The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann's fantastic take on the birth of hip-hop, mostly focuses on a group of ambitious youngsters trying to turn their creative dreams into a vehicle to rocket them out of the crumbling Bronx. But every story needs a villain. The show, which premieres on Friday, Aug. 12, comes right at the moment when disco is dying and hip-hop is blossoming, and its villain, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, 29, certainly falls into the former movement.
The superfly gangster Abdul-Mateen II plays, Cadillac, is straight out of Saturday Night Fever, with the dance moves to boot. But the way he glides across the dance floor is inexplicably evil—he's a predator who's also full of insecure energy. You see, Cadillac isn't the crime boss he so badly wants to be—his mother is. As such, the character is a bit of a wild card in The Get Down, an obstacle for the main characters who is constantly punching out of his weight class and often failing to eclipse his mother or make her appreciate him. He's a character who will get his, even if he and everyone around him burns in the process. Ahead of The Get Down's premiere, Abdul-Mateen II, who will also star alongside Dwayne Johnson in Baywatch next year, took us inside the psyche of this conflicted villain.
So first off, where'd you get those dance moves?
That's probably the New Orleans in me. I was born with a lot of sound, a lot of musicality. I wanted to be Michael Jackson as a kid. Once I got the part I had to learn some disco—the choreographers on the show put me through a boot camp. They whipped me into shape.
On the show, you're this guy who has a lot of swagger, but it's almost evil-feeling.
After learning disco, I had to put the acting to it. I had to learn how to lay my intention on top of the dance. That created the attitude Cadillac moves with. He loves himself, so any opportunity he has to show off, he'll do it.
I'd love to hear your take on Cadillac and how you read the character.
He's spoiled; he has to get his way, and he's in a position where he has potential to affect a lot people in a positive or detrimental way depending on how he feels. In the world of disco, he's a king, and in the other world, he's a prince. He's very close with his mother—
That's the relationship that stood out to me. Can you say how that plays out?
The interesting thing about Cadillac is everybody on the streets or at the club sees him as number one, he sees himself as number one. Factually, he's number two, which why we'll never see Cadillac rest this season. We'll see a lot of conflict this season in terms of how Cadillac relates to [his mom] Fat Annie and what he wants from her. It's a very complex relationship.
Tell me honestly, what were your first thoughts when you heard that Baz Luhrmann was making a show about the birth of hip-hop?
The honest answer is that I didn't have time to think of it. I went on this audition and I got a call back. The next thing I knew I was in front of Baz and he's sharing his ideas and research. All of his walls were taken up with the research he had been doing for years. He had this timeline taking us before disco into disco and into hip-hop. He knew the names, he knew the history. He was so immersed in it. Is he the right person to tell this story? I say he has the love and enthusiasm for the time period. He also has the respect, shown in the people he invited to help tell the story: Nas, Kurtis Blow, Nelson George, Grandmaster Flash. All of these people were in the room every single step of the way.
What's that like? You're making a show about them and they're just off camera?
I'm fortunate, I'm one of the guys who doesn't have the pressure of having his character derived from a specific person. So it's fun. To be able to have them as a resource and listen to them five minutes before I go on set? That's actor's gold.
Before you go, I wanted to ask a little bit about Baywatch. When we last spoke, you mentioned that your character's an actual policeman who rubs up against The Rock's character, since he's a lifeguard who thinks he's a policeman.
Yeah, he reincarnates the David Hasselhoff character. He doesn't want to be a cop, he wants to be a lifeguard, but he has a very specific definition of what a lifeguard should do. Throughout the film, you'll see us butt heads over who has jurisdiction—it creates a lot of silly comedy.
Knowing you were going to be standing next to The Rock, did you feel any pressure to bulk up?
Of course I did. It was one of the first things I tried to do. I started eating, making sure I get to the gym—push-ups, bench press, getting my legs right. I get on set the first day and I do my costume fitting. I'm like, I just did my push-ups, I got my swole on, and I'm ready to look nice in this shirt—and the shirt is too big. The head of costumes says, "Oh no, you look exactly how we want you to." I said, "Ohhh, I see what's going on here." So for the whole movie, I was the guy who wanted to have a body like The Rock and of course that never happens. All of my efforts were for naught.
What!? They should let you get in a swimsuit.