The actress discusses season 8 of The Walking Dead, Black Panther and her non-profit, “Love Our Girls”.
Actress Danai Gurira
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight a conversation with actress and playwright, Danai Gurira. She joins us to talk about the new season of “The Walking Dead”, her upcoming role in “Black Panther”, and her nonprofit, “Love Our Girls”, which seeks to bring awareness to the injustices women and girls face around the globe.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. That conversation with actress Danai Gurira in just a moment.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome actress, Danai Gurira, back to this program. She, of course, stars in AMC’s hit series, “The Walking Dead”, which just kicked off its eighth season and celebrated its 100th episode. Before our conversation, here now a scene from “The Walking Dead”.
Tavis: The hairstyle’s just a little different [laugh].
Danai Gurira: Left that one at home…
Tavis: You left that one at home, yeah. Just a little different. This is like the most popular show in the world.
Gurira: I guess. I’ll go with what you say. That’s amazing, that’s amazing. You can hear that sort of thing and you’re sort of floored by it. That’s amazing.
Tavis: Yeah. But a chance to be in a show that is celebrated and seen not just in this country, but as celebrated and as seen around the world is a big deal.
Gurira: Yeah, it is. I mean, I consistently pinch myself. I stepped into it really from a place of wanting to be a part of something that felt like really rigorous, intense, truthful, human storytelling. You know, I write as well, so for it was that question of signing in.
You sign that contract that could be a seven-year thing, you want to make sure it’s something that feels right to you, and that’s very important to me. And it just felt so right when I watched from the pilot up until, at that point, season two. The right elements were in place for you to feel really fulfilled as an artist.
Tavis: And what were those elements for you as an artist?
Gurira: Well, what was interesting was there was a lot of overlap with who I was as a playwright. One of my plays, “Eclipsed”, deals with women at war and how they have to respond to a world that completely works out of their favor, in fact, is insanely towards them, and how they navigate survival.
And that felt like so many elements of what was going on in “The Walking Dead”. Like how you navigate survival in a world that’s turned against you. Really, my character, who I found really fascinating, actually, I was like who is this woman who has this kitana and dreadlocks? I’ve never seen this before.
You know, I was so intrigued by her, but she also reminded me of the women I researched, the women I interviewed in Liberia who had turned into their own weapons of war to combat a war zone that was working against them, but was not of their making.
So there were so many overlaps I found that really connected to what I find important, which is that storytelling of who would you be if the world got this dire. Really, the premise of the clips and the premise of “The Walking Dead” were like overlappingly identical in that way.
Tavis: I’m gonna come back because you’re very modest. You’re not just a playwright. Your stuff has been Tony-nominated since I last saw you, so we’ll come back to that in just a second, back to your stage work.
But since you’ve made this parallel, Danai, again, we’ll come to your play and the humanity in that. For you, though, where was the humanity play in your role on “The Walking Dead”? What did you see? Where do you discover that?
Gurira: Well, I mean, the beauty of her was really that, you know, she comes onto the scene and she brings a whole new element to the storytelling. We meet Rick and we meet his family and his friends and the people he ends up connecting with.
We meet them right at the beginning of this basically end of civilization moment. So we see them take the initial steps into how are they going to navigate this new world. And with her, we meet her after the navigation has been happening for a while.
So we meet her in her kind of post-PTSD — well, she’s really in PTSD, but we’re seeing her navigate her PTSD in a way that involved having shut down emotionally, having decided to become her own weapon of war, having really figured out her own way through without connecting with other people.
She’s really cut herself off from humanity to protect herself from further loss. So she was just a totally different segment of the experience coming in to people we’ve been getting to know since the moment things went awry.
So I found that really, really fascinating and it allowed for such a stunning journey for her to take as a character where she kind of has to start reconnecting to her humanity and facing those fears and the trauma of her past and choosing to navigate into a new future and to fight for one. So really piecing those things together and knowing that, you know, she was going to have to go through that journey as a character.
But she was going to start off very stoic, very disconnected from being able to communicate or to share her traumas or to connect with other people again and really being kind of — she was disarming to so many people because you couldn’t read her and she wanted it that way.
You know, she was kind of that person you’re like, “I don’t know if I should mess with this person or talk to this person.” You know, it was very interesting to play that because I’m very gregarious and loquacious and she’s not. She wasn’t in the beginning and that was very interesting to navigate.
Tavis: And speaking of story arc, now Rick wants to fight.
Gurira: Yes. And it’s a very interesting arc especially concerning Rick. The fact that she’s now in a relationship with this man who was pretty much antagonistic towards her in the beginning, though her instincts knew that he was a good guy from the start.
But it was that whole journey they’ve taken, but now they’re in this moment where just as they get a community, a place to live that actually resembles civilization, you know, along comes the scariest and most formidable protagonist, or antagonist, yet in Negan. So they have to fight.
Tavis: Since everybody loves this, as I said a moment ago, and obviously the biggest show around the world, for anyone who has not as yet seen “The Walking Dead”, but sees stuff about it, reads stuff about it, hears everybody talk about it, but have never actually watched it, how would you describe it to a person who’s never seen a single episode?
Gurira: Oh, my God, we were asked to do that at an EW special for the 100th episode and we could not do it…
Tavis: Oh, a special. I didn’t know that. Oh, wow.
Gurira: None of us could do it [laugh]. They wanted us to do it…
Tavis: You’ve had practice now.
Gurira: They wanted us to do it in 30 seconds or less…
Tavis: Start the clock, somebody [laugh].
Gurira: And it was a joke. It was a joke. It’s really the story at its crux. At the beginning, it starts off with a character called Rick Grimes and he is a sheriff of the small town in rural Georgia. He gets shot, he’s in a coma and, when he wakes up, the whole world has changed.
Basically, humanity has been hit by a virus that is taking out people and causing them to become zombies, or walkers. We don’t use the word zombie about that, actually at all in the show, but walkers. So basically it’s a very frightening — I always tell people to watch the pilot. If you’re into it at the end of the pilot, you’re gonna be hooked to the show.
I think the pilot is stunning and it really — because it grapples with the loss and the fear and the confusion in such a beautiful way. Lennie James and Andrew Lincoln meeting up. Lennie James has a son and they’re hiding. They’re bunkered up in a house and his wife has turned into a walker and she’s walking around outside.
The pain of that loss — we see pictures of her when she was alive and well and now she’s this mindless zombie. And Mr. Lincoln’s character is coming out of this coma and trying to find his way through this new world, find his family, they’re gone, the town’s empty, and Lennie James ends up helping him and he takes that navigation to find his family.
That’s really how the story launches. He meets fellow survivors, he finds his family, a lot of loss, a lot of pain. The premise of the world does not allow for people not to die often. As I’m sure you know, a lot of our characters have, but we stay so connected as a family. But we’ve lost a lot of characters because the premises demands it.
Tavis: So, for those three people who haven’t seen “The Walking Dead”, there’s your premise or your story line [laugh].
Gurira: I might have done that in a little while. Maybe I was a minute and a half [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, not exactly 30 seconds [laugh], but who’s counting.
Gurira: I didn’t make it [laugh].
Tavis: You did a fine job. Let me go back to your playwright work because we were celebrating you from a distance. Of course, this is in New York, the Tony’s. We’re out here in L.A., but we were celebrating you when those announcements were made. That had to be stunning for you, yeah.
Gurira: Yeah, it was, it was. It was amazing. It was another pinch me, I’m dreaming moment, absolutely. I mean, that play’s journey was so epic. That was my second play. I was on to my fourth at that point, but it had started off — I’d created it in 2009, 2008, and it had a really great life in regional theaters.
And one of the regional theaters we had an original production in was Yale Repertory where Lupita was understudying. Their interfaith students understudied the characters that go into the repertory. So that’s how we connected. I knew her from before, but we connected much more during that process. I kept trying to use her for my plays, but she was in school.
So I had my next play, “The Convert”, and I was like, “This is also perfect for you. How do we strategize to get you out of school to come and do these productions?” You know, I understand it. As an African myself, you don’t step out of school to do — you finish, you get that degree, okay? So I knew we had to see her through to getting the degree.
But there are many a time I wanted to pull her out and use her for the work. You know, she loved the play and she had a deep connection to it. It was great because, you know, female director, all-female cast. We just kind of all became very close sisters.
She told me after everything happened when she graduated, everything happened with “12 Years a Slave” so fast. But she told me, you know, “I really want to go back to the stage with ‘Eclipsed’. I want to go back to the stage.”
That’s kind of how that run of “Eclipsed” came to pass. So, of course, I told them the producers started to come at me and I said, “Not without director, Liesl Tommy. She’s the director I trust with the work, with this particular play.”
So she, of course, came along and we got the ensemble together. It was amazing because the play had done a lot of regional, but it had never come to New York. It was almost like it was the time had come for it to make it to New York.
Tavis: And all those sisters, though, on the stage is a beautiful thing to see.
Gurira: Yeah. I mean, when I went into learning about what was happening with women in war, specifically in Liberia, a dear teacher gave me — Ken Washington who’s now passed. He was an amazing man, African American man, who came to teach often and handed me a newspaper, The New York Times. He said, “I know you’re into these type of stories.” I took it and I was like, “Yes, I am.”
It was basically the cover of The New York Times at that time was these women who were rebel fighters in Liberia and I grew up on the continent. I mean, you can never call Africa monolithic because I grew up in the most different part of the continent. When I looked at that, I said, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life and I grew up there.”
Like seeing these women who were literally soldiers of war, but rebel soldiers decked out. They had their AK–47s and I was like, “What is this?” My mind was blown and I knew I had to pursue that story at some point. It actually was four years later after my first play that I did.
So going to Liberia and meeting those women and taking on that story and really asking their permission if I could tell it in some ways and sharing with them this is what I’d like to do, it became so clear that we don’t her their stories. Everyone knew who Charles Taylor was. Everyone knows the name of the big bad guy and all those key players who ghost the treaties.
But no one knows the names of the women and the girls who are the casualties of war, whose bodies are used to fight wars upon. No one ever talks to them about them. And many of those women said to me, “No one’s ever asked me what happened to me during this time period.”
That just became clearer and clearer to me that I was going to remove the male from the stage and allow them to be seen and heard. Because the title is about that. It’s about their light being blocked, but the hope and the title is that an eclipse is always temporary.
Tavis: What is the receptivity that the play has received and the honor and the accolade, the nominations and the other awards that it has received? What’s that say to you about — I don’t want to be overzealous here. What’s that say to you about the changing nature perhaps of the way the stories of women of color are being perceived, received, processed? Does that make sense?
Gurira: Yes. I think that, you know, what I’ve found is that there has been a degree of increase. I started to write…
Tavis: Significant or just slight?
Gurira: It could be significant, it could be.
Gurira: The jury’s still out. When I started to write stories, it was very clear to me what I was gonna do. Like my vision, my purpose, my calling became very clear to me and it was all about I’m telling African women’s stories, I’m telling Black women’s stories. Nobody needs me to tell white guys’ stories.
No one needs — you know, I’m just gonna stay and tell these stories that I feel are deeply under-told and that deserve to be heard and voiced, and that are just as interesting and rich and complex and compelling and resonant as everybody else’s story. But for some reason, we don’t hear them enough. So to me, that was my passion that was clear. I mean, my first play, for instance, was a two-hander.
I co-created with a woman I was in grad school with, Nicole Salter. It was this two-hander about, you know, she’s from here in Los Angeles. She found out that the statistic around HIV and African women, and she was floored. I grew up in Zimbabwe in the 80s and the 90s, so I knew the statistic on African women was also flooring.
It was time, I really felt, I was feeling throughout my time in grad school, I had to start telling that story. I knew there’s something in your gut maybe that tells you that the lack is needed even though it’s not known to be needed yet.
So the idea of saying, “I’m going to tell these stories and I believe there will be a response to them because I do believe that, once they are there, people will realize it’s what they kind of need to be paying attention to.” It’s kind of where I leapt from in terms of the leap of faith. So I’ve always had that thought in my head that these needs are there. They will be recognized when they are experienced.
So coming through to now with “Eclipsed”, yeah, there has been a lot of response to me as a writer and I’ve received a lot of interest in terms of how people would like for me to work on different things writing-wise. You know, of course, there are very interesting and there are things that I’m like I can’t do at all and that’s not specifically what I feel to do next.
But it makes sense to me, I guess, because I kind of feel like the deficiency of the stories or the lack of them makes no sense. Like if you were to say, “Why are there so few stories that really focus on the African American or the African experience or the Black experience or the acting females or the person of color experience? Why are there so few?”
There are no real — you can’t give me a reason that makes any sense. You really can’t. So to me, if it makes no sense, then it is actually vying to be changed. So it doesn’t surprise me when the response finally comes.
Tavis: It’s vying to be changed, and I take that. But you’re a bit modest in the sense that, Danai, it takes a great deal of courage and conviction and commitment to write something which has yet to be celebrated, to write something which has yet to find an audience. So you were courageous to do that. In a real sense, you weren’t alone. You were just there first. You got there first and the rest of us caught up with the story.
But that takes a great deal of — it takes a strong constitution to see that they might not get this now, but if I write this, in a year or two or three or four or five, they’ll catch up to it and they’ll get it. But that takes a lot of — to use another word, a lot of hutzpah, if I could put it that way, yeah, yeah.
Gurira: Well, yeah. I mean, I guess. I mean, I kind of don’t know how else to be. Because, I guess, for me, I have to maybe credit my parents in a way. I was raised in an academic home where you follow what you’re passionate about. My father is a fantastic teacher. He’s 76. He’s still teaching chemistry in the University of Wisconsin.
He believes in the mind of each individual and finding their path their way and that there is a greatness in them if they follow it. So I was never told you should be this or you should be that. What I was told was, you know, be excellent at what you do and then find out who you are, but…
Tavis: But in this business, though, people are always chasing commerce and those two things aren’t always…
Gurira: Yeah, and that annoys me. It annoys me because when I come across young artists — during “Eclipsed”, there was a lot of talkbacks.
Tavis: I’m sure, yeah.
Gurira: I would have — you know, young artists would come up to me, African, African American, and they’d be like, “People are saying I shouldn’t write this because, if I do that, then people won’t respond to it because…” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” Like to me, that sounds insane. It’s like, first, you
re the artist. You define the path. You create it. You’re a creator.
So these people, who are they and how are they speaking into the specifics of your calling and your definition of your purpose? Why are they telling you what it is? You can only tell them what it is. You manifest it. And what you have to give, no one else can give, but the idea of being clipped that early, it’s like you’re being edited before you even get it out.
I believe in collaboration. I have collaborators. I have a village where my work goes after I start to get it out and I hear the feedback and then I see what I’m trying to do and what’s not working. I believe in that, but you got to get it out first.
You’ve got to know to do it with freedom. You can’t create art without freedom. You can’t create it without an understanding of the fact that there’s something in you that must be said and must be said the way — you must become a vessel for it. You can’t be a vessel if you’re listening to a whole bunch of folks who have nothing to do with that.
So there’s a lot in that that’s scary because you see the commerce pursuit. You’re looking at things that happened before. How do things that happened before define what you’re gonna bring?
Tavis: But that’s why it always cracks me up. You know this story well. When you ask someone in this town, “What’s the project like?”, they can never tell you what it’s like from its origin. They say, “Well, it’s a cross between this and this” or “It’s kind of like this and this.”
Because that’s the only thing that the suits, as it were, will hear so that going in with a story like yours, you can’t say it’s like a cross between this and this. You can’t say it’s like this because “Eclipsed” hadn’t been done before.
Gurira: Right, right.
Tavis: Again, that takes a lot of, to your point, creativity to be able to not just come up with the idea, but to write the story and then to sell the story, to get people to understand the story.
Gurira: Yeah. I mean, I won’t lie. It was quite scary. My manager, James, was here today. He was there that day I did my first reading of it. You have to find the right collaborators too.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Gurira: I mean, there are people who came like the McCarter Theatre and they helped me find that grant. I was broke as a joke, you know, and they helped me find that grant to get to Liberia and to do the research and come back. They’re like, “Okay, we’re gonna give you a public reading on the 23rd of October.” That’s basically the deadline.
Like there were people coming, you know, to sit down and watch t5his thing I’d created. So that process, it’s petrifying, but it’s got to be scary. I mean, otherwise, is it worth it? Like you’ve got to be courageous — you’re using the word courageous. I think that’s fear plus purpose. You get it done regardless of the fear.
I remember I was sitting watching this reading amidst all these people. For the first time, my work was being read without me doing it as a performer as well. My first play was that. So I was sitting in the audience with my manager, James. and I was shuddering. He said, “I thought you had bad shrimp.”
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Gurira: Because I was shaking watching this come to life in these women’s bodies and to this audience. And at the end, the reading got this standing ovation and I couldn’t quite put it together. Like I was like, “What just happened?” Like it was so shocking, but what I realized was the premise was like a mad scientist.
You know, my little hypothesis is, you know, if the right elements are there, if it’s a strong story, if it’s strong characters, if it’s true human experience, if all those things are in place, if it’s so specific that it’s universal, it will translate.
I don’t care what part of the world I take you go and I don’t care what color or what gender is in front of you. So that’s kind of my little hypothesis around telling African stories. So, you know, it was kind of my little moment. “Did it work? Did my little hypothesis work?” So it was a special moment just to see that response to that initial draft.
Tavis: Well, the jury’s no longer out. It worked. I got two minutes to go. I want to cover two topics if I can, very quickly, a minute apiece. First, tell me about your work with these girls, “Love Our Girls”.
Gurira: Oh, it’s something I created because I am very passionate about women and girls and the issues around the world concerning women and girls. I was born on Valentine’s Day. My name means to be in love in Shona. You know, I really, really wanted to bring about something around Valentine’s Day.
I always felt Valentine’s day was the most bizarre holiday and I was like, you know, love needs to go — everyone’s like waiting for their thing. What’d you get me for Valentine’s Day? What’s it gonna be, what’s it gonna be [laugh], rather than like let’s let it be love that’s going outward.
The girls around the world need our love and attention, so every month I highlight an organization. I release a newsletter. It’s encouragement to take a pledge and connect to becoming aware and spreading awareness. Really, it’s an awareness hub around women and girls.
Tavis: And lastly, not that you can say much [laugh]. Chadwick was just here not too long ago. So I can’t let you go in the last 45 seconds without just saying two words: “Black Panther”, yeah.
Gurira: Yeah, listen. The most beautiful thing — I mean, so many beautiful things about being a part of that. One of them is I grew up as a little girl on the continent. You grew up as a Black boy in the United States. We didn’t see this.
We didn’t see Black people on that platform being super heroes, taking care of things, you know, having that sort of resonance. And to be a part of that, to see it, it’s something that I would just love to watch it. The fact that I also get to be a part of it is amazing to me.
Tavis: Well, it’s stunning. I’m glad you’re in it.
Gurira: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: You’re doing great work all across the board. So thank you for taking the time to come see us tonight. We appreciate it.
Gurira: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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