From Oakland, California, to Yale to Hollywood, so goes the journey of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
Thanks to upcoming roles in the highly-anticipated new Netflix series The Get Down and on the big screen in next year’s Baywatch movie, the up-and-coming actor, who’s also fresh out of Yale’s School of Drama, is primed for the big time – even if it all still seems surreal.
“I woke up two months ago and said “Whoa, whoa whoa! I’m an actor, how?” Abdul-Mateen II tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “A few months ago I was still in school and no one knew who I was and now I’m on a show and my publicist is calling me! It’s so exciting. I’m just taking things day by day.”
Here are five things to know about Hollywood’s newest breakout:
1. He hails from Oakland, Ca. by way of New Orleans.
“I’m the youngest of six kids and I grew up with a lot of noise, a lot of music and a lot of laughter,” says Abdul-Mateen II. “My father was Muslim and my mom is Christian, and we moved from New Orleans to Oakland, so I always had this appreciation for different cultures. Between those dichotomies and with eight people living in the house together, there was always drama. But it was enjoyable drama!
2. He suffered a huge loss in college, that pushed him to follow his Hollywood dream.
“I was studying architecture at Berkeley when my father passed away in 2007. We knew he had cancer, but we didn’t expect it to escalate so rapidly,” says the actor. “In my mind it was like ‘He’ll pull through.’ When he didn’t, I didn’t understand. I was 21, and my best friend had died. The worst thing that could happen happened, so it taught me to do the thing that makes me happy and to really chase my dreams.”
3. He was pretty self-conscious being opposite Dwayne Johnson on the Baywatch set.
“I had a dilemma because I was shooting The Get Down at the same time and my character [disco king Cadillac] isn’t buff, but I was like ‘I’m not going to show up to shoot Baywatch looking skinny,” says Abdul-Mateen II. “I started working out and put on a little bit of weight, but then I show up and Dwayne Johnson is so huge that I might as well have saved my money! He and Zach Efron are so charismatic and humble, it was fun. I never told them I couldn’t swim. That would have made for some comedy.”
4. As up and coming black actor in Hollywood, he focuses on being conscious and confident.
“I think it would be irresponsible of me to not be aware of the climate [in Hollywood] when it comes to the conversation about diversity,” says the actor. “But I like to consider myself an actor, and one of the assets that I have is that I’m black. And that I’m 6’3″! I just want to do work that gets people excited and makes them feel things, no matter their economic or racial background.”
5. He looks to fellow Yale grad Lupita Nyong’o for inspiration.
“I love that she also came from Yale School of Drama,” Abdul-Mateen II says of the Oscar-winner. Though years apart, he and Nyong’o were both awarded the school’s prestigious Herschel Williams Prize for their outstanding acting ability. “She’s just a boss! Her work, her awareness, her style. She’s absolutely the role model. I’m so proud of her accomplishments.”