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You’ve seen Danai Gurira be a badass before, but somehow she just keeps upping the ante.
As katana-wielding, zombie-capturing Michonne on The Walking Dead, the actress has displayed incredible determination, heart, and warmth beneath a stoic exterior.
In the recent Tupac Shakur biography, All Eyez on Me, she played the rapper’s mother, Afeni Shakur, a Civil Rights revolutionary and leader within the Black Panther movement who – while pregnant – acted as her own lawyer to defend herself against conspiracy charges. A month after she and 20 other members of the group were acquitted in 1971, she gave birth to Tupac.
Intensity is Gurira’s specialty, and she’s taking that relentless spirit to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Okoye in Black Panther – the head of the king’s all-female special forces unit, the Dora Milaje.
Okoye is the protector of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa – not that the man in the Vibranium-enhanced panther armor needs someone to strong-arm for him. But his father, T’Chaka was assassinated in Captain America: Civil War, so a head of state can never be too careful. Threats can come from surprising places.
It’s Okoye’s job to anticipate them – and stop them.
Okoye takes her work seriously. But she’s not ice cold. You have to care deeply about a people (or a person) to be this devoted to them.
As part of Entertainment Weekly’s Comic-Con cover on Black Panther, we sat down with Gurira on the set of the movie in Atlanta about bringing life to Panther’s fictional African nation of Wakanda. The actress was born in Iowa, but grew up in Zimbabwe before moving back to the states for college, so she brings personal insight to representing the modern cultures of that continent.
In the scene we watched being filmed, her character was actually away from home, overseeing the interrogation of mercenary and Vibranium smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) at a CIA facility in Korea. So Okoye was in low-key street clothes rather than the ceremonial, scarlet finery of her Dora Milaje uniform pictured above.
But with her shaved head marked with elegant, angular tattoos, Gurira’s Okoye cuts a striking figure no matter what she’s wearing.
She’ll cut more if you get on the character’s bad side.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Okoye exists in the comics, and she has been loyal to T’Challa through good times and bad. What do we need to know about the movie’s version of her? What’s her state of mind?
DANAI GURIRA: She is an extremely proud Wakandan. She’s very proud of her people, her country, and her heritage. She is a traditionalist. She is rooted in what is, what has been done, how we do things as Wakandans. How we have done things, and how that must be preserved.
What’s her relationship to the king?
She is a lover and protector of her people and of the throne. To protect the throne, you are protecting the core institution of the nation, which allows it to thrive. She has a deep passion and connection to her country, to her people, and to the very special nature of who and what they are. Preserving that is something that is at the core of who she is.
How does she feel about how T’Challa is ruling?
She’s not in conflict with him. They work together. She works with him and she cares deeply for the royal family.
Wakanda is a century ahead of the rest of the world. They mine Vibranium, and develop astounding technology from it. What’s it like bringing that world to life?
You see this very unusual world that you have never seen prior, when you see Wakanda. Seeing all those people living and thriving in specific ways as a result of the protection that Wakanda is under is something that fuels her passion to keep her country safe and prosperous.
The country is closed off from other countries, partly to protect itself. What’s Okoye’s feeling about Black Panther opening up to the rest of the world. Is she one of the voices against reaching beyond their borders?
Being the head of the Dora Milaje and losing a monarch in somewhat of a security breach situation is not something that sits well in her soul. The desire to make sure that never happens again is something very intrinsic to who she is.
What’s Okoye’s backstory? How did she rise to the position of head of the Dora Milaje?
She is from the border tribe. [This is the group that maintains the disguise that Wakanda is a modest, agrarian nation.] She is not someone who rolled out of bed and got where she is. She is someone who is purposeful. She has been purposeful all her life.
Can you tell me about the tattoo markings on your head? What do they signify?
You can look at it from various ways. The Dora Milaje have been rendered differently through various editions of the comic book. There has been quite an evolution. The evolution into them looking somewhat like what I have going on right now is probably one of the most recent additions you will find. It is very specific to these women, who have dedicated themselves and their lives to the protection, honor, and preservation of this kingdom. That comes with its markings.
Why is it important for the Dora Milaje to be only women?
[Smiles] Why not?
Is Wakandan culture more matriarchal than our own? More open to strong women in leadership roles?
They are not utopic, but what Wakanda has down well is it has honored people by allowing them to function within their strengths. These women are functioning within their strengths. Their strength is to preserve Wakanda in a Special Forces-type way. It’s more like a Secret Service in a sense that it’s also very much about intel. It’s not just military. [Okoye] is head of intel. [Laughs] She is a busy woman.
What can you tell me about Okoye’s personality? Is she always very serious?
She can be serious, but she also has an unexpected sense of humor. She has a heart for her country and for her people. She’s not a person who doesn’t connect to human beings as a result of what she does, but she is very devoted to what she does.
Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is a special agent for Wakanda, who often works outside the nation. What is Okoye’s relationship like with her? Friends? Rivals?
[Smiles] We’ll have to see. Maybe I have told you too much already. Who knows?