Danai Gurira interview: The Walking Dead & Michonne

Interview Duncan Bowles 21 Mar 2014 - 07:00

The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira talks about the evolution of Michonne, goofing off with the governor, losing her pet walkers and more...

Warning: contains spoilers for The Walking Dead season 4.

Talking to Danai Gurira about Michonne at this point in The Walking Dead’s fourth season was an absolute treat. While she’d become an indispensable addition to the prison group by the end of the third season, the current run has revealed more about her character than I imagine most people, including myself, expected.

It’s a payoff that’s been well worth the wait, especially when her traumatic dream sequence revealed that she’d both lost a child and horrifically implied that the culprits of his death, who were later mutilated into her personal walkers, were a part of her normal life before the outbreak. The revelation has enabled the audience to now fully embrace Michonne, given the understanding of her initial hostility to people, as not just a core part of the group, but as a favourite character.

We caught up with an enthusiastic Danai Gurira to discuss all of the above aspects of Michonne’s journey who, like her fellow cast members, was passionate about every aspect of her character and full of personal insights. I should also thank her for the extra time she graciously spent talking to me, as our time slot overran without any interruption from outside the room, but she was more than happy to keep answering all things Michonne.

Like all The Walking Dead fans, I can’t wait to see what happens to her next, especially with her renewed relationships with Rick and Carl Grimes, but there are only two episodes left to find out in this season, so without further ado…

I just watched last nights’ episode, The Grove, this morning and I'm  still affected by how powerful it was – it must be great to be part of a show that’s still going from strength to strength as it approaches the end of the fourth season?

It’s a real blessing to be a part of that, as it doesn’t always happen that way so I really am very thankful for being part of it, it’s an amazing product to be a part of.

One of The Walking Dead’s strongest elements is that it takes time to develop the characters. It must have been great to finally share that glimpse into Michonne’s background via the dream sequence in this season?

Yeah it was, it was very cool. I knew we were going to do something like that and people would tell me this and that, but actually getting to read it and act it out was really, really fun. That whole episode really was great to see and to take her to another place was really exciting.

It took quite a lot of patience on your part to get to it as well!

[laughs] Well yeah, but it really made sense to me, it was an authentic progression. I think there’s no way that she was the kind of character you were supposed to get to know quickly – that would not have been true to her, if she was just all open and exposed from the first time we met her – so I think that it was very authentic to allow her to slowly peel like an onion, there were layers they had to get to and they couldn’t all be just out, flayed open from the beginning.

That dream sequence was one of the most disturbing things we’ve seen on the show, yet I’m sure on The Talking Dead the other week you said you weren’t a big horror fan, which is ironic!

[laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah! I mean portraying horror and watching it are two different things for me! [laughs] So the idea of getting into the psychology of what she’s going through is a lot different from sitting and watching The Exorcist, which I will avoid with my life! But because I’m a scaredy cat, not because it’s not brilliant.

But you’re okay watching the show back?

Oh the show I can watch, my show I can watch, it’s watching horror films where I don’t know what’s about to happen that I have trouble watching! [laughs]

That’s fair enough! Back in season three, the episode Clear very much set Michonne on the path to being a part of the group, when she went off with Rick and Carl – certainly connecting with Carl properly for the first time – do you think it was intentional foreshadowing of where you all are now?

I do believe it was, I mean remember Scott Gimple wrote Clear and he is also the show runner right now and arcing the characters, so I do think that was definitely what he was envisioning ultimately – but you’d have to ask him – but he’s brilliant with how he’s portrayed our characters and particularly I really love how he put Michonne into a more open place through that particular episode, when she was really more closed off and started to open up.

That episode is very special to me, probably as my most special episode for season three because it really allowed her that beginning of really starting to open up to these two people and show that she cares for them and so it was a very special episode and I think that it does feed into where she’s ended up.

What’s funny is that now Michonne, Rick and Carl are altogether you feel a false sense of security as they makes such a strong team, but the show soon strips that away, as I felt the same way about Beth being with Daryl and now that’s gone wrong!

Right! [laughs] Don’t get comfortable with anything, right?

I know, it’s amazing that The Walking Dead can still do that after several seasons – just when you think you’ve got to grips with it!

You’re right! [giggles]

I always mention it, but there are such great little moments for each character – like the other week when Carl’s having to tell his Dad he’s “got this” and you wink over his shoulder to let Rick know you’ll look after him – how much input do you get into those moments?

Well interestingly some of them are really beautifully put on the page and then some of them we find in play, so it’s actually a really great collaboration but some of them – there are tiny, beautiful moments that are perfectly portrayed on the page and I guess, maybe because I’m a writer, I really absorb every tiny nuance that the writer puts down and I really want to feel out exactly what the moment is. So lots of times it’s something they put on the page and sometimes we find really cool stuff as we’re just finding the scene and that just ends up being part of it.

And to have had the time to expand the characters and grow into them together, must enable you to react to the situations more naturally…

Yes and that’s what’s been really fun is that you start to find different little nuances as we move forward and they start to be the ones that are absorbed into the actual portrayal – that’s always the treat of being able to portray a character over a long period of time.

Talking of Carl and Michonne and their bond – he’s been quite detached from most people because of the trauma he’s been through – why do you think the two of them have such a strong connection?

I think they’ve reached an understanding. I think there’s something really great about how Michonne gets Carl and she really has a strong heart towards him, because he’s the young man that perhaps her son never got to become, but he’s also a young man who’s really figured out how to handle himself in this really hostile world and so she just has a really massive heart towards him and wants the best for him and wants him to be… when she was going out finding The Governor, she was bringing him back whatever she could find just to keep his life in a way where he could have treats and things that might really lighten the load of the life he has to lead in this realm, but she also really respects how he handles himself, so it’s a very true friendship because she has respect for him and I think he feels that.

He feels that ‘she’s not treating me like a kid’ and I think the idea that she’s even able to share her story with him, just goes to show how much – you know before she shared it with anyone else, including Andrea, no one else has heard what she tells him in that episode and I think that is a real portrayal of a true friendship there. You’ll have to ask him why he digs Michonne, but I think they really just find a real, great connection and they both understand that they’ve been through some stuff and now he really gets that about her as well, when she’s lost people close to her just like he did and I think that’s something he’s really able to connect with her on. But I think the fact that she doesn’t really treat him like a kid to some extent and I think that he really likes that.

Yeah, especially as he struggles over that so much with his Dad and trying to constantly prove he’s a man…

Yeah there’s no battle with her, you have to have that battle with your parent as you’re trying to find yourself in your teens and whatnot, but he doesn’t have to have that battle with Michonne, you know it’s always trickier with the parent – the parent always gets the worse end of the stick from the kid, no matter how hard they try! [laughs]

You mentioned Andrea and whenever I speak to someone from the show, I always tend to ask them about the impact of losing cast members that you work with so much – who have you missed losing from the show?

Well I miss them all, but at the same time we’re still a family and we still hang out. I was just with Andre… with Laurie a few weeks ago and we still see each other so it’s not a total loss, we’ve formed true friendships that bond beyond the show, so that’s always a gift and a blessing and the shared experience that we’ll always have. But yeah it was hard, it’s always hard, it’s a hard process and it was hard to lose Scott Wilson just now as well and that was a really painful episode to shoot for that reason.

I can only imagine, as it was hard enough to watch. And do you think we’ll ever get any more of the time Andrea and Michonne spend together via flashbacks?

We’ll have to see, talk to Mr Gimple! [laughs]

Put the idea in his head!

Alright!

When I spoke to David Morrissey he was talking about how he’s friends with Andrew Lincoln, but they kept some distance when they knew they had to face off against each other – Michonne had such an intense hatred of The Governor, did the two of you keep apart before filming?

I love David! I mean I do and we just goof off a great deal and it’s so interesting because there were scenes where I would have to go and isolate, it wasn’t about him necessarily, it was just about the fact that I would really have to go into a place where I also want to murder him and murder a person. So I’d have to isolate, I’d have to have my headphones on, I’d be doing jump rope and keeping my body very intensely alive in between takes, but I can goof off with him at a moments’ notice! [laughs]

It must be really strange to have all these great friendships and then have to be so intense…

But I think at the same time there’s something very comfortable in that, you know what I mean? Like I have a comfort level with that, so we can go to extreme, intense places because I know underneath it we’re taking care of each other and so that gives us the freedom to really get as intense and as nasty as we need to! [laughs] You know it’s crazy the stuff we have to do sometimes, but like that scene where me and David are trying to kill each other in his mancave was crazy!

It was very intense, but we were taking care of each other at the same time and so I’m very grateful for the cast I’ve got to work with, because there is definitely that dual experience of being taken care of and getting very intense simultaneously, so you feel safe when you go to very, very dark places.

You mentioned how Michonne is a character that’s been patiently revealed, but was that difficult to go straight into, because as a viewer it was quite difficult to connect with her for a while, especially when she holds back from the others so much?

It was challenging and sometimes it was fun. Sometimes it was nice to play a character who didn’t care whether or not you liked her, so it was like “You know what? I’m not a people pleaser” - and this is Michonne talking and actually Danai isn’t much of a people pleaser either, I think I’m probably a little bit more of a people pleaser than her and little bit keener to keep people at ease, than she is so… but I kind of loved that, I loved being able to play a character where maybe you won’t like me in the beginning and I’m fine with that – I’m not trying to be liked right now. [laughs]

So I was cool about that and because I knew I was on an arc with it, it was exciting to do that, but yeah there was a challenge in it sometimes too because you want to express things that she wouldn’t, but that also allowed her to change who she was and it’s about her being exactly who she was and I loved that it was something that was inside her, that she’s choosing this and then one day she’s going to get tired of choosing to push people away. So there was a patience in it, but there were times I enjoyed it because she doesn’t give a crap, she’s not trying to be your friend and there’s something great about being that type of girl! [laughs]

And finally – silly question – do you miss your pet walkers?

As Michonne – no, because as we saw at the end of that episode where she has her flashback, they’re not a good part of her past and even having new ones was going back to a way of being that she needed to stop doing, it was something she needed to get rid of in her life.

I do love the guys who played my walkers, sometimes it was weird to pull guys around by chains! But we became good buddies, so it was okay! [laughs] As much as that can be okay!

But as Michonne I did enjoy creating new walkers in episode nine, I thought that was a really interesting thing that of course she would do after she’s seen the devastation and everyone’s gone and there are walkers everywhere, of course she would go and do that. So it was a fun thing to shoot, but at the same time I am glad that she got rid of them in the end and that was the profit of liberating her own soul.

Danai Gurira thank you very much!

The Walking Dead, Mondays at 9pm on Fox.

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