As the beautiful fresh face of OWN’s television drama “Greenleaf,” Merle Dandridge brings the leading role of Grace Greenleaf to life. As the returning daughter of mega-church pastor Bishop James Greenleaf, played by veteran actor Keith David, and the family matriarch Lady Mae Greenleaf, embodied by Emmy award-winning actress Lynn Whitfield, the Greenleaf’s have become everyone’s favorite fictional faith family on television.
Wrapping up Season 2 of the highly charged series, actress Merle Dandridge’s professional journey started in theater. Born in Okinawa, Japan, her mother was Korean and father was an African American serviceman. The family eventually settled in Bellevue, Neb., where she grew up and attended high school.
It was in high school where Dandridge found her love and pursuit of theater. Throughout her professional career, she has performed in several Broadway musicals including “Spamalot,” “Rent” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” along with having recurring roles on the small screen.
The Defender had a chance to talk with Dandridge about her time as a theater student at Roosevelt University, now the Chicago College of Performing Arts, the complexities of the business and playing the role of Grace Greenleaf.
When did you fall in love with theater?
In high school in Nebraska, I was a bit of an introvert. Here, I was raised in a very homogenous culture in Nebraska and I took Drama and found a way out of my shell. So, I found a tribe. It was the genesis of my love for the art because I had a medium where I could really express myself without judgement. It just happened to be where I fell in love with it. I got a full ride scholarship to Roosevelt University in Chicago. The theatre scene in Chicago is just infectious that people will do theater out of a kitchen sink. This legacy built by Steppenwolf and all of the other wonderful theatre companies in Chicago fed this hunger. Back then, I worked with many actors who are now TV stars and some of the most interesting actors who were part of that time; when I became passionate about the craft of acting and storytelling. Out of that, I was able to start working professionally where we did a lot of gritty environmental theater. As soon as I graduated college, I loaded the U-Haul and moved to New York and I got my first job as in a bus truck tour in “Smoky Joe’s Cafe.”
Did you enjoy traveling on the road with a production compared to staying in one city?
It was one of those things where you’re traveling 13 hours on a bus and then you go all the way South again. It was rigorous but it was a good way to learn, a natural progression into Broadway. While I was on Broadway for a good 10-year stretch, during my vacations, I was very lucky to do a pilot or an episode of television; I was handling a different gear shift in the work which was really interesting and compelling to me. When I closed “Spamalot” on Broadway, I ended up on the West Coast. I started doing television and I stayed.
What led you to the role of Grace Greenleaf?
Grace led me to Grace because it’s a once in a lifetime role. Only by the grace of God would something like that come into my path and would I feel so supported—given the tools along the way to really be able to embody this character. It’s a breath of my experience in what was already on the page with her. The Dandridges are from the Memphis church. I felt like an outsider sometimes when I would go there but also knowing this is my legacy, this is who I am. This is what I’m meant to do and this is what I’m called to. I’ve also spent some time in worship ministry so being able to converge and intersect my faith life and my work life—it was a perfect fit.
When you read the script and this is your second season, what are some of the complicated challenges you found in this role to ensure the audience feels the compassion of Grace?
What’s brilliant about the writing they’re doing on the show, Grace’s heart is always in the right place. She’s always trying to look for the good. She’s always finding her way back to a pure space—to the person she knows is meant to be and the things she knows she’s meant to do. This is a very common thread, we’re trying to do the right thing but we’re constantly tripped up by different things. The things she decides to tackle just happened to be connected to her and she’s very emotional about them. She stands in the gap: “I will fight for you.”
Does it make it easier being a part of an ensemble cast on a network owned by an African American woman? Being given that lane of expression by the network for the audience to become relatable with each character?
You hit the nail on the head. The wonderful thing about being at OWN…we have room to be artists. We have room to create and grow and see and process—that is a gift for a network to give you that patience, understanding. They are smart and they are good at storytelling. They know what kind of stories they want to tell. They know what people are looking for. They are good at touching the heart of human conditions.
What does Merle do on her down time?
It’s really a gift to be able to have an ongoing job. As artists, we’re always hustling and looking for the next thing. How are we going to keep the paychecks coming in? When you have a show and you’re so blessed as me and my cast and crew are, you have a little bit of space. I like to feel that I have my own “personal conservatory.” I have wonderful talented friends going back to Shakespeare lessons, guitar lessons, and it’s a great opportunity to sit with my songwriting partners. My friends who are accomplished dancers, they get me moving and things that are going to spark the fire so that I can be
creating. Writing my own scripts, doing my own songs for the love of it. So much of it is doing other people’s content when we all have a specific voice and we all have a specific story to tell. My opinion, it’s the artist’s responsibility to tell the story.
What are top three components of wisdom you would like to share with young actors based on your experience?
Work hard, be disciplined and follow your passion. Don’t take “no” as a closed door. Take “no” as a growing tool and hedging towards what you’re really purposed for.