When we visited the set of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther in February 2017 we spoke with most of the cast and crew leads but missed out on chatting with Danai Gurira due to scheduling. Fortunately, in June 2017 Screen Rant traveled to Atlanta again to visit the set of Avengers: Infinity War and observed a key sequence that takes place in Wakanda.
Here, Captain America and his ragtag group of Avengers land in Wakanda’s main city center and meet up with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his envoy which includes the Dora Milaje and their Genera, Okoye, played by Gurira who was a scene-stealer in this role in Black Panther.
Fully dressed up in Dora Mijaje red armor, Gurira took the time to chat with us about her expanding role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how Wakanda is in a state of transition and still hesitant about outsiders, and how she shares some interested connections to Black Panther co-stars.
Danai Gurira: Hi!
That costume is amazing!
Note: Danai is wearing the red Dora Milaje costume as seen in Black Panther but it hadn’t been revealed at this point in time so it was our first look.
Danai: Thank you! I can’t take credit, but it is pretty cool.
You have tattoos up top as well – How long does that take to apply?
Danai: On a really good day, about an hour and a half.
Danai: Yeah, not too bad.
Tell us a little bit about the journey from entering the franchise to here where you are now.
Danai: It really started with last March. It was actually the opening night of a play I’d written and my manager says, “Oh, by the way–” I was like “what?” I didn’t believe him. I was like “really?” It was an offer to play this role. And so the next month I was going to be in LA and meet up with Mr. Coogler, and just really loved everything he was talking about and the entire vision of it. It was really exciting to think of, you know, I’m an African and as a writer I tell African stories so it really was such an amazing thing just to see, let alone to be a part of, to have a story told from the African perspective on this scale. That was just really thrilling to me.
Of course, I was a deep admirer of Ryan’s work. I loved the concept of Wakanda so much. Its entire premise is just really awesome and something I think, from the third-worlder’s perspective, is something really cherished to imagine a place like that. To me it was deeply important on various levels, so it was a no brainer. We started training and everything in November and it all came together. I’ve just been working with my dear friend Lupita [Nyong’o] on my play and now we’re in this movie together. And then Letitia [Wright] had been doing my play in London – I met her there and now she was in the movie! And then o course, I’m very good friends with Chadwick so it was really an amazing gathering of people. I met some awesome, astounding people there. Really, we worked together to collaborate and build the specifics of this world. There were so many astounding details that the team came up with – Mr. Coogler and Marvel. It felt like it was a really collaborative, intricate, intense process that I think will birth a pretty beautiful child.
What’s the sisterhood been like on-set? And this is going back to Black Panther, but between Lupita, Letitia, and Angela – What was the experience like working with these fantastic women?
Danai: Oh, it’s astounding. As I was saying, me and Lupita go way back, and we just worked together on my play, Eclipsed. So, we just spent a lot of 2015 and 2016 together, right through the Tony season and all that, so it was kind of amazing to be like, “Oh my gosh! We get to do this another, totally different thing together again.” We already are very much close very sisters and we became even closer through this process, actually, because it was very much bouncing off each other and supporting each other, and our thoughts and collaborations and how we were [laughs] figuring out the language and everything. And making sure we had fun because I’m the kind of person that needs to be encouraged and reminded to have fun, and she made sure I did that.
And then Letitia’s as I was saying, I met her when she was doing the same role Lupita did in that play, but in London the year before. And so I loved her from the second I saw her getting into character through playing some Kendrick Lamar and bouncing out of the rehearsal room and saying to myself, “This girl’s got fire.” I loved her since then, so getting to be in this movie with her, it was amazing. I’ve always really adored Ms. Bassett and she’s always been so kind and gracious to me every time I’ve been around here.
It was really beautiful, actually. We had a good time together. Supportive, fun, lots of going out on the weekend, lots of bowling, going to Nigerian food, partying. Mr. Addison [Henderson, Chadwick Boseman’s assistant] and Chadwick made sure people always had a good time. It was actually a really awesome family of women and men. Yeah, it was a great sisterhood. We took a lot of care of each other.
Did you read any of the comics to get prepared for your role?
Danai: Oh Yeah, of course. I’m a researcher, so I did. I loved how we weren’t – we were doing something different from what you see in the Christopher Priest version versus Mr. Coates’s version, which we tended to pull from more right through to the hair, the style of tattoos and no hair. Whereas in the Mr. Priest’s version, we had the perfect little dark and lovely bobs. I really liked the way the way they played off the elements of how to make them a lot more developed, I think, than what they were in the original Christopher Priest version of the comic book. It was actually really interesting to see how the journey or evolution of the story has come about. But of course, it’s really fascinating what Mr. Coates has been doing most recently.
What can you tell us about your character role in this movie and what you guys are filming today?
Danai: Uh, I don’t know much I can tell you about any of that [Laughs.] My character is the General. She’s Black Panther’s General. Her name is Okoye. She was in the Christopher Priest version, but a very, very different woman. I love how they played that and spinned it and made it different. She’s in the Dora Milaje. We don’t marry, but I don’t know how much I can tell them about – how much am I telling them about Black Panther? I’m lost in the wind.
Unit Publicist John Pisani: The Black Panther movie would’ve come out by the time this interview can go out and everything here is protected until the release of this movie. It won’t come out until next May, so Black Panther would’ve already been out. You can give a little bit. Not anything that would give away Black Panther, but more about it.
Danai: So, she’s a deep traditionalist and Wakanda is a very traditional place. It has been really protected through traits and traditions and rituals and structures that were created by the forefathers, like a thousand years ago. She holds it on her shoulders. She’s in charge of the intel of the nation. She’s in charge of the military. So, for her it’s something that really weighs on her shoulders, to make sure that this nation is maintained in its secrecy of course, because what it really is, is hidden from the world, and in the structures that they developed to keep that alive. And also to retain their status as the most advanced nation in the world.
She’s in charge of the War Dogs. The War Dogs are spies that are all over the world. They know what’s been happening across the world. It’s a lot of responsibility. She has a lot of responsibility and she takes it very seriously. She’s also responsible for the life of the King, though he can largely take care of himself. As Chadwick put it, “If I make one misstep, that’s what she’s there to handle,” and she carries that very heavily.
Of course, she just lost a monarch, which we saw in Civil War. That is also something on her heart and on her conscience. She’s known T’Challa for many, many, many years, but the idea of him stepping into this role, she wants that for him, she’s excited for him, but she also holds responsibility that the throne must be maintained through her structures. The changes that they go through, to the point where they are opening up their borders and they are letting people know who they are, is something that she really has to journey through. There are other characters who are more ready to do it. She’s not ready.
She’s not as happy to see The Avengers show up as everyone else might be.
Danai: She’s more cautious about it. She’s always thinking about how many things can go wrong and how much she can control what could go wrong before it goes wrong, but there’s not a lot of control that she can have over something that’s coming that’s this massive. But that’s where her caution is. That’s where her concerns lie. It’s, of course, in her gut. The vocation of being a Dora is you’re learning how to be one from quite a young age, so her entire vocation has been to maintain this nation. This is actually the biggest – there’s another major threat they go through in the movie you will have seen by the time this comes out, but this is one of the biggest threats they’ve dealt with.
She sounds totally no-nonsense. You have characters like these guys (The Avengers) get off the ship and you got the Guardians in this film – are there any that are not in the Black Panther movie that you’re excited about?
Danai: Yeah, I mean, it was really exciting for me to encounter all of them. It was interesting to see this whole mashup happen, and then be a part of it. You guys have seen this by the time this comes out?
We’d have seen Black Panther.
Danai: Thank you! I’ll just keep it all straight in my head. [Laughs] I’m excited for all the connections she can and might make through what she’s about to go through with these warriors and these Avengers, these superheroes. But I cannot share it with you because the connection would… [Laughs].
This is definitely one the most or THE most female-driven Marvel movie. So far we’ve had quite obviously your character, the other women of Wakanda. We’ve heard that Captain Marvel is a part of this. Obviously, we’ve had Scarlet Witch and Black Widow already. For you, especially as someone who so much of your career has already been really grounded and conferred to the small screen, what’s it like to be a part of that?
Danai: I think it’s really thrilling. I’m insanely thankful to be alive at the moment I am alive, and I don’t take it for granted that so many women before me have had to navigate and push for more representation and I get to benefit from the fruits of their labor. I really think it is really thrilling. Even in the times I’ve been alive, I’ve seen that evolution from before I started acting to now. You can feel that, the shift, and it is a really exciting thing – when you see there is a lot of attention paid to the position and the contribution of female characters and you get to be a part of that, so it’s really thrilling.
You said that your character is pretty much a traditionalist, and with the Avengers coming here to warn of this big threat coming, is she the type of person that would leave Wakanda or–
Danai: Oh, hell no! [Laughs] What did I just say about what’s on her shoulders to keep this place intact, to leave–
To protect the world. To leave Wakanda to help protect the world.
Danai: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Well, the fight’s coming to them, so that’s the – but she’s the type of person who will go where she needs to go, especially considering the fact that she’s also very deeply connected to what her king decides. She’s led by her king, but his move, being a general, you have a commander-in-chief and then you go by his decisions. She definitely lets him know her thoughts, but she goes by his decisions.
Also, she’s not entirely – she is a take no-nonsense, but she also is – you’ll see this in Black Panther – she has a lot of warmth and humor as well. She is definitely, fully – and a couple other little surprises that will be a little unexpected about her. She’s gone to the point where she lets her deputy be all serious, all the time. She doesn’t need to be that.
Can you tell us about your relationship with Nakia in Infinity War?
Danai: Well, Nakia is Lupita’s character. Our relationship is established very much in Black Panther, so it’s very much that – you know, we’re sisters actually which I love. We’re not sisters literally, but there’s a respect. We’re not always on the same page, but that’s what relationships are made of.
We’re told that the structure of the story is very much reliant on the Infinity Stones, where they are, how they’re going to factor into the story, how they are collected, essentially. Does Wakanda have any connection to the stones? Are they aware of the stones?
Danai: I don’t know if I should–
Unit Publicist John Pisani: We can’t get into that right now.
Danai: You’re going in too far – yeah, plot stuff.
How difficult is it for you to balance this role with your role in The Walking Dead now? I mean, perhaps they’re probably across the street from each other.
Danai: Really, it does help. It also helps that one needs me bald and the other one needs me wigged, so it really works out. They’re really happy with that. “Yeah, keep it bald. It’ll make the wig go on easier.” If I grow a ‘fro, they wouldn’t like it so much. It’s a good balance. They’re both such awesome people on either side. They want each other’s stories told.
Bucky was on ice last time we saw him and now he’s out there in this scene, what does your character think of that?
Danai: She hasn’t been excited about outsiders. You’ll see more that. You’ll see that in a very clear way in the movie. Outsiders, they threaten what they’ve tried build up, but that’s the big question: Do we isolate or do we open up? It’s an interesting thing that’s highly relevant to what we’re dealing with in various parts of the Western world, but it’s from an African perspective, so it’s really interesting. He’s one guy. He’s one guy, so he’s manageable. She’s thought it through. She knows how to disarm that arm [Laughs].
Thank you very much.
Danai: Thanks, guys!
An unprecedented cinematic journey ten years in the making and spanning the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War brings to the screen the ultimate, deadliest showdown of all time. The Avengers and their Super Hero allies must be willing to sacrifice all in an attempt to defeat the powerful Thanos before his blitz of devastation and ruin puts an end to the universe.
Anthony and Joe Russo direct the film, which is produced by Kevin Feige. Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Michael Grillo and Stan Lee are the executive producers. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely wrote the screenplay.
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