Yahya Abdul-Mateen II found the right role at the right moment in 'Topdog/Underdog'

The Emmy-winning Watchmen star reflected on making his Broadway debut and earning a Tony Award nomination with the 2022 revival of Suzan-Lori Parks's play.

Allison Considine
Allison Considine

Last fall, silver screen star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II made his Broadway debut in Topdog/Underdog to much fanfare. The Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander by Suzan-Lori Parks earned three Tony Award nominations, including Best Revival of a Play and performance nods for co-stars Abdul-Mateen and Corey Hawkins, who played brothers — ominously named Booth and Lincoln — hustling the world and each other to survive.

Abdul-Mateen is best known for playing the villainous Black Manta in the Aquaman franchise and for starring in other action films and TV shows, including Watchmen and The Matrix Resurrections. The revival of Topdog/Underdog, which first bowed on Broadway in 2002, offered Abdul-Mateen a crash course in stage performance.

Abdul-Mateen discussed his experience at the Golden Theatre, working with director Kenny Leon, and receiving a Tony Award nomination for playing Booth at this stage in his illustrious career.

What was your first theatre role?

I auditioned for a role in a production of Measure for Measure in undergraduate. Played the role of Justice. I still remember my two lines: “Eleven, sir” and “Lord Angelo is severe.”

How does the process of working on stage differ from the screen?

I try to work in a way that there's not much difference, performance-wise. But the real gift in the theatre work is the rehearsal process. The communal preparation process is something that I wish we had more time for on the film side.

Did your onscreen experience help prepare you for the stage?

If anything, it's mostly the other way around, although Kenny [Leon] reminded us of the power of intimacy on stage. And sometimes, in looking to create those moments, we leaned into some film subtleties. Got quieter, simpler. “Keep it in the room” is what we would say. And surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, those moments always played really well.

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What aspect of your performance in Topdog/Underdog are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of being determined to find something true every night. I wanted to keep it a discovery up until the very final bow. And that made it a marathon of a journey. But I was always in search of just one true moment on that stage. And if I got one, then I'd try to find one more.

Does receiving a Tony Award nomination differ from being recognized for onscreen work?

It does feel different. Both are blessings in their own right. But this project was a dream of mine, so it's special in a more personal way. It was a very personal process, all the way through the last performance. And we got to share that with over 120 audiences. And that was the real gift. The nomination is a reminder of the gift. And I'm grateful for that.

How does it feel to get a Tony Award nomination at this point in your career?

I'd be honored to hear my name after the words “Tony nominee” at any point on this walk. But, you know, this play came at a time when I was saying “no” to everything that came my way. I had told myself that I was waiting for the right thing. And I trusted that I would know it when I saw it.

Well, I saw the email with the offer, and I knew what I had to do. So to be nominated after all this time, for this role and this play, after waiting for the right thing, it's confirmation that when it's right, it's right. And when you know, you know. You know?

Photo credit: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Topdog/Underdog on Broadway. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

Originally published on

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