Danai Gurira: 'The Walking Dead' Reminds Me of a War Zone

'People aren't just going to be living,' says the actress. 'People are going to die – a lot'

The Walking Dead Michonne
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Danai Gurira as Michonne on 'The Walking Dead.'
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Last week, in anticipation of The Walking Dead's fourth season premiere, Rolling Stone published exclusive interviews with six cast and crew members, including Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus and David Morrissey. But we were just getting started. Check back tomorrow and everyday this week for more conversations with your favorite characters, including Carol, Carl and today, Michonne.

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Where did you grow up?
I call myself Zimerican. I was born in the Midwest to Zimbabwean parents. My father was a professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. We moved to Zimbabwe when I was five, some years after Zimbabwe had gained independence.

I'm sure that was a breeze.
It kind of was, because I was so young. Zimbabwe was at its height. It was the gem of Africa. It had a lot of modernity. It was in a very interesting moment.

Was this the early Mugabe years?
Yes – the very early years. It was considered the most successful African nation. I was in a very multi-racial, multi-cultural schooling system. I had a really delightful childhood. I was a jock. I became a very competitive swimmer in Zimbabwe. I was a swimmer, a tennis player, a hockey player. Then, when I was 13, I joined a Children's Performing Arts workshop in Zimbabwe.

But you went to college here?
I went to Macalester in Minnesota to study social psychology, the study of why people do what they do. I was really looking at race, population, gender and how we psychologically function in a way that affects our societal outcomes around those issues. I was thinking maybe I'll get a Ph.D. and live the cushy academic life. I wanted to bring some voice to issues that concerned me. I couldn't see how the dramatic arts were going to make a huge change. But then I went to South Africa and met all these artists who had done things to affect change through their art during apartheid. I got totally convicted that what I needed to do what was tell African women's stories – the unheard voices.

When The Walking Dead audition came up, what appealed to you?
My last play had been about women in war, and that's what Micchone reminded me of – those chicks that turn into rebel fighters who are scary. I went to Liberia and I met these chicks. Reading about her and seeing her in the comic book, she was reminding me of those chicks. The parallels of The Walking Dead world and a war zone – that idea was very resonant to me. Who you are right now is a luxury of choices. If things go dead – which they can – there's no 911, nothing's working anymore, everybody can be against you at any second, there's no law and order that protects you, and there's a threat at every corner. It could be a child soldier who is going to shoot you randomly or a zombie. The idea of connecting to narratives of people who have gone through extremely dire war situations, where life and death is always right here and nothing makes sense and there's no more structures around you – like what I researched in Liberia – that's what made it very visceral to me. The zombies could be a metaphor, symbolic for so many different things.

What's it like knowing that each episode could be your last?
You enjoy the moment you're in. You embrace that it's part of what makes the show great – it has that confidence. A lot of shows hold on to people. This show's structure is that it lets go. That's what is authentic to the world of the show. People aren't just going to be living and living. People are going to die a lot. That's what you sign up for. It's painful and it's hard and people don't want to lose their jobs but at the same time, as an artistic choice, it's actually a very strong one. It's part of what makes what you're a part of so special.

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