The following is an excerpt from the Screen Kings cover story feature in the July/August issue of ESSENCE.
In 2018, Yahya landed his first role in one of the most coveted movie genres for actors today: superhero action flicks. After starring as Black Manta in Aquaman, he went from the world of DC Comics to the Marvel Universe—playing Cal Abar, a devoted husband with a surprise character twist, in HBO’s Watchmen.
“We were considering Yahya and two other actors, who were great actors,” says costar Regina King, who plays his wife in the HBO series. “But later on, I told [writer-producer] Damon Lindelof we didn’t need to test the two other actors. Yahya was obviously the choice.”
Of winning the role, Yahya says, “It was nice to just be a dude who was deeply in love and would do anything to protect that love. There were still magical elements to it—but to get to star opposite Regina, and to flirt and dance and protect and be a husband, I was really craving that. My heart was craving that. My artistry was craving the chance to just be simple.”
The part ultimately earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series. No doubt it also helped him to transition from a supporting player to the top of the call sheet in Candyman. However, for the upcoming horror film’s director, Nia DaCosta, it was Yahya’s character in the film Us that caught her eye.
“I remember being impressed with how much he did with that role,” she says of his portrayal of a father seen only in a main character’s flashbacks. “He was able to create a full character with a long, specific history, with such little real estate. As an actor, Yahya is honest, playful and focused.”
It goes without saying that he’s also versatile. After Candyman (in theaters August 27), Yahya will star in The Matrix 4, the newest installment in the Matrix franchise. Next year he’ll appear in his third action flick, Ambulance. Having starred in thrillers, horror films, musicals and legal dramas, could Yahya have a rom-com next on his list of cinematic conquests?
“We need more romance,” he says. “We have adventure. We have action. We’ve got a lot of stories about trauma, because trauma is very present in our world right now. But we also need love. We need more straight-up, old-school romance. I don’t mind putting my hand up and stepping into that place to say, ‘I’ll be your man, girl.’ I don’t mind that at all.”
When Yahya won his Emmy Award in 2020, he dedicated it to the Black women in his life whom he calls his “early investors”—“people who believed in me before the world did, who told me that I was special every step of the way, who would not let me even think that it was possible for me to fail,” he explains. “Black women in my life, they protect me and speak life into me. They put their arms around me, and it’s been an honor for me to take them on this journey, to celebrate them. Any time I have a win, it’s a win for them.”
King, who also won an Emmy Award for her leading role in Watchmen, wasn’t surprised by the dedication when she watched Yahya accept the award from home. “That man talks about his sisters and his mother with so much love and so much appreciation,” she says. “I think that was one of the reasons why we connected so well. It doesn’t always work that way with actors, that you feel safe enough to be so forthcoming with your personal life, but we did that literally day one. His love for the women in his life, he leads with that.”
For more on why this leading man is here to stay read the July/August 2021 issue of ESSENCE. Available on newsstands + digital platforms June 29.
Photography, Brad Ogbonna
Stylist, Jason Rembert
Groomer, Merrell Hollis using Bevel/Crowd MGMT
Barber, Chaz Hazlitt of Stache Barbers
Manicurist, Dawn Sterling/nailglamproductions
Location: 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge