“It’s been a long journey,” Danai Gurira says with a sigh of relief. The 38-year-old playwright and actress — perhaps best known to audiences as the fierce zombie slayer Michonne on “The Walking Dead” — has reason to be both excited and exhausted. Her second off-Broadway play, “Familiar,” opened at the Playwrights Horizons MainStage Theatre on Feb. 12; AMC’s cult hit “The Walking Dead” returned on Feb. 14 (also Gurira’s birthday), and her first Broadway play “Eclipsed” starring Lupita Nyong’o, begins previews Tuesday at the John Golden Theatre.
“It’s a lot at once, but it’s all great things,”she says with a laugh. “I definitely feel very blessed.”
Of “Eclipsed,” which takes place during the Liberian civil war, Gurira says, “It’s a piece that embraces the stories of African women who are never heard about. You hear about the male perspective, but it’s wonderful to be able to see these five women perform in very complex roles.”
Gurira has known Nyong’o since the Oscar winner’s days as a graduate student at Yale School of Drama. “They assign students in their first year to understudy a play that is going on at the Repertory. She was assigned to understudy ‘Eclipsed’ [in 2009] and that’s why she became very intimate with the play,” Gurira explains. While the women remained in touch, they didn’t get to do an actual play together until “Eclipsed” made its off-Broadway debut at New York’s The Public Theatre last year.
Gurira was born in Iowa, but moved to Zimbabwe with her family at age five, studied social psychology at Macalester College and earned an MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating Tisch, she landed small parts on “Law & Order,” and the short-lived, though critically acclaimed HBO show “Treme.” However, it wasn’t until she was cast on “The Walking Dead” in 2012 that her career really took off. “My life changed. Who wields a sword? I never expected to wield a sword.”
Gurira is now based in Los Angeles. “I’m someone who lived in these very, very different cultures and feels extremely at home in both of them,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense to me that there is such a difference between these two cultures in terms of what they see of each other. America doesn’t really see much of Africa in its own voice and that was something that always got me going.”
She doesn’t like to put labels on her many job descriptions, either. “I see myself as a storyteller,” she says. “Whichever piece of the puzzle I am, be it the writer or the actor, it’s all storytelling in my mind.” Still, unlike other actors who tend to generate material for themselves to play, that isn’t where Gurira’s interests lie. “My creative mandate is not that I have to be seen and heard all the time,” she says. “It’s actually to create roles for women who look like me who don’t get the chance to shine.”
Next up, Gurira is developing a television pilot, though she remained mum on the details. She will also appear in the Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me” as the late rapper’s mother Afeni. “It feels like an epic thing to be a part of,” she says of the project, which is currently shooting in Atlanta and scheduled to be released later this year. “I was devastated when he passed. I was growing up in Zimbabwe and we were massive fans of his. It’s kind of surreal to step into his story.” Of actor Demetrius Shipp, Jr. who was cast as Shakur, she says, “He’s a spitting image of him. He’s really capturing the essence of Tupac.”
Life may seem busy enough, but Gurira isn’t content to settle: “At times, I want a clone, but at the same time it feels like, if I’m receiving all this, it means I must give more.”