If The Walking Dead viewers thought Shane was fierce, the arrival of the hooded, sword-wielding figure in Sunday’s Season 2 finale is about to redefine the word badass.
Enter Michonne, a major character in the long-running Image/Skybound comics on which AMC’s zombie drama is based. For indoctrinated fans of the cable hit, the heroine arrives with a pair of chained zombies at her side, having learned how to survive in the post-apocalyptic world for herself. Similar to her arrival on the zombie drama, she quickly becomes a major force to be reckoned with and an important resource for Rick and the group.
During Sunday’s record-breaking finale, Michonne arrives to save Andrea (Laurie Holden) from near death, slashing an attacking walker with her trademark katana sword and setting up what producers say will be a major story line in Season 3. Immediately after the conclusion of the episode, comic book creator/executive producer Robert Kirkman announced on Talking Dead that Michonne would be played by Treme actress Danai Gurira.
“Danai really portrayed the power and strength that we need Michonne to exhibit,” Kirkman told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week, noting her auditions were intentionally kept sword-free. “Michonne is a very complex character who’s dealing with a lot of things and has a very intricate personality.”
THR caught up with Gurira to discuss how her theater background comes in handy (she’s trained with swords!), comics and how her new alter ego would fare in a hypothetical faceoff with Shane.
THR: Nine million viewers watched and saw the arrival of Michonne. What have the past few days been like for you?
Gurira: It’s been pretty amazing. I got the job on Friday, so it’s very new. I’d never really watched it before I got the audition and I got to really get acquainted with it during these last few weeks and fell completely in love with it. I’m absolutely hooked. I felt desire really deeply to be a part of it. When I got to work with the producers one day and came back for the test I fell more in love with the show and wanted it more. It’s been a pretty intense week. You wait to hear and then you hear and you’re beside yourself. I had to hold it in for about 36 hours until they did the Talking Dead and it was all out. I’m still pinching myself.
THR: That’s one hell of a casting announcement, having it announced on live TV. What does that kind of exposure — for you as well as for the iconic character — mean to you?
Gurira: I’m kind of mind-blown about the concept right now because I’m just stepping into it. I’ve been doing my own thing and been very involved in things like theater, it is exciting to step in to it. I understand the way she is drawn in the graphic novels — she’s so amazing. I’m excited to embody that and be a badass. I’ve always yearned to do that. I’m really thrilled she already has so much support.
THR: How much pressure do you feel taking on such an iconic character?
Gurira: I definitely feel pressure but I’m ready to take the character on. I’m excited that she has an amazing following and team of creators and writers. I’m up for the challenge.
THR: Were you ever a comic book aficionado?
Gurira: (Laughing.) Back in the day I used to read Archie but I haven’t been a comic book aficionado. I love a great story though, whatever realm that’s in.
THR: Have you picked up The Walking Dead yet?
Gurira: Yes, I’m being sent them now. I was reading snippets I could get online. I’ve been doing a lot of research prior to getting the part in preparation to get to know the the world and the force of this amazing story. I watched Season 1 and I was blown away and was trying to get to know more. I’ll be doing that this week.
THR: How much will what you see in the comics influence how you play Michonne?
Gurira: I’m going to develop that with [showrunner] Glen Mazzara and the whole creative team. They have their own take on the source material. I’m going to be meeting with them next week to get an understanding of what their take is and how she grows and develops. I’ll find out the answer to that in the coming weeks in terms of exactly how she will map out with what she is in the books vs. what she will be on the screen. I’ll be learning as I go in some regards. I do know that she remains an absolute badass and I will be training with katana swords. I’m really excited about that.
THR: Is that something that you’ve done before?
Gurira: I have but not to the extent where I have any sort of belt in any sort of martial art or anything like that. (Laughing.) I did a lot of combat training when I was in grad school; I’ve worked with the sword in performances a decent amount. I definitely think this is on a whole other level, so I’ll be learning how to wield that thing all anew but I do have a bit of sword work in the past.
THR: What was the project?
Gurira: I got an MFA in acting from NYU and part of our training is to learn how to use swords in combat situations in a performance and Shakespeare plays where you have to fight. I’ve done a bit of that. It was all theater training work. In terms of martial arts, part of how I exercise is kickboxing but I’m not a black belt or anything. But I love a good kick and a good punch.
THR: Sounds like a perfect fit. How else will your stage background inform how you play Michonne?
Gurira: I was trying to really investigate a character and allow her to have as much dimension as possible and crack it open even more. What you see through the writing and vision of the creator, you add to it by bringing your full humanity and by really delving into the character’s background and their motives and fears, all those things can make a multidimensional character come to life. That’s how I’ve been trained from the beginning and how I’ve created characters in the past on the stage or through my playwriting. I plan to bring all of that to the table to allow Michonne to be as rich and complex as possible. I’m excited to bring her to life as someone who really has a lot of life and a lot of complexity.
THR: Have you connected with Laurie Holden yet?
Gurira: No but I love Andrea and I love how she plays her and the energy she has. I’m very excited that I’ll be working with her; she’ll be the first person I’m working with. I’m a big fan.
THR: After seeing Rick and Shane go head to head for a season, it’ll be a different energy with two strong female characters at the forefront. How do you think viewers will respond to that?
Gurira: That’s always exciting and intriguing to see. That’s something I’d love to see and I’m excited to be able to enact it. I love kick-ass women and women who can get out there and do their thing and make things work for themselves. The whole way that Michonne was introduced — as someone who has figured out how to function in this realm — and how she’s going to teach the others, that’s really exciting to me … if that’s how it plays out (laughs). I’m thrilled to experience it and I think the audiences will appreciate the energy and the life that will come out through these women.
THR: Hypothetical question: How do you think Michonne would have fared against Shane in his final confrontation with Rick?
Gurira: (Laughing.) I’m getting to know her, but my thought on Michonne at this moment is she’s warrior-like and she wouldn’t back down.
How do you think Gurira will do in the role? AMC’s The Walking Dead returns for its third season in October.