‘Watchmen’: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Didn’t Know Who He Was Really Playing in the Series

Any comic fan likely has a copy of Watchmen somewhere on their shelf. After all, it’s one of the most significant events in the medium’s long history.

As such, any adaptation not only goes against its author, Alan Moore’s wishes, but comes with the lofty expectations of the fans he brought on board. Despite a failed attempt a decade ago, HBO brought Watchmen to television in 2019. The results were lauded by fans and detractors alike, especially when it came to a big reveal regarding Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s character. 

‘Watchmen’s’ wild journey to HBO

Fandom notes exactly how Watchmen is one of the most heavily acclaimed graphic novels of all time. It tells the story of a group of superheroes who act less like their title implies and more like hired thugs and supervillains. Commenting on America’s fascination with military, police, and one-sided justice, the novel was a far cry from the Marvel lore we see today. 

Zack Snyder tried to adapt the original story to the screen and, to many fans of the source material, failed to capture the original spirit despite his devotion to recreating the panels. However, for the HBO series, the show runner and writer, Damon Lindelof, wanted to focus less on recreating a plot and more about giving a tonally consistent representation of a brand-new story. 

In doing so, they had to work with Moore’s project while also creating a unique vision. 

Playing with the source material. 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II | Leon Bennett/WireImage

Plotting the Watchmen was a meticulous project featuring a beloved property that, above all else, puts a mirror up to society and tells an authentic message. While that aspect remained, the series was less an adaptation and more an unofficial sequel of Alan Moore’s most famous work. There were certain rules that everyone needed to play with while remaining true to the original’s spirit. 

“The clarity of what the themes were, and the way that the characters were going to interrelate with one another, didn’t come until much later [after the pilot],” he told Variety. “If you’re constantly worried about the future, you’re going to be devastated when things don’t go according to plan because lots of things didn’t go according to plan.”

In many ways, the character arc we got coincided with the process of turning a strange yet intriguing character into the most iconic member of the Watchmen brand. They took the endgame and deconstructed characters until they made sense with the ultimate endgame. 

“We just really focused in on his personality,” director Nicole Kassell said of the project. “And, you know, behind the scenes, honing that character with Damon, we made sure that it would be true to the DNA of Dr. Manhattan.”

Lindelof sees this method as the only way to cap off a series with many loose ends as Watchmen. After all, anyone who followed Lost or The Leftovers knows how Lindelof leaves bread crumbs and while they might not always lead to a satisfactory ending, he knows which trails the fans most want to follow. Having a true vision of his overall project is vital. 

“What I’ve learned over time is you need to know the answers to the mysteries,” Lindelof told Variety. “If you don’t know those, you’re lost. Every time you come to an intersection, you won’t know whether to turn left or right.”

Sometimes, this meant keeping the actors themselves in the dark. 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II finds out the big twist

When Abdul-Mateen II took on the role as Cal, he thought he was playing a romantic oil for Regina King’s Angela Abar. Lindelof and company left him in the dark about the ultimate endgame. However, by the end of the season, we quickly learned why Dr. Manhattan, the scientist-turned-superhero whose powers go beyond the standard military-industrial fare of the universe, audiences went nuts. 

However, they were not the most off-guard. In that same Variety interview, Lindelof, King, and Kassell all noted how Abdul-Mateen II was as caught off guard as anyone. After all, they wanted him to play a character who did not know his own secret identity. When Cal became Manhattan and took out all the attackers in the process, it was the biggest moment of a season that had teased his presence several times. 

Movies and television are a combination of jazz music and meticulously planned plot points. Sometimes, the actors should know what awaits them. Other times, it’s best to keep them in the dark. Abdul-Mateen II learned this, and the show was better for it. 

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