(The Root) — Fantastical dramas like Lord of the Rings don't feature a bevy of black and brown characters, but that's not the case with graphic novels. The genre has a pantheon of strong female characters of color, such as Agent 355 in Y: The Last Man and Michonne from The Walking Dead. We see the latter sword-wielding character introduced in this season of AMC's adaptation of the zombie series.
In the hourlong show, a group of survivors struggle to live in a world where zombies rule, thanks to a virus that has infected most of America's population. Played by actress Danai Gurira, Michonne is a woman who led a passive life before the living dead took over but who has transformed herself into a butt-kicking survivalist. "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," Gurira told The Root.
Born in Iowa, Gurira was raised in Zimbabwe. She returned to the U.S. at age 5 and later earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University, where she wrote a play called In the Continuum, about two women — one a newscaster in Zimbabwe and the other a teenage girl in Los Angeles — diagnosed with HIV. She performed the play off-Broadway, which led her to receive a grant to research female rebel soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone for her second play, Eclipsed, about kidnapping victims in that region's devastating civil war. Her third play, The Convert, is about Zimbabwe's coming of age as a country.
In addition to the stage, Gurira has appeared on Showtime's Nurse Jackie and has a recurring role on HBO's New Orleans drama, Treme. Gurira chatted with The Root via telephone about playing a calculating zombie killer, meeting real women just like Michonne and learning to slice a person in two with a katana sword.
The Root: There was a lot of buzz surrounding which actress would get the role of Michonne, and very few details became public. What was the casting process like?
Danai Gurira: It was a very interesting process that took a while. I knew the casting director — she'd seen one of my plays — but when [I got to my] first audition, I hadn't watched the show because I'm a scaredy-cat. But I got over my fear of zombies after I recognized that they're slow and can't open locked doors.
I watched the show and thought, "Wow, this is pretty phenomenal." I got sucked into the story, the characters and the beauty that the actors were bringing. I felt The Walking Dead connected to the war zones of Liberia and Sierra Leone, which I've researched, so that really resonated with me, and I really wanted the part.
TR: On the show, Michonne wields a samurai sword because it's a quiet and exact way to kill zombies and other attackers. Have you mastered the katana sword yet?
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.