Danai Gurira on Sword Fighting, Culture Shock, and Playing Badass Women

Danai Gurira
Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix / Shutterstock

Danai Gurira, the Tony-nominated playwright and star of Black Panther and The Walking Dead, talks sword fighting, culture shock, and the secrets of the creative process.

But first, the basics:

Age: 42

Hometown: Harare, Zimbabwe

4 Favorite Plays

  1. A Raisin in the Sun
  2. A Doll’s House
  3. The Cherry Orchard
  4. Hamlet

This is your final season on The Walking Dead. Other than being super prepared for a zombie attack, what will you take away from the experience?

A greater level of physical endurance. And a deep understanding of the amount of work and collaboration and camaraderie and goodwill and family that goes into creating a show that has this level of staying power.

What about your character Michonne’s sword? That would be nice to hang in the living room.

They didn’t give me the sword. I tried.

Why wouldn’t they give it to you? I mean, what else are they going to do with it?

We’ll see. I consider it an ongoing negotiation.

Did you like playing such a tough character, riding a horse and swinging a sword?

Over the years, I got more and more connected with my sword and made it my own. It was a really cool journey to find my character through her weapon. The coolest part is when it just starts to be instinctual, not something you’re mindful of. Riding a horse definitely was something I had to get familiar with. They don’t care when they’re going to relieve themselves, if you’re shooting or not, so they kind of own the set. How your day goes is really up to them.

OVER THE YEARS, I GOT MORE AND MORE CONNECTED TO MY SWORD AND MADE IT MY OWN. IT WAS A REALLY COOL JOURNEY.

You also portrayed Okoye in Black Panther. What is it with you and badass women?

I’ve also played a housewife in Brooklyn, to be fair. But I want to see things I’ve never seen, be a part of things I’ve never seen. And that definitely appealed to me about both Michonne and Okoye. I’d never seen the story of a woman who’s the head of an army of a nation, with deep connections to the throne and to the traditions of her African nation. That’s just something I had never seen, and I was desperate to be a part of.

As a Broadway playwright, you’ve been nominated for a Tony. How do you get inside your characters’ heads?

I use my degree in psychology—I’m always digging into why people do what they do and what makes them who they are. Also, I’m the child of academics, so I’m a big researcher. I believe in deeply delving into something, becoming almost an expert until it stimulates your imagination and the story clicks.

What are you researching now?

I’m working as a showrunner to adapt the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel Americanah into a miniseries. It’s definitely understanding the novel, but also all the aspects that it brings to life around the immigrant experience. There’s no end to how I relate to it.

How so?

I’m the same as the main character, Ifemelu. I was born here, in Iowa, and my family moved back to Zimbabwe when I was 5. So I have very little recollection of America as a child. Then I moved back to the U.S. for college. There are so many similarities in terms of my navigation of America and hers. Like the culture shock I experienced.

What was disorienting about being back in America?

I don’t know if I can put my finger on it. Like the food. There’s an abundance of everything, but it just tasted and felt different from what I was used to. Everything was different.

Does your childhood in Zimbabwe influence your advocacy work about gender equality?

I grew up in a house where there was a lot of equality, and my father was an advocate for his daughters having an assertive voice. Yet every time I stepped out of my house, I could see a disparity in terms of how women were expected to behave versus men. That’s something I’ve always desired to challenge.

I heard that you pray or meditate every day. How are those similar or different?

They’re very similar. I try to do it every day. It’s centering, focusing—a sense of purpose and calling.

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