GQ Hype: It’s the big story of right now.
Ten years ago, Danai Gurira was sprinting on the treadmill at her gym when, in a haze of sweat and adrenaline, a thought crossed her mind: “I want to do action. I want to be an action dude. I want to do action things.”
At that point, Gurira was not exactly your stereotypical action hero. She had a Master of Fine Arts from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (in fact, she was still using their gym) and a few indie films under her belt. She was also an accomplished theatre actor and playwright, having premiered her first off-Broadway play, In the Continuum, in 2005. Career-wise, the overall vibe was decidedly more Sam Shepard than Sly Stallone. But for whatever reason, Gurira felt a pull towards ass-kicking. A few weeks later, she got her wish: a role in The Walking Dead as Michonne, a fierce survivor swinging her katana through the zombie apocalypse. “It’s a bizarre juxtaposition, being a playwright,” Gurira says. But she couldn’t deny that the high-octane stuff came naturally. “The idea that a woman is not supposed to express ferocity is something that I’ve always rejected.”
Gurira spent eight years as Michonne, as a fan favorite on one of the most popular television shows of all time. In 2018 she traded in her sword for a spear to play Okoye, the hyper-capable leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite all-female special forces unit, in Black Panther. When the film premiered in 2018, it was the biggest Marvel solo superhero release to date, raking in $1.3 billion globally. Moreover, Black Panther transcended blockbuster status, leaving fingerprints all over the culture. You would see the Wakandan arms-crossed salute on basketball and tennis courts, football and cricket pitches, as Black athletes celebrated victories with the gesture. Gurira recalls promoting the movie throughout Africa. “I was called ‘General’ by a guy in Nigeria, who was definitely near 70. He was like – she mimes pointing and shouting – “‘General!’ You’re like, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ I don’t know if he’s ever called a woman ‘general’ in his life.”
We’re at a French restaurant in downtown Manhattan on a late summer afternoon, not too far from where her treadmill epiphany occurred. When Gurira isn’t filming in Atlanta, she splits her time between New York and Los Angeles. (Her dog, Papi, a “little macho guy,” is back in LA.) Today, she is wearing a forest-green jumpsuit, snakeskin heels, gold sunglasses that look like they’re from the year 2322, and the reed-straight posture of someone who is the alpha of every room she enters. “I have a trainer who’s insanely intense,” she says. “I mean, you point at a muscle, I can name it.”
Off-screen, Gurira isn’t nearly as intimidating. “I think people see Danai as elegant, and she’s unbelievably intelligent and strong,” former Walking Dead showrunner and Gurira’s frequent collaborator Scott Gimple told me. “I don’t think people understand just how funny she is, how nerdy she can be, how Larry David she can be.”