Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’) on representing ‘hometown great’ Bobby Seale [Complete Interview Transcript]

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seale in the Netflix film “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” for which he just received a SAG Award nomination as part of the film’s sprawling cast. This follows a big Emmy win in September for his work on the HBO limited series “Watchmen.”

Abdul-Mateen recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Charles Bright about what he knew about Seale, the scene in the film where he is bound and gagged and his memories of Emmy night. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: There’s like a billion questions I wanted to ask you and the events of this past week only multiplied that. So I wanted to ask, were there any thoughts you had about playing someone like Bobby Seale while watching the events of this past week, watching a mob of mostly white insurrectionists storm the Capitol and walk away from the scene without being arrested? 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: One of the recent thoughts that I had about that was I looked at the whole episode with a lot of humor. That’s exactly the thing that they thought the Black Panthers would do, arm themselves and run into the Capitol building and take people hostage and break into businesses and places and demand things and hostile takeovers. It’s interesting because through their words, they express, and when I say they, I mean, a lot of the times the people who align themselves in opposition to the honorable causes, such as causes of the Black Panther Party, they reveal their own true desires through expressing their fears. They project their own fears or their own desires onto the other party when they talk about their fear and when they talk about their expectations and the Black Panther Party never did any of those things.

In fact, it was them who, when they were dissatisfied and when they were upset, they took to the streets and took to the buildings and they armed themselves and ran in and went to the extreme and turned themselves into the terrorists, mobs, that they projected onto people like Bobby Seale. So I sat back this weekend as that was playing out. I hope Bobby Seale did, too. I hope he kicked his feet up like I did and had a laugh and then had a very relaxing day because as I just said a little while ago, I think that the true revolutionaries, they never get a day off, but I think this past week, if anything, was a time where they deserve to say, “You know what, that specifically is not my fight. I fought a lot of fights and I will continue to fight a lot of fights. But this one is not my fight and I’m going to sit back. I’m going to sit back and not be overwhelmed with this particular struggle.” So that was sort of my humorous position on that. 

GD: Well, also, it’s interesting, you grew up in Oakland, which is where Bobby started the Panthers. How familiar were you with Seale’s history when you took this part?

YAM: I was familiar with his history as a leader, as a very charismatic, outspoken leader in the Black Panthers. I grew up less than a mile away from De Fremery Park. In fact, I’d go to De Fremery Park for basketball practice. I played pool at the De Fremery Park. It’s a park in West Oakland that was one of the main meeting points for a lot of the community service events that were held and hosted by the Black Panthers at the time. Being a revolutionary from Oakland, they usually come with a couple characteristics. One is that they’re very charismatic. In other words, they’re very outspoken, passionate and energetic, and Bobby Seale, in my research of him, he was all of those things and loves to hear himself talk, loves people, loves to perform, but extremely knowledgeable and passionate as well. So when I started to turn those pages, I got a couple of pages into some of Bobby’s dialogue and I said, “Oh yeah, I have to do this.” I wanted to be a part of it even before I could finish the script. Before I got even a third of the way through the script, I said, “This would be a good opportunity to represent a hometown great.”

GD: Did you get to meet Seale at all or had you met him? I don’t know if he was a fixture in Oakland at that time. 

YAM: Definitely a fixture in Oakland. I believe in my memory I’ve seen him speak once in my life. I think I might have been in high school, maybe a sophomore in high school. But in the endeavors of this project, I wasn’t able to get in contact with him. I’m still hoping to do that to thank him for everything, to thank him for being Bobby Seale.

GD: I can’t imagine that you grow up in Oakland and not know who Bobby Seale was, but were there any aspects of Seale’s life that you learned about in the lead-up to playing this that surprised you in advance of this role? 

YAM: This caused me to take a deeper dive into who Bobby Seale was specifically. I knew about Bobby Seale as a leader of the Black Panthers, but not much about Bobby Seale the man, and how we grew up in his own personal history. There was one particular interview that I keyed in on in my preparation and it was an interview where he’s in prison and he had just been out of solitary confinement and he’s speaking about his time in prison and about his mistreatment, or that’s the occasion of the interview, but he goes into talking about how to make a stew and he’s talking about, “Well, first you get the meat and then you get the butter and then you get the potatoes and the onions.”

And he goes on and on at length talking about how to make a stew and he has this smile on his face and he is not in prison when he’s talking about this food. He is in a five-star kitchen or he’s in his kitchen at home, but he’s on top of the world. So this is a resilient man, because solitary confinement, in the hole, a Black man in 1968, 1969, that’s a very horrific, isolating experience that’s designed to break an individual. But yet, here he is and he has this sneaky smile on his face and he’s trying to sneak a cigarette and he’s talking about wanting to go back home and can’t wait to get out because he wants to see his girl but he also wants to just cook a meal and the different ways that you can cook a meal.

That was an insight into his humanity and into his desires. We never really hear about those things. We hear about all the powerful revolutionary acts. But it’s also, I believe, a revolutionary act of survival to be in the midst of a situation like that and to have the humanity and to have the strength to still connect to something that could not be further away from prison, something like cooking a meal and wanting to get home and still being able to connect to the pleasure in an activity like that. So I learned a lot about him, his strength of character, about his ability to access joy in dark times. That was important for me as I went throughout my performance. 

GD: This may just seem like a generic question, but you read about what happened to Bobby Seale during that trial, especially being bound and gagged. It’s one thing to read about it but it is certainly another thing to see it and I’m guessing for you, it was on another level of actually being bound and gagged while filming that. What was it like filming that scene? 

YAM: It was harrowing. It was humiliating. It was a challenge. It was difficult, but I had a job to do. My job was to hold onto his humanity. I think Bobby Seale, throughout the course of the trial, he was fighting for a lot of things. He was fighting for other people. He was fighting for Blacks. He was fighting for poor people being sent off to war. He was fighting for the Black Panther Party. But ultimately, he was also fighting to be recognized as a human being, to be recognized as a man. So I made sure that in that moment. I didn’t want to attach my performance to an end result. I said, “Right now, in this moment, my job is to hold onto my manhood and to my humanity, which someone is about to attempt to take away from me in about three minutes.” So my job throughout that entire ordeal, being punched in the gut, I’m a man being held down and shackled to the chair. I’m still a man. Someone’s holding my mouth open. I’m still a man. And as they shove the rags in his mouth, like an animal and tied it around his head and marched him out in front of everybody else, my job was to say, “I’m still a man. I’m still a man.” 

That was the small seed that I held onto as I went throughout that, because an act like that is designed to make him feel less than human and it’s not just designed to shut him up. It’s designed to break his spirit and if you could break his spirit, I like to say that you can break anyone else’s spirit because he’s a very strong-willed person, so I made sure that that was my armor. And then I said, “OK, bring it on. Let’s see what you got.” And that’s how, I guess as an actor, I carried myself through those moments and it was important that he was victorious and that he was a man throughout that entire experience. 

GD: We are an awards site, and, boy, did you have a moment this past September when you claimed the Emmy for supporting actor in a limited series for playing Dr. Manhattan in “Watchmen.” What was that experience like winning that Emmy, accepting it on Zoom? Did someone bring the Emmy to your door after your speech? 

YAM: (Laughs.) It was wild, man. It was a wild experience, I had my whole family to the left, which you couldn’t see. They were on a separate Zoom, watching on TV and watching me. I had my cousin here. I had a makeup artist who I didn’t know and I had a tech guy who I didn’t know, big guy, like 6’10” who came to set up the thing and we’re just all hanging out. It was the most random thing in the world, but it was an honor. It was an honor to be a part of history in that way, for that show. It was a really big celebration. I still don’t have my trophy yet. It’s on its way. But they can’t take it from me because I’ve already got it on the record. The cool thing is that it’ll come and it’ll be like I got another award. Hopefully, that excitement will come back. But yeah, that was a very, very bright spot in an otherwise chaotic 2020. I was very gracious for that moment.

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