Talk about a Walking warrior.
As Michonne, The Walking Dead's katana-swinging survivor, Danai Gurira routinely slays zombies with the ease of a mere mortal taking out the trash. That the actress has managed to carve out her own niche in the third season of AMC's monster hit is particularly impressive, considering the enormous popularity of the character in Robert Kirkman's graphic novels and how vocal protective fans can be. But then Danai, in her own way, is as formidable a figure as Michonne. Born in Iowa but predominantly raised in her parents' native Zimbabwe, she's long balanced acting—previous credits include a recurring role on HBO's Treme—with a career as a critically acclaimed, Obie Award-winning playwright.
Here, Danai sounds off on the unique challenges of her breakout role, what she and the villainous Governor (David Morrissey) talk about when their characters aren't trying to kill each other (love!), and what's in store for Michonne when the show returns Feb. 10.
Were you nervous about taking on such a beloved character?
Yes and no. You want people to be happy but at the same time, you kind of have to not be a people pleaser to do your craft. You have to be true to the story that the writers have chosen for her, which [wasn't] the same as the comic books. In the graphic novel, she kind of arrives as a pretty cool, easy-going chick, whereas in our way of doing it, she arrives as someone who's very difficult to read, very guarded. You're creating something new so you just can't fret too much about public opinion.
How did you prepare for the role?
I watched the first season when I was auditioning, and I definitely looked at how she was depicted in the graphic novels. Just looking at her image, her facial expressions, fed me. I felt like she had a war vet's type of PTSD [in the show], so I used PTSD materials and books. One of my plays [Eclipsed] is about women and war in Liberia, and they weren't soft, gentle or easy to read. They became warriors, so that definitely influenced Michonne as well.
As a writer, is it difficult playing someone who barely speaks?
Yeah, it's been tricky. I like language—using it, finding motives and ideas and arguments in it—so when the writers were like, ‘She doesn't talk much,' I was like, ‘Oh…OK.' [laughs] But as an actor, you welcome challenges.
Speaking of challenges, how hard was it to master the katana?
I started training with it shortly after I got the part, and it was intense. I was in a lot of pain. I'm pretty athletic but it [requires] a whole other set of muscles and is very demanding. Your whole body has to know how to work with the sword, not just your arms. Even learning how to hold it correctly and balance it when you slice and dice—there's great form to it. Some days, my trainer was like, ‘You can't do anything tomorrow—let your muscles rest. Get a massage.' But eventually it becomes like skipping rope—you can do it a little faster and with a little more agility.
One of the most memorable moments from the fall finale was when Michonne finds—and kills—the Governor's zombie-daughter Penny. Do you think she was deliberately trying to strip away his last shred of humanity?
Initially, she thinks Penny's alive, and she's actually very gentle with her. But then she finds Penny's a zombie and to Michonne, zombies are dead. She believes it's a very undignified way to function, so killing the little-girl zombie is actually a merciful act. [It's like] put her in a grave and put a cross on it and mourn her properly. But it's also oh, wow, this is what he loves. He took what I loved away [Andrea] and tried to kill me, so this is my perfect act of vengeance.
And it leads to that awesome knock-down-drag-out fight, which ultimately costs the Governor an eye. How difficult was that sequence to shoot?
It took two days, and I was soaking wet almost the whole time, but it was actually very fun. I love that type of thing! [laughs] I've always been a bit of a tough girl. I love when you really get to go for it, and she's fighting for her life. There's that realization of, ‘He's a little stronger than me—what am I gonna do? I've gotta get to my sword!' But me and David had a blast--we actually get along like a house on fire.
Wait—Michonne and the Governor are friends?
I love David. We talk about tons of stuff—my single life, his family. Both of our interests in Africa. He gives me advice on my romantic life all the time. It's great.
Are you getting recognized a lot these days?
It's weird—some people see it really quickly and some people don't. I think not having the dreadlocks [off-screen], which are such a definitive part of Michonne's look, allows me to be incognito most of the time.
What TV were you obsessed with in 2012?
Homeland. I love that everyone's so wretchedly imperfect, and there's always this question as to what their real motives are. It's not black-and-white, and I think that's what's really compelling and chilling about it.
What can we expect from Michonne when the show returns?
She's kind of going through a becoming. In the first half of the season, she's very powerful but she has people problems. She has trouble relating to them. [By the finale] you start to see that she knows she needs Rick and his group. She knows she needs community, and that sort of propels her into the second half of the season, which is probably closer to what people know from the comic books. She starts to try to take a different track, in terms of investing not only in herself and her own survival but in other people's, too.
If she's becoming more of a people person, does that mean we might actually see her crack a smile? What are you talking about? She smiled in episode five! [laughs] She smiled in another episode, too, but it was cut out. These things I can't control. But I know she did it! You'll probably see more smiling going forward, but not a ton. A zombie apocalypse isn't the most jovial situation.