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Television

‘Watchmen’ finds its Dr. Manhattan in the series’ most intriguing twist yet

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in HBO’s “Watchmen”
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in HBO’s “Watchmen.”
(Mark Hill / HBO)

Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday night’s episode of “Watchmen,” “A God Walks Into Abar.”

Bet you didn’t see that coming.

In a season already packed with head-spinning twists and surprising images, “Watchmen,” HBO’s hit reboot of the iconic graphic novel, has unveiled its most bizarre twist yet. Sunday night’s episode, “A God Walks Into Abar,” reveals that Cal Abar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the quietly supportive husband of protagonist Angela Abar (Regina King), is actually Dr. Manhattan, the powerful, blue-skinned being who was believed to living on Mars.

Dr. Manhattan, a brilliant nuclear physicist who had been genetically transformed into a god-like figure following a laboratory accident, was the most intriguing and mysterious of the original “Watchmen” characters, and he has been referenced several times in the series. His ex-wife, FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), is apparently still pining for him, leaving him long phone messages and carrying around a shiny blue sex toy.

In “Watchmen,” Jean Smart adds to a string of acclaimed roles in dark series like “Fargo” and “Legion” as no-nonsense FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake.
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The new episode details in a structurally daring series of flashbacks how Dr. Manhattan fell in love with Angela after meeting her years ago in Vietnam — so much in love that he eventually abandons his otherworldly identity and erases his memory, placing himself in the body of a dead man. As Cal, he has mostly been on the sidelines. But when Angela, a.k.a. costumed vigilante Sister Knight, learns of a plot by a vicious group of white supremacists to kidnap Dr. Manhattan, she reluctantly has to transform Cal back into his blue, glowing state.

The bizarre development has moved Abdul-Mateen to the center of the series, which concludes its first season next week. The actor is no stranger to the superhero universe — he played the villain Black Manta in “Aquaman.” Among his other credits are “Us,” “The Greatest Showman” and Netflix’s hip-hop origin story “The Get Down.”

In a phone interview from New York, Abdul-Mateen described his gut reaction when he learned about his character, finding a performance rhythm for his two identities, and what it was like to walk around with blue skin.

HBO’s “Watchmen” examines race, white supremacy and police brutality. Sunday night’s series premiere has creator Damon Lindelof asking, “Should we have done it?”

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in HBO’s “Watchmen”
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Dr. Manhattan in HBO’s “Watchmen.”
(Mark Hill / HBO)

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My mind is still reeling. When did you find out that Cal was Dr. Manhattan?

At the time of my audition, they said they could only give me so much information. I was told that Cal had an accident and had lost his memory. It was somewhere between the second and third episodes when [series creator Damon Lindelof] called me in to talk more about Cal, his backstory. He said very simply and matter-of-factly, “Cal is Dr. Manhattan.” I tried to mimic his body language and his behavior when I reacted, but inside I was going wild. My first thought was, “I’m going to have to get a gym membership and get in shape.”

Were you skeptical about taking a supporting role you knew so little about?

It was definitely a leap of faith. After I was offered the role, they said, “We can’t say everything about it, but we think it will be worth it.” I didn’t push it. I wasn’t betting on Cal being anything more than what was given me. I decided if I wanted to do TV, it was going to be high class. Here I had HBO, Damon and Regina, so it was going to be a good experience. With the news that I was Dr. Manhattan, things got so much sweeter.

What was your process of preparing to play Dr. Manhattan, since he’s such an iconic character in this universe?

There were so many opinions about Dr. Manhattan, so many rules about what kind of person he is. I just wanted to identify with someone who was hyper-, hyper-, hyper-intelligent, but also in love. Those characters are very complex. They experience love in the same way, but how do they articulate love? Sometimes these characters seem emotionally distant because they are intellectual, rather than leading with their feelings. So what would it be like if a god wanted to be a human? That was my way of stepping in. Oftentimes we see stories about human wanting to be gods.

How about your physical transformation?

I knew I couldn’t walk in as a slouch. I worked with a guy in Atlanta who put me on a diet and whipped me into shape. Then I worked on the character and his movement, how he expresses himself. Cal is a good container, but he’s a lot more loose, playful in his movements and gestures. I needed to do the opposite with Dr. Manhattan. There’s not a lot of wasted movement. I wanted him to be a lot more deliberate, very content and comfortable about how he is and how he moves in the world. It was a lot of fun articulating that body.

And, of course, we see nearly all of Dr. Manhattan.

As an artist, I always like to challenge myself to experience discomfort. This was a situation that made me uncomfortable a little but it was also a chance to say, “Let’s step up to the plate and see what fun can be had.” It was actually pretty liberating to step onto set and be fully naked. Everyone was great, making sure I was comfortable.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in HBO’s “Watchmen”
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in HBO’s “Watchmen.”
(Mark Hill/HBO)

How long did it take to make you blue?

It started out taking 2½ hours. By the time we got down to the end, it took about an hour and 45 minutes. By then, I was thinking, “I wish I had known about this beforehand. I would have mentally prepared for this.” I need a break from jobs that require long stints in the makeup chair. That really took its toll. Usually I’m a 20-minute fix — get a little powder, brush my hair. They said, “Not this time. It’s a whole operation.”

What are you covered with?

It’s a paint, like airbrush. They put on a white cream at first to even the skin tone and make sure the blue paint applies well,. There’s also black, for shadowing. It was an awesome makeup team that paid close attention to detail, even down to the fingernails. The more they paid attention, the more frustrated I got. They were paying attention to things people were never going to see. Finally I had to say, “OK, guys, stop. I’ve given you my body for two hours. Now I need to take it back.”

How did being blue affect your performance?

Not so much. I felt more like Dr. Manhattan when I was in a suit. That was so different from Cal, who’s a sweats and T-shirt kind of guy. To put on a black suit with not a lot of style, with a tie, buttoned all the way up to the top, was so physically different and a key indicator I was in another world.

How about de-bluing yourself?

That took about an hour, with alcohol and all different kinds of solutions. Me and the two guys would go in there and we would get real personal. It wasn’t a time to be shy. Some days I would say, “OK, I just want to go home now” and they would stop. I would go home with blue ankles and feet. I’d sit in the tub and wait until the blue came off. Or I would just go out on the balcony, put my blue feet on the ottoman, and rest.


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