Actress Merle Dandridge Opens Up About Lead Role on Oprah’s New Show, Greenleaf
Veteran actress Merle Dandridge is no stranger to the television screen. A true thespian Dandridge got her start on Chicago theater stages before transitioning to Broadway musicals like Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar. The daughter of an African-American servicemen and a mom of Korean and Japanese decent, Merle Dandridge worked meticulously to find opportunities that helped shine her talents as an actress and a singer.
Merle began her television career in 2003, taking small parts, eventually securing recurring roles on All My Children, Sons of Anarchy, StarCrossed, and most recently on NBC’s The Night Shift.
Her latest role as Grace Greenleaf on the Oprah produced series, Greenleaf is sure to make her a household name. Starring as the prodigal child, Grace returns to her family’s home and the family’s megachurch after a 20 year separation. Tragedy brings them together, but it’s a calling and a need that keeps Grace there.
I recently caught the NYC premiere of the pilot episode of the show, and spoke to Merle Dandridge after watching, speaking to her briefly about the role, how she landed the lead and her expectations for the show. Read my complete interview here…
Parlé Mag: First, talk to me about your character and how did you end up on the show, did you audition?
Merle Dandridge: I did audition, I did a meeting with the casting director, I went on tape and didn’t think twice about it. Usually we do that, and it’s archived. A week later I was working on a TV show and I was checking my email and I had an email saying: “Ms. Winfrey would like to meet you today at 6 o’clock.” First of all, What?! And then second of all, what about? And of course it was for this show that I had just done this casting and had gone on tape for. So, I went in, it was Ms. Winfrey and Craig Wright, the creator. We just talked about the show, the themes, the character, how unique and beautiful it is for the black church but for people in general. Being in that conversation, it was almost as if we just flowed into a relationship, it was ordained, we were supposed to be working together and they offered me the role right there, which was kind of amazing.
Parlé Mag: Did you have any reservations auditioning for that characters, like some of the topics dealing with church, I’m not sure if you’re religious yourself?
Merle Dandridge: Yeah, I am a Christian, the Dandridge’s are from the Black church in Memphis, which is where the show is set and I have an uncle who’s a bishop. The family is well engrained in the Black church, it’s in my bones and I felt like I had an understanding of what they were trying to accomplish and do with the show and also an appreciation and love and affection for it, so for that I was excited to play the character. On top of that, great writing, great producing, wonderful casting. The people that I get to work with all the time are my teachers, they’re wonderful people, but also, incredible artists who are helping me grow.
Parlé Mag: In the pilot episode it is clear that you’re back for a cause and you basically want justice, looking forward, what are some of the ups and downs that we can expect from your character?
Merle Dandridge: I won’t say that she wants justice, otherwise she probably, would’ve come back sooner. She’s just a powerful reporter, she’s being considered by 20/20, she has found her niche in life, she has found her strength and if she had wanted to, she could’ve came back and stirred the pot much sooner than 20 years. It just happens that one thing leads to another and she finds herself engrossed and in a place where she must stay. I don’t think that she knew that this behavior was still going on or maybe she had blinded herself from that but at any rate, she’s in a place where she can’t turn away from it anymore and that’s the key turning point, when she decides to stay.
Parlé Mag: As an actress of color, having an opportunity to be a part of a show like this, how great is it to be part of something with the full focus being on Black people?
Merle Dandridge: I think that it’s an opportunity to see all of the intricacies of the Black community and to see them as, not necessarily, just Black. These are universal stories and universal story lines, things that everyone can relate to. Families that’s troubled and broken, it’s everyone’s story. Uniquely, I think that it’s nice to see ‘US’ up there, to see us represented in a way in a family that is not destitute, in a family that is well educated and actively in their work, trying to heal lives and help people. So often, the portrayals that we get, as an actor, is the crack addict. Even in my conversations with my fellow Black actresses, that’s the thing that makes them the most excited is that we’re seeing ‘US’ as strong, elegant, wonderful, beautiful people rather than some stereotype.
Parlé Mag: Something that I think might get lost early on for viewers is your daughter in those scenes, does she continue to get lost, because she goes off and does something crazy in the first episode, do we continue to see that throughout the season?
Merle Dandridge: Yeah, her journey goes up and down and in and out. Those two girls together, they grab your heart and second of all she is essentially turning into a PK (preacher’s kid), although she’s never had any experience in the church, she was just thrown into that, it’s not like she was just born of it nor does she understand navigating suddenly being the ‘light skinned’ one while really being the ‘dark skinned girl’ in Arizona, which is something ‘Merle Dandridge’ relates to when you place yourself in different places and how you fit in the scheme and in the scale, she’s completely thrown by it, but at the same time she is also Grace’s equalizer she’s that person who keeps Grace grounded because no matter what’s happening with the crazy family, she looks at her daughter, she sees a reason, she sees a purpose. She sees the virtue of what they’re trying to do.
Parlé Mag: Besides Greenleaf are you working on any other projects?
Merle Dandridge: I am, I have another character that was preexistent on NBC’s Night Shift and I’m a videogame character in some of their video games. I always have my feet in several different pools.
Parlé Mag: What do you hope people get from the show Greenleaf and get from your character, Grace?
Merle Dandridge: It’s never too late. Being a human being is a flawed experience but it’s never too late to start over or to find healing or to get a better understanding.
Parlé Mag: It was a pleasure.
Merle Dandridge: Thanks, same to you.
Watch Merle Dandridge in Greenleaf. Greenleaf will launch with a two-night premiere on Tuesday, June 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT and Wednesday, June 22 at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET/PT on OWN. The series will regularly air on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT for the remainder of its 13-episode first season.
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