How The Matrix Resurrections’ Yahya Abdul Mateen II And Jonathan Groff Approached Playing Iconic Characters Like Morpheus And Smith

In the making of Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections, Yahya Abdul Mateen II and Jonathan Groff were given some pretty damn huge shoes to fill. Respectively playing new versions of Morpheus and Smith, they were given the opportunity to be a part of one of modern pop culture’s standout franchises, but the parts came with the knowledge that fans would undoubtedly compare their performances to Laurence Fishburne’s and Hugo Weaving’s from the original trilogy.

Naturally, this built-in challenge had an influence on their individual approach to the roles, and what results in the finished film is the actors both working to match expectations and create something new.

As captured in the video above, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yahya Abdul Mateen II and Jonathan Groff earlier this month during the virtual press day for The Matrix Resurrections, and my first question was in regard to how they referenced the work of Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving in the previous movies. Answering first, Mateen II said that there wasn’t any kind of specific mannerism or physicality he tried to recreate in his own performance, but he did note that there was a certain familiar energy that was demanded for certain scenes in the film. Said the actor,

There was some times where it was important to Lana that I held the space. I think the Morpheus that Lawrence introduced us to, he had such... he was so grounded and had so much gravitas, and Lana wanted to make sure that I embodied my performance with that in certain moments.

What’s key to acknowledge -- and minor spoilers -- however, is that the version of Morpheus in The Matrix Resurrections isn’t the same one as Laurence Fishburne’s in the Matrix trilogy – hence the recasting of the role. We get to see this incarnation’s “origins” start at the very beginning of the movie, and that fact created a special opportunity for Yahya Abdul Mateen II to make the character his own.

Continuing, he added that there are scenes in the sequel that are emotionally miles away from any scene with the character in The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions, and he leaned into that aspect of the performance when he could:

In other times it was important for me to be light and for me to be the complete opposite. But it was also important to myself to be able to pick and choose when to enunciate certain things or to lean into that more classic style of the Morpheus that we know – because I also wanted to make sure that we did honor that character and honor the things that we love about him – but while also doing the things that I wanted to do this time around and following those opportunities.

Making The Matrix Resurrections was a similar experience for Jonathan Groff. Obviously there is a great deal of history with Smith, as the character is one of the most memorable villains in sci-fi history, and the actor found his moments when he could specifically play that side of the role. Said Groff,

There were certain moments in the script that were consciously playing homage to things before – even in the script saying that it would flash back and forth in clips from the old film to the current film so it could help tell the story of this new programming.

For his performance, Jonathan Groff says that he used the original Matrix trilogy as important reference material, and then worked with Lana Wachowski to further evolve the role. He explained,

I did watch the films, the original films, a lot, just to sort of like get it in my subconscious somehow, even though this version that I'm playing of the former character is quite different. It was just fun to watch Hugo Weaving. I mean, what he does is so iconic. It was great to sort of revisit that and then really fun with Lana to explore how different he could be as well.

The Matrix Resurrections marks a new era for the beloved sci-fi franchise, and it is now widely available for your consumption. In addition to playing on the big screen around the world, the blockbuster is also available to stream at home with an HBO Max subscription.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.