Danai Gurira interview: ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’

When the cast of “Black Panther” won Best Film Ensemble at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild Awards, it was star Chadwick Boseman who spoke on behalf of the cast.

“We all know what it’s like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured, yet you are young, gifted and Black,” Boseman said as he was flanked by his SAG Award-winning co-stars. “We know what it’s like to be told there’s not a screen for you to be featured on; a stage for you to be featured on. We know what it’s like to be the tail and not the head; we know what it’s like to be beneath and not above. And that is what we went to work with every day. Because we knew — not that we would be around during awards season and it would make $1 billion – that we had something special that we wanted to give the world. That we could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing. That we could create a world that exemplified a world we wanted to see.”

After Boseman died tragically in the summer of 2020, just before production was set to start on the “Black Panther” sequel, the world mourned the loss of the Marvel superstar and the “Black Panther” cast was left to grieve their friend and leader.

“We obviously didn’t know how we were going to get through it, we just knew we had to lean on each other,” Danai Gurira, who plays Dora Milaje leader Okoye in the “Black Panther” franchise, tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “We didn’t know what we were stepping into, and how it was going to go down for us to do this without him and to do this with the grief that we had not been able to process together yet because we lost him right at the height of COVID. So it was a lot of connecting with each other, leaning on each other. There were some days you were stronger and some days other people in the cast were stronger.”

Set in the aftermath of “Black Panther” as well as “Avengers: Endgame,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” focuses on the loss of T’Challa (Boseman), the Wakanda king and leader, and how his friends, allies, and family members deal with the repercussions of his death. For Okoye, that means coming to terms with not only her grief but what place she might hold in the kingdom going forward.

“I realized it only later that we were actually dealing with the exact same thing in the sense of the disorientation she goes through,” Gurira says of how her sense of loss matched her character. “She has massive responsibilities. So she better be a control freak. I’m the same way, I’m a control freak. And then I was disoriented because we’re trying to do this movie in the midst of being part of this grief ourselves…. I didn’t even realize how much I and Okoye were mirroring each other. But just stepping into Okoye’s connection T’Challa was something that was very specific – and in my connection with Chadwick and not having him there to make this thing together. We were artists making this thing together and he was this very anchoring, powerful, loving, generous leader who was always there. He brought such joy and peace to this to the set.”

Despite the heavy subject matter of the film, “Wakanda Forever” is still a Marvel blockbuster – filled with rousing action and bouts of comedy, including many one-liners dropped by Gurira herself. During one pivotal sequence, she’s paired with Letitia Wright’s Shuri as they travel to America in search of Riri Williams a.k.a. Ironheart (Dominique Thorne). The actresses’ rapport is a deadpan delight and, Gurira says, matches their relationship off-screen.

“She’s of my closest friends, I adore her. That’s my little sis,” Gurira says of Wright. “We play a lot in those scenes. We both had our shades on [in the Riri sequence] and [director] Ryan [Coogler] was like, ‘oh sweet, keep your shades on.’ Those are the shades that we just came to set with. We were just talking smack and he kept a little bit of it in the movie…. Because we’re very close friends and we both have a very similar sense of humor, we’re just able to sort of find things.”

Gurira says she isn’t shy about improvising dialogue and as an acclaimed playwright, whose play “Eclipsed” was a Tony Award nominee, she often has thoughts about the story and character. “Sometimes I have too many thoughts,” she jokes. “You could ask Ryan about that. I have thoughts.”

But she says, the director is “always open to things that work. So I’ll throw some stuff in and see what he takes. He does appreciate that. He might take it and he might not. But he appreciates the fact that a lot of us are storytellers in various ways – and people bring in thoughts and ideas. He’s open to you finding things that are not necessarily on the page and exploring that. But I can’t help but be me. So he knows I will come in and be like, ‘Let’s talk about page 97.’”

“Wakanda Forever” also allows Gurira to expand on her physicality in the role. She’s got a number of huge fight scenes in the film, including a pivotal moment where the audience and Wakanda learn how the previously unseen warriors from the undersea kingdom of Talokan are a force to be taken seriously.

“There’s so much going on in that fight. And there’s storytelling happening in that fight that was very important. The revealing of this world through her and how she deals with them and how she can’t deal with them,” Gurira says of the scene. She spent hours and hours prepping for the sequence, pushing her body so that the movements became second nature.

“I am a certified adrenaline junkie. I love getting in that thing. Give me the fight,” she says. “I love to be able to on the day to not think and that requires so much work. You’re layering in the specificity of the fight over the course of months. I know from experience how much I have to give to get where I want to go on the day. I want Okoye in the driver’s seat on the day. I don’t want Danai anywhere in sight. And the only way to get that is to work my butt off for months.”

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is in theaters now.

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UPLOADED Dec 7, 2022 8:30 am