Danai Gurira: "Representation does matter"

by Gabriel Lerman October 9, 2018
Actress adn playwright Danai Gurira

theo kingma/hfpa

Many things have changed from the moment Danai Gurira joined The Walking Dead 's third season until now. The American actress, who grew up in Zimbabwe, from where her academic parents emigrated from, is now one of the more important faces of the diversity revolution that is transforming Hollywood. She was part of the of one of the biggest hits at the box office this year, Black Panther, a film that transformed the way studio executives think of audiences, and she reprised her role in another success, Avengers: Infinity War. Her career as a playwright has also bloomed. Her Broadway debut Eclipsed earned five Tony nominations including Best Play and won a Drama Desk special award, and her play The Convert will start a new run at London's Young Vic this December. We had a chance to talk with Danai early on the day of the new season premiere of The Walking Dead.

You spent several months working on the show in Atlanta in the heat and the humidity and now comes the moment where you have the premiere and you can show the first episode to celebrate.  How is the feeling for you?

It’s a great feeling.  We put the show together from a place of love and commitment.  And it’s really great to be able to put it out to the world and celebrate it with everybody.  There’s a lot of hard work that goes into what we do with the show and it’s a really exhilarating time of year when we get to show the baby to everybody, so it feels amazing.

And how hard is it to keep the secrets?

It’s not that hard to keep them.  You want people to see it and experience it as we worked for it to be seen and experienced so that people can experience with a moment to moment process of the story that takes them to a new place and amazes them and brings them a fully entertaining experience.  So if you tell people about it and they don’t see it in action because they know it’s coming, then that takes away from your own work.  So to me, it makes complete sense to keep my mouth shut and I don’t have any trouble doing that.

On the third season when you started on The Walking Dead, you were the newbie there.  And now basically you are one of the veterans.  So how did that change things when you were working on the 9th season?

Well honestly, I was embraced right from season 3 and really was allowed to garner a lot of deep relationships right from that season onward, relationships with cast, crew, and producers.  So I felt like I have been a part of this family for a long time and I have been able to enjoy the new people who come on and exploring new relationships with them.  So it really feels like you are part of a continuum, a family and of pursuing excellence in creating this show.

How much input do you have in the evolution of Michonne?  Do you talk to the writers or do you just have to do what they say?

They are very collaborative and I do talk to them a lot.  They do hear us and Angela’s philosophy is also you guys have been playing these characters for a long time.  So she does respect our thoughts and collaborates with us very deeply.  And we love the storyline she and the writers are presenting us.  We are able to work together quite seamlessly in bringing together our collaborative ideas around our characters and being heard on things and also the overarching narrative that she brings. It’s so powerful and resonant and smart and well thought out.  So yeah, the beauty of it is that it’s been a collaborative process.  And that was also the case with Mr. Gimple, who was also collaborative and heard our thoughts. So that was really great.  And you always want your boss to be a visionary and then to also be a collaborator.  And we have been very fortunate to have that in both cases.

How would you say Michelle has evolved from season 3 to now?

Hugely.  Season 3, she was like this fighting machine that barely talked.  And then she became part of a community and then started to garner relationships with people and then she became close to this young boy named Carl and you could see that he was actually healing her and opening her up and she started to talk more and really be a part of this family and be a committed valued member of this family.  And then she wanted them to have a real place to settle down and it’s her if you recall in Season 5, who insisted that they give Alexandria a try and who stopped Rick from almost killing Aaron who came in to try to bring them to Alexandria.  She’s the one who said we are going to check out his story and we have to check out the place, we all have to have a place to live.  And so you really see her belief in moving the whole community into a stable place, come to pass throughout these years and then what you see in Season 6, her friendship with Rick grows into a romance and then we get to explore that part of her.  And then of course throughout that time, she’s trying to figure out how to keep everybody together and so that sort of became her role in an interesting way and you see that going into this next season, how she is very much about creating a charter and finding a way forward that creates stability.  She’s been thinking about that since Season 7 when her and Rick were discussing what things would be like without Negan, being this terror over them and you see that evolution.  Even the evolution of her not wanting to participate with Rick in what Carl had told him to do, which is as Carl said, there’s got to be something left, and she makes sure that Rick reads that letter from Carl.  So that’s quite an evolution of a story of a woman and every single year, I have been able to see her do things and go places that she never went before, which has been great to play as an actor.

In the last two seasons, the show was basically about the war.  The first episode of the new one seems kind of relaxing and it’s like a new era in that world that your characters live in.  How was it for you to shoot that episode?

It was really, really great.  It was great to step into this whole new world that was beautifully crafted, we moved on, we moved a year and a half in and there are issues that come with being that separated from what was there before.  So yeah, we don’t have gas anymore and we are riding horses and guns are a little less available.  And I loved that, that we are stepping into how the world would degrade over time and at the same time, we are stepping into how we found a way forward over time and we are kind of stepping into these two different perspectives. We moved forward and we moved back.  So there’s a stability that these people are trying to find with each other and trying to actually come to a place of civilization once more.  And so that’s something that I found really fun to play and really great, and all the complexities that come with creating something new, there are complexities that come with that, and you see that exploration.  And yet you see the relief of turning a new page.

How is your evolution in your own career, as a person, as a writer, as an actress, from when you joined the show to now where you are just exploding everywhere?

I feel very thankful.  I have really been able to pursue the vision I had, which was I wanted to tell stories that I felt needed to be told and I wanted to work with likeminded storytellers and I wanted to be able to step into areas that you don’t often see portrayed.  And I have been able to stick to my vision and have some amazing surprises along the way and I never would have imagined being asked to play Okoye, I never would have imagined being her and being able to play Michonne and these are kind of amazing, unexpected gifts that I have received and I have pursued the vision of wanting to tell these types of stories.  And it’s been an amazing journey.  As a writer, I have stuck very close to what I envisioned, which is making sure that African female protagonists are allowed to thrive and exist.  And I mean the sheer fact that right now that my play Familiar is being done across the U.S. and also the play The Congress about to be done by my fellow Black Panther alum Letitia Wright in London.  I feel very blessed and there’s a lot more that I want to do, a lot more that I feel I must keep my head to the grind and get done.  And I feel with much that is given, much is expected.  So I feel like have to keep working, but it’s not just for me, it’s for the people who come after me and who need these representations to be representations they see in the world, cause representation does matter.