Gurira, born in the United States to Zimbabwean parents and raised in Harare, long ago became a student of the political upheaval in the African state of Liberia, 5,500 miles northwest. The civil wars in that nation raged so long that war became the ecosystem, and everyone who survived, both the men and women, became soldiers.
The female warriors in particular caught Gurira’s eye as she researched Liberian history for the cycle of plays she’s written about African lives. In her solo panel Sunday at Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon, the actor and playwrite who embodies one of comics’ most popular female characters said she saw a kinship between the fictional life she portrays and the real ones she knows.
“These women, men were scared of them, and they’re really well known for that still today,” Gurira told moderator and radio host Jamala Henderson. “It was an interesting real-life parallel — Bizarrely, I didn’t know I would one day play a woman soldier.”
Gurira caught the acting bug in primary school in Harare, when she was first cast in a school play. The calling led her to eventually earn a master’s degree in acting from New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts.
Accomplished and acclaimed before being cast to join the third season of “The Walking Dead,” Gurira was nonetheless little-known to TV audiences. She first appeared in 2004 on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” in the kind of role she finds painfully dull.
“What I can’t stand is the procedural dramas,” said Gurira, her close-cropped hair a far cry from her character Michonne’s dreadlocks. “No offense to [shows like that], but for me to act in them the whole time would be really, really excruciating.”
The actress caught indie-film attention in the 2007 drama “The Visitor,” and returned to TV throughout the 2000s, including the acclaimed HBO series “Treme” in the 2010-2011 season. But her real focus lay in New York theater, where her plays “In the Continuum” (2005, in which she starred and won an Obie Award), “Eclipsed” and “The Convert” earned her a reputation as a writer trying to grapple with the experience of modern women in Zimbabwe and Liberia.
Being summoned to play a woman warrior traversing the apocalypse appealed to her mind, but it also put demands on her body. Always athletic — a self-described “swimming, track, hockey, tennis jock” from a young age — Gurira felt up to the challenge, although katana training was a whole new world.
“Then I started to understand Michonne through it — it how she established that connection and why,” Gurira told the crowd. “Get a weapon that doesn’t need ammo, and is silent, and does a really precise job.”
Though her past has yet to be revealed, it’s clear Michonne has suffered major emotional trauma as a result of the zombie outbreak or something before. Yet somehow that affliction has led her to develop outstanding coping skills that keep her, and her chosen companions, alive.
“I’ve gotten people that think she’s an enigma: ‘She’s too quiet, she’s too silent, we can’t read her.’ I’m like, ‘That’s the plan!'” Gurira said. “She’s going to be someone who’s living with her PTSD in the specificity of who she is, so she might not be someone who’s Miss Congeniality.”
Apart from her playwriting and acting, Gurira has also co-founded Almasi Collaborative Arts, a nonprofit drive to professionalize theater in Zimbabwe. Last year the group held a series of play-readings there including Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Gurira described herself as a sometime comics reader in her youth, but something like the Image Comics series by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard”> and Tony Moore on which “The Walking Dead” is based would never have appealed to her.
“Growing up, I read ‘Asterix and Obelix,’ I read ‘Tintin’ — I don’t know why — and I read, like, ‘Archie’ comics. That was the stuff I read in terms of comic books. I did not touch the scary stuff. I was a scaredy cat,” Gurira said. “I was the kid who watched ten minutes of ‘An American Werewolf in London’ and slept in my sister’s bed for two months.”
After her casting, she did try to catch up with the source comic.
“Then I had to stop,” she said. “I started to get confused — ‘Did that happen in the comic book or in the show?'”
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9pm on AMC.