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February 10, 2014

‘Walking Dead’: Danai Gurira on slaying zombies, Michonne’s nightmare

Posted in: TV

“The Walking Dead” returned for the second half of its fourth season Sunday with a gripping episode titled “After,” which tracks Rick, Carl and Michonne as they attempt to recover from the crushing attack that rendered their prison sanctuary uninhabitable and scattered the survivors out on the road once more.

Written by Robert Kirkman and directed by Greg Nicotero, the episode features a memorable turn for Danai Gurira and her warrior Michonne. The character’s steely demeanor always has served as a kind of emotional armor, helping her to cope with profound, unspeakable loss and survive in the brutal, post-apocalyptic landscape. But in the latest installment of the wildly popular series, Michonne finds herself struggling to suppress painful memories of the time before the dead roamed the earth and wondering whether she should continue to fight to survive in a world where hope is so difficult to come by.

Hero Complex caught up with the actress and acclaimed playwright (“The Convert,” “In the Continuum”) to dissect the latest episode in more depth — those who missed “After” might want to stop reading now, however, there are spoilers ahead.

Hero Complex:  You’ve been able to reveal so many more sides to Michonne this year – the real emphasis on character overall this season that’s been such a focus for show runner Scott M. Gimple has been fascinating to watch.

Michonne (Danai Gurira) in a scene from "The Walking Dead." (Gene Page / AMC)

Michonne (Danai Gurira) in a scene from “The Walking Dead.” (Gene Page / AMC)

Dania Gurira: There’s a lot of stuff I had to sit on as Michonne for a long time because she was sitting on it. She’s not interested in revealing her stuff. That’s not how she’s built. That’s not what she’s about. When she transformed into her apocalyptic self, it was a woman who certainly wasn’t looking to talk about her feelings. It’s a lot to sit on. A lot of her intensity comes from the fact that there are things that are inside her that she doesn’t share. That can make you a pretty intense person. It’s been great to open up those things. We started teasing them out over the course of the season, and it was really great to be able to play certain aspects of her out and have her crack through a couple of things. It was very gratifying to do that, to do that for her, she’s just been such an intense chick for so long.

HC: We’ve seen her smile, show a sense of humor. She’s still a warrior, but she’s become on screen a little bit more of a complete person.

Actress Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne in "The Walking Dead." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Actress Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne in “The Walking Dead.” (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

DG: It makes total sense that she hasn’t been much of a giggler or a smiler. She’s just not that person, sometimes it’s disarming to see a chick who’s like that, but to me there was truth in the fact that she wasn’t a smiler or a giggler. That is a truthful way that this woman metabolized who she is outside of society as it used to be. The idea of that made sense to me, but being able to have small moments that she’s had this season – she’s had moments of joy and ease – have been really enjoyable to do, of course. But she’s not that chick. She’s not trying to make you feel comfortable. She’s not trying to make friends. If she makes friends with someone it’s a very genuine thing. It’s nothing she needs. She’s designed her life in the post-apocalyptic realm to not need people, but then she started to realize that that’s just no way to be.

HC: Are those scenes with no dialogue more challenging in some respects?

DG: Not as long as the life of what I’m doing is clear. It was such a beautifully written episode. I really enjoyed working on it with Greg. Me and Greg are pretty close just in general, so working with him and collaborating with him is very easy for me. Of course working with Gimple is also wonderful, so really breaking down what the underbelly of what the entire episode was was really enjoyable. By the time we were actually shooting, it was very clear to me what she was doing and why. And once it’s clear to you what your character’s doing and why, it’s not challenging. You’re just living what she’s going through in that moment, there’s a lot that’s churning inside of her, there’s a lot that she’s experiencing. There’s ways she uses this time period, she’s tried to stifle a lot of things. She’s just pushed them down. She’s trying to deaden herself really – until she’s not. So those moments when she’s just walking in silence, there are two different types of beats. There’s a time when she’s deadening, and there’s a time when she was coming back to life, so those were very clear tracks for me in terms of where she was. The whole, what’s-the-point component in the beginning – the idea of committing to people if this is how it constantly results – then the realization that there is a point. There is a point to it. There is joy to be found in human connection and she wants that. She doesn’t want to be in isolation forever. She could walk around like a zombie, she could turn into one at any moment quite literally. She’s in the realm of actually allowing that to possibly happen because the idea of going on is ceasing to make sense, but the idea that she then switches out of that and chooses life – which makes sense with who she is, she’s a fighter. She’s not someone who’s going to give up but she just goes through that experience of maybe this is the moment where Michonne gives up. But she’s too much of a fighter to do that. Her true nature returns.

HC: The scene in which she’s walking through the woods and ultimately kills the walkers surrounding her. What’s the experience of filming a sequence like that for you, both physically and emotionally?


DG: That was probably one of my most enjoyable days ever as an artist. I was very aware of that scene. I did prep for it. I did think about how she was going to move through the scene. In total, I killed about 23 zombies, but we’d only planned for me to kill eight – the rest was just me letting go and Nicotero not saying cut. We just kept shooting it like that, we didn’t know where I was going to go next and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had on set. It was unhinged. It was a very exhilarating day for me in terms of letting this character have that release. I had to get out of her way and let her have her release.

HC: Were you surprised to see a dream sequence in the script? How did you approach that sequence?

DG: I really had to break down what the dream sequence was about for her and why it was there. I dug into it and thought about it and then I went online and researched dream interpretations and then it was like, oh, that’s exactly what I thought, which is, the subconscious makes you metabolize and grieve in ways that you won’t do when you’re awake. That’s what she was doing. She was metabolizing grief. While she’s awake, she kind of deadens the mind. After she puts Hershel down, she shuts it down, she goes back to who she was before she met Andrea. Only in her sleep can her subconscious get her to really start to deal with the losses. It makes her fall into the depression, but it’s a beginning of the process of, are you going to live or are you going to die? And I think that’s really the question of the episode for Michonne. She’s been through a lot, but is she going to keep going or is she going to stop? We had a wonderful time putting that scene together, but it was a really painful thing to remember who she was and really live in that moment or who she was, being a mother and being in love. Those things that got ripped from her. We had a great time because we got to be clean and pretty. It was like, Oh my god, we’re inside, and it’s clean in here! Everyone’s smiling, there’s electricity. It was so fun in a sense but it was so tragic and painful at the same time. I was very thankful for what they did on the page.

HC: I have a theory that Michonne is one of the only characters on the series — along with Daryl and Rick — who cannot be killed off.

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon and Danai Gurira as Michonne in "The Walking Dead." (Frank Ockenfels / AMC)

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon and Danai Gurira as Michonne in “The Walking Dead.” (Frank Ockenfels / AMC)

DG: [Laughs] I leave that for you all to talk about and think about. That is nothing that goes through my mind in any way.

HC: Please answer this question with the greatest degree of specificity possible. What can fans expect to see in the rest of Season 4?

DG: What you’ve seen is great moments of really stepping into people’s experiences, their minds and their hearts and also the terrain that they’re in and the displacement that they’re all experiencing. There’s a psychic displacement, there’s an emotional displacement, there’s a physical displacement that’s happening through the fact that this group has been so fractured and some people have really been lost from each other that are very close to each other. What you’ve seen in Episode 9 is just the beginning of how those experiences get portrayed, in ways you wouldn’t have imagined. It’s going to be a really exciting second half, an alteration in pace and tone that’s going to be really thrilling and really rich and allows every character, I think, a great ability for us to get to know them. Who does everyone become as they step out of that prison? Who is everyone going to become? That’s what you start to see in Episode 9 with Carl and with Michonne and then you start to see it more and more.

— Gina McIntyre

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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