know, to play naked. I guess there’s no other way to say it.

When Doctor Manhattan is blue, how was that accomplished? Was it effects or makeup?
It started as a three-hour process and then I think we got it down to two and a half hours, but we go in there. I’d shave off all the hair off my body and then we would put on the ball cap and get to work airbrushing. Privacy and personal space really goes out the window when you’re painting my whole self blue for two and a half hours. It started off really cool, because I could see myself transformed, and then after that it was like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” There were several nights where I went home with my legs and feet still blue, because I just couldn’t take getting it off anymore.

Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

In this episode, you play several versions of Cal-slash-Doctor Manhattan — when he first meets Angela, when he occupies Cal’s body, and then when he loses his memory. How did you approach the different versions of him?
After I got the information that I was going to be playing Doctor Manhattan, I wanted to strengthen everything that I had been doing with Cal already. He was very patient and understanding and very good partner to Regina. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t begin to do things differently because I had the information that he was Doctor Manhattan. Then when it came to building Doctor Manhattan, I wanted to make him a person who led with his mind first, with his intellect. Cal is a character who leads with his heart. Doctor Manhattan was a character who led with his mind and his intuition and his intellect.

I wanted Doctor Manhattan to have a different physical vocabulary. He has very little unnecessary movements. Once I put on the suit [that Doctor Manhattan wears in the bar with Angela], that really informed who he was. I thought about his breath control. He doesn’t need a lot in order to get things done. He’s not a character that has to use a lot of energy, a lot of physical energy or a lot of physical effort, which made it very fun to play in that. I wanted him to be someone who was still penetrable emotionally as well. He’s a god who wanted to feel what it was like to be human again, so I made sure that our Doctor Manhattan also had a heart.

This episode is built around the conversation between Angela and Doctor Manhattan in the bar, where he’s jumping back and forth in time as it happens, which can get pretty confusing. How did you figure out the emotional logic for him?
Regina, even from the first chemistry read, leads with her heart and she’s such a great actor and a great partner. We knew that we had something really special with Cal and Angela. And then when we learned about the episode, about the real history of Cal as well, then we know that it’s a story of sacrifice. Doctor Manhattan sacrificed himself so that he could be in the body of Cal, so that he could be with Angela and so that Angela could experience true love. We were very delicate and very proactive and making sure that we took care of one another. I think myself and Regina, we worked in a way that allowed us to be very familiar with one another and to lean into those moments.

How did you approach doing Doctor Manhattan’s voice? Because it’s so distinct from Cal’s.
I said, “Who are some of the most intelligent people that I know, in my own life?” I identified Steve Jobs. I identified James Bundy, who is the dean of the drama school at Yale, and then Damon Lindelof. I often [think] writers write in their own likeness. I landed in a place where I had this higher-pitched voice that still allowed me to have a free vocal range that sounded distinct enough on its own.

If you didn’t learn until after shooting the pilot, when did the other actors learn you were Doctor Manhattan?
Nobody knew for a very long time. But I could tell when people started to know, a couple weeks after I did test shots [as Doctor Manhattan]. It was a closed set, but people had to be there in order to get it done. Eventually I think it started to trickle out very slowly. Even after people started to know, I never confirmed anything until it was confirmed in the script. I think they also respected the privacy of it all, too. They didn’t make me say yes or no.

Were there any great reactions in particular?
Regina would just kind of stare. I would just catch her staring, and she came up and she said, “Oh, the paint, it smells like apple.” That’s what she said, “It’s like, apple-flavored candy.” She would come up and smell it and ask me to go stand over there because the smell is too strong. She was a really good sport.

Did you think about what it meant for a black actor to play Doctor Manhattan? He’s a godlike blue being, which is sort of beyond race, but he starts out as Jon Osterman, a German immigrant to America, so it’s not a role that would typically be available to a person of color.
Honestly, it never really crossed my mind until the reveal. Then I started to see how other people always see Doctor Manhattan. Their interactions and their conversations let me know about the power of the image that we put forward. I was really just doing my job, playing blue Doctor Manhattan, and then I was playing blue Doctor Manhattan inside of the body of Cal, which was the body that was the vessel that Angela chose. I really took it at surface value and think that was my job to do that. Had I done more, I would be putting something on to the character that wasn’t my own responsibility to do.

But it was so rewarding watching people talk about this online and engaging in these conversations. Seeing representation means so much, as I’ve learned through Black Panther and through playing Black Manta. I’m watching conversations online where people talk about the most powerful being in the universe being inhabited in the body of a black man and how powerful that is. It’s really awesome to be a part of something that is challenging our perception of what it is to be a god, or what a god looks like, or what a god has to be.

Were there any moments in this week’s episode that you’re excited to see people reacting to online?
I can’t say without alluding to exactly what’s going to happen, but there’s a moment that’s going to tie up some loose ends, and I think it’s going to blow people’s minds. My mind was blown. Angela’s mind is going to be blown. I think that people are going to experience that right along with us. I think I’ll probably be on Twitter laughing again when that comes out.

Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on Playing Doctor Manhattan