Marvel's Danai Gurira: An action hero in her own right

She plays kick-ass General Okoye in Black Panther and a fierce survivor in The Walking Dead. IRL, she’s working to improve the lives of women and girls.

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Connie Guglielmo is a senior vice president focused on AI edit strategy for CNET, a Red Ventures company. Previously, she was editor in chief of CNET, overseeing an award-winning team of reporters, editors and photojournalists producing original content about what's new, different and worth your attention. A veteran business-tech journalist, she's worked at MacWeek, Wired, Upside, Interactive Week, Bloomberg News and Forbes covering Apple and the big tech companies. She covets her original nail from the HP garage, a Mac the Knife mug from MacWEEK, her pre-Version 1.0 iPod, a desk chair from Next Computer and a tie-dyed BMUG T-shirt. She believes facts matter.
Expertise I've been fortunate to work my entire career in Silicon Valley, from the early days of the Mac to the boom/bust dot-com era to the current age of the internet, and interviewed notable executives including Steve Jobs. Credentials
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Connie Guglielmo
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Mark Mann

Danai Gurira didn't read many comic books when she was growing up in Zimbabwe, except, she says, for a little Archie and Asterix. She only learned about Black Panther, she admits, when she found out that director Ryan Coogler crafted the role of General Okoye, the kick-ass leader of Wakanda's all-female Dora Milaje special forces, just for her.  

She's laughing when she tells me that story -- and so am I. That's because she's not only an iconic character in Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Gurira also stars as Michonne, the katana-wielding survivor of the zombie apocalypse in AMC's The Walking Dead -- which, like Black Panther, is also based on a popular comic book series.

"No, I didn't really read a lot of comic books of the nature I now portray," she says with a smile. In fact, she adds, when her agent told her about being offered the part of Okoye, "I thought I was being punked."

But she doesn't laugh when talking about how Okoye and Michonne are changing how girls and Hollywood think about action hero movies. It's a point she noted when she beat out Chadwick Boseman, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt and Ryan Reynolds to win the People's Choice Award for Action Movie Star of 2018.

"Thank you to the people for affirming that women and girls, when they're given the chance to hang with the boys, can hang with the best of them," she said when receiving the award.

Gurira, who stars in Season 9 of The Walking Dead and will appear in Avengers: Endgame, says Hollywood is finally figuring out what it means to be a modern woman.

Mark Mann

"Since I was a little girl, it was clear to me that women were equal in power and ability to men," she says during our cover shoot in in November. "If we are to progress societally and in how we tell stories, then the idea that there are more roles that show women in various portrayals of strength and ability and complexity -- that's of course where it's going to go."

Gurira -- an award-winning playwright whose play Eclipsed was the first to premiere on Broadway with an all-black, all-female cast and creative team -- talked about Okoye as a model for female leadership, learning to use a katana, the nonprofits she hopes will change people's mind about women and girls, and why she wouldn't mind technology for cloning.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: In Black Panther, you show us what a powerful woman looks like. When you first saw the script, what did you think?
Gurira: It was definitely a script that was deeply exciting.  

It felt like something that was deeply needed in terms of giving a representation to voices and faces and stories and geography that are very rarely given representation -- on a global level that Marvel and Disney can bring.

That felt really exciting. When I talked to Ryan Coogler about the character, I thought this was just fantastic. This is the role I never knew I always wanted -- that this was going to be something really, really special.

The way he was delving into the African voice, the African experience and the African-American experience connected to the African experience was an unprecedented narrative. It was so real and so resonant and so specific that it becomes universal about identity and heritage.  

General Okoye is a fierce warrior, but she's not afraid to show she's feminine. There's a scene where you throw off the wig covering your shaved, tattooed head so you can fight the bad guys, and it's like you're saying, I'm going to show what a modern warrior is. Is that what was going through your mind?
Gurira: Absolutely. It was very important to me that she was a woman who enjoyed her life, that she was a woman who loved her country and enjoyed being a woman.   

And it was important to me that her humanity was clear. When they free those kidnapped girls -- which is a very resonant reference to what's happening in northern Nigeria -- she smiled in a gentle way of conveying to them that they were free. 

Marvel Studios

She's a woman who shows her warmth because she has no reason not to. The connection she has to her people and her country is one of love and warmth, and that imbues who she is as a soldier. It's like looking at feminine leadership. It's not the same necessarily as masculine leadership. 

That's what I was thinking about with her: that she's going to portray herself with all the colors of what a woman is in power. And why would she want to be anything different from who she is?

And now you're part of a cast of strong women of Wakanda.
Gurira: The women of Wakanda are amazing.

What did you want to be when you grew up? You were born in Iowa and then your family moved to Zimbabwe when you were small.
Gurira: I dabbled with many things. I was very good at sports. I was very involved athletically, and then I got very involved in drama club, speech and drama, debate club.

But I actually thought for a good amount of time that I wanted to be a lawyer. I really just loved the TV show L.A. Law when I was growing up. I was like the youngest kid ever watching L.A. Law and pulling the vocabulary out of their mouths and looking it up in the Webster dictionary in my house.

At some point, I realized I just liked acting as a lawyer. I didn't know if I wanted to be one [laughs].

So you ended up being a psychology major in college.
Gurira: I was very interested in sociological aspects of the field -- how a group of people, a population, can be swayed in one way or another into systems of rule, into systems of identity. I grew up in Zimbabwe while apartheid was raging in South Africa, and I could never go there. I had white classmates who could go to South Africa and went there for holidays, but I could never set foot in that country.

We moved to Zimbabwe soon after it gained independence from white minority rule. I was very interested in the psychology of an entire populace that allows this sort of thing to become a norm that then has to be removed for progress to happen. So, I was actually a sociological psychology major.

That makes me think of an interview you did with Stephen Colbert, where you talked about people relating to zombie apocalypse stories like The Walking Dead. You said that we should think of zombies as a frame of mind. Can you explain?
Gurira: It's basically the fact that to me, when a story is well-told, you find the metaphor in it, because all stories have to be imbued with metaphor. The metaphor in The Walking Dead is the idea of the zombies as a force that changes everybody into many things. I think that's why it resonates with people, young and old.

Danai Gurira
Mark Mann

I'd researched a lot about women in war while researching how the world had changed Michonne so dramatically from who she was to this woman who is kind of her own army. I saw these parallels -- when what you know is normal is removed, you become somebody else. And the question is, Who are you going to become? And I felt that was the premise of The Walking Dead.

It was really about humanity and the transformation of humanity as a result of very jarring, really unlivable circumstances. That's what really drew me to it. It was a very strong sketch of the transformation of humanity in dire circumstances.

People are very invested in The Walking Dead. Can you give us any hints of where the journey is taking us?
Gurira: Absolutely not [laughs]. No, they've got a chip in me; it'll zing me.  

It is a season of transformation, we know that so far. Time jumps and changes, and you see people make massive shifts from who we knew they were to who they become. Right now we don't know why and so maybe we'll learn some things. Maybe we won't.

In The Walking Dead, you're quite skilled with a sword -- the katana. How good are you?
Gurira: I'm as good as you see on the TV show. That's me.  

I'm nowhere even close to how it is used by the masters. But it is a beautiful weapon and I do love it.


Click for more on the women who make Marvel run. 

You were voted Action Movie Star of 2018 and in your People's Choice Award acceptance speech, you said you were showing that women and girls, when given the chance, can hang with the boys. Are you encouraged by what you're seeing in Hollywood?  
Gurira: The thing for me is that I've never thought any of this was not possible. It was just a matter of the moment happening.

Since I was a little girl, it was always clear to me that women were equal in power and ability to men.That's why I guess I've become such an activist and advocate around women and girls. I've never understood the disparity. It is very much something that feels like a natural progression to me, that there is more of this happening in society.

If we are to progress societally and in how we tell stories, then the idea that there are more roles that show women in various portrayals of strength and ability and complexity -- that's of course where it's going to go. Call me an optimist, but I do believe we'll catch up to the fact that anything not portraying that doesn't make sense.

Danai Gurira
Mark Mann

When Stan Lee passed away, you tweeted out a tribute to him, thanking him for "creating worlds of wonder and heroism." Did you get a chance to know him?
Gurira: I didn't get a chance to know him. It's something I wish I had been able to do.

We have so much to thank him for. And his legacy continues, and that's a beautiful thing that he left us with.

Did you read comic books when you were a kid?
Gurira: Not really. I did read Asterix. And I read a little Archie when I was really young. But no, I didn't read a lot of comic books of the nature I now portray.

So who told you about Black Panther?
Gurira: I got an offer. My agent said you've been offered this role. And I was, 'What?" I thought I was being punked because I was so shocked at the offer.

I sat down with Ryan [Coogler]. He had seen me in an indie called Mother of George. He had crafted this role for me. I was dazed with joy.

You're an award-winning playwright. You staged one of the first plays with all black women on Broadway. What is it that you like about that medium?
Gurira: The theater is my home. It's where I learned my craft, it's where I grew into an artist. It's where I grew to understand what my connection through the art form is, and where I developed my craft as a writer. So it is a very close place to my heart.

You founded Love Our Girls, which is a nonprofit that works to lift women in a lot of ways. And you also co-founded Almasi Arts, which aims to help artists in Zimbabwe develop dramatic skills. Can you talk a little bit about these projects?
Gurira: Love our Girls is a nonprofit, but it doesn't function as a nonprofit. It functions as an informational hub. You become aware of organizations and all the good work they're doing, you want to support them, and you might find your activist soft spot. We're dealing with causes from child brides to equal pay, HIV and mothers, recovering from sexual assault and the #MeToo movement. There's so many different components to the struggles and the ways that women are pushing forward.

Danai Gurira
Mark Mann

And Almasi?
Gurira: I was born in the United States, lived here until I was 5 and then I was raised in Zimbabwe, so I've had this duality of cultural experience. That made me really want to see more people with talent get opportunities in their art form.

It's trickier there to get educated in your field, to get access to opportunities. So it's really about lessening the disparity between ability and access. We have fellowships. We bring Zimbabweans here doing degrees in the dramatic arts right now. We take Americans to Zimbabwe -- they teach, they mentor. We have connections with American institutions. It's about collaboration, because I do believe that Americans can learn a lot from Zimbabweans as well as Zimbabweans from Americans. Once people from different cultures collaborate and find artistic connections, beautiful things always happen.  

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Mark Mann

Did you have a favorite piece of tech growing up? 
Gurira: We had a VCR, which I thought was really cool when we got it. I didn't get a cellphone for quite a long time and now my cellphone is something I deeply need and deeply wish I spent less time with.

What piece of tech or service would you like invented for you?
Gurira:A clone. Something that did what I need to get done for me so I didn't have to do it all, because I can't do everything I need to get done in a day. So if I had something that had my brain in it, that could just go and handle things, where there's two of us doing everything -- that would be amazing. But it knows how I would handle things, so there's no confusion about what I would do in a certain situation.

Maybe an AI assistant, with my exact brain in it. My brain, but a little more orderly [laughs]. My brain but improved.

This story appears in the spring 2019 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.