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Interview: Danai Gurira Talks ‘Mother Of George,’ The Film’s Distinct Look & Working On ‘The Walking Dead’

Interview: Danai Gurira Talks 'Mother Of George,' The Film's Distinct Look & Working On 'The Walking Dead'

Now playing in limited release, “Mother of George” is one of those tiny movies you should seek out, wherever and however you can. Directed by Andrew Dosunmu (“Restless City“), the film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was singled out for its sumptuous cinematography by Bradford Young (who also shot “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints“). The film concerns a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn who are experiencing some fertility problems, and the emotional fallout that follows. It’s not exactly the most chipper of subjects, but Dosunmu draws you into the story, thanks largely to Young’s painterly visuals and a lead performance by Danai Gurira (from AMC‘s highly rated zombie drama “The Walking Dead“). It’s the rare drama that stays with you long after the credits have finished rolling, a deeply affected, gorgeously photographed glimpse into a world you likely know nothing about and probably barely knew existed.

It speaks to Gurira’s talents as an actress that she can star in two completely different projects in two completely different roles (in “The Walking Dead,” she plays the samurai-sword-wielding bad-ass Michonne), and pull off both flawlessly. We got to talk to the actress, who had a memorable supporting turn in “The Visitor,” as well as a 6-episode stint on HBO‘s “Treme,” to talk about what it was like oscillating between such extreme characters, how she researched her role, and what she’s got coming up next (she’s also a playwright herself).

How did you get involved in the film?
I knew of Andrew. We had done a film together, his first one [“Restless City“], and we just really clicked. We worked really well together and had really enjoyable experiences as collaborators, even though of course I had a really supporting part in that role. We just get and respect each other’s artistic voices. He had seen the plays that I wrote in production. He had seen “The Visitor.” I loved the work I had seen him do. So it made sense that when he decided to make his “Mother of George,” he wanted to work with me again. 

Did you do a lot of research? What was that sort of process like?
I was raised in Zimbabwe, where my parents are definitely from. It was fascinating, because I really do appreciate specificity when it comes to telling African stories. As a playwright, I make sure that I tap into specific experiences with our speech. I love celebrating our specificity because I think that the horrible thing about how Africa is treated, is that it’s very generalized. Of course, a lot of research through film, movies, and things like that that have been passed on to me. And of course, Andrew and the costume designer were both Nigerian, so really spending time with them. Also, one woman in particular, Andrew’s friend’s mother-in-law, whose name was also that of my character in the film, Adenike, was the woman I spent probably the chief part of my time with to really absorb and she’s only been in the country a short amount of time. She was a fascinating study. 

As you were making the film, did you sense that that the visuals would be unique?
I did, because you could even see how the colors, the design of everything we were doing, was so rich. Right down to what we were wearing. Everything was just so rich. But also they worked hard. I know there were times I would be like, “Are you guys going to shoot my face? Are they just shooting my hand right now?” I knew they were doing some really interesting stuff because they would choose an angle where the camera was looking and I was like, “What? Why? What’s going on?” But I knew it was going to be really fascinating and interesting. I worked with both of them before on “Restless City,” so I know how they don’t do things in a typical fashion ever. So there were times I was acting a scene, but I was behind a curtain and the camera’s over there, so stuff like that. I knew it was going to be different. I had no doubt it was going to look a little different. 

What’s so fascinating about the movie too is that it all takes place in modern-day in Brooklyn but it seems of a different time, of a different culture. How did you guys go about establishing that both in your performance and elsewhere in the film?
It wasn’t that hard. I grew up in Southern Africa and we do have a lot of modernity, but that is the African experience. You can have a lot of modernity around you, but you’re still upholding traditions and customs. That’s true of many cultures, actually, that some might consider very ancient or archaic. To me, it felt very along the lines of what I witnessed growing up on the continent and also just really what can happen here when people move, they don’t throw away who they are culturally. It’s not just Africans. It’s Asians, it’s Japanese, it’s Indian culture. You retain a lot of things. It’s important. It’s who you are. And it’s a choice. It becomes a choice in this environment because you can always not do that. But that was a really rich negotiation of self that I feel that I witnessed my whole life in terms of how seeing even African women negotiate being at the cusp of so many moments in history. But you also want to retain certain cultural components of who you are, traditional components, and that’s a choice. They’re choices and I want that, I want to retain this and I want to retain that and I know I can do this or dress that way, but I love this way of how we do things, I love this way I dress. So I think it was very enjoyable to dramatize that. I feel like it’s a very interesting moment the African woman is in. I think it’s rarely seen. 

Was there anything you found in research doing the role that was particularly difficult? 
Well, I’m probably not likely to do what she did, but getting to her circumstances, her mindset, it wasn’t that shocking to me, but I wouldn’t do it. My choices would have been different. I would have navigated this a little different, but I’m very different from her. So I think what was key was really connecting to her need. Her need and then her circumstance. 

What is it like working between “The Walking Dead,” which is very sort of stylized, comic book-y type situation to doing something so realistic and so emotional? 
They’re both great stories to get a part of. I think the beauty of how they made “The Walking Dead,” long before I was part of it and continually, is that it feels real to me even though there’s zombies around me because they’re telling such great human stories and how people are responding to a very dire moment, which to me feels like a warzone. So it kind of feels very palpable to me, but I did “Walking Dead” after I had done “Mother of George.” I shot “Mother of George” in 2011 and we did some additional shoots in 2012, just before I went in to do the final auditions for the show. So actually, they didn’t really overlap much at all. But I’m a character actor, like if you’ve seen any of the work I’ve done, even onstage, I’m a character actor. I like to delve into inside, I can delve into a more feminine side of the character of Adenike. And so for me, it’s always enjoyable, it’s about tapping into the specificity of this character’s journey. So that’s always very rewarding and enjoyable for me. 

It seems like with your character on “Walking Dead,” you would be offered a lot of these action or comic book related movies because your role is very physical. Is that something you’ve been approached about or something you have any interest in exploring at all?
It all depends. I mean I think it’s been a variety of things, so I wouldn’t say it’s just one thing, which is great, but it really all depends on the project. I love action, but I love intricate drama more. I love comedy. So I’m kind of thankful because what I’ve done varies. “Mother of George,” “Walking Dead,” I don’t feel like I’ve been pigeonholed into anything.

What do you have coming up next?
Right now, I’m looking at some stuff, but other than shooting “The Walking Dead” and working on the plays I have coming out, those are the few things.

“Mother of George” is now playing in limited release.                

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