Cover story

Standing Strong


Danai Gurira

Known for her warrior women roles in The Walking Dead and Black Panther, DANAI GURIRA is now sharing center stage in the year’s biggest blockbuster, Avengers: Endgame. The actress and playwright talks about her Marvel “family”, cultural identity and making magic with CHRISTINE LENNON

Photography Claire RothsteinStyling Tracy Taylor
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Going unnoticed is not in Danai Gurira’s repertoire. When the 41-year-old actress walks into the roof restaurant of the Dream hotel in Hollywood, wearing faded denim, a cream silk blouse and mirrored aviators, she practically gleams in the morning light. It’s hard to say if the other patrons recognize her as General Okoye, the fierce protector of the Wakanda royal family in Black Panther, or the equally imposing zombie-slayer Michonne from The Walking Dead, or are just struck by the way she carries herself, but all eyes are on her.

“I’m running a writers’ room near here,” Gurira says, sitting down and peering over the railing at the sprawl of surrounding offices and studios. She is talking about the newest line on her résumé: head writer for a television mini-series. Aside from her commanding performances on screen, she’s also a feted writer whose plays have garnered multiple awards, including a Tony nomination. Now she’s adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed novel Americanah – a love story following a Nigerian couple through their complicated lives – with her longtime friend Lupita Nyong’o. The two became close in 2015 when Nyong’o starred in Gurira’s all-female play Eclipsed, about the Liberian civil war.

“It’s about collaborating NOT cooperating. I’m pretty willing to have a CLEAR conversation about what I think WORKS, and what doesn’t, and why”

It’s the first time Gurira has been at the helm of a team of writers on a project of this scale, and she loves it. “Everyone has each other’s blind spots,” she enthuses. “I was defining us as ‘the Transformers’ before we even started working together; I saw how we all clicked together. We have a fun time, but we’re working hard. The other day we were there for 12 and a half hours.”

She tells me about a covert research trip that she, Adichie and Nyong’o took to Nigeria to prep for the project. “Black Panther had just come out,” she says over peppermint tea. Due to the popularity of the movie and being two of its most successful stars, they decided they had better travel undercover. No one knew they were there until they posted about it on Instagram, afterwards. “We were trying very much not to draw attention to ourselves,” she says. “We had an amazing time. Chimamanda introduced us to many of her friends in fashion, all of whom are making beautiful things. I consider myself an Africanist. I love the variation of the continent, the specificity of various parts of it – which often gets clumped into one idea, which is so obscenely untrue.”

Gurira’s voice commands attention – in the writer’s room as well as out. “I am very clear about what makes sense to me and what doesn’t,” she says, in her typical, rapid-fire way. It’s an outlook she’s been cultivating since her days as a graduate student in the acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The beauty of that program,” she says, “in addition to the wonderful people who were there with me like Sterling K. Brown and Mahershala Ali, is that we all come from this training where you leave your ego outside of the room. It’s about collaborating not cooperating, which is something one of my teachers always said. I’m pretty willing to have a really clear conversation about what I think works, and what doesn’t, and why. It’s always done with respect. You want to find the magic. How do you create the best environment for the magic to come out?”

That magic clearly infused her performance in Black Panther, where Gurira was so popular that she is now one of three females, along with Scarlett Johansson and Brie Larson, with major parts in the final installment of the Avengers franchise, Avengers: Endgame. “I love the Marvel family. I’ve had an amazing time working with all of them. And I love our fans,” she says.

“I consider myself an AFRICANIST. I love the variation of it, the specificity of various PARTS of it – which often gets clumped into one idea, which is so OBSCENELY untrue”

Gurira is tight-lipped about her upcoming departure from The Walking Dead, for which she’s scheduled to guest star in a handful of episodes in the tenth season. “We start shooting soon, so I’ll have to start fitting in my workouts,” she says of her Facetime sessions with her trainer. In a month, she’ll return to Atlanta, now practically her third home – as the location for the long-running zombie series as well as the Marvel shoots – alongside her apartment in Brooklyn and home in Hollywood. “I have a really beautiful family in The Walking Dead,” is what she tells me. “We have pot luck dinners. We go to each other’s homes. We check in with each other. I also talk a lot to my show runner, Scott Gimple, who is kind of my ‘Bat phone’ as I navigate running a writer’s room.”

For the task of adapting Americanah, Gurira is actually uniquely qualified. “Funnily, me and Chimamanda have these interesting parallels,” she says. “We were both raised by academics, either near or on an African university campus. We saw our countries go through various things when we were growing up. And we came back to America for school. Lupita, too.”

Born to African parents in the US, Gurira returned to her family’s native Zimbabwe when she was five, and then came back to the States for college in Minnesota. “I am definitely a strong meshing of both worlds,” she says, explaining that she feels American and Zimbabwean in equal parts. She first ‘noticed’ her cultural composition when she was a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “I knew when I got here that I had to be vigilant. Being in a land of such access and excess, you have to really be clear about what you’re doing and why, and how you’re going to be responsible with all of the opportunities available to you as an American citizen. And it was clear to me that I was going to retain a tangible and active connection to Zimbabwe. When I moved to Africa as a girl, I thought I was American. Then when I came back, I realized how African I was.”

“I am a strong meshing of BOTH worlds. When I moved to Africa as a girl, I thought I was AMERICAN. Then when I came back, I realized how AFRICAN I was”

Conversations about the complicated political history of ‘the continent’ were common in Gurira’s house. Her mother is a librarian and her father a chemistry professor, and lively debates were encouraged among the family’s three daughters and son (Gurira is the youngest sibling). The idea that a female military general like Okoye could exist in Africa would likely not have shocked schoolgirl Gurira, who ran track, swam, and played tennis and field hockey, before falling in love with theater.

“I was definitely at home with a father who didn’t feel any need to dominate the space,” she says. “He sat back and gave us space and full access to our opinions. It was a nonsensical concept that a man was more able, or more intelligent, or more worthy of a position, or had more access to a position than I did, or any woman did. I always saw equality very clearly.”

As a newly appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations and the founder of the Love Our Girls pledge, designed to increase awareness about organizations devoted to gender equality, she is channeling those early feminist passions into action.

“It was a nonsensical CONCEPT that a man was more able, or more intelligent, or more WORTHY of a position. I always saw EQUALITY very clearly”

When Gurira arrived at Tisch with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she made an impression on her fellow grad students by writing and performing her own monologues, which eventually morphed into her plays. That led, in 2006, to her first off-Broadway play (co-written with Nikkole Salter), In the Continuum, about two women from Zimbabwe and Los Angeles with HIV.

While receiving critical acclaim in the theater world, winning Obie and Whiting awards, she was also making her way as New York actors do, guest-starring on shows like Law & Order and supporting roles in small films. Then, in 2012, she was cast as Michonne in The Walking Dead. Black Panther followed in 2016. “We knew we were doing something unprecedented,” Gurira says of the cast and crew of that movie. “No one was coming to a job. We were coming to a calling and a purpose.”

Her own calling now, she says, is to be a powerhouse content producer in the mold of Shonda Rhimes or Reese Witherspoon. “There are a lot of folks who are creating stories beyond their particular platform. I like the idea of stepping into something new. It should feel scary and exciting.” The surest way to gauge whether a project is worthy of the intense focus and energy that she brings to it, she says, is to put it to ‘the Christmas test’. “It’s the kid on Christmas morn’ test,” she laughs. “Does it make me feel that way? You know you’re in the right place when you get that feeling.”

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.