'Watchmen' Star on That "Once in a Lifetime" Doctor Manhattan Twist

Watchmen - Publicity Still 2 - H- 2019 
Mark Hill/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode eight of HBO's Watchmen, "A God Walks Into Abar," as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic books on which the show is based.]

"Man plans, God laughs." The old adage, as well as its reverse, certainly applies in the case of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the Watchmen actor who stars in Damon Lindelof's HBO series as Cal Abar — or, more accurately, Jon Osterman, the atomic scientist turned big blue superhero Doctor Manhattan.

In the aptly titled "A God Walks Into Abar," Abdul-Mateen II takes center stage as Doctor Manhattan, embarking on a time-disjointed love story with Regina King's Angela Abar — a tragedy, it turns out, as the episode marks Angela and Jon's meeting at a bar in Vietnam through their ten-year journey toward Manhattan's dematerialization in Tulsa at the hands of the Seventh Kavalry. 

Of course, the biggest plot twist of Watchmen to date actually launched in the previous outing, "An Almost Religious Awe," which ended with Angela hammering her husband's head in and revealing his true identity as Doctor Manhattan. That's when the laughter started. Following the episode, Abdul-Mateen II posted a video of himself on Twitter laughing his head off as the wider Watchmen world learned the scope of his godly narrative.

"I didn't watch it right at 9 o'clock. I was going home to watch it with my sisters," Abdul-Mateen II tells The Hollywood Reporter about the laughing fit's origin story. "I was just watching the reactions on Twitter, because it was already kind of happening. At about the 52-minute mark or so, I said, 'I think it's time.' I just started refreshing on Twitter, refreshing and refreshing. I got to watch everyone go from 'Oh my god, I think they're about to reveal Doctor Manhattan' to 'Wait, she knows who it is' to 'Wait, I think it's her husband — no, it's the kid! Oh wait, it is the husband — oh wait, what is she about to do? Oh no, what's this hammer? Oh shit, he's Doctor Manhattan the whole time!' I watched people climb that whole emotional ladder. I was refreshing my Twitter feed going, 'Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes.' It was the most rewarding and hilarious thing I have witnessed in a very long time. It's nice to be on this side of a secret!"

Listen to more about Doctor Manhattan in the latest Series Regular: Watchmen podcast.

The secret's out, and it's not just a laughing matter. Cal's turn toward the super-powerful is clearly a massive deal within the show's fictional universe, but it's also a powerful notion outside of it, further reinforcing the ways in which Watchmen approaches representation in the superhero storytelling space. 

"From an aspect of representation, I've already seen people feeling very inspired about this," says the actor. "To be honest, it's not something I saw coming. But why wouldn't people be so excited and thrilled? This is the most powerful being in the history of the comics canon, and now we're saying he's being embodied in the body of a black man. I've seen people saying: 'God is the black man.' People have really been open to that and really prideful of that. Historically, we're always fed a different narrative when it comes to our superpowers and who we can be as heroes and mythological people. It's really an honor to walk into this character as Doctor Manhattan in a black body, being all-knowing and all-powerful, and still telling a story that isn't just about race and about him being black. It's also a love story. It's a story about history, and trauma, and how we can overcome trauma and attack the oppressors. In a story where white violence and white supremacy has such a violent recourse on our characters and on our characters' history, why not make the most powerful being in that world a black man?"

With one episode left, much of Doctor Manhattan's story is on the table, if not quite all of it. Ahead, Abdul-Mateen II tells his side of the biggest secret in the HBO drama.

When did you first learn you were playing Doctor Manhattan?

For me, I came on knowing I would be playing opposite Regina King, working with HBO, and working with Damon Lindelof. That was more than enough. I was satisfied with that. Damon said he wanted to talk to me a little bit about the character. I think I was two episodes in already when I came in for the meeting. He said, "So, I'm just going to get straight to it. So, Cal is actually Doctor Manhattan." On the outside, I'm mirroring his energy, taking it as a very responsible actor. On the inside, I'm going crazy. I'm tearing up the room. I can't believe it. And then I said, "Oh, shit. I need to get in shape." (Laughs) But I knew it was going to be very, very cool. It went from a rewarding experience to a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a matter of seconds.

How did learning about Cal's true nature impact the way you approached the character from that point on?

I had already created Cal as a patient, kind, understanding person. A loving husband. A partner to Regina. My plan was to ride that as far as the script would take me. In terms of my approach to Cal, I didn't want to change anything. I didn't want to drop any hints, because then I had the opportunity to do something different when it comes to Doctor Manhattan. I was happy that I did it that way. But when I got into Doctor Manhattan, it was an opportunity to do a very different kind of acting. I played with my voice. I played around differently physically. I applied a different emotional range. It lends a different take on an iconic character, doing it in my body, with a new twist on it. 

What was involved in becoming Doctor Manhattan, both from a performance perspective and from a practical one?

It was two and a half hours of blue paint, sometimes three and a half hours. It was such a fun episode to shoot. I wanted to play within a different physical vocabulary. I looked up the smartest people I could think of: the dean of Yale School of Drama, James Bundy; Steve Jobs; and then Damon Lindelof. I started to listen to tapes of them and started blending their voices with my own. That's where I landed with Doctor Manhattan. It was a physical playground. An energetic shift, to land where I landed. It was really rewarding to go from Cal to playing in the physical space I existed in as Doctor Manhattan. All through the episode, I'm working with these Oscar winners. I'm sitting across from Regina King. I'm going into work with Jeremy Irons. I'm across from Lou Gossett. It was really inspiring, from an actor's perspective, getting to take this really important episode and allow them to go on this journey with me. It was a lesson, every time. It was a really, really fucking fun story to tell.

Tell me your take on that story: "A God Walks Into Abar." What was your interpretation of how it fit into the series' greater narrative?

It's a love story. From the first episode, Angela as a character is someone who needs love. Her own family history and the history of her life is a very tragic one. The trauma that's been inherited from every level of her family tree, going back 100 years. There's been so much trauma that lands in her lap. From my perspective, she's a character that needs love. Everyone in her lineage deserves true love and the strongest love possible. I wanted Doctor Manhattan to be just that: the embodiment of love on earth. I wanted him to be the god who came down from above and was willing to sacrifice himself so she could experience true love. He was a character who wanted love, too. He gave up his belief in humanity and sought something else, and all the sudden, he has to come back. In some ways, it's a story about love, a god wanting to feel like a human again. Often, you see stories about humans who want to be godlike. This is a story about a god who just wants to feel something real again. That's how Cal was created. The fact that he was a god was getting in the way of him feeling true love, of what Angela needed. To me, it's a story about love and sacrifice.

You mentioned the lengthy process of becoming blue for the role. How did that impact the way you played Doctor Manhattan, seeing yourself in the blue paint?

The blue was fucking cool. Honestly, it was just so cool. It's one of those moments where I kept saying, "How is this my job? How is it my job to sit down and let someone paint me blue for three hours, and then go out and play?" Interestingly enough, though, it's the suit [he wears in Vietnam] that informed me the most about Doctor Manhattan and who he is. He's a sharp-dressed man! It was like putting on the Black Manta suit [in Aquaman]. Cal was sweats and a T-shirt, jeans and a T-shirt, sneakers. Putting on the suit told me, "You're a different person. It's time for business now." That was really my transformational process. And then, of course, there's the birthday suit of it all. That was very different. A very freeing element of the process. I got to have some fun that way.

Was it intimidating at all? For Doctor Manhattan, certainly, he doesn't have any shame.

Exactly. Doctor Manhattan is above shame. Some would say he's arrogant, and so up above anyone else around him, literally, that he doesn't have time to worry about what other people think about his body and what he looks like walking around naked. His mind is on a million other things all at the same time. For my own self, I was always comfortable on set. They always made me a part of the conversation about how we were going to shoot on set. I figured, look, if we're going to do it, let's do it big. I'm going to have fun. Might as well do it while I'm young!

How challenging was the secret-keeping process? For example, you were at the press day for Watchmen in New York back in October, and you were fielding questions about how you hailed from Aquaman, and yet here you are, on a superhero drama without a costume…

And on the inside, I was cracking up. (Laughs) That's the joy of this. I was talking to my publicist: "Why am I doing press for this?"

It's a hot stove! What's the risk versus reward?

But it was such a pleasure. It was all pleasure. If I'm sitting down next to Regina King and Damon Lindelof, or Jeremy Irons, why am I going to start talking about Cal? There's so much more for them to talk about! And here I am saying, "It's so nice to play the husband. He's so nice and supportive." (Laughs) But you find your sound bites, and you give people someone who they can love. There really was something lovable and so enjoyable about Cal, who he was, who he is to our story. A part of it for myself was suspending my own disbelief so I could carry that narrative as far as it could go. But at the end of the day, it was so fun to be on the inside of a really fucking big secret, where nobody else knew. 

The finale's next. It's potentially the end of Watchmen all told, even. There's so much still in the air. How do we resolve it in one episode?

I'll say this. We put out episode six, which was a very strong episode. I think the whole world was saying, "How do you top this? How do you give people something to come back for, something to be excited about?" Hopefully they have a similar experience after watching episode eight. Without saying too much, I am very, very confident about what people are going to get from episode nine. It's been a ride every single episode. Every episode has a twist, and every episode has an ending that leaves your jaw on the floor. We're going full steam ahead.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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