Danai Gurira who plays General Okoye in Marvel’s Black Panther will reprise her character in Avengers: Infinity War. We’re excited to see what is in store for Okoye as the loyal warrior to the throne. Keep in mind this interview was conducted before Black Panther’s release, so some of this information is now public knowledge, but she does give some great insight of what is to come in Infinity War!
So tell us a little bit about the journey from the first entry to the franchise to here.
Danai Gurira: Well, it really started with last March. It was actually the opening night of a play I’d written and my manager says, “Oh and by the way…” I was like what?” I didn’t really believe him. I was like “Really?” It was an offer to play this role. So the next month I was able to be in LA and meet up with Mr. Coogler and just really loved everything he was talking about — the entire vision of it. I’m an African and as a writer I tell African stories. So it was really such an amazing thing just to see, to have a story told from the African perspective on this scale. So 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. How it’s entire premise is just really awesome. Something I think from a Third Worlder’s perspective is something really cherished to imagine a place like that. To me, it was deeply important on various levels. It was a no-brainer.
We started training and everything in November and it all came together. Of course, I’d just been working with my dear friend Lupita on my play and now we’re in this movie together, and then Leticia had been doing my movie, I mean my play in London. I’ve met her there and she was in the movie. Then of course I’m very good friends with Chadwick. It was really an amazing gathering of people. I met some awesome astounding people there. 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 and it felt like it was this really collaborative, intricate, intense process that I think will birth a pretty beautiful child.
What’s the sisterhood been like on set? This is going back to Black Panther, between you, Lupita, Leticia, Angela — what was that experience like working with those fantastic women?
Danai Gurira: What was astounding, as I was saying, me and Lupita go way back and we’d just been working together on my play “Eclipsed”. So we just spent alot of 2015 and 2016 together right through the Tony season and all that. It was kind of amazing to be like “Oh my gosh, we get to do another totally different thing together again.” We were already very much very close sisters and became even closer through this process actually because it was very much bouncing off of each other and supporting each other and our thoughts and our collaborations and how we were figuring out the language and everything. Making sure we had fun because I’m kind of the person that needs to encourage and be reminded to have fun and she made sure I did that.
Then Letitia, 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. So I loved her from the second I saw her get into character through plays and Kendrick Lamar and bouncing around in rehearsal room…I said, “This girl’s got fire!”
I’ve loved her since then. So then to be in this movie with her, it was amazing. I’ve always really really adored Miss Bassett and she’s always been so kind and gracious to me every time I’ve been around her.
So it was really beautiful. We had a really good time together — supportive, fun, lots of going out on the weekend, lots of bowling, going to Nigerian food, you know, whatever and partying. Chadwick made sure people always had a good time. It was a really awesome family of women and men. We took a lot of care of each other.
Did you read any of the comics to get prepared for your role?
Danai Gurira: Oh yeah, of course. I’m a researcher. So I did. The Christopher Priest version versus the Mr. Coates’ version, which you know, we tended to pull from more right through to the hair. The style of the tattoos and no hair. Whereas in Mr. Priest’s version we had the perfect little black dark and lovely bobs. I really like the way they played off of elements of how to make them a lot more developed I think that what they were in the original Christopher Priest version of the comic book. It was really interesting to see how the journey of the story, or the evolution of the story has come about. But of course, the really fascinating what Mr. Coates has been doing most recently.
What can you tell us about your character and your role in this movie and what you guys are filming today?
Danai Gurira: Well, I don’t know how much I can tell you about any of that. But my character is the General. She’s Black Panther’s General. Her name is Okoye and she was in the Christopher Priest version, but a very different woman, which I love how they played that and spun it and made it different. In the Dora Milaje, we don’t marry.
She’s a deep traditionalist and you know, 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. So 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 and they know what’s 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. But as Chadwick put it, it’s like if I make one misstep, that’s what she’s there to handle. She carries that very heavily. And 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, of course, to 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 that they are opening up their borders and they are letting people know who they are. It’s something that she really has to journey through. There are other characters who are more ready to do it. She’s not ready at the beginning.
She’s not as happy as to see the Avengers show up.
Danai Gurira: She’s more cautious about it. You know what I mean? 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. The vocation of being a Dora is your learning how to be one from quite a young age. So her entire vocation has been to maintain this nation and so this is actually the biggest one of, well, 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.
So she sounds like totally a no-nonsense woman. These guys get off the ship and you’re gonna have the Guardians in this film. Are there any that you think she has a particular relationship with that are not in the Black Panther movie that you’re excited about?
Danai Gurira: Yeah. It was really exciting for me to encounter all of them. It was really interesting to see this whole mashup happen and then be a part of it. Will you guys have seen this by the time this comes out?
We’ll have seen Black Panther. This interview will go after Black Panther comes out.
Danai Gurira: Just keep it all straight in my head. So, yeah, I’m excited about the connections that she can and might make through what she’s about to go through with these warriors and these Avengers and these superheroes. But I cannot share with you who she has a connection with.
This is definitely one of the most female-driven Marvel films so far. You have obviously your character, the other women of Wakanda, obviously, we have Scarlett, mentioned Black Widow already. What does it mean for you to be part of that?
Danai Gurira: 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 that I get to benefit from the fruits of their labor. So I really think it is really thrilling. Even in the times that I’ve been alive, I’ve seen evolution from before I started acting to now. You can feel the shift. It is a really exciting thing when you see that there’s a lot more attention paid to the position and the contribution of female characters and you get to be a part of that. So I think it’s thrilling really.
You said that your character is very much a traditionalist and with the Avengers coming here to warn this big threat coming, is she the type of person that would leave Wakanda or?
Danai Gurira: Oh hell no! What did I just say about how it’s on her shoulders to keep this place intact? To leave it …
I mean protect the world. I’m saying leave Wakanda to protect the world.
Danai Gurira: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Well, the fight’s coming to them, right? So 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 is led by her King and his move, being a General you have a Commander-in-Chief and then you go by his decisions. And she definitely lets him know her thoughts but she goes by his decisions. You’ll have seen this in Black Panther, she has a lot of warmth and humor as well. And a couple other little surprises that will I think be a little unexpected about her. She’s gotten 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?
Danai Gurira: [Pauses] Nakia? Well, Nakia is Lupita’s character. Our relationship is established very much in Black Panther. So it’s very much that we’re sisters, which I love. We’re not sisters literally but there is a respect. We’re not always on the same page but that’s what relationships are made of.
How difficult is it for you to balance this Marvel role with your role in the Walking Dead now? I mean it helps that they’re probably up the street from each other…
Danai Gurira: Well, you know it does help. It also helps that the one needs me bald and the other one needs me wigged. So it actually really works out. They’re really happy with that, like “Yeah, keep her bald. It makes the wig go on easier.” I was growing a fro, they didn’t like it so much. It’s a good balance. They’re both such awesome people on either sides and so they want each other’s stories told.
Obviously, Bucky was in ice last time we saw him and now we saw him, he’s out there. What does your character think of that?
Danai Gurira: She hasn’t been excited about outsiders. You’ll see more of that. You’ll see that in a very clear way in the movie. Outsiders, they threaten what they’ve tried to build up. But that’s a big question. Do we isolate? Or do we open up? It’s an interesting thing. It’s highly relevant to what we are 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, you know. He’s manageable. And she’s thought it through. She knows how to disarm that arm.
Avengers: Infinity War will be in theaters nationwide April 27th.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.