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Danai Gurira cast a glance around the dining room of an upscale Century City eatery, and with a broad grin, leaned in to make a confession.
“I feel like I’m in ‘Entourage,’” she said.
If Gurira were starring in the inside-Hollywood hipster saga that ran for years on HBO, she would have her choice of intriguing roles. She could portray either the acclaimed playwright with an Obie, a young talent whose work — inspired in part by her childhood in Zimbabwe — centers largely on the experience of African women.
Or she could play the brightest new star of cable television’s highest-rated scripted drama.
Gurira is on the cusp of a star-making turn as the wary and wise Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” now in its third season. The character is beloved by readers of the Robert Kirkman comic book that spawned the hit series where she’s a fearless warrior who slices through zombies with her katana.
Michonne enters the narrative life of “The Walking Dead” at a point when the greatest threat to the survivors of the apocalypse comes from other humans, not the hungry undead. And if anyone had doubts about the show’s brutal, lethal environment, Sunday’s episode, in which two members of the ensemble were killed in heartbreaking fashion, should put those to rest.
“She’s not a pussy cat,” Gurira said of Michonne. “She frightens men — they don’t know what to expect from her. They recognize that she could take them down and they’re right. She also isn’t afraid of her rage and she doesn’t care about making you uncomfortable.”
Michonne’s steely demeanor functions as a kind of emotional armor, protecting her deeply wounded soul. The depth and complexity of the character intrigued Gurira, a graduate of New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts who previously had appeared on HBO’s “Treme” in addition to one-off turns on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Lie to Me.”
The bulk of her experience, however, had come from the theater, on stage and off.
The play Gurira co-wrote and starred in with Nikkole Salter, “In the Continuum,” about a 48-hour period in the lives two black woman living with HIV, won her numerous accolades including an Obie in 2006. Her next play, “Eclipsed,” took her to Sierra Leone and Liberia to research the impact the latter nation’s civil war had on the women living there. Her latest, “The Convert,” is also an Africa-set tale, a historical drama set in 1890s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) about a woman who turns to the Catholic Church to escape an arranged marriage.
The youngest of four children born to Zimbabwean academics — her father is a chemistry professor, her mother a university librarian — Gurira spent the first years of her life in the small college town of Grinnell, Iowa, until the family moved back to Africa when she was 5.
She describes her childhood and adolescence as idyllic, and Gurira says she was drawn to performing early on: “My siblings say that I used to walk around in the backyard imitating Alexis Colby [from ‘Dynasty'], and they were like, she’s either crazy or she’s going to be an actress.”
After high school, Gurira returned to the U.S., where she attended Macalester, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, then moved to New York to pursue her MFA and dual careers. One creative pursuit feeds the other, Gurira says.
“I love writing for other actors, women of African descent and people who are generally underrepresented,” she said. “I love seeing that on the stage, being able to step out and see an actress who I know has amazing chops but has never been able to show them, seeing her get an opportunity to do that…. At the same time as an actor I love the fact that I can enact other people’s vision.”
In the case of “The Walking Dead,” Gurira is enacting an almost revered vision that Kirkman’s fans, and Kirkman himself, were wildly protective of. On the page, Michonne was an attorney and mother of two daughters who reinvented herself after the fall of civilization as a lone, lethal wanderer shadowed by two armless, jawless zombie pets.
“We just felt that not only was she tough and you would buy her as wielding a sword, but there was some vulnerability underneath that tough exterior, there was a humanity that was important to that character,” “Walking Dead” show runner Glen Mazzara said of Gurira earlier this year in an interview on the Georgia set of the series.
Gurira points out that the screen incarnation of the character doesn’t arrived fully formed as a nearly invincible heroine. Rather, Michonne “goes through a becoming” this season — her friendship with Andrea (Laurie Holden) leads her to the town of Woodbury, a small Southern village under the control of a ruthless man known as The Governor (played by British actor David Morrissey).
In the story line of Kirkman’s comic, The Governor rapes and tortures Michonne, and while Gurira would not comment about what fate might ultimately befall her Michonne on screen, she did praise Kirkman for chronicling what she called “the story of many, many, many, many women in the world right now.” It’s a subject she studied firsthand while researching “Eclipsed.”
“The thing I think is really great about the fact that Robert wrote that is that it’s telling the story of the experience of women in war,” Gurira said. “That’s real. That’s what is used to break women. We need that brought to our consciousness, you know? That said, I can’t tell you what happens on the show.”
Gurira’s strong connection to her African heritage led her last year to co-found Almasi, an organization devoted to the development of the dramatic arts in Zimbabwe. She travels to the country at least once a year, though when “The Walking Dead” wraps in a few weeks, she says she’ll head back to Los Angeles, where she’s thinking of settling temporarily.
She’ll also turn her attention to writing — plays and a treatment for a television miniseries, among other projects. Gurira just won the Whiting Writers’ Award, an honor given to 10 rising stars each year, for “The Convert.” In The Times earlier this year, reviewer Margaret Gray described the production mounted at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre as “intense, harrowing and flatteringly demanding.”
“You look at women like Lena Dunham, you look at how women are kind of crafting their own space on the screen,” Gurira said. “I want to add to that. I have no interest whatsoever in complaint. I’m more interested in pioneering the path.”
But don’t expect her to begin traveling with an entourage of her own.
“My friends have lives,” the 34-year-old said with a laugh.
– Gina McIntyre
[For the record, 1:21 p.m. Nov. 8: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Danai Gurira had appeared on the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie.” She has not.]
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