The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira

EXCLUSIVE: Walking Dead's Michonne talks the Governor, her katana, Dead's return

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Feb 8, 2014, 12:18 PM EST

When The Walking Dead returns with its season-four midseason premiere on Sunday, you'll see the katana-wielding Michonne's evolution continue, said actress Danai Gurira in an exclusive interview with The series returns for eight new episodes on Sunday night on AMC at 9 p.m. ET.

Gurira is an award-winning playwright and stage, TV and film actress, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Zimbabwe. She's won an Obie, the Outer Circle Critics John Gassner Award, the Global Tolerance award (Friends of the United Nations), Theater Hall of Fame honors and the Helen Hayes Award. She's appeared on TV shows including Law & Order: Criminal Intent and films including The Visitor.

We chatted with Gurira about who she'd like to have her back during a zombie apocalypse, Michonne skewering of the Governor in the midseason finale, and what it's like to play one of the strongest characters on TV.

Michonne is such a badass, one of the toughest characters on TV. If there was a zombie apocalypse, I have to say, I wouldn't mind having her in my group.

Gurira: I would want her to have my back. Remember, I just play her on TV. [Robert] Kirkman created her. I would definitely want her to have my back, absolutely. It's amazing. I marvel at Kirkman creating her and for coming up with her. I just think she's a fantastic creation. It's really fun to play a woman who's very unequivocally comfortable in her strength and not apologetic about it.

That turns out to be a very positive thing at this point for her.

Gurira: I think that she's a very fascinating character. I so love what Scott Gimple and his team of writers do with her and how they think about her and the words they give her and the depths to which they give her life. It's really exciting to me. I've had a really enjoyable season working with them and seeing how they had plotted her out. It's been really thrilling. To play someone that tough, getting into her psyche last season, it was like, wow, she never even perceived failure. When she goes into dealing with something, she goes into it knowing that she's going to come out.

That's a really fascinating mindset to see a woman have, especially going into the circumstances that she goes into, which are circumstances where one would think, “Okay, she's going to be at a disadvantage,” but that's just not how she thinks. There's amazing strength. I think it's a metaphor for all women. We're stronger than we know. Once Michonne came through the apocalypse and came on the other side of what was a normal world, into a world that has ended, she tapped into that strength that she maybe hadn't tapped into as much before and transformed accordingly and as a consequence became an extremely self-sufficient force in this realm. I think there's something so interesting about her to me, just looking at her very objectively in terms of a woman who knows her power. She has no issues with living in it fully.

Michonne skewered the Governor. We've been waiting to see that since last season. But she didn't quite kill him.

Gurira: There was no way he was going to heal from that wound. He was pierced through the heart. She left him to die. He was put out of his misery by Lilly, but Michonne killed him. She delivered the fatal blow. He wasn't going to stand up from that.

What did you think about what happened with Michonne in the midseason finale?

Gurira: I thought it was a fantastic episode. I watched it a lot earlier than you all got to and thought it really came together in a really suspenseful, great way ... As Michonne, it was an interesting experience to go through that. Of course, that was the last thing she would have wanted, to be kidnapped by the Governor. I mean, she's the one who was really trying to keep her eye open for him and search for him and pre-empt getting on with what needed to happen between him and them. And so to actually have him be the one who caught up with her first in an unexpected way, catching her completely off guard as she was trying to settle in and get more comfortable with being part of a community at that moment, of course for her that was the worst thing that could go down.

And Hershel ended up getting killed.

Gurira: Yeah, then that happens as well. That, of course, is just the most terrible atrocity. She knew that the Governor was a sociopath, and that was something that she was very clear about. And when she was talking to Chad Coleman's character, Tyreese, in episode four, he's like, “Why are you still looking for him?” and she says, “If he were right in front of me, I would cut him in two, because that's just what has to happen.” She wasn't saying it because she's full of bubbly vengeful hate. She's saying it because she's at the point of understanding that this man, he needs to be destroyed because he won't stop destroying. That was something, that unfortunately he got some horrible licks in before she managed to complete her mission, which was to destroy him before he destroyed again. The pain of seeing him destroy Hershel was, of course, the last thing she would have wanted to see.

She was a loner. A survivor. Why do you think she joined Rick's group?

Gurira: Carl was definitely the gateway. It grew from there. You saw her connect more and more this season with people like Daryl. For me, it's been really enjoyable to allow those layers, to allow the guards to start coming down, and allow her to start opening up towards people and see more of who's inside. The more she connects with people and becomes a part of the community, the more we'll see more of who she is and who she was and who she can be. I think that's been really exciting to get to play that. From where she was to where she is. That's what's exciting about being in a TV show, is that you get to go through different stages of a person's development.

We saw Michonne break down holding Rick's baby. There's certainly a story there. Will we find out more about Michonne's backstory in the coming episodes?

Gurira: There's obviously a lot that she had vaulted inside. That is what caused her to have such an armor on. She had so much armor on. Why? Because there's stuff inside that she perhaps hadn't really faced or dealt with. Memories that she doesn't want to have break her. She doesn't even know if maybe they would break her if she revisited them. Who knows? You catch a glimmer of something with the baby. We'll see how that something, when and how, it rears its head again. But this is a very interesting season for that, for getting deeper into people, and she's no exception. I think that's really been fun, to see what layer will be unraveled next. What layer will be pulled back next? What will we see the next time we see a little something of what's going on inside her? Everyone is made up of their wounds and of their experiences. When do those parts get broken open? Perhaps we'll catch a glimpse of that in the next half of the season, a glimpse of what those parts are.

With the attack on the prison, what's Michonne going through when the show returns?

Gurira: It is very much the pain of this group and this community that she was trying to protect and she was trying to become more and more a part of. What needs to be done? I'll go do it. Let's go find this guy so he doesn't come and destroy this. Let's go get medicine so these people don't die. It's always the desire to protect and serve, basically, and to take care of this group of people. For that to all get destroyed like that ... for her to not block that and for people to scatter the way they did, that is deeply traumatic for her. Deeply.

It's the grief, the loss, the shock. I'll say this much: I think it's very difficult for her, in particular, to let go of what was built. She just decided to fully commit herself to it. She just decided that she was going to give her all and let the layers go, and that gesture of staying that time and not jumping back on her horse and going out to find the Governor again, but the gesture of staying and saying, “Let me help clean up the mess,” and go out with Hershel and do some things around the house, basically. She had just decided to settle, to really, really, really settle in. The level of trauma and the grief and the pain and the regret ... because she doesn't like to have a misstep. Could she have prevented this? Could she have blocked this from happening? Was she not on her best guard? That is definitely something that is raging in her mind as she steps back into ... where do you go from here? What do you do from here? There's a lot of inner turmoil bubbling to the surface as a result of this massive trigger of loss and of separation.

What are some of the themes she'll be exploring when we return?

Gurira: It is really along the lines of “Who are you? Who are you and who are you going to be?” In this world, you constantly have to regroup. Are you going to rebuild, or are you going to not try anymore? Now you've just dealt with so much destruction. It's a question of how you choose to pivot. How do you pivot from there, and where do you put your efforts? It's a lot of questions.

What makes Michonne special to you as an actress?

Gurira: The idea of playing someone who is that powerful and who has so much. There's a power to her, but there's so much that she's holding inside that can only be held inside for so long. The experience of playing someone with that level of complexity who lives in that amount of guarded shield, to live underneath that much shielding is very interesting to play as an actress. But someone who's also that physically able. She's definitely far more physically able than me. I found myself doing things, like, “Guys, I've got two takes in me. Is the camera all ready? Cause I got two takes.” But she has a lot of power and she always challenges me and takes me out of my comfort zone. As an artist and performer, that's what you want. You want a character who constantly pushes you to places where you, as a performer and as a person, are a little frightened to go. That's what's really thrilling to play about her.

Are you good with a katana?

Gurira: [laughs] You tell me. You're watching me with it.

I'm totally impressed. But as far as the acting of it goes, have you learned to use the katana? Is that something you did before?

Gurira: No, I mean, I had to learn it for the show. I definitely had not used it before. I did a lot of lessons and I had a great trainer. I think it's really enjoyable to work with. It's an amazing weapon. It has a beauty of its own. It's really an enjoyable thing to always be connected to, the way she's connected to it. She always has it on. She doesn't go anywhere without it. There's something really rich about that. It's really fun to do that. But yeah, I'm always learning more. I've worked with several different trainers. I think I've figured out the one I like the most, and so I'm going to keep working with him. There's a way that you click with the trainer and your body gets what he's teaching.

What has surprised you most as you've journeyed through with Michonne? What's the thing you weren't expecting?

Gurira: There's definitely been some great moments that I hadn't seen coming. We found them in play or we found them on the day. That's been really, really enjoyable, to find different things that you hadn't anticipated. That's what I love about the people I work with, also. Working with Greg Nicotero is awesome. The other directors too, like Seith Mann and Ernest Dickerson. They're each fantastic. You can find stuff that you don't expect because you're collaborating beyond just shooting an episode. You're collaborating in finding a story. So that's been extremely enjoyable to do that. It's happened a few times, which I hadn't anticipated.

What's it like working at a job where there's no job security and your character could get killed off at any second?

Gurira: I know, right? You just have to really love what you're doing. No one wants to not be on the show, but you just have to love it while you have it. That's what you have. It's a beautiful thing to be a part of for the time that it lasts. We all understand the structure of the show, and no one wants to get that call, but you just love it while you have it. That's the best way to approach it, really.

If Michonne survives the season, and maybe even the zombie apocalypse, what are your hopes for her?

Gurira: Just that she gets to continually grow and continually be complicated. I think that's what I enjoy. Letting her be complicated. She can crack a wry wisecrack out of nowhere, and she can pull our her katana and get to business out of nowhere as well, you know? Maybe she will pick up a baby and cry and you won't know why. I just love the complexity. I just want her to continue to be complex and surprise me. Not knowing what could happen next with her and whoever else she encounters. There are times I feel like I've grown as a person and then I regress, that's the complexity of being a person. That's all really I want for her.

The Walking Dead airs on Sundays on AMC at 9 p.m. ET. Danai Gurira and Greg Nicotero will be guests for Talking Dead immediately after. And you can also catch up on seasons three and four on AMC, beginning Saturday at noon for a Walking Dead marathon.

What are your hopes for Michonne?