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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, The Greatest Showman's High Flying Breakout

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, The Greatest Showman's High Flying Breakout

Yahya Adbul-Mateen II, High Flyer
Photographer: Matt Doyle

The former community organizer is now starring in some of Hollywood's biggest projects. 

"It's really important that we have the tools to make our voices heard," says Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The 30-year-old in-demand actor is calling from Australia, where he's on the sprawling set of next year's Aquaman film (he plays the villain Black Manta), but he's talking about his pre-acting days, when he worked in the San Francisco mayor's office in city planning and community development.

Abdul-Mateen, who studied architecture at UC Berkeley, always dreamed big, including when he was growing up in the inner cities of New Orleans and Oakland, Calif., where, as a child, he'd re-enact scenes from Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks -- by candlelight if the electricity had been turned off. After the economy went south, and he was laid off from his city-planning gig, he found himself longing to reconnect with his creative side, recalling the acting class he'd taken as an elective in college. "I remember thinking, If I ever get a chance to try this out, I'm gonna do it," he says.

Fast-forward to 2015, and he'd earned an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. Then came a string of high-profile roles, including the part of the disco king Cadillac in Netflix's The Get Down and police officer Sgt. Ellerbee in this summer's Baywatch reboot. Now he's starring as acrobat WD Wheeler in the grand-scale Oscar contender The Greatest Showman, a P.T. Barnum biopic that's in sync with his goal of making more voices heard. "It's a story about people who are born a certain way and outcast for it," Abdul-Mateen says, "then given a space where they can be seen and celebrated."

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