How Danai Gurira Made A Name For Herself In Hollywood

Danai Gurira slayed her way into the hearts of fans of "The Walking Dead" as Michonne, who has granted countless undead a merciful second death with the aid of her trusty katana. The star has played an equally formidable heroine in "Black Panther" and her subsequent Marvel movies, but the weapon of choice for Dora Milaje leader Okoye is her retractable vibranium spear.

Both roles are undeniably popular, but Gurira told Self that she won't accept a part unless she connects with it on a personal level and that acting has never been about fame for her. She also explained to Bust, "I never entered this industry thinking about fitting into it. I entered into it on my terms, for my reasons." The roles that do meet the discerning thespian's high standards can be impactful in ways that are unexpected and unpredictable — for example, a fan once told Gurira that Michonne inspired her to walk away from a toxic job. "When you're just trying to pour out the story with truth and give full life and dimension and humanity to your characters that you know you don't have many of on screen, you don't know what it's going to do, who it's going to affect," Gurira told Self.

But Gurira's influence lies beyond what fans see on their screens. She's also a passionate advocate who has discovered that the pen can truly be mightier than the sword or spear — as long as it's being wielded by a brilliant mind like her own. Here's how Danai Gurira made a name for herself in Hollywood.

Danai Gurira reclaimed her birth name

Danai Gurira was born in Grinnell, Iowa, where her father taught chemistry at Grinnell College, per Playwrights Horizons. After becoming a big fan of "Breaking Bad," Gurira told Us Weekly of her dad, "Walter White reminded me of him, minus the bad bits." Her mother also worked in the academic field as a librarian, according to Better. The couple originally left their native Harare, Zimbabwe, to attend college in the United States, with Gurira recalling, "My mother was almost arrested the day before she came here for college because she was going to go into the whites-only restroom in what is now Harare."

In an essay written for Glamour in 2018, Gurira revealed that she didn't even know what her real first name was for the first years of her life. Her parents had given her an Americanized nickname, "Dede," and even after the family moved back to Zimbabwe after the country gained independence from white-minority rule, she chose to keep going by the name for years. But Gurira began to rethink her attachment to the moniker after reading some of the literature her mother kept at home, including Malcolm X's biography and works by Toni Morrison. 

"All of a sudden I needed to lay claim to what folks had fought and died for me to have — the freedom to speak my own language, my own name," Gurira wrote. Her true first name also has a lovely meaning: "To love one another."

She was an avid athlete who dreamed of being an attorney

Danai Gurira's new life in Harare, Zimbabwe, began when she was 5 years old, and she was a happy, active child. "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," she told Rolling Stone. The star also enjoyed field hockey and running, telling Time that she preferred sprinting over long distance races. But her childhood dream was not to become a professional athlete — speaking to CNET, Gurira revealed that she once believed that being an attorney would be pretty amazing. She even joined her school's debate club, which can be a small step toward pursuing a law degree.

However, Gurira eventually realized that she was just a huge fan of the series "L.A. Law," saying, "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." She told Time that she especially admired Susan Dey's character, deputy district attorney Grace Van Owen, whose mind was as sharp as a katana. "She'd stand up in front of folks and argue her way through many things, with a formidable energy and a lot of words. I thought that really cool," Gurira said. 

While she didn't end up pursuing a law career, Gurira's first on-screen acting role was on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" in 2004.

Being bullied shaped her worldview in a significant way

Danai Gurira was no shrinking violet growing up. She spoke so loudly that her classmates called her "Megaphone," per Us Weekly, and some people found her unreserved manner unsettling. "I was a girl who talked a lot and didn't think my voice had any less value than anyone around me. Apparently, that was strange," she told "PBS News Hour." But the future star didn't let anyone's perception of her keep her from speaking up when she knew she was right, and while Gurira was still in primary school, she learned a painful lesson about how some people react when you show them they're wrong.

When she was 10 years old, one of Gurira's male classmates punched her in the stomach multiple times. The reason? They were arguing — and she was winning. "I could accept that, and go somewhere quietly and cry, or I could say, 'This is not right,' and pursue justice," Gurira later told Elle, noting that she ended up reporting his behavior to the principal, a white woman. The actor later realized that the way the authority figure handled the situation significantly shaped her worldview. The boy was punished, validating her decision to report his behavior. 

"I feel like there was something very powerful in it for me, as a girl, to know that it's not okay for someone to lay their hands on you like that, and someone would stand up for me, so I would want to stand up for others," Gurira told Self.

Danai Gurira studied social psychology in college

Around age 13, Danai Gurira fell in love with performing while participating in a program a family friend had created. "[We] got to create pieces of work and perform them in various parts of Zimbabwe — learn traditional dance and things about our heritage that were often not taught in our very neo-colonial schooling system," she told Better. The acting bug really sank its teeth into her when she was practicing a powerful monologue from the play "For Colored Girls." Gurira recalled to Pride, "I was so lost in this place of creativity, I forgot where I was."

Gurira left Zimbabwe at age 19 to attend school at Macalester College in Minnesota. She told Playwrights Horizons that she chose the school because it was located nearby Minneapolis and St. Paul, both cities with a strong theater community, and she initially considered majoring in theater before deciding to pursue a degree in social psychology instead. The actor explained to CNET that her own experiences growing up had sparked her interest in studying segregation and other forms of oppression. But a trip to South Africa showed the aspiring activist that the work artists do can also contribute to societal change. 

"It became really clear while I was in South Africa that I needed to stop lying to myself about my passion," she told Better. So Gurira changed course again and enrolled in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Acting degree.

She found success as a playwright before acting took off

In 2004, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter co-wrote the play "In the Continuum" while they were still in school at NYU. The play is about two HIV-positive women, one of whom lives in America and the other in Zimbabwe. The two students also portrayed the characters in the Off-Broadway premiere the following year and quickly gained acclaim — their work won an Obie Award and was well-received by critics.

Gurira told Marin Theatre Company that it wasn't the work that she was seeing but rather what she wasn't that inspired her to become a playwright. "In terms of writing, I just wasn't finding enough stories about contemporary African people — or historical, just anything, the whole gamut," she said. Her 2015 play "Familiar," for example, focuses on the dynamics of a Zimbabwean-American family. Gurira told The Seattle Times that it was loosely based on her own observations of a family wedding that she attended. Another earlier play, "The Convert," was set in the late 1800s in Zimbabwe and was inspired by Gurira's interest in the history of colonialism in her country, a topic that she didn't learn much about in her British-influenced primary school, per the Los Angeles Times.

But there's a good reason Gurira doesn't appear in her own productions these days. "I want to see other people fly," she told American Theatre. "Let's find five amazing actresses and give them an opportunity to do their thing, which unfortunately doesn't happen very often for women of African descent."

Danai Gurira wasn't a horror fan when she got cast in TWD

Danai Gurira hadn't seen "The Walking Dead" when she auditioned for the show and was no fan of the horror genre. "I don't like getting scared. Why would I want to do that? I want to sleep tonight. I want to sleep well," she told Esquire. But there's no rest for those trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, and after immersing herself in Michonne's perilous world, Gurira saw something more than death and gore. She explained to Vogue that she connected with Michonne because the zombie slayer with a heart of gold reminded her of a character in one of her plays "Eclipsed," which is about the captive wives of a rebel officer fighting in the Second Liberian Civil War. "I said, 'Oh, she's like Wife Number Two; she's like Maima, because she's chosen to become a weapon of war to deal with the war that has traumatized her,'" Gurira recalled.

Robert Kirkman, the creator of "The Walking Dead" comic books, told The Hollywood Reporter that Gurira got the role because she mastered both sides of the Michonne coin: strong and vulnerable. The actor ended up prepping for the show while working on her play "The Convert," which was a memorable experience for associate director Adam Immerwahr. "I would be talking about a moment from the play and she would be practicing sword moves toward my neck with a butter knife," he recalled to American Theatre.

Two Black Panther co-stars appeared in her history-making play

Danai Gurira befriended her future "Black Panther" co-star Lupita Nyong'o at the 2007 Obie Awards, per Entertainment Weekly. Two years later, Nyong'o, who was in college at the time, became an understudy for Gurira's play "Eclipsed" during its run at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Nyong'o had assumed that much of her university theater work would be your typical European fare. "Then I arrive from Kenya and I get this incredible, groundbreaking Liberian play. It was manna from heaven!" she said. "I made a promise to myself: I have to do this play one day."

Another "Black Panther" star, Letitia Wright, appeared in an Off-West End production of "Eclipsed" in 2015. Four years later, she would also play the lead in Gurira's play "The Convert" at the Young Vic in London. Meanwhile, by the time "Eclipsed" made its Off-Broadway debut in 2015, Nyong'o was an Oscar winner, and she was eager to go from understudy to star of the play, much to Gurira's delight. "The fact that Lupita has been in love with the play all these years and returned to it after the many beautiful things that have happened [in her career] is really poetic," she told Broadway Direct

The play transferred to Broadway in 2016, marking the first time the cast, director, and playwright of a Broadway production were all women — and they all got to celebrate its Tony nomination for best play.

Danai Gurira's Marvel role was written with her in mind

Danai Gurira told the Toronto Star that "Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler hadn't seen her work in "The Walking Dead" when he decided that she would be the perfect addition to his Marvel movie's cast. Instead, he was impressed by her performance in another film, the drama "Mother of George." The filmmaker became such a big fan, in fact, that he actually wrote the role of General Okoye for Gurira. He told Rolling Stone that Gurira's work as a playwright also made him eager to work with her, saying, "I like working with actors that are writers because they tend to be strong with improv, you know? And they tend to make their lines bulletproof." 

Gurira was also thrilled about the opportunity to play the Wakandan warrior. "This is the role I never knew I always wanted," she told CNET, explaining that she found the movie's African influences exciting and refreshing. The multi-talent was working on her play "Eclipsed" when she got the part, and she had no idea that her friend and star of the Broadway production, Lupita Nyong'o, was also going to appear in the movie because everyone involved in the project was sworn to secrecy. "Little did I know, she's right there hushed, too," Gurira said on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." Gurira and Nyong'o finally realized that they had both gotten a golden ticket to Wakanda when Coogler showed up for a performance of the play.

Her memorable sendoff when leaving The Walking Dead

Danai Gurira's last days filming "The Walking Dead" in 2020 were bittersweet. According to Entertainment Weekly, her co-star, Norman Reedus, treated her to a noisy attraction zombies would find irresistible: a farewell fireworks show. But if her fellow longtime series survivor had any say in her character's story, they never would have parted ways. "I've been begging her to stay since we started the season," Reedus said at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019, per Comicbook. "She's a joy to be around."

"The Walking Dead" cast and crew also pranked Gurira by filling her trailer with dozens of zombies. "They were all over — lying on my couch, on my chair, in the shower. They were everywhere!" she recalled to Entertainment Weekly. But her best sendoff arguably came courtesy of the actor who played her lost love on the show, Andrew Lincoln, who serenaded her with a few lines of "Live and Let Die" (with a lyrical change to, "We love you, Danai") and a "Gangsta's Paradise" parody that would surely get an accordion wheeze of approval from Weird Al Yankovic. "We've been spending most our lives living in a zombie paradise," he crooned while playing the piano. Gurira shared his performance on Instagram and wrote in part, "This means a lot. Made me laugh and cry." 

While saying goodbye was hard, Gurira told Deadline that she was satisfied with Michonne's exit, saying, "It was peaceful. It was beautiful. It was joyful. It was sad. It was, you know, gratifying."

She helped choose her wig for a viral Black Panther scene

Twitter roared with approval after getting a sneak peek at one of Danai Gurira's "Black Panther" fight scenes. Her character is wearing a glamorous gown and a wavy wig — which she tosses in the face of an enemy during a brawl. "Okoye throws her wig at a guy during a fight in black panther, and it healed my soul," tweeted one fan.

Gurira told Access that she was surprised by the reaction the scene got, and she strongly supported Okoye's decision to ditch her hairpiece. "She has a tat on her head that means she's a General, so why would she ever cover that up for anything or anyone?" Gurira said in an interview with Mashable. The movie's hair department head, Camille Friend, told The New York Times that Gurira offered her input on what type of wig should be used for the scene, arguing that it should be a non-Afro style that the proud Dora Milaje leader would find absolutely revolting.

In an interview with, Gurira admitted that it took her a while to adjust to being bald for the role, but just like Okoye, she became rather attached to her bare head. "I had gone to the wedding of a member from 'The Walking Dead' and I just rocked it out and that was the day I accepted being bald. Everyone was so embracing of it. I loved it too that day," she recalled.

How Danai Gurira coped with grief while filming Wakanda Forever

Everyone involved in filming "Black Panther" was devastated by the tragic death of its star, Chadwick Boseman. In August 2020, his family announced on Twitter that Boseman had died from colon cancer after keeping his diagnosis a secret for years. While Wakanda had lost its king, the other actors who portrayed the fictional country's resilient people set out to keep his legacy alive in the beloved Marvel film's 2022 sequel "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever."

Danai Gurira told The Hollywood Reporter that Boseman's absence really hit her hard when she walked into the throne room set for the first time. "The last time I had seen that throne, he had been sitting in it," she explained. But she told Access that grief haunted the entire production — you never knew when it would hit you.

Gurira also revealed that she kept pictures of Boseman in notebooks that she brought with her to the set, explaining, "Being able to focus in on his image was really anchoring for me." And when the movie's long, grueling production started taking its toll on Gurira, she thought of her late friend and strove to keep giving her performance her all to honor his memory. She also spoke to Extra about how she believed Boseman would feel about "Wakanda Forever," saying, "I truly think he'd be proud of us, and I think he'd be proud of this film."

Danai Gurira was almost Sterling K. Brown's roommate

On "The Tonight Show," Danai Gurira revealed to Jimmy Fallon that she first met her "Black Panther" co-star, Sterling K. Brown, when she was attending NYU Tisch. After they reunited to film the movie, Brown reminded her that he once offered to rent her a room in his Brooklyn apartment. "I was trying to get the rent down," she quipped. They didn't end up becoming roomies, but she said of her castmate, "He became my big brother, really."

Gurira also met Lupita Nyong'o when the latter was still in college, telling Entertainment Weekly that NYU Tisch had sent her on a scouting mission to convince Nyong'o to attend graduate school there, but her friend ultimately chose Yale instead.

Brown and Nyong'o aren't the only Marvel stars who have fond college memories of Gurira. In an interview with Elle, Gurira recalled how "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" cast member Jonathan Majors told her that they met in 2015 at a performance of her play "Familiar" at the Yale Repertory Theatre. He was studying at the Yale School of Drama at the time, and he informed Gurira that he was the student who fetched her an Advil when she said that she was feeling unwell — but Gurira confessed that she didn't remember the encounter at all. She is, however, now a big fan of her helpful Marvel-mate.

She put her writing skills to use for her return to TWD franchise

Danai Gurira didn't hang up her katana for good when she left "The Walking Dead" in 2020. Two years later, she and Andrew Lincoln delighted Comic-Con attendees with the surprise announcement that they would be revisiting their characters' (Michonne and Rick) tale in a new AMC series. "It's an epic love story," Gurira told Deadline

She also revealed that she was co-creating the series with Lincoln and "TWD" producer Scott M. Gimple, the latter of whom had become her writing partner — Gurira was finally ready to take a shot at using her experience as a playwright to expand the "TWD" universe even more. "She challenges me, I challenge her, and neither one of us lets the other off the hook," Gimple told Self of their partnership. "In life, I'm more a character actor; Danai is a lead." He also praised Gurira for being a true innovator and an inspiring collaborator.

In 2016, Gurira had a conversation with American Theatre Wing about her solo writing process, and while her plays have not been love stories, she certainly seems wired to pen an epic romance. "I can't write from a place of 'woe is me, I must write this dire tale,'" she said. "I have to write from a place where I feel joy towards these characters." So it must have been easy for her to revisit Richonne's open-ended love story after leaving "The Walking Dead."

Inside her 'intense' training to play Michonne and Okoye

Danai Gurira had to get used to filming grueling fight scenes in "The Walking Dead," and her role in "Black Panther" was also physically demanding. In 2014, she told Us Weekly that she was using Jillian Michaels' workout DVDs to stay in shape, but she soon turned to the expertise of trainer AJ Fisher, who crafted workouts for Gurira that incorporated Pilates, HIIT routines, and circuit exercises. "Sometimes it's so intense I can't remember what we did," Gurira told Women's Health of Fisher's punishing fitness plan.

Gurira performed most of her own stunts on "The Walking Dead" and had less than a month to learn her katana moves after getting cast as Michonne, per The Daily Beast, but she told ET that learning to fight like the spear-wielding Okoye was a totally different experience. "Michonne, she's very economical and efficient and very specific with her work, whereas Okoye, she's coming from ... a certain degree of style," Gurira said, adding, "Her approach is very by the traditional book in terms of how she's approaching how she moves."

Gurira had to make another training tweak ahead of "Wakanda Forever" by doing a lot of swimming, a challenge that she enthusiastically embraced. She even channeled her inner Okoye by trying to mimic the precise strokes of Olympic swimmers. "It is such a strenuous activity when you're really going, but simultaneously, I find it to be such a rejuvenating activity," she told Self.

How Danai Gurira's experiences inspired her activism

Amid a packed schedule of writing, acting, and working out, Danai Gurira makes sure that she finds time to give back. She created the Love Our Girls foundation, which raises awareness of different issues that affect women and girls around the globe and connects people with organizations that provide those in need with financial help and other vital services. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the star revealed that an interaction with a fan at Comic-Con inspired the idea — as did her personal feelings about the holiday she shares her birthday with. 

"I was born on Valentine's Day and I don't understand that holiday at all. So I said, well, if we just loved on women and girls, if we just simply did that, could all these things still be happening to women and girls across the world?" she told Better. Gurira's also a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and the founder of Almasi Collaborative Arts, an organization that provides support and opportunities for Zimbabwean artists.

Gurira also became involved with the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, and at performances of her play "Eclipsed," she and other celebs read out the names of the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014. "If my work is on the stage," Gurira told Vogue, "you can be rested assured I'm going to make use of it as a platform for activism as much as possible."