Exclusive Interview: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (CANDYMAN)

The star of Nia DaCosta’s horror update discusses fear, modern folklore, and the reclamation of an icon.

By Tananarive Due · @TananariveDue · August 27, 2021, 7:01 PM EDT

Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), adapted from the short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker, is one of the scariest films in modern Hollywood history. From its iconic performance by Tony Todd to its striking visuals, to the irresistible dare to say “Candyman” five times and conjure a monster in your own home, it’s a film that resides on many horror aficionados’ Top Ten lists.

But 1992’s Candyman isn’t exactly a good fit in today’s Black Lives Matter era of racial awakening. In the original Candyman, Black lives actually don’t particularly matter. The story is told through a persistent white lens, with Candyman as the ultimate Black boogeyman menacing a white woman, Helen (Virginia Madsen), as she investigates his urban legend and becomes his object of obsession.

Part of Candyman’s scary appeal was tapping into white viewers’ fear of The Other, particularly the monstrosity of Black men – not unlike D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). That fear is expressed not only through Candyman, but in the depiction of Chicago’s former housing project Cabrini-Green as a monstrous Urban Jungle – where Candyman’s name is written in feces on a public bathroom wall and Helen is immediately assaulted by Black gang members. Because of course. Cabrini-Green (and, by extension, the people who live there) is a monster in Candyman, too.

Like many Black horror fans, I love the original Candyman because of Tony Todd and his unforgettable representation of power, but I flinch at the elements that haven’t aged well. That’s why I’m so excited about Nia DaCosta’s 2021 version of Candyman, which confronts issues of race through a Black lens instead, reclaiming the monster who was weaponized against his own people in the original. With a script co-written by DaCosta with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, Candyman has been modernized to preserve the terror without the same baggage of problematic racial tropes.

Candyman lead actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is well aware of both the allure and the limitations of the original film. Via telephone, we discussed why he’s still afraid of Candyman, his recent roles in projects like Jordan Peele’s Us and HBO’s Watchmen (for which he won an Emmy), and the appeal of reclaiming a legendary horror narrative.

Are you a horror guy? Because when I look at your recent roles, I mean everything you do... You've been Black Manta [in Aquaman]. There’s a lot of science fiction and fantasy, horror – is that an accident or is that part of where you are as an artist? You're gravitating towards those projects?

A lot of it has been gravitating toward really good company. In my own taste I try not to pigeonhole myself into a box. I try to make sure I'm doing things that are fun and working with really good company. So I think that's why you see me in things like going to do Us with Jordan Peele. That was that horror. Or going to work on Black Mirror with that sci-fi or going to spend some time on Watchmen. I try to mix it up and make sure that I keep myself around really good company. In terms of horror, it was really the opportunity to work once again with Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta, who's an amazing up-and-coming director and writer, as well. This was something that just fit. It was a good fit, an opportunity to go do some good acting and to have some fun and to be a part of that Candyman folklore. It was sort of a no-brainer and a really good opportunity.

Did you watch Candyman when it came out back in the day? Did you watch it later? What was your relationship with the film before you signed on?

I don't remember ever sitting down and seeing it when I was young. But I knew of Candyman. Candyman was real. Candyman was not based off the movie, the movie was based off the real Candyman. That's how it was to me. I grew up in the projects, so Candyman was the monster that was in the projects in terms of Jason and Freddy Krueger who would come in your dreams. But a lot of times a lot of those other guys, it's like you need to be out in the woods or you have to be camping somewhere or you have to be in the suburbs in order to come across those guys. Candyman lived where I lived.

I definitely grew up with the folklore of Candyman, and the threat of seeing him in the mirror, and the bees and the hook. I wanted no parts of him, no parts. You know what's interesting is that even after once I saw the trailer, I realized I was scared after watching the trailer. It's like, "Dude, you did the movie. It's your movie. You know what happens in there. You know how they shot everything. Why are you scared? Why do you have fear? This just does not make sense." But I mean that Tony Todd portrayal and that story just has that type of effect because it was real. It wasn't given to me as a film. It was given to me as real. Don't mess with this.

Well, even Nia DaCosta also said in an interview that she doesn't mess with it. Even though she made the movie she still ain't messing with it.

Right. I mean, I hope people come see it. I don't want people to be too scared. But I think that's a part of it. That's a part of the experience. It's really nice to be a part of something where people have that. You have an emotional connection and a connection that goes back to their childhood. Now we can get people to have a new experience and hopefully we'll give people something to go out to and then leave the theater talking about for a very long time, as well.


Horror itself is huge right now overall. What do you think the appeal of it is? Have you thought about the appeal in particular to Black horror fans? Because I know a lot of them, too. We love horror, even though like you say, we're scared that it's real.

It's a community event. I sat down. I kind of snuck into a screening of Us last year in Atlanta. I saw it once at the New York premiere. And then I saw it again at a theater in Atlanta and it was a matinee show. It was different. It was different in each experience. But the thing that was so special about the Atlanta screening, it was a mostly Black audience. They talked. Everyone talked all throughout the movie and laughed and got close… So we get that release.

I think in terms of why I like to go to scary movies and why people ... It's sort of like roller coasters for me. I'm terrified of roller coasters. I'll never wake up and say, ‘Guys, I think today I want to ride a roller coaster,’ you know what I mean? But somehow I always end up at amusement parks and I always end up in the line. I always end up right in the front because it's like I just can't ... I think people want to tiptoe that line. There's a fine line between fear and the anticipation and the excitement and the overcoming, just going through that experience. So I think with horror there's so many emotions. There's so much suspense and the release and the fear and then the joy of getting through that fear and having that communal experience that I think people really, really are attracted to with these movies.

I agree.

Then when you put it in with someone like Jordan Peele telling a story as a writer and Nia as a person, I think we tend to make things cool sometimes, too. So I think that people are really excited to see how we can make our Candyman cool and make it a part of the zeitgeist of today.

I love the idea of gentrification and a character who is a Black gentrifier. I can't help but notice that you actually used to be a city planner for the city of San Francisco. Was that part of the story appealing in particular?

Yeah, it definitely was. [My character] Anthony is a gentrifier. This story is about identity, because it's a story about who belongs and who doesn't belong. In the first movie it was Helen walking around with her camera and taking pictures. She was sort of the new person in the neighborhood and there were repercussions to that. Now we see Anthony having to deal with the repercussions of being an outsider in a place where he might have otherwise been considered an insider. He can even move in and out of that community because at times he looks like he belongs.

There's a lot about Anthony and finding his own identity, as well, but also his responsibility to that community as an outsider. Then he has to also be responsible for how he interacts with it. So I think we'll find in the film that it's the same as in real life. As an outsider, when we come into those communities, there are repercussions to how we interact with those spaces and how we impose ourselves upon those spaces and how we accept or reject the suggestions that those spaces offer to us. Those are things that are, I think, consistent with life and consistent with what we see in our communities today. That was definitely an appealing part of stepping into this role and telling this story, as well.

One of the things we talked about in Horror Noire – and actually we interviewed Jordan Peele, and he made the point that although of course Tony Todd's Candyman is iconic and he called him this ‘beautiful monster,’ but at the same time, there's this sort of uneasy relationship that some people in the Black community have with the original Candyman because, like you said, it's Helen. I mean when you rewatch it, it's interesting. It's like Helen is the one explaining to her friend, Bernadette, about the housing disparities. Helen is leading the expedition to the urban jungle. Was that something that you all ever really talked about and wanted to address directly or is that something that was just understood in the production that we're trying to tell this story through a different lens?

Yeah. I think by casting Anthony as lead and by letting Anthony be the person who takes us into Cabrini-Green and into the story, I think by putting it in the hands of Jordan and having Nia at the helm, I think from the beginning we stated this is going to be a different type of story, that this is going to be a story where we explain, where we take the narrative, where we look at all the issues, and we look at it from a Black American perspective. We look at it from a woman's perspective. We look at it from my perspective, as well, being a Black American man.

That gives us the opportunity to really go more into detail when we're uncovering these issues, when we're talking about gentrification, when we're talking about inequality, when we're talking about the Black art scene and talking about what it's like to be a Black artist in Chicago and the challenges that come with that and moving in spaces… that are seemingly white. So what does it mean to navigate those spaces, to navigate a white space as a Black artist or a presumed white space as a Black artist?

And then what does it look like to go back into Cabrini-Green and into that predominantly Black space as a Black man, as a Black artist, but as someone who is a gentrifier? So there's a lot of issues of identity and belonging and finding one's place and then also figuring out the responsibility that comes with moving in each of those places. So Anthony is definitely a character who has a lot to figure out about himself and who he is and what his responsibility is in the world. So yeah, we're going to be talking about all of those things in our story and I think reclaiming the narrative is really a big part of the theme.


What was Nia DaCosta's approach with you as an actor?

Nia was hands-off with me for the most part. I sat down with her before I accepted the role. We sat down and I think we had dinner and talked about her vision. She's so smart. She's a student of film. She had a very strong vision. She loves the horror genre. She loves storytelling and she loves cinema. So Nia set out a very strong vision and a strong roadmap and she sort of just let me go and play inside of the world that she created, which was nice. I haven't had that a whole lot in my short but expanding career. It was nice to go and to try to problem solve and try to bring my ideas and my impulses to the table.

Sometimes she would step in when I got a little bit away from the vision and just kind of put me back on track. But she was really good at guiding me in the right direction and letting me explore and find out what was inside of the moments.

Sometimes it was something maybe just as simple as, ‘A little too far,’ and then I'd say, ‘Okay, okay. I got you. I got you.’ And that was it. That was it. Or she'd say, ‘Okay, I think we got everything that we need. We'll just do it again and you do whatever you want to do with this one.’ Sometimes that's where we found the good stuff and sometimes we didn't.

It was a lot of fun on set and she definitely took care of us.

You talk about your new but expanding career: it's been a pretty amazingly expanding career in terms of high-visibility roles. Even Us, let's talk about that, because Us isn't even that big a part, but every time I watch Us I'm drawn to your depiction of this man who's very much in his body trying so hard to make this a good day, right?

Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

It's just a great experience. There's so much emotional complexity in all of your scenes. So was that you? How much did Jordan give you? Because on paper it might not have looked like as much as what you were bringing.

Yeah, I mean it's always an opportunity. I think any time I'm going to show up and bring a character to life I want to know about his background. I want to know about what he wants. That character was a very important part of shaping who Adelaide would grow up to be and how she would experience rejection and how she would relate to or create an image of a strong man and what her household would look like and what healthy relationships would look like. So I knew that I would have to play a certain role in order to add to the narrative of how she would be influenced in the future. So I tried to influence and make him restless and make him ambitious and make him loving and make him a guy who just ... he had a rock in his shoe, so to speak.


He was trying to operate before getting the rock out of his shoe. Obviously, that gave him problems. Jordan did help me to figure out that character and I brought my own impulses to it. I said, ‘Well, look, I'm working with an obviously talented cast.’ I was on that shoot for I'm sure it was less than a week, but I wanted to make sure that I went out and made the most of that opportunity. If you give me 10 seconds of screen time, I'm going to use everything I got to make it work. That was an amazing experience.

That was fantastic. I can't obviously let you go without mentioning the incredible impact of your role in Watchmen, which everybody in my household was talking about pretty much nonstop. Obviously, you know you're dealing with some heady material, the Tulsa Massacre and whatnot. But did you expect the kind of reaction that part had? What was that like?

I knew that Watchmen was good. I can't even act like I didn't. From the first episode I said, ‘This is something that's going to be special.’ As good as it was on the television, it was that good on the page. Every single reading experience just blew my mind. I couldn't wait to get the next episode. That was another one of those projects that came to me by sticking around really good company and really betting on myself and betting on putting myself in good company and hoping for the best.

But yeah, that was another one of those things I'm really proud to be a part of something that was important, that was fun, that was a big cultural moment that was a part of the zeitgeist: to play a god, to have the god be embodied in the body of a Black man, to tell this Black love story between a Black woman and a god and also to enlighten people about the Tulsa Massacre and to talk about history and to sort of be a warning signal for how things are in America and what can happen if we don't shape up.

So it was really, really an honor to be a part of a really important show and to do it with that team. I had a lot of fun. It's really my recipe right now. Follow the good work and bring my all when I get there.

Tananarive Due is an executive producer of Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. She co-wrote an episode of The Twilight Zone for CBS All Access and teaches Black Horror at UCLA. The online version of her Black Horror class is at www.sunkenplaceclass.com. [Or tananarivedue.com]

Nia Da Costa's Candyman is now in theaters and is currently gracing the cover of FANGORIA Volume 2 Issue #12 on newsstands, also available in our online shop.