Yahya Abdul-Mateen II interview: 'It’s always funny until Candyman is standing behind you' (exclusive)

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Watch the trailer for Candyman

Picture this: it’s February 2020, and while much of the movie world is shut down, there’s still optimism that things will improve in time for Nia DaCosta’s Candyman to be released in cinemas for June. 

It’s then that Yahoo talks to the movie’s star, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who is clearly excited about returning to a franchise that has only grown in stature since the original movie first terrified Cabrini-Green residents and audiences alike in 1992.

It would, of course, be another 18 months before we finally got to see what all the fuss is about, but Abdul-Mateen II’s excitement is warranted. The original movie birthed a terrifying boogeyman when many a foolish victim summoned Candyman by saying his name five times to a mirror. The spiritual sequel proves that the urban legend is still as scary and timely as ever.

Read more: Tony Todd promises new Candyman will deliver

It’s a legend that Abdul-Mateen II was very familiar with: “My first experience with Candyman was being in a living room and someone daring us to go in the bathroom, and say it. I grew up with Candyman being a real man inside of the household. 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta. (Universal Pictures)

"Then I learned about the movie, and at the time I thought the movie was based on true events and not the other way around.”

Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony McCoy, a painter living in a now-gentrified Cabrini-Green with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director. To get out of his creative rut, he decides to investigate the Candyman phenomenon and use it as inspiration for his next art piece. Big mistake.

The best horror films are always about something other than the horror itself, and Candyman is no exception. As is the custom for any film that bears Jordan Peele’s name (the Get Out writer and director co-writes and produces here), there are a number of societal issues embedded in the screenplay. 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and director Nia DaCosta on the set of Candyman.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and director Nia DaCosta on the set of Candyman. (Universal Pictures)

“We’re dealing with themes of gentrification, especially with the story taking place in Cabrini-Green,” says Abdul-Mateen II. 

“The original being in 1992, you look at Cabrini-Green now and the faces of those communities changing when you fast forward to 2020. We’re dealing with police brutality, we’re dealing with representation, and we’re dealing with themes in art. It’s all pretty consistent with what Jordan and [his production company] Monkey Paw tend to do.”

Tony Todd holds onto Virginia Madsen in a scene from the film 'Candyman', 1992. (Photo by TriStar/Getty Images)
Tony Todd holds onto Virginia Madsen in a scene from the film 'Candyman', 1992. (Photo by TriStar/Getty Images)

Where the original Candyman had white director Bernard Rose calling the shots, the latest chapter has the benefit of Black voices leading the charge behind the camera. At the top of that list is DaCosta, who had many of the movie’s most interesting ideas in her initial pitch. 

Read more: Candyman's origins revealed in chilling animation

“There was a series of photographs by Gordon Parks called ‘Segregation Story’. That colour scheme and that photography was really inspirational for my production designer and for costume design. That was in my pitch. The deterioration of Anthony was also in my pitch, because I love body horror.”

Director Nia DaCosta and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the set of Candyman.
Director Nia DaCosta and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the set of Candyman. (Universal Pictures)

The body horror is just one way that DaCosta intensifies the feeling of dread and unease, and there were times when it even affected the actors themselves. “There were definitely days when I’m saying 'what is my life?' and 'I can’t believe that I’m doing this!' and I look in the mirror and I’m just terrified at the things that are reflected back,” says Abdul-Mateen II.

Thankfully, there are moments of levity that are used sparingly but effectively throughout. Indeed, catching the audience “off guard” is part and parcel of the horror movie experience, says Abdul-Mateen II. 

“The idea that there is a person named Candyman, a guy with a hook walking around the projects haunting people and murdering people in the ways that people talk about. To someone who doesn’t believe that story, there’s definitely humour. It’s always funny until Candyman is standing behind you.”

Candyman, in silhouette, in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta.
Candyman, in silhouette, in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta.

One such moment sees Parris’ Brianna ask who would be foolish enough to summon Candyman, only to immediately cut to a group of white high school girls who end up doing just that. 

It’s a scene that’s been heavily featured in trailers, and one that DaCosta was really excited to shoot: “It’s classic slasher horror, but we tried to do it in a more interesting way.”

Candyman is not a name you should be repeating often, then, especially when mirrors are near. But with this memorable lead performance, and roles in the highly anticipated Aquaman and Matrix sequels coming up, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a name we’ll be hearing — and saying — for a while yet.

Candyman is playing in cinemas now. Watch a clip below.

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