'Walking Dead's' Danai Gurira aims to go deep in her varied roles

 'Walking Dead's' Danai Gurira aims to go deep in her varied roles
Actress Danai Gurira, best known for "The Walking Dead," has a new film, "Mother of George." (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Always expect the unexpected from Danai Gurira.

Over the last seven years she's quietly created memorable, diverse characters in film, theater and television including Zainab, a Senegalese street vendor in the 2007 film "The Visitor"; a Zimbabwe newscaster with HIV in the 2006 play she wrote with Nikkole Salter, "In the Continuum"; and the fierce zombie-slayer Michonne on AMC's breakout hit "The Walking Dead."

Now she brings a haunting poignancy and inner strength to her role as Adenike, a Nigerian newlywed living in Brooklyn who goes to great lengths to become pregnant in the new indie film "Mother of George," which opens Friday.


"I am a character actor," said Gurira, 35. "It's very humbling to act. It's very much wanting to do better, go deeper all the time."

The producers of "Mother of George" suggested names of several actresses they wanted to play Adenike in the intimate drama that was shot in the Nigerian immigrant community in Brooklyn. But Nigerian-born director Andrew Dosunmu was adamant that the only actress who could play that part was Gurira.

"I knew she was going to surprise," said Dosunmu.

Gurira also grew up in Africa. Born in the small Iowa college town of Grinnell — her Zimbabwean parents are academics — the family moved back to Africa when she was 5. She returned to the U.S. to attend college in St. Paul, Minn.

Dosunmu, who initially saw Gurira on Broadway four years ago in August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," cast her in his first film, 2011's "Restless City," as a woman who has a small hair-braiding salon in Harlem.

The two immediately clicked. "Basically our artistic vision and mission in life is telling the African story on Western soil in different, dynamic ways," said Gurira, over the phone from New York during a break in production of "The Walking Dead," which returns Oct. 13.

Besides "In the Continuum," Gurira has explored the stories of African women in her well-received plays "Eclipsed" and "The Convert."

In "Mother of George," Gurira's Adenike is initially a glowing newlywed madly in love with her husband Ayodele (Isaach de Bankole), who works with his younger brother at a restaurant in Brooklyn overseen by their strong-willed mother (Bukky Ajayi). But her happiness quickly turns to frustration and despair because she can't fulfill her mother-in-law's wedding day wish that they quickly conceive a son, which they would name George after her late husband. When she can't become pregnant, her mother-in-law suggests a rather shocking alternative.

Though the film is cultural-specific, said Gurira, it is also quite universal. "It presents a universal cultural experience — the pressure of the daughter-in-law to produce a child and the family dynamics that can sprout from that pressure and anxiety," she explained, adding that Brooklyn-based screenwriter Darci Picoult, who is white, has also struggled with fertility issues.

Gurira's not very forthcoming about the new season of "Walking Dead," other than to say she'll be riding a horse, but she won't reveal if she will be slaying zombies from the steed. "That would be considered a spoiler," she said with a laugh.

"What I love about my TV job is that it demands everything of me, physically and emotionally," said Gurira. "There are new physical challenges this year. I had to learn how to ride a horse and there are other things I do this season I have never done before. I love that because I want to be challenged — the experience of stepping into the unknown."