Zombie Killer

Danai Gurira, Who Plays Michonne, Says ‘The Walking Dead’ Isn’t Racist

Danai Gurira, who plays the katana-wielding Michonne, says the idea that the show can only have one major black male character at any given moment is ‘hilarious.’

By the time the credits roll at the end of “Indifference,” some questions remain: Did Rick really just exile Carol? Can we trust Bob the alcoholic? And, um, did we just witness Michonne flirting?

She did compare Daryl’s eyes to a piece of green jasper, though it felt more like a joke than a compliment. But whether or not this is what the all-knowing legion of Walking Dead fanfiction writers have foreseen (the Dixonne shippers of the world are real), it’s another step in one of this season’s best and most prominent threads: the unveiling of the real Michonne.

The katana-wielding warrior is finally warming up, revealing a dry, witty sense of humor and hints at a past even more screwed up than we imagined. For her many fans—who complain that Michonne isn’t getting the same fleshed-out treatment she did in executive producer Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels—it’s about damn time. Michonne now cracks wise about Rick’s code-red stubble (“Your face is losing the war”) and about the fleas she’s pretty sure Daryl gave her. She broke down sobbing while holding baby Judith and, as of last night, Michonne even let go of her grudge against the Governor. “No more going out,” she tells Daryl. Michonne, once the loner, is staying in the prison.

Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne, says that despite all the sudden zingers, her usually stoic character’s transformation started last season. “Her choices last year were all connected to what she wanted: a community,” she tells The Daily Beast. “She chose to bring that baby formula to the prison, she chose to tell [Rick’s group] where Glenn and Maggie were, she chose to bring them back to Woodbury and help them try and get the Governor. She could have easily taken two walkers and walked back into the wilderness. But in her soul, she knew she needed a community again.”

To Gurira, this is “peeling back the onion.” Last season Michonne had a guardedness that was the result of “her specific PTSD,” Gurira says. Of course, when asked what exactly caused said PTSD, Gurira turns dutifully cagey—though she says she knows the details of Michonne’s backstory “very well.”

“How could I play out any hint of [her backstory] if I don’t know what it is?” she laughs. “You’re meant to be in the dark. But it is fun to play it out, to crack it open a little bit here and there. All the stuff that happened to her is something that we deeply hashed out. We know when and how and if it will be exposed to the audience.”

Will that be this season?

“You know we’ll have to see,” Gurira says, before offering one thing she can tell me. “The thing I love about this season is how fantastically it does connect really powerful moments of action with powerful moments of just character study.”

Gurira’s own backstory is less of a mystery. Born in Grinnell, Iowa, where her father was a chemistry teacher at Grinnell College, Gurira moved back with her parents to their native Zimbabwe when she was five. It was there that she found acting, taking inspiration from Dynasty character Alexis Colby and practicing lines in her backyard. After high school, she moved back to the States to attend college, earned an MFA from New York University, and eventually made her Broadway debut in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2009. Film and TV—some may remember her as Delmond’s Village Voice reporter girlfriend, Jill, on HBO’s Treme—came naturally, and she continued to write her own plays. Her first work, In the Continuum, won an Obie Award in 2006 for its portrayal of two women with HIV.

Considering her refined resume, maybe it’s not surprising that Gurira had never seen The Walking Dead before auditioning for the role of Michonne. She isn’t a fan of horror movies. Not that it proved much of an impediment. She mastered Michonne’s sword techniques in only three weeks. She’s also particularly proud of learning to gallop on the horse we see in episode two of this season—a feat she nailed the day before shooting, prompting producers to call off a stunt double.

“Almost every [stunt] you see is me and you can see it’s all my face,” Gurira says. “I can really say it for all of us. About 98 or 99 percent of the time, it’s us.”

By “us,” she means The Walking Dead’s expansive and ever-changing zombie survivalists. The cast has become a point of contention for some who take issue with the show’s racial politics. Lorraine Berry at Salon.com dubbed the show a “white patriarchy” earlier this year, citing T-Dog’s death and Oscar’s short-lived addition as proof that “the critical mass of black men that can be in Rick’s group is one.” Gurira finds the notion “hilarious.”

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“If we literally lined this show up with other shows that are at this level of ratings, or near it, I mean come on,” she says. “This show is actually the most diverse show, I think, right now. I don’t quite know what people are talking about. I’m like, ‘Huh?!’ I‘m very grateful for the cast I have. I’m looking around and I’m seeing Sonequa Martin-Green [who plays Sasha], I’m seeing Steven Yeun [Glenn], I’m seeing Lawrence Gilliard [Bob], I’m seeing Chad Coleman [Tyreese]. Show me another show this diverse! I’m deeply confused by that concern.”

Characters are introduced roughly in accordance with when they show up in Kirkman’s graphic novels, Gurira says. This explains why major characters of color, such as Michonne and Tyreese, appear later in the series. And that’s not counting Morgan, played by Lennie James, who appears in the pilot. Gurira accurately calls Morgan’s first appearance “one of the first times our hearts are broken in this show,” as we watch him struggle and fail to shoot his zombie wife. And, though it’s not a huge improvement, season four has notably brought two main black men into Rick’s clan: Tyreese and Bob.

“I think the beauty of it is that there is a great template for [the show] in what Kirkman wrote,” she says. “His book is very diverse and so is what we’ve put onto the screen. Tyreese and Michonne are not in the first episode or in the first frame of the graphic novel. They’re much later on. It’s not something that was designed against anybody, it’s just natural to the fact that it was Rick Grimes’s story and it starts out with him looking for his family.”

When the topic of another zombie story about a man looking for his family, World War Z, arises, Gurira admits she hasn’t seen it yet. (“I love Brad Pitt” she says.) She wouldn’t mind watching the zombie apocalypse on a global scale. For the moment though, she’s intent on staying within Michonne’s quickly evolving world, on a level that huge-scale action flicks usually don’t offer audiences.

“In this case, you’re connected to people and to an experience of, ‘What would happen? Who would you be if the world got this dire?’ That’s a really powerful premise of The Walking Dead that really attracted me as an artist to want to be a part of it. It’s about so much more than horror.”