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Interview: 'Walking Dead' star Danai Gurira discusses becoming Michonne
New co-star chats about secrecy and swordwork
To "Walking Dead" fans versed solely in the hit AMC drama, she's merely the katana-wielding stranger introduced saving Laurie Holden's Andrea in the second season finale.
To fans of the comic series, though, she's Michonne, one of the franchise's most beloved characters.
Played by Danai Gurira, Michonne will be a key part of the third "Walking Dead" season, which premieres on Sunday (October 14) night. But don't worry. This interview spoils very little about Michonne. Instead, Gurira and I discussed her extensive physical training for the role, as well as the challenges of coming to regular television after cutting her teeth in theater and independent films like "The Visitor."
We also talked about our shared background in Grinnell, Iowa where both of our fathers were on the faculty at the same time more than 30 years ago. I left that part out of the transcript. Apologies. There's still plenty here.
Click through for the full interview... And for more pre-premiere "Walking Dead" coverage, check out my interview with producers Robert Kirkman & Glen Mazzara.
HitFix: Did you know this property at all before you were auditioning for it?
Danai Gurira: No. I knew it was a television show that was doing very well. I knew it was about zombies. I knew that it was critically acclaimed for being something much bigger than that. But I never watched it.
HitFix: If you were going in cold, how much did you know about the part you were auditioning for?
Danai Gurira: Not a ton. It was really top secret stuff. There was a different name on the audition pages, even on the contract.
HitFix: Do you remember what the name was?
Danai Gurira: Yeah! But I'm not sure if I can tell you. It was very clear who she was. I did the research, of course, and there was tons about her online. It was a dummy scene and it was a great dummy scene. It showed her strength and her heart at the same time. It was a great scene.
HitFix: How much of the character's physicality did they have to make sure you were capable of?
Danai Gurira: You didn't have to prove it right on the spot. They did check it and they did talk a lot about it, ask you a lot about it, learned a lot about you physically, paid a lot of attention to what you look like you can do physically. But you didn't have to come in there wielding a sword, if that's what you mean. They trusted that you could learn that if you had an athletic background.
HitFix: I dunno. Swordwork seems somewhat outside of the realm of basic athleticism.
Danai Gurira: Well yeah. You do require some sort of intuition about it, some sort of ability.
HitFix: I'm still not sure. I played soccer and tennis and whatnot, but you still don't want to hand me a katana sword.
Danai Gurira: Well, I think if you have an athletic instinct and coordination and you're willing to put in the time. That's the thing. I think it's not impossible. It's a lot about athletic ability and time and commitment.
HitFix: And what has the training and commitment been like for you?
Danai Gurira: It's been amazing! It's a lot. It's A LOT. In a great way. There's been a lot of really great stuff. I like being fully physically engaged. I'm from theater. My first play I created was a two-woman show and it was just me on-stage finding every single way to be as physically active as I could be by telling a story. That's specific, of course, but I love being physically alive, so I loved being able to engage in a lot of physical work, which is what this part dearly requires of me. It's been great. Sometimes it's very challenging and it's very exhausting. There are a lot of ice packs. There's a lot of rubs, a lot of all that stuff going on, a lot chiropractors here and there, but it's great.
HitFix: They're taking care of you on these things, I trust?
Danai Gurira: Oh, they do. They do. It's not all the time. It's dependent on the episode and the needs of the episode.
HitFix: What's come easily and what's maybe come harder for you?
Danai Gurira: I think initially with the swordwork it was harder and then I got more and more connected to it and the more connected to it I got, the less hard it was. Sometimes with choreography, I have to know what's happening next and next and next, getting that into my body, that can be sometimes harder, or just something that requires more time, of course, and a lot of practice for the more extensive work of an episode or of a scene where there's a lot of action and it needs to go fast. That sort of stuff probably has proven to be more challenging stuff, but once my body gets something, I'm good. It has actually gotten easier to go through it and to create my own ideas for what each -- Like, "This is what happens in the scene and this many things happen" -- and actually bringing my own stuff to the table about how it can go down and what to do to make that moment work and what ideas I bring to actually enact the moment. So that's actually gotten easier.
HitFix: What are the inspirations for when you're able to bring your own stuff to the table?
Danai Gurira: In terms of swordwork stuff, it's always connected to what I've already been taught, what I was taught when I was trained when I first got the job, variations thereof, things that I was trained to do that I haven't used yet. And then sometimes I watch stuff, I watch movies and things like that that have a lot of really great sword-interesting stuff in it and I think, "OK. Let's try that. Let's try that." So it's all about seeing what looks good and what's interesting and going back to the training I got and how to use different aspects of it and make sure that I'm utilizing everything that I can to make it interesting and to vary it out, because she uses that thing a decent amount.
HitFix: What are you actually getting to wield out there? I know there are different weighted stunt swords and half-swords for CGI purposes and whatnot...
Danai Gurira: We use both... There hasn't been any scene shot where I'm not using the real thing, where I'm not using the real 20-pound thing, or however heavy that thing is. But we'll go in with both. They'll do a full [shot], a wide or whatever and sometimes it can cheat, so you always need the full one in takes and then you switch it out and use the half-one for the CG stuff where things actually need to slice off people's bodies and we can't do that literally. But it's interesting, because it does require -- and I'm thankful for that -- somehow, intuitively, I understand, spatially, how to not hurt people. Thank God. So far. Because sometimes I am really wielding the whole thing. Or every time I am, at least in a few takes, and I have to know how to not let it touch another person's body, while perhaps I'm running.
HitFix: If you had any problems with depth perception, at that point, that could get dangerous, I suppose.
Danai Gurira: It could! So there is that aspect of things, but thankfully I seem to have some sort of intuition about how to do that without hurting people.
HitFix: Had you known that earlier, you could have been wielding swords for years. So many missed opportunities...
Danai Gurira: I know, right? It's never anything I imagined I'd end up doing, but I've always wanted to do something very, very, very active on screen and so here it is. I got that wish!
HitFix: So many of the characters on the TV show, they use what's in the comic as a starting point, but then it becomes something different. How much is your Michonne the Michonne from the comics and how much has she become something different already?
Danai Gurira: She's definitely on an arc this season. There's a "becoming" that she's going through, definitely. And I love it, actually. I love when I look back at it and I think that's great that she's had that "becoming."
HitFix: If she's "becoming," do you have a sense of what she was? What she was before all of this zombie stuff started happening? Of what made her this way?
Danai Gurira: Yeah! The apocalypse. Everyone responds different. It's definitely PTSD responses, depending on exactly what happened and exactly where you were, who you were with. Some people had more support than others, like the group. Some people were alone. Who do you become in that time, in that moment? And what level was your trauma? Some people's trauma... It's just so based on that. I think it really is PTSD, different types of PTSD and how you recreate yourself to navigate this new world. So yeah, she's recreated herself in ways that have left behind who she was before the apocalypse and I think sorta the "becoming" can involve... You know... Does she start to let that person back in at some point? That can be dangerous. And I think that's a lot to do with the arc that she's on.
HitFix: Have you talked with the writers about who that person was?
Danai Gurira: Yeah. Of course! It's one of the first conversations we had in the writers' room, but then it's also a discovery, ironically. You know it as an idea and you build it as a character backstory, but then as you go through it, through several months -- and we arc and create based on what was on the page the last time or what was just shot -- it becomes a discovery.
HitFix: Coming from a theatrical background, do you like that uncertainty and not having the end-point of the character to aim towards?
Danai Gurira: I didn't. I really didn't, in the beginning, to be honest. I'm a control freak. I like being able to map out my arc. I know exactly what I'm gonna do every night. I know exactly how it's gonna go and I can just deepen these moments, these moments that must be hit. I can deepen them, I can find more. And with television, you can't do that. Sometimes you get a script the night before. You get the goldenrods the night before, so you have to just be very alive in not necessarily having all that time to prepare. TV does not allow for that sort of preparation, the preparation of theater. That's definitely an adjustment for me and has been an adjustment for me all season. I think I'm well-adjusted at this point, but it has been an adjustment.
HitFix: Was there a moment where it clicked and began to become more comfortable.
Danai Gurira: Yeah, but I think that, interestingly, it was connected to her as well. Know what I mean? It was connected with her own becoming and I was sorta mirroring it, actually, in terms of my becoming and in terms of really being able to get into how to not feel like yelling, "Wait! Wait! I need more time," that sort of thing that you have in theater where you have time and you don't have it in TV, so how do you deal with that? I think my becoming, my getting more comfortable with that, was connected with her own arc, which is interesting.
HitFix: Having adjusted and "become," do you *like* it now?
Danai Gurira: I actually do, because I think there's surprise that I enjoy. I shot a scene the other day and we didn't know what the scene was going to be. This was with a specific character who's very interesting, so we just didn't know what it was going to be and it just turned into something that none of us really anticipated. That was really, really fun.
HitFix: You said you went online and researched what people said about Michonne. Were there key things that you saw that people were loving and responding to in this character that you wanted to make sure that you brought through clearly in your interpretation?
Danai Gurira: I think the thing that is interesting is that you have to allow the vision of the showrunner and the vision of the writers to be there, regardless, and then you have to trust about how things will arc. The aspect of her even being tough or all of those things, even that has to have dimension. Know what I mean? It's like, "Yeah, of course she'll be strong." I'm a tough black chick! That's not hard for me. It's what I am. I remember my first director saying to me. "You are strong. You don't need to bring strong. You are strong." I think there are things that I just have that I wasn't going to try to push into being. What I'm always looking for as an artist, because I'm kinda a character actor, what I'm always looking for is where is that character thing that clicks you into the real depths of a human being, where it really starts to be, "This a CHARACTER." That's always what I'm looking for. So yeah, the idea of her, I think they like that she's strong and she's cool, but I think that that's something that has to be earned. If you just appear on the scene strong and cool, from Episode 1...
HitFix: Well, Michonne kinda does, doesn't she? I mean, that was a hell of an entrance she had.
Danai Gurira: Well, yeah. The entrance was basically: She appears. She kills a zombie. Really, that's all it was. But just in terms of the humanness of a character, like when you start to see their face, that sort of a journey, it has to have an arc. It has to have dimension. So I wanted to find more, I guess, than just "She's a cool, tough black chick," but I definitely wanted her to have that.
HitFix: It seems like you're going to be spending a lot of time working with Laurie Holden this season. How important has she been in your process?
Danai Gurira: It's been great. She indoctrinated me well into the show. We're very good friends off-screen at this point. It's really kinda been life mirroring art, which is good in this instance.
HitFix: What does the indoctrination include? It's sounds mysterious!
Danai Gurira: Oh no. It's just about getting to know the show, getting to know how things work and just the fabric of life in the very well-oiled machine. We live in the same apartment building and things like that, so I was just able to really get a grasp of everything through her and Lauren Cohan and Steven Yeun. We all live in the same apartment building. Really, they just kinda embraced me and that was really kinda awesome.
HitFix: And what was the Comic-Con experience like?
Danai Gurira: It was great! It was very fun. There was so much love and so much excitement and joy around the show and that was really great. I just feel like I've stepped into this really awesome dimension. Of course, they didn't discover me at the mall. I do have a history in the craft and I did work very hard through a series of auditions. But it is still a huge gift to be a part of something that's already so amazing.
HitFix: How long was the audition process:
Danai Gurira: It was probably over the course of a few weeks.
HitFix: How many rounds? How many people did you have to see?
Danai Gurira: I think I saw them a total of four times. I had to do tape, initially, with the casting director and I went through that with her. And then wait and then wait and here about, "OK. Come in and meet the producers for a test." And that was the initial test thing and then the next day was the real test thing and that was when AMC was there and me and the other final contestants. And then there was another round with them. It certainly wasn't a meeting, a chat and "It's your role!" And I like it that way. You see who I am. You see what I bring. You see how I interpret it. And you chose that. You didn't choose an idea of what I would do. You chose what I did.
HitFix: Did you have an awareness of who the other contestants, as you put it, were? How many there were?
Danai Gurira: They were considering people for a long time, several different types of people, different people. At the end of it, there were just a few of us. I saw them, so I know who they are. We were together. It's so intense.
HitFix: How hard was it to keep the secrecy you mentioned? How mum were you?
Danai Gurira: I was pretty mum. I was in LA. I did the first round and I was told to be mum. I didn't think... I was like, "Well, it sounds like this is really not highly likely," because she was just like, "Oh, you're just really great for it. You're so strong. Da da da... Let me find out... I'm gonna show you and..." She was showing a lot of people to the producers. So I'm like, "This is really far off." It's like me and 20 other tapes, so it's just like, "I've got it. I'm out." So I went off to Chicago for my play, which was being produced at that time and I was talking to a friend and he loved the show and I'd grown to love the show, because I'd just started watching it before the auditions and we were just talking about it. He had no idea I had just auditioned for this role. So I was like, "Oh, where can I watch it?" because I didn't have AMC and he helped me out and we were talking about the show all the time and I'm watching webisodes and I'm like, "Oh my God!" And nobody knew I was auditioning for the show. And then I went to New York and I had to finish shooting an indie and then I got the call that I was testing. No one knew I was auditioning for the show. Came back. Did two days worth of auditions back again and then I got the part. And then, they announce it on "Walking Dead" that Sunday. And then it was like: Text. Text. Text. The guy who was in my play, who I'd been getting all the info from, he goes like, "You sneaky little..." Because I'd been like "Yeah!" but he never knew that I was auditioning for Michonne the whole time. He was like, "How could you do that to me?" I'm like, "Look. I was under a gag order. I couldn't tell anybody." So yeah. It was funny.
"The Walking Dead" premieres on Sunday, October 14 on AMC.