The actress is putting big-screen stardom on hold to fulfill her life's mission behind the scenes.

By Dalton Ross
February 25, 2020 at 12:00 PM EST
Advertisement
Credit: Dennis Leupold for EW

It’s a late-June afternoon at the Griffin State Probation Office and Day Reporting Center of the Georgia Department of Corrections. But this seemingly abandoned building is bustling with activity…and death. The location is doubling as a research facility and infirmary for a key scene in what will serve as Danai Gurira’s final episode of The Walking Dead. And the actress, who for eight years has wowed fans as Michonne, is not going out without a fight.

Standing in a blood-soaked hallway filled with health-conscious posters like “Clean Hands Protect Lives” and “Help Stop the Spread of Syphilis and Gonorrhea,” Gurira prepares for the action to come, in which she will have to contend with approximately 20 advancing zombies. The scene calls for her to push eight flesh-eaters down with a gurney, then stab one with her sword, kick another in the chest, carve two up, kick one, disembowel another, kick someone down again, and then stab six more.

Under the watchful gaze of the episode director and the stunt coordinator, Gurira goes through each of the acts in slow motion while working with her attackers to rehearse and block the scene: “I knock you down. I cut you down. I kill him. You’re dead. Can you fall down so I know you’re dead?” She then instructs one walker to approach with his right elbow up so she can stick the sword under his arm, asks another if it is okay to both kick and stab him, motions to a biter in the back to come hither to get his, and continues to direct the undead, telling them where to go to get sliced and diced.

“You need to go over here so after I take care of this guy, you’re waiting for me on the other side,” she instructs one of the soon-to-be-obliterated. “You? You’re already dead, right? Who’s my last kill? Who do I kill last?” A zombie raises his hand sheepishly, gets mock-stabbed, falls to the floor, and flashes a thumbs-up sign. Gurira pauses among all the carnage and looks over at a cameraman. “I love to do this,” she says with a smile. “This is my thing.”

Not anymore. While Gurira burst onto the scene in season 3 playing comic-book favorite Michonne — a warrior with a will as strong and as sharp as the katana blade she wields ferociously to take out the undead — the 42-year-old is finally sheathing her blade. On a show filled with epic shocks, Gurira’s departure during this last run of season 10 episodes (we can’t say exactly when) is anything but. After all, she has already found huge success moonlighting as Okoye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — starring in the first comic-book film ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in Black Panther as well as the highest-grossing movie of all time in Avengers: Endgame. A star-making cinematic career awaits.

Which is precisely what makes the actress’ next move so fantastically unique. Because instead of leaving The Walking Dead for the glitz and glamour of the big screen, Danai Gurira is going somewhere she will not be seen at all. And, in doing so, will make sure people like her who have not been seen finally are.

************

When she was a young girl, Gurira never saw herself on TV shows or in movies. That’s not to say that while growing up in Grinnell, Iowa, and then Zimbabwe she didn’t envision herself one day becoming an actress, but rather she never saw others like her in the stories she watched on screen. “Born into this world as an African girl, I never understood the absence of voices and people who were similar to me,” says Gurira. “It never made sense to me that I couldn’t see that representation. The very massive magnitude of content you get in television and film, and yet there was this almost absolute absence of the stories of women from the continent and of the continent. It didn’t make sense and I didn’t accept any ideas as to why it wasn’t there. It just needed to be there.” The solution? “It just has to happen, and I guess I’ll have to do it.”

That, more than anything, is the one principle that has guided Gurira’s entire career — a career that first blossomed as a playwright. In stage productions such as The ConvertFamiliar, and Eclipsed (staged at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009 with a young understudy by the name of Lupita Nyong’o, who later starred in the show for its 2016 Broadway run), Gurira has provided searing tales of women both in and from Africa that would otherwise remain trapped in a pop cultural vacuum. Through her work, Gurira has given a voice to the voiceless. Which is why Gurira is leaning on that voice — rather than her famous face — for her first post–Walking Dead job.

Teaming up once again with her lead Eclipsed actress and Black Panther costar Nyong’o, Gurira is bringing a 10-episode miniseries adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah to the new streaming service HBO Max. The story centers on a woman named Ifemelu who leaves Nigeria to study in the United States, only to return years later and be reunited with a former flame and discover how their lives have changed while living on different continents.

But instead of starring in front of the camera, Gurira is moving behind it. The Tony-nominated playwright is not only working on the script for the series, she will also be acting as the showrunner for the project. Why would a star of Gurira’s caliber want to put herself through the wildly unglamorous nitty-gritty grind of a job that requires such attention to every single detail of production — from costume design to location scouting to the story itself?

It’s a question Walking Dead chief content officer Scott M. Gimple couldn’t help but ask. “I was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to do that?’” says Gurira’s former boss. “It’s probably the most difficult job in entertainment.” It’s also a question Gurira asked herself. “I’m watching these showrunners on my show for years, being like, ‘Oh, dang, do you want to take that on?’” she says, laughing. “It’s a lot. I’m involved with every angle of it. It’s not a small thing to be taking on a 600-page novel and bringing it to the fore as a TV show. But I realized that if I didn’t do it I would never, ever forgive myself. Taking it on will require everything I’ve got, and then some.”

But it’s a job Gurira — with her notorious attention to detail — is made for…as those 20 zombies in her last Walking Dead episode can attest. It’s also a challenge the workaholic was pursuing before she ever landed the job on TWD. “I’ve always wanted to helm a creation for the screen,” says Gurira, noting that she moved to Los Angeles in 2012 expressly for that purpose. “I’m an avid TV watcher. I watch a lot of things. I’ve watched how television has evolved over the last couple decades. Great television really, really excites me.”

Current Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang has no doubts Gurira has the goods to make it in her new gig. “Danai is incredibly smart, incredibly driven, and she’s got great artistic taste,” says Kang. “I think so much of being a showrunner is having a vision and being able to communicate it and collaborate with the other people who are going to help make it happen. She has so many of those skill sets.” Gimple agrees, noting that “You need two things to be a showrunner: You need a vision and you need a work ethic, and I believe she has both of those. She has the talent and she has the strength, and she doesn’t require a lot of sleep, because you don’t get much.”

The man who is acting as Gurira’s showrunning mentor — Kang jokes that Gurira has Gimple “on speed dial” — also believes her experience as a thespian will help in the new role. “Danai’s secret weapon is actually that she’s been on the other side of it,” Gimple says. “That will make her a uniquely talented showrunner, because of how she might work with actors. She’ll know what they’re thinking, she’ll know what kind of things they’re going through, and that’s a leg up on a lot of showrunners. She has this superpower in her pocket, essentially.”

Gurira learned something else from her time on the AMC drama that she plans to bring to her new show. The Walking Dead is known as a particularly friendly and egalitarian set — one on which prop masters and boom-mic operators are treated with the same respect as actors and directors. It was a tone set on day one by former series star Andrew Lincoln, who personally welcomed newcomers, and one that Gurira plans to import to Americanah when it starts filming in Nigeria, London, and the United States later this spring. “The thing I would consider to be the most important accomplishment is to make sure there is a great working atmosphere on the set,” she says when asked about the biggest challenge ahead of her. “And one that really feels like the home that I experienced on Walking Dead.”

The new showrunner already has a head start on that process thanks to the connection with her leading lady and fellow executive producer — a connection that goes far beyond their previous professional collaborations. “We share a joint philosophy and passion around how we want to be in the world,” says Gurira of Nyong’o. “We come from very similar backgrounds. Our parents are all academics and even have mutual friends. There are a lot of connections that we share, and trust and understanding between us about who we are and what we’re trying to pursue in the world, what stories we want to see. That overlaps to both personal and professional, because we know that right at the foundation of it all we are in the exact same place.” Gurira laughs. “We’re getting to be like sisters!”

Not only does Gurira not plan on acting alongside Nyong’o in Americanah (“I have utterly no intention of being on the screen”), but she already has other behind-the-scenes work lined up as well, recently signing a two-year deal with ABC Studios to develop, write, and produce content across all platforms. That doesn’t mean Gurira is done starring in front of the camera. “There’s definitely a lot of acting stuff lined up in the future that I’m very excited about,” she notes.

One of those things is, of course, another turn as Okoye in the hotly anticipated Black Panther sequel due in 2022, although you won’t find much success attempting to pry intel out of the Dora Milaje leader, who is as adept at guarding secrets as she is at protecting King T’Challa. “If you’re talking story line, I know absolutely nothing,” says Gurira. “You can’t get it out of me because I don’t have it.”

With so many duties ahead of her in preproduction on Americanah, Gurira does not exactly have a lot of spare time on her hands. When asked about hobbies or interests outside of work, she responds, “It’s going to be a series of really boring answers.” But game respects game, and when not creating on her own, the playwright-actress-showrunner finds her inspiration in the creativity of others: “I like exploring other people’s art. I love to be a part of an artistic community where I spend time around art in different forms. So getting to go and spend time in a gallery or an exhibit — those things are very fulfilling for me.”

She also has become something of a style icon, recognizing and promoting fashion as an art form in itself. “I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to the astounding art craftsmanship that goes into creating great pieces of clothing,” Gurira says, “and the style that different folks have around how they create a look and a feel for their brand.” But Gurira’s purest passion outside of work goes all the way back to the lack of opportunities she noticed as a young girl — and doing something to close that gap in gender inequality. “When I was about 9, it really became clear to me that there was this massive disparity between what girls could do in the world versus boys and men,” says Gurira. “I was expected to be less based on my gender.”

In the hopes of leveling the playing field and making sure that females both young and old are offered “the same opportunities and appropriate protections” as males, Gurira founded Love Our Girls in 2016, a website and monthly newsletter that highlights issues impacting women worldwide as well as the people and organizations working to raise recognition of those issues. “The hope is that the people who do get exposed to these organizations and these stories through Love Our Girls get engaged in ways they didn’t expect, and get connected, and start bringing their own contributions to the fore,” Gurira explains. “The thing I know I can do is bring awareness to the work that’s being done, and to the experiences that are unacceptable that are still occurring.”

Awareness and representation are at the heart of why Gurira has chosen to endure late nights, rewrites, budget meetings, audition tapes, and charting the course of an international production over 10 episodes. Because it’s not just work, it’s her life’s work. “I’m still that same 9-year-old girl looking for myself on screen,” she says. “I’m still that same girl. I’m still looking, so I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to get up and do it myself. It’s a big part of why I’m supposed to be walking the earth right now — just to try to do as much as I can and in every way I can. To me, that’s everything.”

Styling: Law Roach/The Only Agency; Hair: Larry Sims/Forward Artists; Makeup: Kim Bower/Tomlinson Management Group; Manicure: Millie Machado/Tracey Mattingly; (Cover) Dress: Alex Perry; Ring: Flamboyant Jewelry; Shoes: Gianvito Rossi; (Black & White) Dress: Iris van Herpen; Earrings: German Kabirski; Shoes: Emanuel Ungaro

Episode Recaps

Comments