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Exclusive Interview: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the new “CANDYMAN”

Tuesday, July 21, 2020 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Among the many reimaginings and reboots of ’80s/’90s classics, CANDYMAN (coming October 16 from Universal) stands as one of the most exciting. Directed by up-and-comer Nia DaCosta from a script she wrote with producers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld of Monkeypaw Productions, it returns to Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood, which has undergone many changes since Candyman haunted its housing projects in Bernard Rose’s original film. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who co-starred in Peele’s US, plays Anthony McCoy, an artist who moves into the now-gentrified Cabrini Green with his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). When Anthony learns of Candyman’s story, it beings inspiring his art, while also offering the hook-handed phantom the opportunity to break back into our world. RUE MORGUE got the chance to speak with Abdul-Mateen (also seen in AQUAMAN and WATCHMEN, and who further discusses CANDYMAN in RUE MORGUE #194) about his role on the film’s fresh take on the mythology.

When did you first see the original CANDYMAN, and what impression did it make on you?

I was very young, I had to have been five or six years old. It was terrifying, as CANDYMAN would be to someone that young. I remember being dared to play the game in the bathroom, and it was always either Bloody Mary or Candyman, and I didn’t have the courage to play either one to its completion. Growing up, I had forgotten the plot, but I still remembered the guy with the hook and the honey and the bees coming out of his mouth, and it was absolutely frightening, all the way up to right now.

How did you come to star in the new version?

It was a phone call, really, with the opportunity to come out and play. I had been kind of tiptoeing around some Monkeypaw projects for the past couple of years, after working with Jordan on US. We had a conversation about finding the right thing to reunite on in the future, and CANDYMAN turned out to be that opportunity. I knew they were doing important work over there–fun work, high-quality work–so when I got that call, I jumped at the opportunity to come and enter their world for a little while.​

How was the experience of doing US?

That was awesome, man. Jordan is really an actor’s director. He’s very, very clear in his vision, he’s not precious with the work, and it was truly inspiring. I was working with Lupita and Winston Duke, who I’d known from school, and of course with Anna Diop, and we got to create our own little world. US was very, very inspiring; I got to see what can happen when a director comes in with a strong, clear vision, trusts his actors and gives them the space to play and explore. You know, I only worked on that film for maybe four days, but it was one of the best acting experiences I’ve had.

What can you tell us about your CANDYMAN role?

Anthony is a young artist from Chicago, a successful painter, but on the brink of a sort of starving career, you know? Upon a chance encounter in Cabrini Green, while searching for inspiration for his next project, he winds up being inspired by something that opens up a portal he wishes he hadn’t.

How about your co-stars and their parts?

Anthony’s girlfriend Brianna Cartwright, played by Teyonah Parris, is the director of a contemporary art gallery in Chicago. She is sort of the more sophisticated counterpart to Anthony. Whereas Anthony is on the ground, wearing the same shoes every day, with paint on his clothes, she’s more polished and comes from a well-off family. While Anthony is struggling with his artistic voice, her career is flourishing, and that kind of creates conflict. Then there’s Troy, Brianna’s brother, played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, who is a support system for Brianna but also one of the voices that’s more parental, warning Brianna, “OK, what are you doing with this artist?”, trying to protect her. Colman Domingo plays a character named William Burke, who’s sort of the old guard of Cabrini Green, a resident who holds the history of the place.

How was your collaboration with Nia DaCosta?

Nia was awesome to work with. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about her is smart; she really has the brains to be successful in this industry. I got to see her style of directing in LITTLE WOODS, and the way she created character relationships and built suspense with such little real estate. I felt she was going to be an excellent filmmaker, and a great choice for this movie. She’s very playful on set, gave the actors room to explore, took care of us and kept the morale high, and made sure we had everything we needed to keep our confidence up on set. She had such a strong artistic vision for CANDYMAN. She just loves film and storytelling, and I can’t sing her praises enough.

This CANDYMAN deals with the changes the Cabrini Green area has undergone since the first film. How much of that did you witness on location while shooting the movie?

Oh, man, I witnessed it every time I was there. In Cabrini Green as it is right now, a significant amount of the row houses are fenced off and enclosed, closed off from the rest of the city. Then there’s about a block of them that are still being occupied, with police on both ends of the entrance and exit. It really feels like Cabrini Green is under surveillance while the area immediately surrounding it is up-and-coming, is booming, and the residents look very dissimilar. It feels as though there’s a thriving culture immediately outside of those gates, and it’s a very eerie feeling to know that the residents there are sort of the last ones standing, and that every day, there’s a threat to make their stake in that place shrink, and get smaller and smaller until they become nonexistent. It’s a horror story in itself.

Candyman’s original backstory was that he was a painter before he was killed; does that play into the new film, since it’s set in the art world?

I don’t want to give a direct yes or no answer, but I will say that Jordan and Win were very intentional about what they put into the script, so there was definitely a narrative opportunity to take advantage of some of those parallels. I think I can say that much.

What can you tell us about Candyman himself?

I can say that the presence of Candyman in this film is strong, obviously, and the manner in which it is revealed, and the process by which Candyman becomes empowered and impactful in our film, will be scary and exciting and entertaining. Right now, I want to keep that close to the vest until audiences get to experience the film.

Both films you’ve done with Peele have been made under a cone of silence; how is the experience of making a movie that you can’t discuss with the rest of the world?

[Laughs] Man, that’s almost everything I’ve done! It was AQUAMAN, it was WATCHMEN, it was US, it was CANDYMAN. I guess that’s just the lay of the land now, where it’s very fun to make, and then you have to figure out a way to talk about it. That’s just become the norm, and it’s really all about preservation of the film, making sure the audience has an excellent experience. There are going to be so many people coming to CANDYMAN with high expectations, and we want to meet their expectations and surpass their expectations, but also make sure that by the time they get into their seats, there are still secrets, and they can have a fresh, untainted perspective. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of being coy in situations like this, and finding creative ways to talk about the project.

AQUAMAN and WATCHMEN had you working with a lot of digital effects; how much of the effects on CANDYMAN were digital, and how many were physical and on set?

We had very, very good special makeup effects artists on this film, who did an awesome job. Most of the things I saw on set that were involved with the most terrifying moments were practical. I think it’s difficult to make a movie like this without visual effects, but these really talented artists, I believe they were Chicago locals, came in and elevated the film, making sure the bloody stuff was terrifying and realistic.

Did you get to play in the blood yourself?

Well, doing a movie like CANDYMAN, it would be unfortunate if I didn’t get to have my hand in the fun a little bit, so… [Laughs]

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.