How Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Went From Disco Gangster to 'Aquaman' Villain

The 'Get Down' actor has come a long way since playing Cadillac on the Netflix series — and he's just getting started.

The name Yahya Abdul-Mateen II might not ring any bells, but it should. The New Orleans-born actor stars in Aquaman as Black Manta, the comic book hero’s arch-nemesis who stomps around in a badass super suit and shoots laser beams out of his eyes. Before that he appeared in critically acclaimed shows like The Get Down and The Handmaid’s Tale (along with some less impressive movies).

Baywatch movie aside, Abdul-Mateen II’s career is clearly on an upward trajectory. Next year, he’ll appear in HBO’s upcoming sequel/adaptation of Watchmen, along with Jordan Peele’s Us, a follow-up to Get Out starring Elisabeth Moss and Lupita Nyong’o.

Ahead of Aquaman’s release, Abdul-Mateen II tells Inverse what it was like putting on Black Manta’s suit, how he feels about The Get Down’s cancellation, and more. (We also asked about Watchmen, but he wouldn’t say much).

This interview has been edited for clarity.

black manta actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II aquaman
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in 'Aquaman'

Inverse: You’ve been on some really cool TV shows over the years. How do you pick your roles?

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: I appreciate you saying that. It’s really all about taste. I think as long as I continue to look for projects from people with really good taste then I can’t go wrong. You know, you can never predict the outcome of a project, but you can always say, “I want to work with people who inspire me and work with people who have really good taste.” And for me, thus far, that’s been a pretty good litmus test to choose the type of work that I want to involve myself in.

I know Aquaman used a lot of stunt actors, but did you ever get to where the full Black Manta suit?

Oh yeah, I definitely got to move around in the suit. I also at the same time had an amazing stunt person, of course. He did come and make it look great, but I did spend a lot of time in the suit too. It’s too damn heavy for me to wear every single day, you know what I mean.

Black Manta is pretty much focused on getting revenge on Aquaman whenever we see him in the movie, but what do you think the character likes to do in his spare time?

I think that’s one of the cool things about the character is you can imagine him in all different types of scenarios. You could put him in scenarios where he’s just looking for revenge, but I like to think about him listening to music or secretly dancing or something like that. And it’s a little more regular, and then when it’s time to pick up the phone or go back to work, he’s very serious about his work: being a mercenary and a pirate and locating Aquaman. I have a lot of fun with that and what he could be doing when he’s not on the mission.

On The Get Down you played Cadillac, a disco-obsessed villain. Where do you think the show would have gone if it wasn’t canceled, and how do you feel about the entire experience reflecting on it now?

I knew that as we moved further into the ‘80s the identity of the show would change. I knew that Cadillac character would have to go through some type of transformation because he was so rooted in the ‘70s. But yeah, it was a little bit of a sad moment when it did end because I knew we created something special that could keep going, but i think it’s gonna be one of those shows that people can definitely look back and appreciate it and see, oh these actors got a really strong introduction and moved onto really cool things: Shameik Moore, Justice Smith, and the rest of the team as well. I think it was a really strong introduction that these people can look back on and be proud.

You’re involved in HBO’s mysterious new Watchmen show. What can you tell me about that? How did you get the role?

That’s one that I can’t give many words to at this time, but as soon as I can I’ll be so excited to talk about it. As for the audition, I think Damon Lindelof had seen a little of my work and called me in to give it a go.

Aquaman is in theaters now.

Media via Warner Bros.