Danai Gurira’s katana-wielding Michonne has long been a fan-favorite character on AMC’s ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead, but the actress — who joined the post-apocalyptic drama back in 2012 — almost missed the opportunity to audition altogether.

“A year before, I had a TV job being offered to me that wasn’t where my heart was,” recalls Gurira in an upcoming PBS profile of her career, part of the network’s new Breaking Big series. “If I had taken it, I never would have been available to audition for Michonne.”

Looking back on the decisions that led her to the now-iconic role, Gurira says (in a clip from the broadcast, above) that she was immediately drawn to both Michonne’s inner strength and the hellish landscape in which her character’s warrior instincts are honed.

“She felt like a woman of war,” explains the actress, comparing Michonne to “women in Liberian war, [who] turn themselves into their own weapon, into their own army, and find a whole different kind of strength in themselves, as a result.”

This element of Michonne understandably resonated with Gurira, who has for years been exploring her passion for stories about strong female figures. The actress — who has taught playwriting and acting in Liberia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (where she grew up) — co-wrote and co-starred in off-Broadway play In the Continuum, about women living with HIV. Her 2009 play Eclipsed — set in war-torn Liberia — was the first Broadway play to premiere with an all-female, all-Black cast and creative team.

“What I loved about The Walking Dead was that it felt like a war zone,” she recalls of initially coming aboard the series. “It felt like you could take out the zombies and replace it with a society that collapses. When I watched it and read the graphic novel and started to research Michonne, she felt like one of the women I’d researched during my time creating Eclipsed and what I’d researched when I was looking at Liberia.”

For more, watch the full clip above. Gurira’s Breaking Big episode premieres Friday.

Episode Recaps

The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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