Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Trades His T Square for a Netflix Role
By John Ortved
The New York Times
3 August 2016
Photos courtesy The New York Times
A few years back, finding work in the architecture field wasn’t going so well for Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (B.A. Arch 11). Laid off and out of luck in the fields of public policy and housing, he decided to take a risk and leave the Bay Area to pursue acting in Los Angeles, with the idea that a small role or cameo would lead to bigger roles on major networks. “I made a plan: If I hadn’t done anything in three years, I was going to say, ‘O.K., back to a job in an architecture firm or public policy,’” he said.
He first starred in a small production of “Twelfth Night” as Antonio, where he met a fellow castmember who introduced him to the idea of pursuing drama in graduate school. After prepping for about seven months in his living room, Abdul-Mateen ended up at the Yale School of Drama, landing stage time at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts and with Shakespeare in the Park in New York City.
Now at 29, Abdul-Matteen has a major role playing a character named Cadillac in the big-budget Netflix production “The Get Down,” which is set in the 1970s underground musical scene of New York. Streaming on Netflix August 12, the show focuses on hip-hop, punk and disco subcultures.
To prepare for the role, Abdul-Mateen practiced dance moves for four to seven hours each day with choreographers Rich and Tone Talauega, brothers who have worked with Madonna, Michael Jackson, Usher and Justin Timberlake.
“Before this, I was not a dancer,” he said. “I knew when the music comes on, you move to it. I’m from New Orleans, so I like second line. But I thought I was more coordinated than I turned out to be.”
He has come to appreciate his character’s vintage style, noting the amount of self-expression embedded into black fashion in the 1970s. “You got black people wearing huge Afros, wearing gold, walking tall and strutting and saying, ‘How you doing, Brother?’ It was a time to be proud of who you were,” he said.
Typical workdays for Abdul-Mateen now begin similarly to his days at Cal: warming up with hamstring stretches, the same as when he ran track at Berkeley. The key for 1970s disco dancing? It’s all in the hips.
“Very important,” he said. “Men in the ’70s communicated with their hips much more than they do now.”