Yahya Abdul-Mateen II knows the risks that come with reinterpreting beloved cinematic characters. But so far, those risks have served him well. The New Orleans-born actor, 35, won an Emmy for playing the godlike colossus Dr. Manhattan on HBO’s Watchmen — a character already defined on screen by Billy Crudup in Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie. And in this year’s hit remake of Candyman, he continued the legacy of Tony Todd, who famously played the hook-handed slasher in the original films.
“It’s not really my job to try to duplicate or try to challenge that history,” Abdul-Mateen says of these past roles over the phone from his London digs, where he’s in the middle of shooting the Aquaman sequel The Lost Kingdom (another bit of fan-favorite IP, in which he’ll be returning as Black Manta). “If anything, I step into it because I appreciate the history.”
Still, the latest pair of shoes that the star’s been asked to fill are the most imposing yet. At the end of 2019, he auditioned for The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth installment of the Matrix films. The character he was up for was Morpheus.
Abdul-Mateen couldn’t wrap his head around how it was going to work. How was he going to replace Laurence Fishburne as the prognosticating paragon of bullet-dodging in the Wachowskis’ sci-fi trilogy? The slick inner tour guide with the deep tenor voice who leads Keanu Reeves down the rabbit hole? The man who frees Neo from the simulated reality of the Matrix? Fishburne is, after all, as integral a piece of the puzzle-box franchise as Reeves or Carrie-Anne Moss — both of whom are returning in Resurrections (directed solo by Lana Wachowski). But in 2020, Fishburne mentioned in an interview with New York magazine that he had “not been invited” back for the sequel yet wished the cast well.
For his part, Abdul-Mateen has nothing but respect for Fishburne’s performance — and had no interest in replicating it. “Laurence already did what had to be done,” he says. “I think what the script provided was a new narrative and some new opportunities that did make room within the Matrix universe for a new Morpheus.”
The last time we saw Neo’s mentor on screen, he was celebrating the end of the man-machine war in 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions. Neo had defeated Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith before sacrificing his body to the bots. Morpheus would later return in a Matrix video game, a piece of the movies’ extended canon, in which he seemingly died trying to recover Neo’s remains. Abdul-Mateen denies that the game impacted his performance, admitting he’d “be bulls—ting” if he said otherwise.
Beyond that, Abdul-Mateen is pretty tight-lipped about the latest Matrix installment and his character’s importance to its plot. And between Aquaman, Watchmen, and the forthcoming Mad Max: Fury Road prequel movie Furiosa, he knows how to keep a secret — or at least stick to an NDA. His one concession: “This is definitely a different iteration of the character.”
That’s not to say that Abdul-Mateen isn’t channeling some of the flair that Fishburne brought to the part. Through his extensive coaching with the stunt team, he was able to pull off his “most physically demanding role” to date by replicating some classic Morpheus martial-arts moves. In one sequence, he spars with Neo in a training session, just as Fishburne and Reeves did in the first film.
“I play a character who’s definitely aware of the history of the Matrix [and] the history of Morpheus,” he says. “This character is on a journey of self-discovery. There’s a lot in our story that’s about growth, defining your own path. Morpheus isn’t exempt from that.”
Having two actors playing the same character isn’t unprecedented in the Matrix Cinematic Universe. Gloria Foster was introduced as the Oracle — a program within the Matrix that can predict the future — in the first movie, before returning for 2003’s Reloaded sequel. But Mary Alice took over for her in Revolutions after Foster passed away from diabetes in between films. The switch was finessed into the script: The Oracle explained how her previous body had been destroyed by a villainous program.
Is this the case for the new Morpheus? Abdul-Mateen isn’t telling. “What the viewers will come to understand is that there are many rules of the Matrix,” he says. “Age, appearance, the things we identify as real, can be manipulated in that world. The Matrix is where anything is possible.”
Despite the high concepts and skiffy jargon, Abdul-Mateen considers Resurrections to be the most grounded of all his sci-fi roles. Between new characters, including ones played by Jessica Henwick, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra, and Jonathan Groff, as well as the return of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe, this ensemble has a lot to say about the world we’re living in now.
In that first film two decades ago, the Wachowskis offered a warning about “what the future might become.” Abdul-Mateen suggests “we may have become that future.” While Resurrections still points to those dangers, he adds, “Our film is so much more driven by the hope of what the world can be that it grounds it all in reality. Everybody’s so plugged in these days. I think for a lot of reasons, it’ll be a mind trip.”
The Matrix Resurrections opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max this Dec. 22.