Starring in Andrew Dosunmu’s acclaimed Sundance drama Mother of George which opens in theaters next month, playing the katana-wielding Michonne in AMC’s The Walking Dead, and continuing to build a thriving career as a playwright, Danai Gurira is a busy woman.
In Mother of George she plays Adenike, a woman who, after the joyous celebration of her wedding in a traditional Nigerian ceremony, finds herself unable to conceive a child. She then turns down a shocking path to potentially save her troubled marriage and family.
Gurira made time to speak with Shadow & Act about the film and all that she’s working on lately. Though she wouldn’t give up many details about what’s in store for Michonne, she did give in depth insight into her thoughts on culture and what she wants to achieve as an artist, as well as an update on the TV series she’s rumored to be writing.
SHADOW & ACT: Tell me about preparing for your role in Mother of George.
DANAI GURIRA: It involved spending a lot of time within Nigerian communities in Brooklyn, which are many more than I knew. There was a lot of film watching of traditional Yoruba stories, which were told very differently from Nollywood, but some Nollywood watching too. And then spending a lot of time with a Yoruba woman who was just in from Nigeria and was living with her son and his family. She was really amazing and also provided the food for the film, and her name was also Adenike.
S&A: Being originally from Zimbabwe, could you make any connections with your own background or was it very different from what you knew?
DG: It was both. I think the Yoruba have such a fiery pride for their culture, in their dress and how they do their weddings. I don’t know if it’s because Britain stayed on our soil for so long, but Zimbabweans don’t have the same type of colorful beauty going on. We are very alive in our culture, but with traditional weddings we have a church wedding in a white dress. The actual culture of passing on and keeping the lineage alive through a brother [as in the film] is something that screenwriter Darci Picoult found out from a woman who was talking about the Zimbabwe area, so that was an interesting connection to explore. It’s a very old cultural trait.
I really enjoyed finding the specificities of how different Africans are. We’re not one clump, as people tend to think. There are differences even in how our accents work, even between the Yoruba and the Igbo. So that was really enjoyable to explore because to me it’s a celebration of the variance of Africans, which is something I’m really passionate about.
S&A: The film tells an African story taking place in America and told from an African perspective, which we don’t see very often.
DG: I think it’s ridiculously overdue. It’s so rare to see a film like this and I just believe this is the beginning of many. What Andrew has done is so spectacular, to tell a story about Africans in America, because there’s so many of us here. That is an American story, hence it must be embraced as such.
It’s kind of unfortunate that so often a story is interpreted by people who aren’t African. Then there’s a white protagonist and the Africans are very one-dimensional, as if we’re fitting a cog in a wheel for the white protagonist to come to his realization of self with a black African backdrop. I think it’s shameful that we’re still doing that in our portrayals, be it Hollywood or wherever. It’s just not accurate, and there’s no attempt to make it authentic because it’s all about retaining a stereotype.
S&A: It’s an ongoing debate within film – whether there’s room for people from outside a certain culture to tell that culture’s story.
DG: I think it really has to be a case-by-case basis. Ever since grad school, I was the go-to African girl in the theater. “If you want to workshop something, yeah use her.” So a lot of times I would start rejecting things where I felt that the spirit of it was off, where it was exploitative of the African story. But there are instances where a fantastically talented storyteller who chooses to deeply collaborate with African people can come up with something that I’m happy to be a part of. Darci, who wrote the screenplay for this, collaborated with Andrew. She created a great story on the page and very compelling characters and he brought a lot of the authenticity.
It’s also the spirit of the thing – are you exoticizing or are you connecting? There’s a beautiful connection that Darci feels with Adenike because of her own issues with fertility. And so there’s something in the story that came from a universal human experience.
S&A: This was your second time working with Andrew Dosunmu. What attracts you to his films?
DG: I love the spirit of what he’s doing. He’s not only extremely talented, but also his vision was so aligned with mine. Our concerns, our gripes about how we wanted to see things move forward for the African narrative. And he’s deeply collaborative and that’s what I love. We can be brutally honest and very respectful at the same time.
This interview is continued on page 2.
S&A: Andrew had been working on Mother of George for years and actually made Restless City in the mean time. Was there an added sense of responsibility for you, considering how much had been invested in this film?
DG: Absolutely. I never thought they would choose me. I thought they would go to Nigeria and find a girl who had never acted before, so I was very shocked when he said, “You’re my mother of George.” We knew we had a great work relationship and that we could trust each other. But I did really want to do it justice for both of them. I knew it was their baby that they had been working on for a long time. But also because for Darci, this character is connected to something very intimate. She has this interesting African extension of herself which was fascinating to take on, but also I wanted to honor her struggles and how she looked at this character as someone who is doing something that she couldn’t do.
S&A: Your character in The Walking Dead is intense and dramatic in an entirely different way. What can we look forward to in the new season?
DG: It’s going to be very exciting, very unpredictable. Reading the script was thrilling. I think there’s great action and character stuff happening this season in a way that is going to be really satisfying and thrilling for the audience.
S&A: Will we get to see any new side of Michonne that we haven’t seen before?
DG: You’ll have to wait and see. [laughs]
S&A: You’re also an award-winning playwright. Tell me about what you’re working on next.
DG: Shockingly, I’ve got two plays that are completed and are now in development. I’m just really thankful. It was a long journey but to actually get these stories to the point where they’re going to be told, will be developed in the next year and then will be ready to go on stage, is really exciting because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to complete my playwriting given all the other things that are happening. Last night we did the play reading of my newest piece at the McCarter Theatre out at Princeton. I’m very excited about where the plays are going and the response they’ve received already.
S&A: Tell me about them.
DG: It’s a series of plays that deal with different moments in Zimbabweans’ story. One of them is a play called Familiar which deals with Zimbabweans living in the United States, though it’s very different from Mother of George. The Convert, my last play that was produced, was about Zimbabwe in 1895, so the other play deals with more of her “adolescent years,” as I call them. It’s about Zimbabwe’s adolescent years through the prism of a very shrewd female survivalist.
S&A: We’ve heard that you were also tapped to write a TV series. What’s happening with that?
DG: [The Independent] took it a little further than what I had said. There’s interest in my voice in that realm, but it’s a very initial type of thing. It’s a long journey to saying, “Write us a TV show.” Because I’m interested ultimately in writing for the screen, it is exciting. But it is quite a process and it would be very involved before I could say, “This is happening.”
Mother of George hits the home entertainment marketplace today, and is now on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes.