Interview: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris on making Candyman; “There’s something tough about knowing the art we are making is in response to these violent patterns in the world”

Ahead of its theatrical release this week, Candyman stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris sat down for a global discussion about the making of their horror reimagining.  Our own Peter Gray was invited to join in on the dialogue, asking about the research into their characters and why now is the perfect time for the film to be seen.

What did you think of the script when you first read it?

Teyonah Parris: For me, what I was excited about was working with Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele.  I had seen Nia’s work with Little Woods and I just loved what she had to say with it.  How she used different elements to bring that story to life, and I was really excited to have the chance to just create with her.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Yeah, I had the chance to work with Jordan Peele, I had a small role in Us, his second horror film.  I knew from that experience that I wanted to work with him again.  About a year later, he called me up and said there was an opportunity to do Candyman under the brilliant direction of Nia DaCosta.  I met with Nia and really fell for the way she talks about films and filmmaking.  We talked very little about the script and about Candyman, we talked about films.  Her favourite films and what she wanted to do as an artist.  We really got to know each other on an artistic level.

Yahya, your character experiences his own level of darkness and the shades of what it is to be a villain and a victim.  How was it in researching your character and finding that balance?

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II:  Interesting thing when I talk about research with stories such as this, it’s that the research is never far from my own life and my own experiences.  The experience of being a black man living in America with the fears of trauma at the hands of police, at the hands of white oppressors.  We have those stories sent down from generation to generation that eventually land on us.  For me, I drew upon my own experiences, but also historical experiences to eventually portray (my character) who was being weighted down by an unavoidable history.  I think that he is a tragic figure in that he had his whole life ahead of him and his fate was unfortunately unavoidable.  That’s how I thought about him and to advocate for him to keep his story alive until fate would take over.

Nia DaCosta mentioned that the movie The Fly was an influence in making this film.  Was that also informative for the both of you when building the love story between your characters?

Teyonah Parris: Not particularly for me.  I hadn’t seen (that film).

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: The Fly was recommended to me, as well as Rosemary’s Baby.  In terms of The Fly, I watched and paid attention to the physical deterioration of that character.  But in terms of the relationship between us, that was something that I connected to after meeting Teyonah and just really having the opportunity to tell a story of a young black couple with very high aspirations, a desire to build a life together.

Teyonah, your character is very sweet and caring, but she’s a fierce businesswoman too.  Was there any inspiration behind creating her?

Teyonah Parris: Oh wow, thank you.  What I loved about (my character) Brianna when talking to Nia was that she’s very ambitious and in a space that isn’t usually occupied by people of colour, particularly women of colour.  Being in this art space as a curator was really fun and a really interesting thing to explore.  I actually had the opportunity to speak with Naomi Beckwith, who is the senior curator at MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), and she was just a wealth of knowledge for me.  I would ask how does she feel when she’s in these spaces, and she would give me tips on things I hadn’t even thought of, like how to present yourself and not to distract from the art you’re presenting.

One of the big initiatives of the film is tackling the high profile issue of racial justice and healing.  Since the film is inspired by real-life cases of social injustice, how would you classify this role in terms of how tough it was to face?

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II:  This was many things, but to be honest it wasn’t tough.  It was an enjoyable experience because it was a community experience.  (Working) with artists who cared about the subject matter, who were delicate with the subject matter.  Sometimes people attempt to make stories (like this) without the right people involved and those stories become tough.  I think this was made with love.  In terms of making it, it wasn’t tough.  There’s something tough about knowing the art we are making is in response to these violent patterns in the world.

Why do you think now is the best time for a new Candyman?

Teyonah Parris: I mean, unfortunately the story behind Candyman is one that is repeated.  We are 30 years away from the original and it’s still quite relevant and appropriate to shed light on this issue.  The way we’ve reimagined it and are telling this story the issues of police brutality, brutality against black bodies, black trauma, healing, and what it takes to heal from generational trauma.  We have these traumas that we have to face, and that’s still relevant today.  I hope that this film will help us have those conversations and take actionable steps towards healing and calling things as they are.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: I’d also like to add that one of the themes I like to think about is taking the trauma back.  Taking ownership of our stories, of the things that happened to us.  In the original Candyman there was a real fear in “What if Candyman was real?” After leaving this movie that question has a completely different meaning.  There’s completely different implications in “What if Candyman were real”, and the implications behind that now are more about agency and taking back a narrative.

Candyman is screening in Australian theatres from August 26th, 2021

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.