“I’m having a ball,” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II says, not for the first time today. It’s early March, the handshake is still a standard greeting instead of a bygone custom, and the two of us are sitting in a classroom at the New York Academy of Art, studying a Still Life 101 setup: a pitcher, an apple, a few clementines here and there. I am dutifully following our teacher’s instructions with the skill level of a neurotic third grader. Abdul-Mateen, 33, is blithely slathering burnt umber oil paint onto his canvas, full speed ahead. He might as well be wearing a beret.
Abdul-Mateen is not technically a painter, but he will be playing one in the upcoming Candyman, a sequel to the iconic Black horror movie about the hook-handed ghost of a lynched man who is summoned when you say his name five times in front of a mirror. He is rumored to also be starring as Candyman himself, which has inspired Twitter memes about deliberately calling forth the vengeful spirit if he looks like Abdul-Mateen—that is to say, a solid six feet three and incredibly handsome. It’s his biggest role yet, one that cements him in a covetable and comfortable place: leading-man territory. This fall he’ll also be portraying Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale in the Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, and after that he’ll have a role in The Matrix 4 opposite Keanu Reeves. “I have these moments where my sense of reality slows down and I pull back and I can see the bigger picture,” he tells me. “I say, Wow, I’m really doing this thing.”
For Abdul-Mateen, his childhood relationship to the original 1992 Candyman was less about the movie itself and more about feeling an ambient terror of its titular bogeyman. “In my imagination, Candyman lived where I live,” he recalls. “Candyman came to the projects, so that made him real.” Abdul-Mateen, the youngest of six children, grew up between New Orleans and Oakland. “My family was my tribe,” he says. “My best friends.” His father practiced Islam, and his mother is Christian, but he eventually drifted toward the latter’s faith, mostly because the church had teen nights where he could go hang out with girls. These days he doesn’t strictly adhere to either religion, choosing instead to borrow from both. “Somebody has to go to hell,” he says, remarking on what would happen to each of his parents according to the other’s religion. “And I just don’t think that God is that petty.” When he pushes up the sleeves of his black sweatshirt to grab another paintbrush, I catch a glimpse of a small tattoo on each wrist: on the right, two stick figures holding hands to symbolize him and his dad, who died of cancer when Abdul-Mateen was 21. On the left, a ladybug, because his mom calls him “bug.”
Abdul-Mateen is deeply earnest. When asked about casting him to play the lead in Candyman, director Nia DaCosta told me in an email that it was a “no-brainer” and that she was “struck by his honesty, clarity, and openness.” These qualities are apparent whether he’s talking about his childhood love of Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the active group chat he has with his fraternity brothers, or the elegance of the Guggenheim building. And he’s pretty sensitive, he’ll admit, even if it’s an aspect of his personality that he’s only recently started to come to terms with because of “a girl.” (When asked to clarify, he grins and politely leaves it at “a girl.”) But he’s not without confidence. I ask him to hit me with his worst audition story, a question that tends to reliably lead to a funny anecdote, and he rests his hand on his chin to reflect on this for a second before cracking a furtive smile to himself. So…?