If it’s Sunday, please do not disturb Danai Gurira. That’s the one day the actress-playwright-activist likes to lay down her weapons (we’re talking prop sword or pen) and carve out time for self-care. “Creating ritualized time and space to nurture myself is something I’m constantly trying to figure out and develop,” she says.
It’s not always easy to accomplish, she admits, but it feeds her soul. “There’s nothing more fun, more replenishing, than a Sunday of walking in nature, enjoying friends’ company, or having a great meal.”
Today is a Thursday, and Danai is engaged in nourishment of another kind: dinner at Little Dom’s, a popular Los Angeles bistro. As she talks about her current projects, it’s clear why she needs—and deserves—her weekly day of rest.
Not only is she a star on one of TV’s most popular shows, AMC’s The Walking Dead, but she’s also been busy portraying fearsome general Okoye in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (the highest-grossing superhero flick in domestic history) and the spring blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. As if that weren’t enough, she’s the cofounder of a nonprofit, Almasi Arts, which supports and facilitates the dramatic arts in Zimbabwe, and she’s knee-deep in her next project, adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel Americanah into a TV miniseries.
For such a busy woman, Danai is remarkably down to earth, and she knows that the only way she can tackle her overflowing to-do list is by staying mentally and physically fit. In person, the results of her effort are clear. The 40-year-old has a powerful—almost regal—presence and moves her body with the gracefulness of a dancer: head high, shoulders back. Her secret? A mix of eating well (tonight it’s salmon, brussels sprouts, and spinach), spiritual practice, listening to her body, and, of course, exercise.
“As women, we’re not always encouraged to find the fullest extent of our physical power.”
For the past three years, she’s been sweating it out up to four times a week with trainer AJ Fisher, whom she met through one of her Walking Dead castmates. Their sessions, she says, are extremely challenging: “Sometimes it’s so intense I can’t remember what we did.” Fisher specializes in a method she coined called “Corectology,” which aims to even out muscle imbalances while improving strength, mobility, and cardiovascular function.
A typical workout for Danai includes lots of circuit training and Pilates-inspired moves, in which she alternates high-intensity intervals and active rest (that’s when she’ll do the Pilates 100, a classic core move from the method). Fisher has Danai wear a heart rate monitor and use resistance bands, which the actress travels with so she can do her workouts no matter where she is in the world. Fisher’s workouts also focus on paired muscle training—obliques and inner thighs, for example—“so you’re training your body to work together as a unit.” Every session, however, includes glutes work. “It’s the biggest muscle in the body and key for posture and balance,” says Fisher. (Important for Danai as she films fight scenes!)
Even though her workouts are meticulously planned and quite challenging, Danai loves simply being active. She grew up participating in sports (swimming, track, and field hockey) and still hits the water whenever she can. “I don’t remember ever not being able to swim,” says Danai, who was motivated to start when she saw her older sister taking lessons. “I jumped in the water and was insistent on learning to swim with her.”
She’s happy in a pool or snorkeling in the ocean, but what keeps her kicking are the physical benefits it provides. “It’s a stunning form of exercise, and the lack of impact on the body at the same time is amazing.”
She also stays fit by doing yoga and jogging with her dog, Papi, a rescue mutt. When Danai doesn’t exercise regularly, she senses the impact it has on her overall state of mind. “If I haven’t worked out, if I haven’t exercised and connected with my body in some way, it chips away at my feeling of well-being,” she says.
“I’d love all women and girls to experience how powerful our bodies are.”
Whether she’s exercising for work or for pleasure, she thrives on knowing that pushing herself pays off. She admits she isn’t always motivated (“I don’t think anyone loves working out all the time”) but says that feeling her body engage during a sweat session can be really exhilarating and rewarding.
And when she’s sore from a workout, Danai chooses to focus on the positive. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m in so much pain from that,’” she explains. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I feel the strength in my core, I feel the strength in my back.’”
Danai’s workouts prepare her for her rigorous on-camera roles, yes, but there’s a real-life empowerment element to them too. “As women, we’re not always encouraged to find the fullest extent of our physical power,” she says. “There’s something so exciting about tapping into that part of ourselves.”
She encourages other women to find joy by exploring different activities—“it might be lifting weights, it might be boxing, it might be something a little less [intense]”—even if it means taking baby steps or putting a class on your calendar to help with motivation. “There’s no need to break records tomorrow. It’s just about slowly finding what feels good and what feels rewarding.”
Food helps her feel good too. Danai is a loose “pesca-vegan” who says giving up most meat and dairy products years ago made her feel “stronger.” She credits her upbringing with laying the foundation for her well-balanced eating habits. “I used to have spinach when I was a kid, and my mom wouldn’t let me leave the table until I’d eaten it,” says the actress, who was born in Iowa and grew up in Zimbabwe (her parents were academics).
“Somehow that worked its way into me feeling like I have to eat spinach. And now I love spinach—I mean, I love spinach. I want it in my smoothies, I want it on the side, I want it with my meals,” she says with a smile as she digs into a plate of the leafy greens.
Danai’s parents instilled in her more than just a love of vegetables. “I was in a home where I was allowed to freely find myself,” she recalls. Today, helping others do the same is one of her biggest missions. “The struggles of women and girls is something that I’m very passionate about. I have to do what I can in the world. We all have to do what we can.” She’s on a “continual journey” to fight for gender equality, and with Almasi Arts, she explains, she’s “making sure unheard voices are heard and celebrated.” (The nonprofit pairs fledgling artists with established pros.)
“You have to seek your purpose and pursue it.”
Danai, who has won numerous awards as a playwright and was nominated for a Tony Award in 2016, firmly believes in the power of storytelling—especially narratives that highlight the experiences of African women. The fact that she didn’t hear or see those stories while she was growing up is what inspired her to start writing. The global success of Black Panther has fulfilled her in many ways. “It kind of affirms that little African girl’s instinct that these stories would resonate if they were told with passion, integrity, and excellence.”
Though she’s accomplished so much, there’s still work to be done. And Danai has no plans to rest. As she tells young people she meets along the way, “There’s no app for skipping hard work; you have to seek your purpose and pursue it.” What keeps her fueled is “remembering the goals,” and making sure that when she’s finished living in this world, she’ll have given it her all.
Even if she takes some Sundays off.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Women’s Health. Pick up a copy, on newsstands June 26.
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