Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead, talks about life under Negan’s rule, the crossroads at which Michonne and Rick find themselves and unpacking the layers of her character.
Q: How would you describe Michonne’s evolution since we first met her? What’s it been like for you, personally, to unpack these layers of your character over the years?
A: She came in very closed down and very impenetrable. That was her particular response to her post-traumatic stress and how it was manifesting. She wasn’t really willing to let anyone in or to be vulnerable. The first person she let in was Andrea and even with her, it was very limited… When she met Rick and the community, she had to evolve into something that could be a member of the community and could function in a way that was communicative and where her heart was exposed. So, it was really this journey of getting to the point where she opens her heart to people that she connects to and is willing to go that length. It was really an evolution of learning how to metabolize her losses and trauma, but also how to open up to those who she knew were trustworthy.
Her instincts and her brawn didn’t go anywhere, but it was all about letting her heart out. I think that’s been a lot of what her evolution has been and that has allowed her to really find and truly grieve what she lost – which we see her do in Season 4 – I think that’s what allowed her to get to the point where she could have these tangible relationships and become someone in a community that people care about and respect.
The relationship with Rick and Carl was also a rebirth of a family she had lost, and it turned out that Rick was the love of her life. That progression has been very interesting to play because she went from someone who spoke very little and didn’t trust people to someone who’s far more level-headed and willing to help people who she sees in the same place she was in. Michonne still has instincts and will get done what needs to be done. She’s very smart, she’s very mature and she’s a powerful woman. She’s got a femininity that’s very powerful and her physical strengths are a part of her femininity. I think all of that is very cool and interesting to play.
Q: Are there any key points or special moments along her journey that stand out in your mind that mark her evolution?
A: In Season 4 when she has to hold Judith and she finally cracks, it becomes clear to the audience that she was a mother and that she lost her child. I think even in Season 3, with her connecting to Carl, we see that she has maternal instincts and that she cares about this young man. When she does finally grieve her losses – which is Season 4, Episode 9 – she sees that walker who looks just like her and she’s walking with the dead again after losing the prison, but she decides to choose life over death and kill that whole field of walkers. That was a catharsis for her and a choice to continue connecting to the living and not the dead.
Of course there are other moments throughout, but I think the next one would be in Season 6 when she falls in love with her best friend. That vulnerability was scary to go back to, but because of Deanna’s influence on her and seeing Deanna’s walker that day, she let her heart take the wheel in that moment on the couch [with Rick]. They both recognize what they had already known was between them but never took a moment to take it in. I think that moment where she opens up her heart to Rick to start something romantic with him is very vital. The scene beforehand with Carl is also very vital because he looks at her like a mother. I think that really busted her heart open and makes her ready to open up to loving his father. Of course when they get caught by Negan and everything shattered, that was another crucial moment of transformation: Who are we now? And how are we going to recover?
Q: In Episode 4, we see Michonne out, alone, practicing her shot with her rifle. Where is she mentally? How is she coping with what the group has recently been through?
A: She’s at a place where she knows they need to prepare for dealing with [Negan] and she doesn’t want to be defenseless against him again. It was a horrible experience to be defenseless and to be caught so off-guard in such a planned and structured way… She’s also dealing with her partner not being in the same place as her and that’s a very difficult place, so she’s having to figure out her own way. She’s definitely in a place that is very new territory because she’s partners with this man who is the leader, but they seem to be at some sort of impasse. At the top of the episode, they’re in bed but they’re backed up to each other and they’re not connecting. They haven’t discussed what has happened and it’s clear that he’s choosing to not do what they do — which is to plan how to retaliate. I don’t think they’ve had a real conversation since it happened and that causes her to start doing what she used to do. Who she used to be starts to creep back in a little, which is a loner making her own decisions and figuring out her own solutions without functioning as a team. If she does talk to everybody else and not him, that’s another form of disrespecting his leadership, so the only way is going at this problem alone. It’s very much her reverting, in a sense, back to a part of what’s in her nature and to be a leader in a one-man army.
Q: What’s most challenging for her when it comes to the thought of accepting life under Negan’s rule?
A: Michonne doesn’t believe in surrender. She doesn’t believe in being oppressed or terrorized, and it’s very against her nature to be treated like you’re less than. She finds the idea of being subjugated to be something quite pathetic. For her, the idea of allowing these men to just consistently terrorize them and to own them is just not something she can fathom accepting. It’s not how she’s built.
Q: What’s it like for her to see Rick give into Negan? Was it her love for him that propelled her to ultimately return that rifle?
A: His admittance to her is that he can’t bear losing anybody else and he’ll do whatever he has to do to keep people alive. She can see the fear in his eyes. The way that Negan got to him is by making him fearful of fighting and having more blood on his hands as a punishment. Rick takes responsibility for that like a leader does. She gets a bit of clarity on why he’s responding the way he is responding and she gives him the gun because she loves him and there’s some understanding, but she’s still very angry. He’s choosing to be someone who doesn’t fight back. She doesn’t want to cause a mutiny, so she’s been trapped. She’s shocked that he’s choosing this path considering what they’ve been through and how they’ve overcome things in the past.
To see Rick willing to let them just take control… To her, it’s like they’re being made slaves and that’s something she’d rather fight to the death than do. She loves this man and she is his partner and to see him submit to this man like this is horrifying and it’s devastating. You could argue that it’s a form of leadership and a tactic, but it’s not the one that really identifies with who they are – and that’s Michonne’s argument.
Q: Michonne and Rick share a real vulnerable and intimate moment when he opens up about Judith. Can you tell me your thoughts about that scene and the crossroads these two leaders are at?
A: He knows she’s in a different mindset. She doesn’t want to live a life of being a slave to these thugs. That’s not a life. There’s a moment of deadlock between them and he even questions if she’s hidden any other guns. There’s a moment of distrust we’ve never seen. I think what he does with telling her about Judith is really a way of helping her understand where he’s coming from. Being that vulnerable to her is a way, I believe, to open her up to where he is because right now she simply does not agree and can’t see the perspective he’s holding onto so tightly. For her, the beauty of who he is manifests in the fact that he’s been taking care of this young girl and loves her as a daughter in every way, even though she’s not his child. That’s who he is. He sacrifices for the love of others and that’s what makes him a great leader.
Q: How did you and Andrew Lincoln prepare for such an emotional scene?
A: I think largely we came at it from the way the characters do, which is that they’re not connecting until they are connecting. They’re both strategists and warriors, but they’re not on the same page and that’s hard. I did of course talk a lot with [Executive Producer] Scott Gimple and the writers on set, but I didn’t talk a ton about it with Andy because I think it was that great thing where you do your own prep and it’s a scene where you’re both really holding onto your own character’s perspective. You need those two separate, distinct perspectives to be very sharp and clear so that when they meet each other in the scene, it’s really rich.
Q: Towards the end of the episode, Michonne is the one that discovers that pile of burned mattresses soon after she agrees to try to get on board with Rick’s plan. What does that signify?
A: She said she was going to try because she knew he needed her and she knew that this was the only way he could envision moving forward. She still isn’t convinced, but out of respect and love for him, she said she’d try. Going back out there alone was a way to gather her thoughts, but then finding those mattresses tips her completely away from the ability to accept because they didn’t take those mattresses to use. They took them to mess with them and break them down further. They’re playing psychological warfare. They’re continuing their enslavement process of their new subjects and this is one of their strategies. How do you cooperate with people whose goal it is to enslave you? That’s where she is at the end of the episode. To see those mattresses is unequivocally a direct manifestation of their objective.
Q: With the group in such a bleak and heavy place right now on the show, are there any fun ways you and the team keep it light on set or lean on each other to wind down after a tough day?
A: We’ve started to work very separately now since the Season 7 Premiere, so all of the characters are scattered and we’re not always around each other that much as we shoot. The show has always dealt with dire and high stakes, and we’ve always found a way to have joy on set in the midst of it. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is great at playing the role he plays, but also at being a joyful guy – ironically. [Laughs] We’ve always been family and we take care of each other. There are times when you can’t keep it light because you’ve got to go where the character goes and stay there and there are times you can always get love and joy from each other. We’re always available to each other for that.
Read an interview with Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl Dixon.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
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