The Walking Dead’s Michonne surely embodies the notion of a “badass.” She has the take-no-crap-from-anyone attitude, the icy stare, wields two lethal katana swords and slices and dices through zombies like melted butter. Since her grand entrance, Michonne has forged a strong friendship with Andrea and made a mortal enemy out of the Governor. Actress Danai Gurira spoke exclusively to me about joining The Walking Dead TV series and Michonne’s dark journey.
To prepare for the role of Michonne, you delved into the comic books. What was your initial impression of who she was?
Well, it was obvious Michonne was very much her own woman and self-motivated and a very strong person. She had a sense of herself that would not allow anything around her to dictate her actions. She had a very independent soul and spirit. Michonne was driven by what felt right and good to her. She had a “rightness” to her and she was practical and strong. Those are the things that really stood out from the comic book.
In the comics, what befalls Michonne with the Governor is pretty graphic. Were you curious, or even concerned, about how that would translate for TV?
I was curious. I don’t think I was concerned. I tend to gravitate towards stuff that is intense. As a playwright, I tend to write stories along those lines. Not necessarily things that are heavily violent, but these intense crevices of life. That stuff attracts me because I think there are stories people experience and like to avoid telling. When I see they are being told, I actually get quite excited.
Was this a tough character to ease into?
Yes and no. Learning the katana was very intense, but there just came a moment where I started to feel the weapon and it started to come more instinctually. That was really amazing. At the beginning, it was completely frightening. In terms of her, she’s on an arc a little different from the comic book. It’s always that thing where people might be like, “Hey, that’s not exactly what happened in the comic book or exactly who she is.” By arcing her anew, which is what the writer’s room wanted to do, they created a slightly different Michonne than what you first see in the comic books. This season, she goes through somewhat of a “becoming.” To have an opinion of her right now is tricky because it’s like you’re halfway through the movie. Wait until you’re at least 12 episodes in. She’s on a journey of a self, which is different than the comic book, where I think she arrives fully made.
Michonne never smiles or shows emotion. What’s the secret to constantly maintaining that attitude?
It can be a lot of work. If you go on set, I can be quite a goofball. Then Michonne comes on and they are like, “Oh, oh. She’s Michonning,” and then they leave me alone. It can be something else. It’s like stepping into how she is interpreting the world. I can’t give you my whole process, but it’s really just stepping into her mindset and how she’s interpreting her surroundings based on her past, based on what has made her who she is. Some things that made her who she is make her very formidable, in a good way. Then some things are wounds that she needs to heal from. It’s really staying connected to those wounds that lead her to be sometimes a bit overly much. Then there are times she really knows how to temper her past into really making her effective in the present.
At the end of season two, viewers were treated to this image of Michonne and her pet zombie slaves. What were your thoughts on that quick introduction?
I thought it made sense and was interesting to have her appear like that. I had just been hired the Friday and that was about to air on the Sunday. They said “Just watch it and you’ll see how you are introduced.” I thought it was great and cool and like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Most of season three has been Michonne together with Andrea. How would you describe their dynamic?
They had a bond. Michonne really found her person. She finally found a person in this post-apocalyptic world, post-trauma, that she could consider a friend. I think she deeply loved Andrea. She really felt she could just walk the Earth, just the two of them. Losing Andrea is deeply traumatic and doesn’t help Michonne’s wounds. But it also reminds her, as did Woodbury, that she kind of is in need of something of a community again. She could get new two zombies and carry on. She’s very able. Being with Andrea really started to open her up again to human relationships.
She’s guarded and cut off still. At the same time, there’s something in her that is yearning for it. Even just going to the prison and seeing the relationship between Maggie and Glenn, those things are feeding the yearnings in her that she’s not able to fully express because she’s too guarded. Her actions are pointing to her desire to connect to people again. But losing Andrea is very traumatic. They were very close and they clicked and got each other, even though one is very talkative and the other is not. Those things worked for them. I don’t think she’s fully let go that she’s lost Andrea yet.
Is that why she goes back to storm Woodbury with Rick and the other survivors?
Yeah, I think there are a few reasons she’s going back. That’s one of them. The other reason is the Governor tried to kill her. I sort of analyze her as PTSD <Post Traumatic Stress Disorder>, which I think all people in this world have. But her PTSD is similar to that of someone who has been in a war zone, like a war vet. A part of that PTSD is they are emotionally shut down. Their emotions are there, but you can’t really see them, other than rage. Number two, they are hyper-vigilant and she is hyper-vigilant. The idea is the Governor tried to kill her, so Michonne can’t just say, “Oh, forget it. I’ll just move on.” She actually can’t do that. He tried to kill her, he sent out men, she has a hole in her leg and this has to be dealt with.
The Governor is quite intimidating. Does he scare Michonne at all?
In a way. The thing with Michonne is her instincts are so strong, but she can see who he is. She doesn’t buy a second of it. What’s scary about him is he has a certain degree of power. He has men. The Governor has weaponry. She can see how he’s taken other people in and made them obey him. To her, that is deeply disturbing and is something she would rather die than do. That is the scene where he seems he’s inviting her to be a part of them. To her, that’s like he’s trying to enslave her. That’s what she’s hearing. “Now you become my slave.” And she’s like “Oh, no, no, no, no.” It’s like, “I’d rather die than that. Let’s go. Let’s duel right now.” He doesn’t expect that because that’s not a usual response. The thing the Governor finds intriguing about Michonne is that he can see she’s a warrior. She would be a very useful weapon.
The mid-season finale teases that Michonne is the one who discovers the Governor’s zombie daughter Penny, but doesn’t initially realize she’s undead. Were you happy with how that pivotal moment plays out?
It is different from the comic book. I wasn’t married to the comic book. I was new to it, so I’m open to the dramatic interpretations that they make. I thought it was interesting that once again Michonne cares about people. She doesn’t want to see this girl in a traumatic situation. In the comic book, there’s a very specific set-up to that moment. The beauty of a television show is they can really tease out the story over a course of a lot of time and really milk what Robert Kirkman so wonderfully created on the page. I like the idea Michonne doesn’t realize Penny is a zombie.
One big announcement recently is that the character Tyreese will be joining the show. As a fan of the comic book, what are your feelings on that development and how it might impact Michonne?
It’s interesting doing a TV show that was a book. Everyone is like, “It has to happen like in the book.” It’s great that Tyreese is joining. I was on Broadway with Chad Coleman, so I know him quite well. I think he’s so perfect for the part. When I heard he got it, I was amazed, but I wasn’t surprised. From what I’ve seen on the page, he’s a perfect fit for the character. I think there’s a very interesting dynamic between them, but of course, everything, everything, gets shaken up. Nothing is exactly as it should be. Michonne is in the becoming. How, where and who is a big part of that becoming, I cannot say.
Besides Andrea, will Michonne gravitate towards any of the other survivors?
You’re asking me things that haven’t happened yet. I can’t answer that. There’s something in that prison where she sees life again. She sees that little baby and Carol reuniting with Rick. There’s something so... life again, so it feels right. She’s not even fully willing to admit that to herself at this second, but it feels like the right kind of community. And she’s very instinctual. She’s misbehaving. She’s not on her best behavior with Rick, but she also gets this is a person to work with. She would never have worked that much with the Governor. Ever.
There’s so much in Michonne’s past that shapes and defines her. What do you wish they would explore next?
I think her professional past could be interesting to explore. I don’t think I’ve seen any big flashbacks on this show. To me, it’s a very interesting component. The show isn’t Lost. It doesn’t do that. Her professional background is something I’ve been exploring, especially in the second half of the season, in my own exploration of who she is. That could be so fascinating, to see who she was in that realm and what made her tick and what her heart was dedicated to pre-apocalypse.