The TV series The Walking Dead may be in its third season, but it feels like it’s just started. We have come to grips with the premise of the story, which is about post-apocalyptic America being plagued by zombies. The first two seasons dealt with how the catastrophe hit Earth as we followed a group of survivors.
Back then, you could draw parallels with zombie movies like 28 Days Later, but that is not the case anymore. In fact, the sole reason The Walking Dead has remained a successful franchise both in the comic book and TV worlds is because of the unpredictable twists head writer and creator Robert Kirkman adds to the storytelling.
A few years ago, when buying the first issue of the comic, my storekeeper said the best way to enjoy the title was to avoid getting too attached to any character as no one was safe. And that was the best advice as principal characters have been falling like flies, with new ones always being introduced to strike a balance.
One new character is Michonne, a badass zombie slayer whose path crosses that of the survivors we’ve been following. She formed part of the cliffhanger in the final episode of season two when she saved Andrea from a pack of zombies.
Michonne is played by Danai Gurira, who fleshes out the character, more so than is done in the comic. In the country to promote the franchise, Gurira chatted to Tonight about being part of the show.
“Before being on The Walking Dead I hadn’t watched it at all,” revealed Gurira.
“I had heard it was a great show, but I am a bit of a scaredy cat so I did not touch it because I told myself that it was horror and I had no interest in how scary it was.
“I kept seeing in the press how great and groundbreaking it was, but I wasn’t going to go near a show about zombies. That just was not my thing,” she said.
But as fate would have it, the role of a traumatised yet well-trained black woman fighter came up and soon the show was looking for actors to audition for the role of Michonne.
“Things changed when they approached me to audition and then I had to watch it and was really sold on it. As a theatre person I loved how the actors were really bringing in more than you ordinarily see brought on to the small screen. This show had people invested from the onset,” she said.
For her it was intriguing that the show kept posing the challenging question: “What would you be if the world changed so much?”
“I know if things were to change that way today we all won’t be the same. So it was a character study and as a playwright, that spoke to me and I wanted it. I gave it my all and hoped that I would get it and, thankfully, I did,” she said.
While the main character, Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), has been the favourite from the first episode, Michonne is fast becoming an alternative. She is a dreadlocked martial arts expert who walks around with two zombies on leashes. We later learn that these two undead creatures were once her boyfriend and his best friend and they have both given up on attacking her.
So essentially Michonne is a no-nonsense character whose martial arts training in aikido saves her and those around her. To ace the role, this meant Gurira had to be in excellent shape.
“I have always been an active kid. I am from Zimbabwe and was there recently looking through my mother’s things and I found a lot of shields that I got in primary school for athletics and swimming events. It all just reminded me of how competitive I have been since I was young and that helped to have the drive to do a character like this,” she said.
“I have always loved doing physically challenging roles, so when this one came up I was really keen on pushing myself. I had to learn how to use that bloody sword, among other things. There was little time before they wanted to shoot my scenes so there were a lot of salt baths, a lot of ‘ouch, ouch, ouch, I can’t do this anymore’, but in the end it all paid off,” she explained.
In the first few scenes that we see of Michonne, she is shrouded in mystery as she doesn’t say much. We pick up later that she endured a series of horrific events that led to her losing those close to her and, of course, that’s why she moves around with zombies for company.
Gurira drew some parallels between herself and Michonne, saying that they are alike in some ways.
“In the beginning of the season I understood her fighter spirit because I have that, but I have never had to use it to that extent. I am the type of person who will fight, not literally, but I believe in justice and things needing to be said and I think I connect with her there.
“However, her methodologies, because of her trauma, left her not communicating a lot and dealing with things physically. And that’s where her and I don’t connect. I actually prefer to use words,” she explained.
After all the training and memorising of lines, according to Gurira, every actor on The Walking Dead is urged to stick to the script and not improvise: “Ad-libbing is not encouraged, though there are one or two actors who push that boundary. However, you can converse about these things with the show runner or writer and you can have tweaks made if your argument is strong. The crew is open-minded, making the show edgy.”
Through all the zombie-slaying expeditions Michonne has to go on in the third season, Gurira has a few highlights that she holds close to her heart.
“The fight with the governor was great. We shot it for two days and it was intense, but in reality me and David Morrissey get along like a house on fire, which is bizarre if you are a strong believer of the story,” she said.
After having starred in other big productions such as Law & Order, Lie to Me and The Visitor, Gurira continues to pursue her interests in theatre and film.
• The Walking Dead, Tuesdays at 9.15pm on Top TV’s channel 110 (repeats on Sunday at 9.15pm).