Before she signed on to de-jaw zombies as the katana-wielding Michonne on The Walking Dead, Danai Gurira was first and foremost an accomplished playwright. She counts among her achievements an Obie, a Helen Hayes, and more recently a Whiting Writers award, which she won for her latest play, The Convert, part of a Zimbabwean trilogy about the country’s coming of age from a female perspective. As an actress, she worked almost exclusively on standout character pieces. She played a Senegalese jewelry-maker trying to stay in the U.S. in Thomas McCarthy’s excellent The Visitor and more recently recurred in David Simon’s post-Katrina drama Treme. Gurira spoke with Vulture about how and why The Walking Dead transcends genre, and all the “tough chicks” she knows who remind her of Michonne (including herself). She also has some words for all of you Lori haters out there.
It surprised me that Michonne would leave Andrea alone in Woodbury.
Really? It made total sense to me. It’s not a safe place and she can feel that.
But Andrea —
Andrea makes a choice to stay. She trusts this Governor guy more than her friend. I don’t know if that’s on Michonne! [laughs] Andrea wants the comforts of her old life, but for Michonne, being in a place that makes sense to her is more important.
It was nice to see a bit of a smile on Michonne’s face when she found some zombies to slay.
That was a lot of fun. She’s been caged in, you know? The men in this town took away her sword and what she enjoys doing, which is feeling powerful. So to be able to get out there and do her thing again is very exhilarating. It’s like taking her power back. Getting to do some slaying, getting to be menacing, kicking up some mischief in this Stepford town, it’s all really great for her and for me.
Did you have any reservations about stepping into this action-hero-type role?
No, I didn’t even think of her that way. She struck me as a complex woman who reminds me of a lot of women I know, myself included in some ways. Very tough, very strong, they don’t tolerate a lot of BS, they’re not people-pleasers. A lot of women I know, if they were to end up in an apocalypse, I don’t know that they’d be that different from Michonne. When I read the part, I really was like, “I know this chick!”
I did read that you loved the action in Salt, and clearly, you’ve been game to do the physical work that comes with being Michonne.
I did have that urge in me, definitely. I am a bit of a tough chick and I wanted to be active and do some really cool stuff physically onscreen. I loved watching Angelina do that. That role was supposed to be for Tom Cruise, and you don’t see women who get to go there that often. There are some who get to do cool stuff, but it’s just not as common for us as it is for men. Michonne’s a real gift in that regard. She’s been kicking my butt.
Right, and have you had a chance to talk to the comics’ author Robert Kirkman about what his own inspiration for Michonne was?
I’ve been playing with when to do that. We were building her in a specific way, but I do plan to. It’s been about when the right moment would be to learn all of that. I’m very very curious. I look forward to the conversation.
You’ve written about the experiences of women during war time in your plays. Is that something you that connected for you with The Walking Dead?
That’s what attracted me to the show. I’ve looked at series roles before, and the thing that I loved about this show is that it felt like a war zone to me. It felt real. “Who would you be if circumstances became this dire?” To me, that harkened back to things I had seen when I was researching one of my plays about the Liberian war zone: the devastation, how dire things had been, what women had gone through. There was a lot of resonance. It felt like more than a fantastical zombie show. Even the horrible things that happen to Michonne in the graphic novels, I interviewed a ton of women who had stuff like that happen to them. Those stories are harrowing but sometimes I feel like they’re not told enough.
When I first met [showrunner Glen Mazzara], he brought up the book The Things They Carry, which is about men in a war zone during the Vietnam War. I knew the book because I had to read it as an undergrad and I knew exactly what he was talking about. I felt this immediate connection with how he was interpreting the storytelling. The Walking Dead is a war-zone story. It resonates beyond genre, which is what’s so great.
A lot of viewers didn’t care for Lori very much. What do you make of that?
I was surprised by it. I think there was a lot of richness and complexity to that character and to how Sarah [Wayne Callies] played it. I didn’t understand the reaction at all. I think Lori was really doing the best she could in a very tricky time and a very tricky moment with two very dominant men. It was complicated! But, you know, people tend to blame women for stuff [laughs]. We get all the flack, which is amazing to me. It happens a lot.
You recently won the Whiting Writers Award for The Convert. Congrats! Did the cast help celebrate away your $50,000 prize?
[Laughs] Actually, when they called me, I had never heard of the Whiting Foundation. I was on set and there was crazy stuff going on. I happened to have my phone on me, and I happen to just pick it up; usually I don’t go near my phone when I’m on set. And there are a lot of awards you get as a writer, or that you get nominated for, so I thought it was one of those. But when this lady on the phone said I’d won already, I said, “What? I’ve never heard of it.” Then she told me it came with that prize money, and I was pleasantly shocked. [laughs] It was so weird. I was surrounded by zombies while getting my writers award. I didn’t celebrate that night though, because I had a 7 a.m. call time the next morning.
You’re working on another play and also a mini-series for TV. Are you able to write while you’re shooting?
It has to be when I have downtime, but sometimes I have downtime on a weekend. But if I’m feeling creative as an actor, I’m feeling creative as a writer. Everything just feeds everything else. So yeah, I have gotten some writing done over the course of the season. Not a ton because this show is so demanding, but some.