The woman who played Michonne opens up about leaving TWD after 8 seasons.

Danai Guria can’t stop laughing. She has only a few days left ever filming on The Walking Dead, so you would expect one of the show’s supreme slicer and dicers of zombies to feel a bit mournful about leaving the show that made her a star. And she is. But right now, on this sunny June afternoon in Griffin, Ga., the actress is in the midst of a pure guffaw. Blame it on a hallway barricade she and actor Kevin Carroll (who is guest-starring as desperate scrounger Virgil) just had to squeeze through while avoiding a ravenous member of the undead with a phone cord wrapped around her neck.

Gurira — who has spent the past eight seasons playing Michonne — mock-stabbed the tele-walker with ease, but sliding through that barricade proved a bit more problematic. One slight nudge from Carroll has sent the entire structure of desks and chairs tumbling to the ground around them, causing a thunderous crash as well as a look of genuine terror on the face of Carroll — and a look of absolute glee on Gurira’s. “That was awesome!” she bellows before proceeding to playfully rib her costar’s momentary dread. “So funny! And the cacophony as everything falls! Perfect!”

These are the good times, the ones Gurira will miss the most moving on from AMC’s record-breaking drama. “I had a lot of great belly laughs per day on that set and amongst those people,” she tells EW while reminiscing a few months after wrapping her final episode (which will air in this last run of season 10 installments, although we can’t reveal exactly when). “It was incredibly hard to even imagine leaving. I loved that show. I loved the family that I had there. The beauty of coming to work and loving the people you’re around and the work that you’re doing and the things you get to do and call it your job is like nothing I could have imagined. It’s been a true gift to my life to have been part of it.”

The Walking Dead
Credit: Eliza Morse/AMC

But now Gurira has a new gift to open. The 42-year-old playwright-actress is returning to her behind-the-scenes roots to serve as showrunner of a 10-episode adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah for the new streaming service HBO Max. The project — which is scheduled to begin filming this spring in Nigeria, London, and the United States — will reteam Gurira with Black Panther costar Lupita Nyong’o, who also went from understudy (in 2009 at Yale Repertory Theatre) to headliner (in 2016 on Broadway) in Gurira’s Eclipsed. “We have a great ability to communicate and to collaborate,” says Gurira of her former and future leading lady, “because at the foundation of it all we are in the exact same place.”

Gurira is ecstatic to once again work with Nyong’o and continue their mission of telling stories spotlighting women both in and from Africa, yet it was still difficult to leave the place she has called a professional home since 2012. “It’s always hard to accept that it’s time to allow yourself to go in another direction,” she says of the change. “And so it was incredibly hard to come to that place, but I had to. I had to start articulating it to myself and then to others, and it took a while to do that.”

Her former TWD family members have no problem articulating the respect and love they feel for their departing friend. “The thing that she’s always brought is so much passion,” says showrunner Angela Kang. “This was her first series-regular gig, and she threw everything into it. Her work ethic is incredible, and she also knows how to have a good time.”

As someone who has shared powerful onscreen moments with Gurira for eight seasons, Norman Reedus has experienced the full emotional gamut from his costar and friend. “She attacks every scene with a ferocity and a grace that’s really inspiring to work with,” Reedus says. “I’ve seen her in the most vulnerable state and also the most aggressive. We’ve gone through it together. So it’s more than just losing a cast member. You’re losing somebody that you have such a tight bond with.”

The man who plays Daryl Dixon also has no doubts that Gurira has the tools to succeed as a showrunner: “She’s not a follower. She’s a natural-born leader, that girl. I’m happy for all the things that are going on in her life, but I’ll miss her every day.” That didn’t stop Reedus from surprising his costar with a farewell gift in the form of a private fireworks display on her next-to-last day of filming.

“It was very emotional,” says Gurira about her final days on The Walking Dead. “I was really blown back by how much love I received from everybody.” Of course, on a set known for some pretty epic practical jokes, the cast and crew could not resist one final prank at Gurira’s expense. “I go back to my trailer after having this amazing reception, and there were about 50 zombies in my trailer!” she says, laughing. “They were all over — lying on my couch, on my chair, in the shower. They were everywhere!”

Credit: Dennis Leupold for EW

While Gurira received a grand send-off from the cast and crew, Kang was responsible for making sure the character got one as well. Kang’s first step in arcing out Michonne’s last stand was to get plenty of input from the woman playing her. “It was a lot of conversations over many months with Danai about what can be a fun and satisfying way to try to send off this character and pay her tribute,” says Kang, “as well as put her in a story that has impact to the season at large.”

For her part, Gurira appreciated the voice she was allowed to have in mapping out Michonne’s final chapter. “You’re carrying your character’s soul at this point of the show,” she explains. “And Angela embraces that about those of us who have been on the show a long time — the knowledge and the nuance and understanding of everything the character has gone through. And that just made it even more special that I got to be a part of it that way.”

Gurira may have physically already left The Walking Dead, but the show will never truly leave her. And the lessons she learned during her eight years deep in the woods of rural Georgia are now embedded in her soul as she begins her new adventure running Americanah. “I want to be a person who brings that type of environment to a workplace wherever I go,” says Gurira. “I witnessed how beautifully it works, and I want that to be what I bring forth as I help create other environments.” Even if those environments just happen to include 50 zombies chilling in your trailer.

To read more from the April issue of Entertainment Weekly, pick up a copy on newsstands beginning March 17, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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The Walking Dead

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

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