Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 features some of the best actors working today. Telling the story of 8 defendants on trial for conspiracy to incite riots around the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the film boasts an ensemble cast for the ages. Frank Langella. Sacha Baron Cohen. Eddie Redmayne. Jeremy Strong. John Carroll Lynch. Mark Rylance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Michael Keaton. It’s the kind of cast that feels tailor-made for the SAG Ensemble award.
But amongst all of that high wattage star power, you absolutely cannot take your eyes off of the great Yahya Abdul-Mateen.
Abdul-Mateen plays Bobby Seale, the trial’s eighth defendant who was also the national chairman of the Black Panther Party. The target of persistent harassment by police in multiple states, Seale’s continuous objections to a trial without legal representation fell on deaf ears. The film’s arguably most powerful scene involves Seale being bound and gagged in court at the order of Judge Julius Hoffman (Langella).
The scene, difficult to watch as it is, is made tolerable by Abdul-Mateen’s performance – a mixture of abject horror and unbridled rage. The performance arrives on the heels of Abdul-Mateen’s first major award win – an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series award for HBO’s acclaimed Watchmen. Chances are, it’s not the first award for this fantastic actor.
Here, Yahya Abdul-Mateen talks to Awards Daily about finding Bobby Seale – not only who he was as a Black man in the 1960s but also the parallels between Seale and Abdul-Mateen’s own life. He also talks about working with this fantastic cast and how the partnerships they formed helped inform his own performance. Finally, he talks about what it was like living through the tumultuous 2020 knowing that Chicago 7 offered so many eerily direct parallels.
The whole world is watching indeed.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your performance in The Trial of the Chicago 7. You were fantastic in it. What kind of research did you do to take on the role of Bobby Seale?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen: I wanted to make sure that I was of the time, so I made sure that I did research to learn about the political climate, social climate, economic climate, the concerns of a Black man in 1968. I read Bobby’s autobiography. I watched countless interviews. I landed on one particular interview where he was in prison, and I studied this interview over and over and over for some of his mannerisms and speech cadences and then to learn about some of the things that he cared about. I tried to align myself with his causes. At the time, he was a young man who was full of life and possibility, extremely combative, opinionated, and charismatic. He was determined to live a full life, determined to hold on to his humanity and to advocate for other people but, in turns of himself, determined to live a full life. I said, ‘Okay, this is enough for me to begin.’
AD: So you have all of that information available to you. Did you draw on any of your personal experience as a Black man living in America in modern era to portray Bobby?
YAM: Sure. I know what it’s like to be discriminated. I know what it’s like to be undermined. I’ve spent time marching, planning, and being an advocate for other people and educating myself. I’m being careful of my surroundings and how I move because I’m Black and making the specific choice to be defiant. I have not only my own history, but I also have the history of my father and the history of my grandfather. I have the knowledge of the type of freedoms that they desire, that they may or may not have been able to ever experience in life. I know about the cost of being a free, outspoken Black man.
To be a Black man in America pursuing freedom, pursuing the idea of freedom today, there’s a cost associated with that. In the 1960s with a lot of our Black revolutionary examples, they were murdered around the time that this trial took place. Bobby Seale would have known people who were murdered for standing up for the cause, so some things I could relate to directly. Other things that I could not directly relate to were definitely close enough in history to still be palpable.
AD: I recently rewatched Chicago 7, and as I watched it this time, I was really fascinated by the physical separation that Bobby has from the other white defendants – the Chicago 7. Did you maintain that physical separation while you were portraying the character? Did you keep yourself distant from the actors to mirror what was going on in the film?
YAM: No, no. It couldn’t be more opposite. I had a great, great working relationship and friendship with the rest of the cast. With a project like this, when a character is isolated, it wouldn’t have been helpful for me to be isolated from everybody else. This was such a team venture, so the agreement was that we have our good guys and we have our bad guys. We have our lawyers. We have the prosecutor. This is my role, and my job is to try to pull them in. So, we used whatever we could get. For me, it was very, very important to touch base to have that relationship with everyone else. We’re working with some pretty heavy drama a lot of the time, and it helped to break it up in the middle, to have some levity and some fun and games.
AD: So given the animosity between you and Frank Langella’s character in the film, what was your working relationship like with him? What kind of bond did you build with him to be able to play off each other that way?
YAM: Yeah, I stayed in Frank’s face in between takes. That relationship was especially important because it’s extremely combative. It’s me versus you, and sometimes I’m not gonna take no shit. And, you know, I’m going to dish it out, and we’re going to see who can dish it out the best. [Laughs] There was definitely a game at play between myself and Frank. In between takes, we would ask, ‘Okay, so how did that go? What did you think about that? Okay, yeah, that was pretty good. You got me.’ All of that aside, I’m not going to be in a room with with Frank Langella and Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne and Sacha [Baron Cohen] and not get tidbits and things like that. It was a really, really amazing experience.
AD: So for the majority of the film with, of course, a very notable exception, you play Bobby Seale as a very reserved person. All the emotions are kept inside. Then, of course, Fred Hampton is assassinated. That leads to a major following outburst and pivotal scene for you. I have to assume that you’re playing that moment as if the emotion from Fred’s death is finally bubbling to the surface — coming to a head at that moment. Is that how you wanted to play it?
YAM: Well, the entire performance is an exercise in restraint. From the beginning, it is outrageous that he is there without representation. Everyone knows it. He’s literally on trial without representation in America. In order to convey the absurdity of that, he has to follow the decorum as much as he can. So, we see him trying different tactics. We see him speaking out and being combative at first. We see him saying always saying Your Honor, always standing up. He has his hands behind his back. He has his hands to his front. Other times, he’s looking back, and he’s reading off a notepad and trying to go the legal route when he should be up in arms. He deserves to be up in arms the entire time, and yet he can’t be because there are severe consequences to that. So the whole performance is an exercise in restraint.
After that moment, he has a decision to make. I’m not being rewarded for this restraint, and the restraint that I’ve been exercising is now costing me emotionally, costing me personally. So now I have to make a choice to throw restraint out of the window and to enter demand. What it is that I want and to lead with a different type of integrity that says now it’s not about restraint. Now, it’s about taking what I deserve in this world and in this moment. Now, I have to push through another wall in order to hold onto my integrity. He’s willing to meet with the consequences head on.
AD: This film was made, written, and directed in advance of 2020. Living through 2020 with Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, etc, knowing that this film is coming out with all of the eerie, direct parallels between the script and reality, what was it like for you to be living through 2020 with the film in the back of your mind?
YAM: This is a little bit eerie. We made this movie in 2019, believing that the movie would resonate the most because it was an election year. That people would identify with the part of the film that called citizens to step into their civic duty and make their voices heard via the ballot box and vote. We had no idea what the landscape of the world would be when this movie came out. I think we were all just a little bit stunned and amazed and, in some ways, surprised, and, in other ways, not so surprised. There’s still still so much to fight for. I am proud to be a part of this project that could be a teachable moment, a lesson for what we can do in times like this. I think [the film] was a call for us all to find our courage and to do something about the injustices that we see. It turned out to be even more timely than we thought.