Danai Gurira: Surviving in a World of Zombies

The Walking Dead actress was inspired by Liberian female rebel soldiers to play Michonne.

Gene Page/AMC
Gene Page/AMC

DG: I started training in Los Angeles after I got the part. It’s just drills, trying out different things and keeping the form. It would probably take me 10 years to call myself a ninja. But I’m a lot more comfortable with the sword now and using it as Michonne does, efficiently and economically. She’s not looking for flair; she’s looking to kill zombies.

TR: Are you excited to play a butt-kicking character on-screen and joining the legacy of strong black female roles, like Storm of X-Men and Agent 355 in Y: The Last Man?

DG: It’s cool, but I can’t think about that because I have to be in the moment and let Michonne be who she is. They’ve created something very real on The Walking Dead, regardless of the fact that there are zombies around. There’s beauty and reality to the human connections you see on-screen, which is why people from 16 to 60 love the show.

My job isn’t to come in and be the superhero but, rather, to play a chick trying to do what she can in the world she’s in. Her being interpreted as a badass is not for me to even think about. It’s not useful to the tone of the show because it’s naturalistically real. To me, The Walking Dead looks like a war zone, and that’s what I love about it.

TR: Your résumé is dotted with serious dramas surrounding war-torn countries and HIV stigma. How did they prepare you for The Walking Dead?

DG: My second play, Eclipsed, was about women in war in Liberia. I love Michonne because she reminds me of the women soldiers I interviewed and became very intrigued by while researching that play. These women re-created themselves because of the trauma they experienced in that war zone and became fierce weapons themselves.

So as I watched The Walking Dead and read the comic books, I thought, “This is a war zone, like Liberia in 2003.” It was so palpable, it gave me more of an intimate interest in playing her because I saw Michonne as a female rebel soldier. When everything changes, who do you become? If you say, “I’m not going down; I’m on a mission,” you can become very ferocious.

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.