Nobody Can Danai
Gomillion & Leupold. Styling, Jason Rembert. Hair, William Marshall. Makeup, Renee Garnes.

At first glance Danai Gurira seems nothing like her sword-wielding character on AMC’s hit drama The Walking Dead. Unlike Michonne, who burst onto the screen dragging two armless zombies behind her, the stunning Zimbabwean-American actress floats into the room awash in color and offering a wide smile. Fighting off the undead in postapocalyptic Atlanta seems like an unlikely gig for a classically trained actress, but the New York University grad has never shied away from a good story. In 2006 Gurira won an Obie Award for her portrayal of a pregnant, HIV-positive newscaster in the play In the Continuum, and her historical drama, The Convert, the first in a trilogy of plays she wrote about Zimbabwe’s cultural identity, garnered her a fellowship at Princeton and a Whiting Writers’ Award. “I love Shakespeare, I love Ibsen, I love Shaw,” says Gurira. “But their stories are no more superior than the stories of people who look like me.”

As if penning award-winning dramas and starring in one of the most watched shows on television weren’t enough, Gurira recently received more critical acclaim for her leading role in the indie film Mother of George, opening in select theaters this month. The movie centers on a Nigerian woman’s struggle to reconcile her new life in Brooklyn with the traditions of her homeland. “I get it,” says Gurira, who was born in Iowa and raised in Zimbabwe.

Though she describes her style as “a little pulled together”—choosing simple cuts, clever details and explosions of color to accent her elegant frame—there’s one thing Gurira’s serious about: her hair. A decade ago the actress shaved her head and never looked back. She wishes more sisters in Hollywood would do the same. “A young woman recently told me she’s thankful for me. She said, ‘We’re trying so hard to change ourselves. Then we see you and realize we don’t have to,'” recalls Gurira. “For me, it is all about self-love and the right to walk in this world the way we were created.”

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Check out images from ESSENCE’s October issue in the gallery above!