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Before starring as series regular Michonne in "The Walking Dead," Zimbabwean-American actress Danai Gurira received her MFA from New York University. (Photograph by Jessica Sample)

African Storyteller: Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira

Rising star Danai Gurira believes in the power of hybrids—her term for people who thrive at a confluence of cultures.

The playwright and actress should know: Born in Iowa, raised in her parents’ native Zimbabwe, trained in New York City, and now based in Los Angeles, she brings a layered perspective—and a rare spark—to her work.

Accolades for her stage dramas set in colonial Africa include an Obie and a Global Tolerance Award, while her versatility takes the spotlight in screen roles that range from a Basotho immigrant in Brooklyn (Mother of George, a 2013 Sundance festival favorite) to a zombie slayer with a katana sword (AMC’s The Walking Dead).

I got a chance to pick Gurira’s brain about her unique upbringing and how it’s informed her acting–and her actions. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: How does your background inform your worldview?

A: My connection to the continent [of Africa] keeps my heart beating, and I have a sense of urgency about connecting the cultures. It upsets me when I see African stories used as backdrops, or made supplemental, which retains an idea of Africans as simple, moody, noble savages.

Q: Can you offer any advice for travelers to Africa?

A: The differences in experiences in Ghana or Liberia versus Zimbabwe are huge. Do a lot of research. Meet people from the place; let them guide you.

Q: How can Westerners approach Africa with an open mind?

A: Understand that you’re functioning from privilege, not genius. Everyone has to go through a stage of development, their own Wild West.

Q: What’s special to you about Zimbabwe?

A: Zimbabweans are interesting, powerful hybrids of influences from the British and all over the world, plus our own. I learned discipline on the streets of Zimbabwe.

Q: What are your must-sees in Zimbabwe?

A: My family would vacation at Victoria Falls and the Hwange National Park area, an amazing place for safari. The Mana Pools hot springs are gorgeous. The eastern highlands, including Bvumba, have beautiful lodges and some of the continent’s best golf courses.

Q: How has travel affected you?

A: Going to Liberia, which was ravaged by war and barely has any infrastructure, was transformative. A group of women told me stories that changed and humbled me. I’m an extension of them; I have no excuse to rest on my laurels.

Q: What instincts do you draw on when you travel?

A: I have an awareness of what to be wary of. You have to be a couple of steps ahead, especially as a woman.

Katie Knorovskyon Twitter @TravKatieK, is an associate editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. This piece originally appeared in Traveler’s August/September 2013 issue.