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March 19, 2018

Danai Gurira Talks ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and Why Okoye Isn’t Happy to See the Avengers [Set Visit Interview]

Continuing our coverage of our visit to the set of Avengers: Infinity War last year, here is our roundtable discussion with Danai Gurira, who plays Wakandan general Okoye in Black Panther and returns to the MCU next month. We conducted this interview before the Black Panther marketing train even began, so we knew very little about her character.

During our discussion, we talked about how long she has to sit in the make-up chair to apply Okoye’s tattoos, how she got inducted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, her relationship with the other women in the film, comic book research,  and what Wakanda thinks about the Winter Soldier.

You have tattoos [on your head]. How much does that take to apply? 

Gurira: On a really good day, about an hour and a half. Yeah, not too bad.

Tell us a little bit about the journey from the first entry into the franchise to here. 

Gurira: It really started with last March. It was actually the opening night of a play I’d written, and my manager says, “By the way–” I was like “What?” I didn’t believe him. I was like “really?” It was an offer to play this role. 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. 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 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. It all came together. I’ve just been working with my dear friend Lupita [Nyong’o] in the play and now we’re in this movie together. Then, Letitia [Wright] had been doing my play in London. Of course, I’m very good friends with Chadwick, and 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 did you, Lupita, Letitia, Angela? What was the experience like, working with these fantastic women? 

Gurira: Oh, it’s astounding. Like 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 are very much close sisters […]  it was very much balancing off each other and supporting each other, and our thoughts and collaborations and how we were figuring out the language and everything.

We were making sure we had fun because I’m the person that needs to be encourage-minded to have fun, and she made sure I did that. Letitia… I met her when she was doing the same role Lupita did in that play, but in London the year before. I loved her from the second I saw her and getting into character she plays, bouncing out of the rehearsal room and saying, “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. Adison and Chadwick made sure people always had a good time. It was actually a really awesome family of women and men. 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? 

Gurira: Yeah, of course. I’m a researcher, so I did. I loved how we – we weren’t – we were doing something different from what you see in the [Black Panther comic writer] Christopher Priest version versus [current Black Panther comic writer] Mr. Coates’ version, which we tended to pull from more right through to the hair, the style of tattoos and no hair. Whereas 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 in 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 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’s role in this movie and what you guys are filming today? 

Gurira: I don’t know much I can tell you about any of that. 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. … She’s a deep traditionalist, and Wakanda is a very traditional place. It has been really protected through trades and traditions and rituals and structures that were created by the forefathers 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. 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 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. 

Gurira: She’s more cautious about that. 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 get off the ship and you got the Guardians in this film – are there any you think she has a particular relationship with that are not in the Black Panther movie that you’re excited about?

Gurira: Yeah, I mean, it was really exciting for me to encounter all of them. It was interesting to see this whole mash-up happen, and then be a part of it. … 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.

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