As it shambles back to life on Sunday nights, AMC’s adaptations of the Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard comic “The Walking Dead” is bringing to it a few more zombie killers. And perhaps the most eagerly anticipated cast member is the samurai sword-wielding Michonne as played by Danai Gurira.
When CBR News traveled to the Atlanta set of the show in August (see our initial report here), Gurira opened up about taking on one of the most recognizable characters from the Image/Skybound series long run. Cutting her way through packs of walkers and towards a confrontation with the Governor, Michonne is set to make her mark on TV audiences the way she has on comic fans.
Below, Gurira describes the pressures that can come with adapting a beloved character from the source material, her own experience drawing character moments and ideas from the comics, what it’s like to wield a katana on screen and her overall experience joining the #1 show on cable.
What’s it been like for you to jump into a character that people who read “The Walking Dead” comic are such huge fans of?
Danai Gurira: At the end of the day, even as I was preparing to audition for the role, I think it was good for me that I didn’t know so much. I did my research and read about her online, but I didn’t know a lot. So what I went with was what the sides were and what I knew of the world since I’d watched the first season. I just really approached it as creating and building a character. I could see aspects of her from how she’s described and how she’s drawn, but also from the multi-layers of who she is. That’s like any character building. A lot of that is really clear on the page. The created a great dummy scene for the audition. But most of it came from my not knowing too much.
But so far, it’s also been about what they always do with this show. They never do exactly what’s on the comic book page. It keeps everyone unable to predict anything. So I think with her, there are things that are specific to her arc that can be true to the comic book but are also very new. I got that from meeting with the show runner and his team of writers. [We combined] what I thought about her and what they thought as they were building the stories. It’s been a fresh approach along with a lot of what we already know about her. But it’s also been a lot of love. Stepping into this character became kind of “Whoa” because I didn’t know at the start how much people loved her. It’s a fabulous thing that so many people were excited to see her come to life. I’ve gotten a lot of love from that.
Was there any pressure from that love the fans had?
Yeah. There’s an aspect of pressure in that. But I think really there’s pressure with anything you embody. If you’re embodying something from scratch, there’s pressure to make it pop and make it something people appreciate. You’d want that to work. And if you’re doing something people are familiar with, you want them to be happy with it. But at the end of the day, it’s just going to be what comes through. So I kind of have to let that go. Otherwise, you can’t be creative.
And I was saying the other day that Michonne kind of helps me do that just by being her. She’s so not a people pleaser -Â not even to her fans, I’d imagine. So I go into this saying, “Michonne wouldn’t care what people thing, and I won’t either.”
You’re coming on to a very established show with a tight cast, and you’re coming in to a story that could be a bit overwhelming. What’s diving in to the deep end been like?
It’s been intense. It’s been good. I’m an intense chick, and I like challenges -Â even when I don’t, I do. Because otherwise you don’t feel like you’re utilizing all that you could possibly bring to it.
Tell us about your sword-training experience. Michonne’s weapon is something the fans are excited to see on screen. Did that take a long time to get used to?
We’re always working on it, but it is really situation-by-situation. Initially, it was all about working with the trainer. My first trainer was Adam Hart in L.A., and I’ve worked with a couple trainers here. It’s really been extremely intense at the beginning. I did not know those muscles were even in the body or that they required engagement. [Laughter] So it was exhausting. After the start, Adam said, “Okay, we’re going to take a day.” And I work out! But it was those things where you just work with a few little dumbbells. The katana will totally break you. And I love it for that. So it was a lot of work, and now it’s situation-by-situation. We deal with what’s needed and try to specify what kind of action is needed for the kills. I’ve gotten more comfortable with it, which happened thankfully by the time we started shooting. So I was able to help put together the scenes where I’m killing zombies. That was great.
Do you have much of a background idea for how Michonne is supposed to know how to wield it so well?
Well, in the actual backstory, she doesn’t learn from anybody. It’s a survival thing. You scour around for what you can survive with, and that’s what she came across. She started to figure out how to make it work for herself, and I think that’s a big part of how she got through stuff. There’s a connection she’s developed with [the sword]. But she also found herself pretty good at it. Once you figure out how to use that, you realize that she’s effective and pragmatic and so is that weapon. I think there was just a connection she found in it. And it’s economical. It can take off a lot of heads and doesn’t make a lot of noise. It’s a smart weapon to have.
Do you keep up with the comics at all?
Kind of, but not really. I was told by Glen [Mazzara], “You can read them or not.” But I wanted to read them. I’m a researcher. I wanted to see where she was birthed from and how they approached her. And I wanted to know the stories. So I started, but then I’d get confused because I was watching Season 2 at the same time! [Laughter] It was kind of incredible how they were melding as the stories were being told. The comic book is very vivid. It’s amazing how many of the moments are illustrated, and it just sticks with you. I haven’t read comics since I was a kid, so it was great to delve into one with such dire stakes.
But they gave me the comics through about Book 7 and a few after that. I’m maybe about 20 behind at this point. But I get told if something major happens.
You’re still alive.
[Laughs] Yeah, they told me that. And I was told [what happens in #100]. That was when we were at Comic-Con.
Have you learned things about her from the comics that you didn’t expect?
Yeah. I think as you dig, you start to realize how there are a lot of colors to a character and how they’re function in the world and why. I think digging into the why has allowed her to open up more and more. I’m digging into the moments where things have to shift so I can look back at who she was before everything went down. That process shows you how you can become something when something dire happens, and Michonne became something. She was somebody else before, and I’ve been tapping into that and allowing it to come out. It’s been a very interesting process.
Who have you had a chance to interact with on screen in the early episodes? Obviously, Andrea is your first connection, but what can you say about the path to Rick and Michonne’s friendship?
Well, I can’t talk to you much about that, and you don’t want me to anyway. There are many characters I get to interact with here and there and then back and forth and all around. [Laughs] But it’s clear we land with the Governor. That encounter with the Woodbury group comes pretty quickly. I get there pretty quick, and then there’s the other group.
What’s your anticipation for the fact that you’re here working many episodes into the season, and in October, everyone will start to watch the first episodes and react very strongly. Does that affect anything you do creatively, or are you here in Georgia in a bubble?
I mean, we’ll be so near the end by the time it airs that it’ll be interesting. At that point, she is who she is. We’ll see how everything goes, but it’s really about trusting your choices. There will always be some reaction, negative and positive.
Stay tuned for more on Season 3 of “The Walking Dead” on CBR!