'Black Mirror' Star Unpacks the "Real Intimacy" Behind Season 5's Virtual Romance

"Sometimes it’s not about sex," Yahya Abdul-Mateen II tells The Hollywood Reporter of the relationship at the center of the Netflix anthology's VR episode "Striking Vipers."
Courtesy of Netflix
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right) with Anthony Mackie in "Striking Vipers"; inset: Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin

[This story contains spoilers from Black Mirror's "Striking Vipers."]

Black Mirror episodes reveal themselves as they go and "Striking Vipers" — one of three new stories in the now streaming fifth season of Charlie Brooker's Netflix anthology — is no exception.

"Striking Vipers" begins as a story about two college friends who grew apart and into unsatisfied adults. When it opens, the plot seems to focus on the growing distance between Danny (Anthony Mackie) and his wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie). But once the Striking Vipers VR game comes into play, the romantic leads shift into being Danny and his old friend Karl, who is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

Using the TCKR metal discs that are familiar in the Black Mirror universe, Karl and Danny place the VR technology onto their foreheads and escape into an alternate reality. Once inside the Striking Vipers X fighting game, they assume their old avatars of Roxette (played by Pom Klementieff) and Lance (played by Ludi Lin) and when they begin fighting a spark ignites. Moments into the game, Roxette and Lance start to have sex and Karl and Danny are shown back in reality, on their respective couches experiencing the physical sensations.

"When they go inside the video game, they start to experience freedom in a different way," Abdul-Mateen II tells The Hollywood Reporter of Karl and Danny's Striking Vipers X relationship. "And I think out of that freedom came these suppressed desires for real connection and real intimacy."

The connection between Roxette and Lance morphs from a VR porn-like escape into an undefined relationship, so much so that Karl and Danny test their connection in the real world. Though they don't feel the same chemistry with a real kiss, the pair end up compromising in the end. One night a year, on the anniversary of the date they began playing the game, Karl and Danny reunite in Striking Vipers X as Roxette and Lance. Theo, meanwhile, spends that same night going out to meet someone without a wedding ring weighing down her finger.

In a season that tackles how disconnected people are because of modern technology, "Striking Vipers" raises many questions about how sex, relationships and identities are defined. In addition to posing morality questions about infidelity, the episode, which was helmed by returning director Owen Harris ("San Junipero," "Be Right Back"), also further complicates the idea of the elusive Black Mirror happy ending: Are these characters happy with the compromise they are making?

Below, in a chat with THR, Abdul-Mateen II dives into all the questions raised by the episode, unpacks the "are they-aren't they" romance to share how he played key moments, and explains why the game is about much more than a sexual turn-on.

Leave it to Charlie Brooker to bring together two stars from competing superhero universes.

The DC-Marvel mashup. (Laughs.) I think there's definitely an element of fans wanting to see the characters from the DC and Marvel worlds in other places. And Ludi is in Aquaman and Pom is from the Avengers world also, so I think it's going to be fun seeing everyone come together.

How familiar were you with Black Mirror when this role came to you?

I was definitely a fan and really excited about the opportunity to go and play. They push the boundaries and are part of the conversation. It's a show that's in the zeitgeist. I think it's some of the most exciting stuff on television right now.

"Striking Vipers" was shot before the process began for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the interactive movie that delayed the release of Black Mirror season five. When did you make this?

We filmed last year for the month of March in Brazil. I had no idea what was happening behind the scenes. It's funny because the fans are pretty vocal and aggressive about it. They have been asking about the new episodes for the last few months. And I found myself doing the same and being like, "I need some Black Mirror!" I wanted to see my episode, but I also want to see the others.

What attracted you to "Striking Vipers" and the role of Karl?

I was really attracted to Karl's vulnerability. I looked at Karl as a guy who was cool on the outside, but he had a secret. I think some of the best characters have a secret and one of the things I realized about Karl was that he has a nice car and apartment, and from the outside it looks like he has a nice life. He even projects that. But we learn there's something missing. The love life that he presents is not the reality. I knew that in Karl I could share a lot of vulnerability to play someone who had a deep, unmet need. It was really fun to step into that and see what it was like to wear a mask, and see what happens when that mask comes off. That's who I found in Karl — a guy who was lonely and a guy who needed real companionship, and who would really like to have that in his life.

This story tackles sexuality, marriage and the longing that happens as people grow up and either settle down or don't. It also shows how disconnected people are from relationships because of technology. What is this episode trying to say?

There are so many different themes on the table and we talked about all of them. One of the first themes I saw was addiction. I looked at Karl as sort of an addict. He needed to play this game. He couldn't survive without it. The other themes were relationships: How do we define a relationship? What does it mean to have a monogamous relationship versus a relationship as we know it between best friends? What is infidelity? Then there's the conversation of sexuality. Through this video game thing, does this mean the characters would describe their sexuality as fluid? So that's what I loved about it; we took a lot of things that are relevant to the conversation right now and put that into a formula that allowed us to explore all of it in a satisfying way. People are going to take so many different things away from this episode and all of them are going to be relevant.

Owen Harris directed "San Junipero" and "Be Right Back," which are Black Mirror's other two love story episodes. "San Junipero" was the first same-sex romance of the franchise and went on to win Emmys. How would you compare "Striking Vipers" to "San Junipero" and is that something you spoke about with Brooker and Harris?

That didn't come up with them. But the best thing is that we all knew we were in really good hands with our director, Owen, who already had a familiarity and a strong grasp of the brand and the idea. We just took that and went to make our own thing. But it is nice knowing that Owen has this very strong handle on the world of Black Mirror, so whenever there were any questions, you can trust that and say, "Owen knows how to guide us along the way." We sort of allowed this to be its own thing and we can only hope that it's as good as we attempted to make it.

"San Junipero" was initially written to center on a heterosexual couple and that changed as Brooker started writing the piece. Was "Striking Vipers" always envisioned to be for two men?

I don't know. But I do love that about it, because it challenges so much of what the story is about. This is going to bring about conversation about masculinity, romanticism and sexuality being fluid. And about whatever you call bromances and things like that. There's this moment at the end where they themselves don't know what their sexuality is. There's this are they-aren't they moment that I love. Where they try it out and realize they are not in love, or that the love is only confined to the connection they feel in the video game. So, what does that make them in the moments when they're participating in their relationship in the video game? It's so cool to be able to be a part of something that allows you to explore all of those questions and then give it to the audience, because one of the best things about Black Mirror is the interaction afterwards and the conversations online. That's what I'm really looking forward to — getting that feedback. That's when you really get to see the impact of what you've made.

How does it feel to have this story told from the perspectives of two black men as the romantic leads?

It's important. We need more conversations about masculinity. I remember wondering how this story was going to play in a barber shop. How the narrative would play out with people having a conversation saying, "Are they gay because they played the video game? Yes, and then, no." I think it's always a good time to check our understanding of relationships and sexuality and expression, and how we relate to one another, whether you're black or white or whatever your background may be. The story is universal, but it's in the sci-fi world where you have black leads and that's always something really cool to keep putting onscreen.

How did you and Anthony Mackie play the tension between the two friends from the start, even before they play the VR game?

From my perspective, these were two guys who were very, very close when they were younger, but their lives pushed them in different directions. So I think they were both surprised by what they found in the video game. I like to imagine that neither of them went in there with any sort of motive, but this alternate reality was where their suppressed desires were able to jump to the forefront. If you look at Anthony's character, one of the first things that he did was he noticed that his knee didn't hurt and he could jump: "I'm so free." And the same for Karl. When they go inside the video game, they start to experience freedom in a different way. And I think out of that freedom came these suppressed desires for real connection and real intimacy. Both of these characters had places in their lives where there was a lack of real connection. Whether it be Karl in his dating life and seeing women who were much younger who he couldn't relate to in the same way. Or Anthony, whose marriage and life was sort of routine, and so he was missing some of the old sparks of his young days. That's also a theme. When they find themselves in this virtual world where they're both free, and then they find what feels like a real connection and, all of a sudden, there's a sexual turn-on to that? I think they were both surprised.

Karl picks a female avatar and Danny picks a male. Why are those details important?

That helps to play into the happenstance and surprise of it all, but it also mirrors when they were younger. Karl would pick the female character, Roxette, and Anthony's character would pick the strong male character, Lance. I think they went into it with the same expectation of having fun just like old times' sake, so they wanted to pick the same characters. They were just leaning into the nostalgia of it all. They went in expecting one thing and to all of a sudden find yourself completely open and uncompromising and into something that feels so good, but that's also dangerous because you had no idea it was about to happen. That's when it starts to get fun because from then on, everything else is unexpected. There's a whole new world they didn't even know was out there. But now they have the knowledge and well, what are they going to do with it? That's where we see the tension and the conflict start to really build. That decision of: Am I going to do it or am I not going to do it?

In the game, they have sex. But they also talk and connect. In the real world, Danny goes to text Karl with an "x" and then deletes it, showing how he was developing these feelings in reality, too. Do you feel they are truly in love?

I don't know. At times I do, and then at times I don't. What's fun is that you kind of get to play it both ways. They're definitely searching for a connection. And look, Karl does not want an intimate connection with Anthony outside of that world. He's always saying, "Meet me inside of this game. Because you're someone that I can talk to; you understand me. And, if this is what it takes to find someone who gets me, then that's where I'm going to get it." He doesn't want anything from him in the real world, or at least that's what Karl tells himself. But they both do want that connection, so I think it makes sense that Anthony's character would fall in love with that connection and that he would feel it's appropriate to send an "x" at the end of the text because, in a way, he has taken on another lover. He absolutely has taken on another lover no matter which way you cut it. Maybe I'm biased to say, "Well, Karl hasn't but Anthony has." I'm sure plenty of people would argue otherwise.

When they kissed in real life and realized the spark wasn't there, they both seemed sad. How did you play that scene? What were they sad for?

In my mind, Karl was so surprised. He was thinking, "This is the real thing." I'm not sure that he went into it hopeful, but I think he went into it expecting, "This is what my life is going to be now and I think it's going to be real." But it's another one of those things that sort of changes on the day and on the take. I think there's a world where they kiss and they're both excited that there was no spark, because they are thinking, "Yes, I'm a man." So much of this story is also about manhood and challenging that thinking of, "You can't do this because I'm a masculine person and this is not who I told myself who I am." And so the kiss confirms all of those things. Then there's a world where, when the kiss doesn't work for both of them, it means they will never have that spark, that real thing in the real world. So it means that part of their dreams will only come true in this virtual reality and this alternate universe. Man, the implications of that moment and how that's received and how it's played are huge for both of the characters. I think part of that moment is a relief, but part of it is also saying, "Hey, we've got to make a compromise and we can't have it all." Which is disappointing.

In the end, Karl, Danny and Theo do all compromise to have this yearly tradition to do what they want. Danny cheats with Karl in the game and Theo cheats in reality. How do you view these scenarios: Is one worse?

Now we're having the conversation that people are going to have. I don't know. I think ultimately, it's about relationships. This episode is about how we define or how we choose to define intimacy and relationships and monogamy. And the message that I get is that in all of these relationships, the most important thing is about communication and understanding. However we define our relationship, whatever boundaries we set or whatever rules there are that explain what our relationship is, we understand what those are and we have agreements that allow us to function so that it benefits everyone involved. That's what they found in the end — rules and a way to compromise so that all of the relationships could sustain. In some ways, it's a sad story because Karl doesn't have anyone to go home to. They only do this one time a year on their anniversary. What is Karl doing the rest of the year? Who is he experiencing true intimacy with? There's the world where Karl is actually left alone at the end of this story. But then there's also the world where they have this understanding and they all have outlets to experience that freedom they all desire. So, it's a lovely understanding story at the same time.

Black Mirror really upends the idea of what a happy ending can be. Even if the protagonists are happy, there's always a cost. Do you think these characters found some happiness in this compromise?

I think they did. I like to think that they did. They're normal people who are doing the best that they can with technology and with the given circumstances that they have found themselves in. I think they'll do that for as long as they can. Eventually, if their lives are anything like ours, something's gotta give at some point. It can't be all pleasant for too long.

"Striking Vipers" shows how people can't always check a box when it comes to their sexuality. In the end, how do you think Karl and Danny identify?

I think these are two men who would consider themselves heterosexual men with the understanding of their sexual selves and their sexual needs. I think there were moments where they had curiosity and said, "Oh man, I think I just learned something about myself and I'm willing to do what it takes to investigate and find out if that's real or not." And maybe we on the outside would define them as just men. And that the rest wasn't important, because they were willing to come to a mature understanding of their sexual selves. Although it was an outlet for sex, so much of it was not about sex. It was about the moments afterwards. Sitting together and holding a partner, holding a friend, and having intimate, close conversations about the sky or about simple things. So I hope that people don't just take sex away from this because sex is just one part about relationships. A lot of times, it's the glamorous part and the thing we like to talk about, but so much of what they did inside that virtual world was just sit and talk. Sometimes it's not about sex at all.

Does that make this a happy ending for technology, then? This game brought them together in a way that real life couldn't.

(Laughs.) I think technology wins! I think technology definitely wins because they come back to the game. Technology gets its way, and they get their way also. That's my perspective. I'm really on the edge. I can sort of experience this as a fan and from the outside, because there's no definitive way to really describe the impact of what takes place in the story. It's definitely a communal experience.

Maybe Danny and his wife should have played the game.

Right? I think that would have been good for them. But then Karl would have been left out. I'm not sure how much they would have wanted a three-player battle. But, who knows? Maybe!

The fifth season of Black Mirror is streaming on Netflix. Head here for more of THR's coverage.