YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II

by William J. Simmons

“I want my career to have the freedom of a theater school. I have played kings and clowns and everyone in between."

When Yahya Abdul-Mateen II suggested meeting at a tattoo shop in Chinatown instead of a café, I had reservations. My fears were assuaged, however, when Abdul-Mateen II, beaming, shows me his first tattoo—two sparsely rendered stick figures on his wrist representing him and his father. For his other wrist, he plans—today, with me—to get a small ladybug to remind him of his mother.

His parents have much to be proud of. Now 29, Abdul-Mateen II is a recent graduate of the prestigious Yale School of Drama. In his early 20s Abdul-Mateen II worked in the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development in San Francisco, engaging with local housing projects to teach residents about architecture, city planning, and civic engagement. “I loved helping the community give educated feedback on what they wanted to see in the city,” he tells me, “I wanted to have an impact, and help underrepresented people have quality housing. That has always been important to me.” When his job ended, Abdul-Mateen II gave himself three years to make it as an actor in Los Angeles. He expected to be doing commercial work, but instead ended up playing Antonio in a local production of Twelfth Night. That experience was enough to convince him to give Yale a go.

Next, Abdul-Mateen II will be seen in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Netflix series The Get Down—which tells the story of South Bronx teenagers during the turbulent 1970s—playing disco-owner and drug lord Cadillac. The role sent him to dance boot camp with choreographers who had worked with Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna. And next year Abdul-Mateen II will star in the Baywatch reboot alongside Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, and this issue’s cover star Priyanka Chopra.

The intimacy of two men sitting around another man’s wrist helps us get to the truth of Abdul-Mateen II’s outlook on his work: “I want my career to have the freedom of a theater school. I have played kings and clowns and everyone in between. When I’m a clown, I make sure there is something regal, and when I’m a king, I show where I am not invincible.”

I’m pretty sure that he is invincible though, since, all of a sudden, I look up and there’s a beautiful rosy-red, slightly swollen little ladybug on his elegant wrist—and not a single tear in sight. I don’t know if I will head in to the parlor myself any time soon, but I feel a strange bond for having been present for Abdul-Mateen II’s newest tattoo, as if our lives for a moment, had been written together in ink.

Stylist: Jimi Urquiaga

Groomer: William Murphy for Atelier Management

Location: Ruby Bird Studio, NY