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Gurira: An action hero in her own right


Danai Gurira didn’t read many comic books when she was growing up in Zimbabwe, except, she says, for a little Archie and Asterix.

She only learned about Black Panther, she admits, when she found out that director Ryan Coogler crafted the role of General Okoye, the kick-ass leader of Wakanda’s all-female Dora Milaje special forces, just for her.

She is laughing when she tells me that story — and so am I. That’s because she’s not only an iconic character in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Gurira also stars as Michonne, the katana-wielding survivor of the zombie apocalypse in AMC’s The Walking Dead — which, like Black Panther, is also based on a popular comic book series.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: In Black Panther, you show us what a powerful woman looks like. When you first saw the script, what did you think?

Gurira: It was definitely a script that was deeply exciting. It felt like something that was deeply needed in terms of giving a representation to voices and faces and stories and geography that are very rarely given representation — on a global level that Marvel and Disney can bring.

That felt really exciting. When I talked to Ryan Coogler about the character, I thought this was just fantastic. This is the role I never knew I always wanted — that this was going to be something really, really special.

The way he was delving into the African voice, the African experience and the African-American experience connected to the African experience was an unprecedented narrative. It was so real and so resonant and so specific that it becomes universal about identity and heritage.

Q: General Okoye is a fierce warrior, but she’s not afraid to show she’s feminine. There’s a scene where you throw off the wig covering your shaved, tattooed head so you can fight the bad guys, and it’s like you’re saying, I’m going to show what a modern warrior is. Is that what was going through your mind?

Gurira: Absolutely. It was very important to me that she was a woman who enjoyed her life, that she was a woman who loved her country and enjoyed being a woman.

And it was important to me that her humanity was clear. When they free those kidnapped girls —which is a very resonant reference to what’s happening in northern Nigeria — she smiled in a gentle way of conveying to them that they were free. She’s a woman who shows her warmth because she has no reason not to. The connection she has to her people and her country is one of love and warmth, and that imbues who she is as a soldier. It’s like looking at feminine leadership. It’s not the same necessarily as masculine leadership.

That’s what I was thinking about with her: that she’s going to portray herself with all the colours of what a woman is in power. And why would she want to be anything different from who she is?

Q: And now you’re part of a cast of strong women of Wakanda.

Gurira: The women of Wakanda are amazing.

Q: What did you want to be when you grew up? You were born in Iowa and then your family moved to Zimbabwe when you were small.

Gurira: I dabbled with many things. I was very good at sports. I was very involved athletically, and then I got very involved in drama club, speech and drama, debate club.

But I actually thought for a good amount of time that I wanted to be a lawyer. I really just loved the TV show LA Law when I was growing up. I was like the youngest kid ever watching LA Law and pulling the vocabulary out of their mouths and looking it up in the Webster dictionary in my house. At some point, I realised I just liked acting as a lawyer. I didn’t know if I wanted to be one [laughs].

Q: So, you ended up being a psychology major in college?

Gurira: I was very interested in sociological aspects of the field — how a group of people, a population, can be swayed in one way or another into systems of rule, into systems of identity. I grew up in Zimbabwe while apartheid was raging in South Africa, and I could never go there. I had white classmates who could go to South Africa and went there for holidays, but I could never set foot in that country.

We moved to Zimbabwe soon after it gained independence from white minority rule. I was very interested in the psychology of an entire populace that allows this sort of thing to become a norm that then has to be removed for progress to happen. So, I was actually a sociological psychology major.

Q: That makes me think of an interview you did with Stephen Colbert, where you talked about people relating to zombie apocalypse stories like The Walking Dead. You said that we should think of zombies as a frame of mind. Can you explain?

Gurira: It’s basically the fact that to me, when a story is well-told, you find the metaphor in it, because all stories have to be imbued with metaphor. The metaphor in The Walking Dead is the idea of the zombies as a force that changes everybody into many things. I think that’s why it resonates with people, young and old.

I’d researched a lot about women in war while researching how the world had changed Michonne so dramatically from who she was to this woman who is kind of her own army. I saw these parallels — when what you know is normal is removed, you become somebody else. And the question is: Who are you going to become? And I felt that was the premise of The Walking Dead.

It was really about humanity and the transformation of humanity as a result of very jarring, really unlivable circumstances. That’s what really drew me to it. It was a very strong sketch of the transformation of humanity in dire circumstances.

Q: People are very invested in The Walking Dead. Can you give us any hints of where the journey is taking us?

Gurira: Absolutely not [laughs]. No, they’ve got a chip in me; it’ll zing me.

It is a season of transformation, we know that so far. Time jumps and changes, and you see people make massive shifts from who we knew they were to who they become. Right now we don’t know why and so maybe we’ll learn some things. Maybe we won’t.

Q: In The Walking Dead, you’re quite skilled with a sword — the katana. How good are you?

Gurira: I’m as good as you see on the TV show. That’s me. I’m nowhere even close to how it is used by the masters. But it is a beautiful weapon and I do love it.

Q: You were voted Action Movie Star of 2018 and in your People’s Choice Award acceptance speech, you said you were showing that women and girls, when given the chance, can hang with the boys. Are you encouraged by what you’re seeing in Hollywood?

Gurira: The thing for me is that I’ve never thought any of this was not possible. It was just a matter of the moment happening.

Since I was a little girl, it was always clear to me that women were equal in power and ability to men. That’s why I guess I’ve become such an activist and advocate around women and girls. I’ve never understood the disparity. It is very much something that feels like a natural progression to me, that there is more of this happening in society.

If we are to progress societally and in how we tell stories, then the idea that there are more roles that show women in various portrayals of strength and ability and complexity — that’s, of course, where it’s going to go. Call me an optimist, but I do believe we’ll catch up to the fact that anything not portraying that doesn’t make sense.

Q: When Stan Lee passed away, you tweeted out a tribute to him, thanking him for “creating worlds of wonder and heroism”. Did you get a chance to know him?

Gurira: I didn’t get a chance to know him. It’s something I wish I had been able to do.

We have so much to thank him for. And his legacy continues, and that’s a beautiful thing that he left us with.

Q: Did you read comic books when you were a kid?

Gurira: Not really. I did read Asterix. And I read a little Archie when I was really young. But no, I didn’t read a lot of comic books of the nature I now portray.

Q: So who told you about Black Panther?

Gurira: I got an offer. My agent said you’ve been offered this role. And I was, “What?” I thought I was being punked because I was so shocked at the offer.

I sat down with Ryan [Coogler]. He had seen me in an indie called Mother of George. He had crafted this role for me. I was dazed with joy.

Q: You’re an award-winning playwright. You staged one of the first plays with all-black women on Broadway. What is it that you like about that medium?

Gurira: The theatre is my home. It’s where I learned my craft, it’s where I grew into an artiste. It’s where I grew to understand what my connection through the art form is, and where I developed my craft as a writer. So it is a very close place to my heart.

Q: You founded Love Our Girls, which is a non-profit that works to lift women in a lot of ways. And you also co-founded Almasi Arts, which aims to help artistes in Zimbabwe develop dramatic skills. Can you talk a little bit about these projects?

Gurira: Love Our Girls is a non-profit, but it doesn’t function as a non-profit. It functions as an informational hub. You become aware of organisations and all the good work they’re doing, you want to support them, and you might find your activist soft spot. We’re dealing with causes from child brides to equal pay, HIV and mothers, recovering from sexual assault and the #MeToo movement. There’s so many different components to the struggles and the ways that women are pushing forward.

Q: And Almasi?

Gurira: I was born in the United States, lived here until I was five and then I was raised in Zimbabwe, so I’ve had this duality of cultural experience. That made me really want to see more people with talent getting opportunities in their art form.

It’s trickier there to get educated in your field, to get access to opportunities. So, it’s really about lessening the disparity between ability and access. We have fellowships. We bring Zimbabweans here doing degrees in the dramatic arts right now. We take Americans to Zimbabwe — they teach, they mentor. We have connections with American institutions. It’s about collaboration, because I do believe that Americans can learn a lot from Zimbabweans as well as Zimbabweans from Americans. Once people from different cultures collaborate and find artistic connections, beautiful things always happen.

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