This interview contains spoilers for Black Mirror season 5’s “Striking Vipers.”
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is popping up everywhere these days. In the last year, he’s starred as the villian, Black Manta, to Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. Already in 2019, he’s appeared in Jordan Peele’s instant horror classic Us and is set to have a big role in HBO’s Watchmen series when it debuts in the fall. One of his most challenging and emotionally complex roles to date is his most recent one: Abdul-Mateen II co-stars with Anthony Mackie in Black Mirror’s season 5 premiere.
In “Striking Vipers,” Abdul-Mateen II plays Karl, a carefree bachelor who reconnects with his married former roommate, Danny, through a virtual reality video game. Inside the game, Karl and Danny ignite an unconventional relationship that begins to affect their personal lives. The episode is a deeply-layered character study that ends in compromise – with a new technology that upended the main characters’ lives – and an emotionally mature response to a complex situation.
We spoke to Abdul-Mateen II about understanding Karl’s mindset, the intentional ambiguity of the episode, and a somewhat sunny outcome for the often bleak Black Mirror.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: What was your initial reaction to the script and what questions did you bring back to the Black Mirror producing team?
Yeah, my initial reaction was, “whoa, this seems like a lot of fun.” I’ve really felt called to be a guy that was projecting one idea of what his life was. And he was projecting to be really masculine and to have it all figured out. But I knew that in his private life that he was more sensitive and that he was a very lonely guy. And then there was the aspect of addiction and needing to play this game, and really needing the connection that he found with Danny. And so that was a very exciting opportunity for me to go and to create something. And so I really had to just go with ideas to the team and they were on board.
How did you process what Karl was going through? Was he avoiding dealing with his sexuality in real life by using the game as escapism?
In my understanding of the character, I allowed Karl to understand himself as a guy looking for connection. And so it really wasn’t about his sexuality. It was about finding connection and finding intimacy. I knew that was something that I could relate to and that I could chase down. There was the moment afterwards, or at the very last moment when they’re about to kiss, and I think that’s the moment where that thing comes into play for Karl. Where he’s saying, “Oh my God, I don’t know what this all implicates for me, in terms of my sexuality outside of the game.” But it was really, really interesting to look at the dialogue because literally 95 percent of the episode we are like, “well, of course. This is what was going on in his mind and in his subconscious.” But sometimes that’s how life is. Karl could be a guy who is suppressing something. Or he could have been a guy who knew exactly who he was, but found himself in this new type of predicament. I leave that up to the viewer to decide.
Since the script is written ambiguously in some aspects, what kind of direction you were getting from the Black Mirror team on set?
We didn’t want to define exactly what their connection was based on; whether these two guys were suppressing feelings that they had for each other, or whether it was the excitement that comes from escapism. We didn’t want to pin ourselves down to one thing. But we knew that whatever the connection would be, that it was about being seen, being heard, being understood. And about escaping into something that gives you an ultimate reality, that gives you the excitement, or that fulfills you in a way that, so to speak, your real life did not. And so we sort of played around with those guidelines and I think that’s what makes it so interesting, and such a hot topic to discuss. Because now we have to go back and discuss, “Well, what does it all mean? What was really going on under the surface?” So in this case, I like the ambiguity of the nature of their relationship.
The episode touches on video games as an emotional expression for men in areas they might not pursue in real life. What’s your personal relationship is to video games?
You get to go into those worlds and to take on personas that you desire to take on in real life. Or sometimes you get to go and to take on personas that you don’t get to have in real life. It’s all some form of escapism. And I think where our episode gets dangerous is that we start to say, “well, how much of this is real?” And what are the chances that we can, potentially, take this outside of the game. And how does it affect our behavior outside of the game?
For the scene where Karl and Danny decide to confront each other in person, was there actually a concerted effort with Anthony Mackie to that right on the first try to make it feel authentic?
I think shooting in the rain is never easy. This was styled and no one wants to get out there and be wet. A scene like that takes three or four hours to shoot, no matter what it looks like. But no, I think we all wanted it to be real. We wanted the connection, so we wanted to have it feel real. I think the goal is always to have authentic connections. And Anthony was a solid lead partner out there.
Why do you think they put in the cat at the end? Was that kind of meant to trick us into thinking Carl was sad and alone right before that big reveal, the continuation of their relationship?
I think in some way Karl has found peace. We see him with his video games and we see him… I think that maybe that sort of symbolizes that he’s taken on some responsibility for his life. He doesn’t have a child. But he has something to take care of. He doesn’t have a family, he has a cat and he has Danny. In terms of an intimate partner he has Danny once out of the year. And so the ending is… there’s a lot of compromise, but Karl, to me, seems like a character whose story is unfinished. He doesn’t have a family, he has to figure out how to have it all outside of the game. But he’s been able to make a little bit of peace. So, in some ways, the cat can symbolize a little bit of all of those things. That’s he’s settling still and that he’s matured. But also that’s he’s still alone.
For a Black Mirror episode, this one ends a little more hopeful than most. From a tech standpoint, the episode can be viewed as a commentary on addictions to tech, video games, and pornography. It seems like the end point is more about coexistence with technology that could have destroyed these people’s lives. Instead, they made a compromise that looks like it was working for all parties in the short term.
I think technology does overpower humanity for a while in this episode. In the end there is a degree of compromise. I think the video game has had a strong enough impact that it’s changed these characters lives. And whether that change was for the good or for the bad, I think that’s up to the viewer to decide. So I think with the theme of technology in Black Mirror, it’s still strong in the end. The technology that were dealing with has changed their lives. And then we can observe it and put a name on it in terms of if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print editor of Den of Geek. You can find him on Twitter @east_coastbias.