I call myself Zimerican: Danai Gurira

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With the return of the fourth season of hit US horror-drama television series The Walking Dead, all eyes have been on Michonne, the stoic, sword-wielding zombie slayer played by Danai Gurira, 35, who’s also an award-winning playwright. In these excerpts, Danai talks to Rolling Stone and TIME about the show and, well, pretty much everything else.
Question: Where did you grow up?
Answer: I call myself Zimerican. I was born in the Midwest to Zimbabwean parents. My father was a professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. We moved to Zimbabwe when I was five, some years after Zimbabwe had gained independence.
Q: I’m sure that was a breeze.
A: It kind of was, because I was so young. Zimbabwe was at its height. It was the gem of Africa. It had a lot of modernity. It was in a very interesting moment.
Q: Was this the early Mugabe years?
A: Yes – the very early years. It was considered the most successful African nation. I was in a very multi-racial, multi-cultural schooling system. I had a really delightful childhood. I was a jock. I became a very competitive swimmer in Zimbabwe. I was a swimmer, a tennis player, a hockey player. Then, when I was 13, I joined a Children’s Performing Arts workshop in Zimbabwe. I never got good at tennis, which was painfully sad, but I love it still. I love watching people who know how to do it.
Q: Tennis is hard!
A: It is! There’s something about the stop-start that I just lose all momentum. And maybe I don’t have the attention span to keep stopping and starting. But I adore the sport and I love watching the pros. It’s one of the few sports I’m dedicated to as a viewer.
Q: And now you play with swords. Know any tricks?
A: Generally with the sword we’re trying to keep everyone alive – Michonne isn’t, but Danai – so I keep the tricks to a minimum. But I do have some dings on my apartment wall from some tricks I was attempting at home. I don’t advise that.
Q: But you went to college here (in the US)?
A: I went to Macalester in Minnesota to study social psychology, the study of why people do what they do. I was really looking at race, population, gender and how we psychologically function in a way that affects our societal outcomes around those issues. I was thinking maybe I’ll get a Ph.D. and live the cushy academic life. I wanted to bring some voice to issues that concerned me. I couldn’t see how the dramatic arts were going to make a huge change. But then I went to South Africa and met all these artists who had done things to affect change through their art during apartheid. I got totally convicted that what I needed to do what was tell African women’s stories – the unheard voices.Advertisement

Q: When The Walking Dead audition came up, what appealed to you?
A: My last play had been about women in war, and that’s what Micchone reminded me of – those chicks that turn into rebel fighters who are scary. I went to Liberia and I met these chicks. Reading about her and seeing her in the comic book, she was reminding me of those chicks. The parallels of The Walking Dead world and a war zone – that idea was very resonant to me. Who you are right now is a luxury of choices. If things go dead – which they can – there’s no 911, nothing’s working anymore, everybody can be against you at any second, there’s no law and order that protects you, and there’s a threat at every corner. It could be a child soldier who is going to shoot you randomly or a zombie.
The idea of connecting to narratives of people who have gone through extremely dire war situations, where life and death is always right here and nothing makes sense and there’s no more structures around you – like what I researched in Liberia – that’s what made it very visceral to me. The zombies could be a metaphor, symbolic for so many different things.
Q: What’s it like knowing that each episode could be your last?
A: You enjoy the moment you’re in. You embrace that it’s part of what makes the show great – it has that confidence. A lot of shows hold on to people. This show’s structure is that it lets go. That’s what is authentic to the world of the show. People aren’t just going to be living and living. People are going to die a lot. That’s what you sign up for. It’s painful and it’s hard and people don’t want to lose their jobs but at the same time, as an artistic choice, it’s actually a very strong one. It’s part of what makes what you’re a part of so special.
Q: Which other action heroines do you admire?
A: If I tell you you’re going to realize what a wretched geek I am and then my cover’s blown forever.
Q: So what?
A: Honestly, growing up, I thought that Grace Van Owen from L.A. Law was really, really cool. She’d stand up in front of folks and argue her way through many things, with a formidable energy and a lot of words. I thought that really cool.
Q: What’s it like to have an action figure of yourself?
A: I mean, it’s pretty cool! What can you say? My friend in Zimbabwe sent me a picture of it before I’d even seen it. I was, like, that’s pretty darn cool.
Q: Michonne has owned zombies, and she gets a horse this season. Which makes a better pet?
A: The horse is prettier but he does require feeding.
Q: And everyone loves zombies, right?
A: Some people are really die-hard, like the apocalypse is actually coming. At every single Q&A we have we get the question “Are you ready?”
Q: So do you have a zombie-apocalypse plan?
A: Well, after doing the show I guess I kind of do. I would just enact what I do on TV in life. I’ve got a couple swords in my closet now. But yeah, I think there’s just something really fascinating about how you would respond. Will you end up a zombie or will you survive? Will you figure out how to adapt? Which side of life and death are you going to be? People have that question for themselves a lot, like who would I be, would I make it or would I not, and I think sometimes that’s a really interesting question: Who would you be if things got that dire?
Q: Is that something you’ve thought about yourself?
A: As a playwright I’d written a play about women in war and that was kind of the premise of the play. It was like an apocalypse, the Liberian war. All the rules were gone. All the structures that a woman could depend on were gone. In that war there were women who turned into warriors because there was no one else to depend on or rely on. And when a woman finds her strength, you’d better watch out. It’s on, at that point. Those were women that to me were very Michonne-like.
Q: Your other project that you have out this fall, Mother of George, is so reality-based. It’s sort of the opposite of Walking Dead…
A: I finished shooting that role the week I went in to test for Michonne. I said good-bye to one and hello to another in the same week. Maybe I’m crazy, but The Walking Dead feels very real to me.
Q: What do you mean?
A: You’re in dire circumstances that really feel war-like. It feels very real to me, the human connections, the relationships, the struggle within oneself, all those things feel very character-driven and real. The circumstances, you know, even the zombie components, I don’t know. I think that’s what makes the show work. And these two chicks are both very determined. In terms of their circumstances and how they navigate them, they’re both very determined chicks and they both surprise you. They have an interesting link. But then they have absolutely nothing in common. [The character in Mother of George] is trying to get pregnant and that’s just not quite on Michonne’s to-do list.
Q: Do you get to watch a lot of other non-Walking Dead TV?
A: I love Veep, I love Girls, I started to really get into Ray Donovan. House of Cards, I chomped my way through that. Orange is the New Black, chomped my way through that. I call it chomping. It’s like binge-watching, on Netflix. I’m a binge-watcher. It’s a fantastic way to do it. Waiting week-to-week can be, like, “oh, come on!” But if everything’s right there, available, at your fingertips—I have to admit, I find it hard to press “stop” once I get into it.
Q: Read any good books lately?
A: Right now I’m reading a fantastic book called We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. It’s fantastic because it’s Zimbabwean. It’s not only a thing of pride that this story is out there in the international realm but it’s also just so reminiscent of so many things for me, to actually see the descriptions of the experience, being someone who grew up both in the United States and Zimbabwe. It’s an amazingly fascinating read for me. I’m in love with that right now.
Q: What about music?
A: Recently I’m all over the place. I’m madly in love with the gospel singer Tasha Cobbs and I’m also a big Justin Timberlake fan. That’s like my boy. I’m bouncing between her song “Grace” and his song “TKO.” And then I just rediscovered some old Lenny Kravitz tracks. I also binge-listen. I might listen to the same song until I’m like, okay, I’m done with that song for another ten years.