Courtesy of Jason from The Walking Dead ‘Cast, CBR presents the transcript from his recent interview with “The Walking Dead’s” Michonne, actor Danai Gurira, conducted shortly before the third season finale. During the conversation, Gurira talks about her audition for the role of the katana-wielding zombie survivalist, Michonne’s immediate distrust of the Governor and trust in Rick, performing while drenched in walker guts and more.
Read the interview below, and download the podcast for free from iTunes.
The Walking Dead ‘Cast: How did you find out about Michonne in the first place? How did you find out about this role?
Danai Gurira: Really, it was just my agent calling me into an appointment to audition for it and then doing the research about it from there, learning more and more from there.Â
Did you start with the comic for your research?
No, I didn’t have the comic. I really just went online. There’s tons of stuff online about her. I got a very clear idea of who she was, at least in the comic books, and the anticipation for her arrival. Because I had no idea. I was completely not connected to this realm.Â
What was your first impression when you started taking in all this information? Were you excited? Trepidatious?
No, I wasn’t trepidatious. It was pretty exciting. I thought she was really interesting and fascinating. There were just aspects of her that I’d never seen presented or personified. I was really into it. They created dummy scenes for the audition, and I really dug the audition dummy scenes.
Like, action scenes?
No, they were just scenes that aren’t actually in the show.
Oh, I see!
And they were great. They kind of compressed all that she was, in a sense. Her toughness, but also her heart. It was all one scene and they had to put everything in there. They had to see everything in one go. It was a really great scene, so then I began to like her even more and understand her more.
I feel like so far in this season we’ve only seen rare and brief glimpses of the heart part. We have seen those, but it’s mostly the “bad-assness” so far. Do you agree with that?
Mm hmm. Absolutely.
So in the second half, are we going to get to see the deeper parts?
You’re going to have to wait and see. [Laughs]
I know you can’t give anything away —
I mean, it’s serial television. If you present everything about a character in the first two episodes, or even in the first eight — you know — this is supposed to go on for a while. It is about allowing her to be unveiled in whatever way. And also through the people who experience her. You know, Rick, they’re getting to have to know each other, in a sense. And so it also has to be a process you see him go through, seeing her through his perspective. To put her all out on the table too quickly, I think, would be far less dramatically interesting.
Also, I think she is the kind of person who holds things close to the vest. She doesn’t talk much. If you met her in real life she wouldn’t lay it all out on the table. It would take a while.
Right. Right. There are very few people who are going to really get to know her.Â
Some fans are like, “She’s always angry and that’s it!” And I keep saying, “Just wait. I trust that we’re going to really get to know her. If she survives!
I’ve seen a few interview snippets of you online. At least on the surface, you seem pretty different from Michonne. Is it a big stretch to play her, or is she this side of you that comes out sometimes? How close are you to her?
I mean, she has a ferocity that comes out. I just don’t have her level of PTSD. I think that’s what people are seeing if they just decipher her as only angry. It’s an emotion that she’s comfortable with, because people with PTSD, some people, that’s where they feel more empowered. Through their rage. And that’s where she’s at. It’s kind of like a war vet type of PTSD. An aspect of that. Your rage is very accessible, but your other emotions are less accessible because they feel more vulnerable and that makes you feel weak.Â
But I would dispute with those listeners. Even if they look at, like, the episode where she does leave Woodbury. She has many aspects of relief. Like when she gets her sword back and goes and kills the zombies. There’s a whole other aspect of her going on there, because she gets to sort of step back into herself a little bit. She felt very confined and threatened in this environment, even though it looks so fresh and clean. It’s removed her from her weaponry. It’s removed her from her way of getting through the world. And she knows her friend likes it, so it’s this struggle she’s in. But there are many aspects of how she desperately — she wants to get her friend out of that situation because she doesn’t believe in it, she doesn’t think it’s the right place for them. And also she feels a great relief when she gets to do what she loves to do, which is to feel powerful, which is of course getting her sword back, and having a little exercise with those zombies.
So I think it’s really kind of a brash way of watching her, to feel like she’s only every angry, because I think there are a lot of other things that occur. It’s really not even anger. It’s really just “I have to put on this. I have to be tougher, in order to stay in control.” And there’s aspects of that that are going on even when she gets to the prison. She gets to the point where she can think, “Someone like Hershel….,” you know, it’s all like, “Dammit, I’m in need of these people, but I don’t want to be, but I do want to be.” [Laughs] So it’s a real struggle that she’s in. It’s not just, “Let me be angry.” No, it’s actually a struggle. “I need these people. I need this. I need people. But I don’t want to need, but I do want to need it.” You know?! [Laughs] So that’s what’s going on for her. It’s not just anger.
There are some characters who are very closed off, but to me, the way you’re playing Michonne, it feels like she’s on the verge of spilling over into emotion all the time, and sometimes we do see you go into something besides just aggression. It feels like a weird kind of vulnerability. I don’t know if that makes sense –.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That is exactly what it is for her. It is so much that you’re trying to cap it, and the way you cap it is an intensity of rage or something that seems like anger. But it’s really trying to cap all the stuff inside, which I think is connected to her experiences. Like we saw how, for instance, Rick entered the trauma. We watched his journey, beautifully, in the first season, of stepping into this world. But you don’t see that with Michonne. You don’t see the specifics of the trauma she experienced and how that transformed her into what she had to become in order to say, “Well, I’m not going down. I’m not going down.” But who did she leave behind? What happened? All those things are bubbling inside of her that you’re mentioning.Â
Do you have a full idea of what she was before that? That she was sort of a functioning member of society and this journey happened? Or is it kind of vague? Or do you have a pretty clear handle on what she was before?
Oh, I have to. I have to have a clear handle on it. Otherwise, I’d be a terrible, terrible actor.
Yeah, I know exactly what her past life was. Some things come more clearly as you grow through the character, past difference circumstances or different interactions. A lot of that became clearer to me, even though I already had an understanding, through the second half of the season. But she has a very specific past and a very specific entry into who she became post the apocalypse, through the apocalypse. I always say that she’s “going through a becoming.”Â
What you mentioned is really dead on, the idea that she is in a weird type of vulnerability. It’s this deep, “I don’t want to need.” It’s that thing that’s constantly going on. It’s her new self fighting with her old self. You know, and, “Who do I become in this world?” But it’s still like, “I need to stay in control.” And I understand that. I mean, I totally understand aspects of her, to answer your initial question. Because there are aspects of a lot of strong girls and independent women in this society today where we like to stay in control. I totally understand that. It’s just that I’m not in the dire circumstances that she’s in. I have no reason to cap myself off that much or keep that much under wraps, trying to hold onto that much. I have no reason to do that. I have nothing to do that for. But I understand the aspect of attempting to be in a position of power, in all circumstances! [Laughs] And that’s really what she’s doing. I totally get that. That’s what a lot of independent women in society right now do.Â
Yeah, especially now that women are equal. I think it’s a challenge from what I can see to find the person that you can let go with, but you can’t be that vulnerable all the time. Especially in your professional life, right?
Yeah, well — elaborate on that, I’m sorry.
It just seems, like you’re saying, that you have to keep control, but in my opinion, it’s good to find the person, maybe romantically, where you can let go of that control. We’re getting off topic here [Laughs], but maybe the more you keep control in other areas of your life maybe you want that one area where you don’t have to do that.Â
[Laughs] I don’t know…
Yeah, absolutely. No, it’s true. You know I haven’t had the issue of “fame” for very long, so I have a lot of people around me who are very, you know, just normal people, and who are wonderful people who are very close to me and I get along with greatly, and who I can depend on and be vulnerable with. But I know that journey into not being afraid of your own vulnerability. I know that journey. I went through it some years ago. And that’s kind of the journey that Michonne is on. Yeah, like, don’t be afraid of being a more open person.Â
Is it tough to get into her character and do you stay in it for days at a time, or can you kind of pop in and out?
No, not days at a time. But I definitely have stayed in character through several hours. And it feels nice to step out of her, and then completely become a goofball on set [Laughs]. But then I have to go back in and everyone’s like “Oh, she’s in that place,” and they have to sort of move very gingerly and keep away from me. It can be a lot to step into her intensity. Retain it. It requires connecting to a lot of very specific things, and then connecting to how she’s interpreting her circumstances, which is different from how maybe anybody else would interpret the circumstances that she’s in.
As an actor, you step into this role, you completely inhabit it. I always wonder how it must be for writers, who have to do that for several characters, that maybe are at odds with one another. Have you ever thought much about that?
Well, as a playwright I’ve experienced that a great deal.
It’s something that I do as well. You have to really understand the voice and the way the brain of every specific character works, and who they are beyond an idea, and what their wants are, and how their wants vary from each other. And that’s usually how the characters will clash. It’s either through your wants being very different or it’s through your ways of getting through the world being very different. Or very similar! I think even in the case of Rick and Michonne, people keep saying that there’s a similarity that these two are crashing into with each other. At first I was like “Huh?” But then it was like, “Oh, I see, they’re both functioning from their wounds.” Rick is hardened as a result of his wounds, and Michonne has hardened too! We just haven’t seen what Michonne’s wounds were. But it’s the same thing. We saw Rick’s process into this place from where he was in the beginning of season one, or even the beginning of season two. There’s things he’s gone through that have hardened him. Both he and Michonne are functioning through their wounds, so there’s mistrust of each other even though their instincts are telling them, “Okay, we can work together.” At the same time, the traumatic wounds that are kind of similar are causing them to bash heads. Those are all the kinds of elements that a writer has to take into account. The minds of the characters, the personalities, and how they’re dealing with whatever circumstances they’re coming from, but also how their wants work for them or against them when it comes to dealing with other people.Â
Also, I feel like you have to find joy in every character. Even like your worst guy, your jerks, your Merle or whatever! The writer has to find joy in that character, in every character, so that they’re written with a touch of joy. Even if they don’t have the joy, there’s something in them that’s buried, because the joy is the pulse of the character. It’s what makes them a character to an audience.Â
You mentioned Michonne and Rick are functioning through their wounds. Now you could say that the Governor is the same way, right?
Absolutely. But he’s sort of a special case [Laughs].Â
[Laughs] So Michonne just hates the Governor right off the bat, and then she goes to the prison and Rick doesn’t treat her all that well either, but she’s more inclined to trust Rick. I guess it’s pretty obvious what the differences are, but I was just wondering what your take would be on that.
Oh, it’s very obvious! She deeply, deeply, deeply trusts her instincts, and her instincts spoke against the Governor from the get-go. There was something about him she did not like, did not trust, and she could just see there was something very off about the world he ran, how he ran it, who these cronies were who listened to his every command. The fact that she was disarmed at gunpoint. These are things that make him really, really, really not a guy she could ever hang with. And the charm and all of it, it just feels deceitful. It feels really, really wrong, and off. It jars her!
Yeah, she can feel that he’s fake. It’s very clear to her from the beginning. And she has no reason to hide her opinions. That’s another thing about her; there’s no reason she’s going to try and get along with you, or function in your charming realm.
So how about Rick?
With Rick, it was the exact opposite. She could feel, and I think she even knew instinctually, that there was something good about him. She knew about him, also, through Andrea, but she knew instinctually that there was something good about him. And that’s the one place that she was weak enough to fall and need help, even though she hated that! Something in her body was like, “This is where I can collapse.” Her mind was like, “NOOO!!!” [Laughs] But her body was like, “I’m safe.” It’s the instinctual understanding, but she’s fighting that because that involves vulnerability. And she’s scared of vulnerability, so she’s not going to treat him like, “Hey, let’s be friends.” She can’t do that. She’s scared of that. But it doesn’t mean that her gut doesn’t tell her, “This is where I’m meant to be.”
Assuming Michonne survives, what do you want for her in the long run, and what does she want for herself?
Ultimately, you do want to heal. She has wounds. Ultimately you want to heal and you want to be more powerful in the world because you’ve healed from things. You went through things and you got through them and they didn’t destroy you or destroy any aspect of your ability to connect with the world. They actually made you stronger. She has extraordinary gifts and abilities, and I’d like to see that expand beyond her own self. And I think that she has a hope for that also, even though she won’t admit it.Â
Does your sword have a name?
[Long pause] If it did, I wouldn’t share it. [Laughs] Only because it’s between Michonne and her sword!
Are you going to steal that sword when you leave the show?
Well — yes. [Laughs] It’s mine, dammit.
How did you learn to use it, and how did Michonne learn to use it?
I learned to use it from a trainer. It was just that simple, and very intense and exhausting and wonderful, and all those great things. And she learned to use it because she figured it out. It was what she found and she figured out how to use it. It sort of did become a very integral part of her. You rarely see her for more than two seconds without it.
And when she doesn’t have it, she’s looking at it, like, “I really want to get that back.”
Exactly! Exactly! And she goes and takes it back if she can. It’s really an intricate part of how she feels re-empowered, post-apocalypse.Â
She just figured it out. There’s something when you really actually start to vibe with something. It’s like that minute when you learn how to ride a bike, or how to jump rope really fast, and, you know, do some tricks with your jump rope. It’s sort of like that, but multiply it by a million.
What was it like to have all those zombie guts spilled all over you?
It was disgusting. It was yucky. But it’s yucky for art, too, so you know, it was great.Â
I had to shoot several times with that gunk, and Michonne was in a very intense place during that scene, getting to the prison, meeting them, being behind the bars. And every single time we started that scene, they’d have to come and re-gunk me, but I would be in a very intense zone. So they would come up to me really gingerly and have to flick this crap on me [Laughs]. It was very funny.
And what’s the worst mistake to make around a zombie?