There’s no missing Danai Gurira’s character, Michonne, on the number-one cable show among women, AMC’s The Walking Dead. She’s a dreadlocked zombie fighter who’s armed with a razor-sharp samurai sword and a glare that could melt metal. Gurira, a classically trained actress who, until she was hired, had never seen the Robert Kirkman comic books the series is based on, loves playing a gutsy woman who is two steps ahead of everyone else. “She’s kind of gone beyond survival and into thrive-al,” Gurira says. “She’s like, ‘I’m going to figure out how this world now works and make it work for me.’ ”
In real life, Gurira, 35, knows a thing or two about finding her place in a new environment. She was only five years old and living in a small college town in Iowa when her chemistry-professor father and librarian mother, who had immigrated from Zimbabwe, decided to take their four kids (Gurira is the youngest) and move back to their African homeland. “It wasn’t hard for me to adapt,” says Gurira, who found that what distinguished her in Zimbabwe was not only her American accent but also her tendency to speak her mind. “I was a little mouthy for a girl.”
Her post–high school trajectory took her from Zimbabwe to Macalester, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, then to New York University’s storied Tisch School of the Arts. She credits the hypercreative atmosphere at Tisch for In the Continuum, an Off-Broadway play about two black women living with HIV that she cowrote with classmate Nikkole Salter. It won an Obie in 2006.
What made her famous, however, was a gory TV series in which moaning, lumbering dead people subsist on human brains. Now she is often stopped on the street by fans, most of whom describe her character the same way. “Badass is the term they use,” says Gurira.
It’s a tribute to the force of her Walking Dead presence that those viewers recognize her at all without her series wig: Offscreen, Gurira’s head is not dreadlocked but close shaven. “There’s something kind of confident about it—you are just putting your face out there,” says Gurira, who started shaving off her hair in 2003. “It’s like, ‘Well, here I am. I’m not going to distract you with anything else.’ ”
Gurira moved from Manhattan to rural Georgia to film Walking Dead but is relocating to L.A., where she feels surprisingly at home. “Los Angeles reminds me of Zimbabwe—the space, and folks have backyards. Its weather is semiarid, and we have the same vegetation. Sometimes I’m in L.A. and I’m like, ‘This is crazy. It feels like Zim.’ ”
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