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And that’s a wrap on Danai Gurira. In the latest episode of The Walking Dead, the iconic star takes one last bow, as the sword-swinging Michonne has left AMC’s zombie drama empire for a new adventure: the search for Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. The development comes more than a year after The Hollywood Reporter exclusively reported Gurira’s impending departure, and months after Gurira herself confirmed the exit at San Diego Comic-Con.
In “What We Become,” the action catches back up with Michonne and new traveling companion Virgil (Kevin Carroll), who claims to live on a remote island filled with weapons useful for the Whisperer War. Instead, she finds in Virgil a man driven mad from the grief of losing his own family. Virgil imprisons Michonne and drugs her with hallucinogens. That leads to a long sequence in which Michonne imagines her life as if she had never befriended Laurie Holden’s Andrea and met the Rick Grimes group. In this alternate reality, she links up with the Saviors, becomes best friends with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), kills Glenn (Steven Yeun), and kills even more by taking Negan’s place in the infamous baseball bat lineup sequence — all scenes that are rendered with a combination of new footage and, even more so, remixes of previous footage.
When she regains her sanity and the upper hand, Michonne convinces fellow prisoners on the island to spare Virgil’s life. What’s more, as she digs deeper into the island’s resources, Michonne finds new proof of Rick’s life. After a radio call with their daughter Judith (Cailey Fleming), Michonne decides to go off on a quest to find her long lost love. The episode ends with Michonne saving two strangers in the wild, potentially joining a new community of survivors as a result.
Is that the last we’ll see of Michonne in the Walking Dead universe? Almost certainly not, as franchise chief Scott M. Gimple tells The Hollywood Reporter he has plans for Michonne, whether in the Rick-focused feature film world or in a spinoff all her own. For her part, speaking with THR, Danai Gurira is coy on the specifics: “I don’t know how much I can talk about it; but we’ll see what way, shape or form that ends up.” For now, Gurira is more focused on a different artistic pursuit, as showrunner of the HBO Max series Americanah, starring Lupita Nyong’o and based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of the same name.
“Everything’s on hold right now,” she tells THR about the status of the series, amid the global coronavirus pandemic. “We’re in a world where everything’s shifting. While we feel isolated from each other, we don’t have to disconnect. That’s where we are: we’re really taking it beat by beat with what’s happening in the world, and what’s happening with everyone and everything. But the work is happening. The desire to continue to tell stories that I hope resonate with people as they resonate with me, that’s definitely my core — and it continues to be.”
Ahead, Gurira speaks with THR about saying goodbye to Michonne — if not forever, then certainly for now.
How much input did you have in the manner of Michonne’s departure?
I’m very thankful that there’s such a wonderful writing team on The Walking Dead. [Showrunner] Angela Kang is an outstanding helmer. I was in the writers’ room for Americanah early last year — right around this time last year, in fact — and Angela told me about the architecture they had in place for the episode, the sliding doors component. I thought that was fascinating. It really felt like a very generous way of giving the character her final nod as she leaves the show, to allow us to see who she could have been as opposed to who she has become. I really dug that. Angela is so amazingly collaborative. They had the wonderful architecture in place but I was able to contribute to it. The long and short of what you saw in the episode is what they came up with in the writers’ room.
We see who Michonne could have become in the episode … but as she walks away from the series, who do you think she has become?
She’s a pragmatic warrior who functions from heart and truth. That journey was something where she could have just become the warrior. We see what happens when you’re stripped of your heart and your truth and your integrity. We see what you can do with the power you possess as a warrior. We see that the one choice she made [with Andrea], which we see the reverse of in the teaser, we see how she doesn’t make the choice to help Andrea. That one choice put her on the journey. Everything pivots on a single choice, on a pivotal choice. What does your life become based on one single choice? To see that choice to save Andrea, when she was at a time of great disconnect from her humanity, we see the journey now of what it could have been. It was chilling to me, seeing Andrea fit into the story in this way. For me, it was a moment that was so pivotal for me as I was stepping into the show: choosing to embrace this woman and step into her humanity. Who would she have become if she hadn’t made that choice?
She exits the show as a person who would do that again, as we see in the very last frame. She helps these people she doesn’t know, even if it’s inconvenient to her current aspirations. But it’s truthful. She’s a woman with the power to help people and to alter their experiences with her own abilities and her own warriorness. She has the power to do that. She enacts it for good. That is who she has become, and that’s who she exits to continue to be. I’m happy that we see her leave the way she does. She would go and find Rick. She would help people in need. She knows she has the ability to do that. It opens up a lot of things for her narrative. We’ll see how that goes.
Did you and the writers discuss a version where Michonne did not survive the series?
I had to leave that decision in the hands of the storytellers. I was the one who said I needed to step away. Very bittersweetly, I felt it was time to give more of myself to other aspects of my journey as an artist. Painfully, I needed to walk away from the character, in terms of the show. So I left it up to them how they would navigate that exit. That was very important to me, to let them make those decisions. I was very happy with what they came to for her. Someone asked me if I was disappointed that I didn’t get to be a walker … I don’t think so. (Laughs.)
What was involved in filming the “sliding doors” sequences? Some new footage, much was remixed after the fact …
It really was like being on a trip. Even her reaction to Andrea. That was melded footage. I saw it on a screener, just like you, and I was really freaked by that, just to see her walk away from Andrea. That was my first connection on the show! It’s very indelible inside of me and my character, Michonne’s soul: Andrea. To see her just walk away? That messed me up. Seeing her stand over this carcass of Andrea that they designed really well … they made it look exactly like what she would have looked like. It was just horrible. But for this version of Michonne, who chose not to care? She was capable of that, at that point. For me, I’m playing it as, “She’s just another dead thing. Let me find its knife and its water.” That was pretty trippy to play. It was really nutty. In a creative way, it was very fun, but also horrible, if that makes sense. (Laughs.) It was so trippily crazy, but also horrible as Danai to play, if this had been the actual reality.
The lineup was really horrible, too. I had to tap into the “righteousness” of the Saviors: “You killed our people in cold blood!” It had to make sense for me, that we were going to come for you. It’s exactly what Rick and his family would have done in return. There was something bizarrely righteous in standing in that mindset, when she’s with people who saved her in a time of desperation. That’s what the Saviors did for her, you know? Working with [Jeffrey Dean Morgan] where I’m his pal and his right-hand man … that was so trippy. We had a lot of fun doing it. But it was very dark, too. The way they melded the lineup — like Michonne in Rick’s face — we had some really wonderful doubles dressed up as all of these characters and they melded it all together in post. The moment between Rick and Michonne was very chilling to me. I’ve spent so much time living in this character’s soul, and all of this that’s happening, it’s literally her worst nightmare. She knows it: one choice could have caused her to become this person.
Taking the “sliding doors” beyond the story, there’s a world where you’re not on The Walking Dead, where you did not land the part of Michonne. What does that world look like — and in looking at that world, what can you say about what being a part of this franchise has meant to you professionally and personally?
It’s done everything. It’s so true. What if I had not auditioned? What if I hadn’t gotten the role? I really can’t even imagine it. I not only learned how to be a person in this industry who understands the respect and the collaborative components of this industry that can really make a group of people feel like a family after so many years working together … that’s something I learned so beautifully through this family of The Walking Dead. There’s a love that runs really deep within the crew. They were the most heart-shattering thing to leave, really: that family, that crew. There’s the family I’ve gained. There are the ways I’ve learned and grown as an artist in this field. There are ways I have been able to step into the next phase of my life as an artist. These are people I will be close to forever. They are crucial to who I have become and continue to take into my life, in some cases as mentors to me. There are people I’ve been able to usher in. It’s really just meant everything to me as an artist in this field and as a human being. It’s been really profound. The connections I’ve made with fans, too, and how they have been so generous to me, and allowed me to feel how the character has resonated with them. It’s inspired me to do more. I remember one girl asking me a question during a Comic-Con Q&A was one of the key things that led me to create Love Our Girls. There are key connections I’ve had with hundreds of fans over the years. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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