Merle Dandridge is a star in every sense of the word. Not only is she extremely talented, but she’s passionate, gracious and well-spoken. Currently, she can be seen as Grace Greenleaf on OWN’s Greenleaf. I got the chance to talk with Merle about how she originally got the role, Grace’s relationship with both Lady Mae and Darius and so much more. Keep reading to see what she had to say!
First off, I just want to say congratulations on being renewed for season four.
Thank you. That is a real blessing. We don’t take it lightly.
I wanted to quickly start by asking you something about the beginning of Greenleaf. I don’t think I’ve ever read what your audition process for the show was like. How did you get involved in the project originally?
Here’s how you know it’s for you. I’ve had so many audition processes where I tested eight or nine times for the same role and this one was just so easy and peaceful. It just felt so right and ordained. The way that it came to me is [like] in any other audition. The night before, I got 10 pages of a script to go in and put it on tape with the casting director. I happened to have a house full of guests, people from my childhood that I was hanging out with so I wasn’t even paying a lot of attention to it. Except when I read it, [I saw] that, “Oh, I seem to really understand it” and it just inherently seemed to go into my spirit. I can’t do auditions without being fully off-book. But for some reason, 10 pages of this script was nothing. It just went right in there, right into my brain, and it was not a big deal.
So I went in and put it on the tape for the casting director and we had a real nice time just sitting and chatting about it. Then I left it and forgot about it. Then a week later I was working on a different TV show and I was checking my email on a turnaround and had an email from my agent saying, “Oprah would like to meet you today at 6:00. Can you make it to her office?”, which is kind of a silly question. “Can you make it to Oprah’s office?” [laughs] “Yes, I’ll be there. I’ll be there” [laughs]. So we went and we sat down with the creator Craig Wright and one of our other producers, Carla Gardini, at Harpo. We talked about this script and the intentionality behind the story for a couple of hours. It was so easy. We were all likeminded and there was nothing that felt, “Oh, we might disagree on this.” We all were in agreement. It really felt so right and at the end of it they looked at me and said, “Well, you’re Grace to us.” I was like, “Well, I’m very humbled.” But it felt right and I knew that that was true as well. So that’s how Grace Greenleaf came to be.
Let’s move on to the current season, particularly last week’s episode. As we can see from the flashbacks, Grace is still struggling with her guilt over everything that happened between her and Mac. For the remainder of the season, how will she be able to find a balance and try to move on from that situation?
Well, as in anything, your test becomes your testimony. I think that’s what we’re seeing Grace deal with right here. She had had this horrible secret and a lot of dissonances and a fracturing [of] her family for so many years. She was completely cut off from them and when she came home, suddenly she was face to face with all of her worst demons, the worst being Uncle Mac. If you haven’t watched season one and two, I’m going to give some spoilers to your readers… But she and Mac went to the mat and it resulted in Mac being killed. That’s not something… even though it’s her, I guess, slaying her dragon, taking the life of another human being, especially a family member, whether it was an accident or not, is not something that just goes away. It’s with you. I think it’s very good of the writers to explore that and to put that right next to how she uses that energy, which is to fight for someone else who didn’t have the same leg up as she did. When she goes to the prison to fight for Coralie Hunter who… whether or not we believe her killing her husband was in self-defense, we do know that she endured a lot and this is Grace investigating it. I think she’s going to use her circumstances to step forward and help others who might have been in similar circumstances and not have the resources that she had.
Something else that’s going on with Grace right now is her relationship with Lady Mae and it’s as icy as ever. We only have a couple episodes left for this season, so what’s going to happen between the two of them? Will they ever hash things out or at least reveal the root of all this aggression and disdain that lady Mae puts on her daughter Grace? What’s going to happen with that relationship?
It’s one of my favorite things to hear how the audience speculates about why and how there is this rift between mother and daughter because I think that is a very relatable thing when you have some kind of a generational or long-term family rift. And sometimes your circumstances, or things you’ve done, have nothing to do with it. So it’s a constant source of curiosity and debate about why this is going on between Grace and her mother. What I’m going to say to the viewer is, “Hang on.” Because this season, not only are we going to crack it open a little bit, but I think you’re going to get a little bit of satisfaction and it’s only going to elevate. It’s only going to get juicier and juicier, this thing between Lady Mae and Grace.
We went to Twitter to see if anyone had any questions and someone wanted to know: Will Grace start pushing Darius away again in order to mitigate the influence he has on Sophia while she’s going through her faith drought?
Oh my gosh, those are big questions. Well, as a mother, she’s going to be ferocious in protecting her daughter’s heart, protecting her daughter’s faith, especially having been a person who has gone through their own questioning of their own faith for so long and what that means to be in a ministry, even though she’s been out of the church and out of the pocket of the family for so long. I think with those things on her heart she’s going to fight even more for some kind of peace for her daughter and I’m sure this breaks her heart. Sometimes, I just see Grace kind of lay down and be like, “I don’t know what to do for you, honey. I don’t know how to do it.” But as we know, she is always going to rally, find a way and stand and fight, especially for the people that she loves.
In regards to that relationship with Darius, we’ll have to see. I feel like they are constantly wrestling with things that a lot of people are wrestling with. They came together as two journalists, that’s what Grace has been doing since she left the ministry. She’s been in journalism. So they have the same modus operandi of elucidating the truth and making sure that the voiceless have a voice. When she starts to open her eyes again to the call on her life to ministry, and that God has for her, there is a dissonance that happens with that. We all know that in life we evolve. In life, we change. I’m very interested to see how this relationship navigates that, if Darius will come on and come to church or if Grace will compromise and put the relationship first. We’ll have to see.
Oh, my gosh. Rick’s the best. Here’s the thing: when you deal with someone who has garnered acclaim like he has with three NBA Championships, to operate at that level, it comes with a level of excellence and a great work ethic and he brings that to the show. I always know that he’s gonna come correct and we’re going to have really, really great work when we come to the set.
When we were talking about Sophia and everything that she’s been going through with her faith drought, I was just kind of curious: for you personally, what did your faith look like early on when the show first started and since then, has it shifted or stayed the same since you’ve been on the show and gotten to dive deeper into these issues?
My personal faith?
I’ve always been a person of great faith and I even was a worship leader for a very long time. I’ve been in ministry, my family’s always been in the ministry. Greenleaf happens to be a great intersection of my faith and my craft. I feel like, yeah, Merle has had a chance to step into some things that God has been whispering in my heart for a very long time, which is a lot of things like self-acceptance, bracing myself as his beautiful creation. Also, I think as Grace has gained confidence on the show – because I never thought I would be upfront on a TV show that Oprah Winfrey [was behind], so I was very timid at first – and as Grace grew more confident, so did Merle.
I know we don’t have that much time left so I’ll just ask one last question. Our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd. What is something that you personally nerd out about?
What do I nerd out about? Let me think. Well, you know, I’m a Broadway girl so musical theater. I love [how] musical theater stars do fun stuff. I love being part of the Broadway community because we always do such fun, goofy stuff. What else do I nerd out about? Speakers and influencers that I’ve always loved. The fact that I sometimes get community with them and I’m able to talk and meet with them. I still am like a little girl. I’m just like, “Oh, my gosh. You don’t even know!” I just get so tongue-tied and I’m just so excited to meet them. I guess that’s the one thing. And anything Disney. I can still put on Little Mermaid or Aladdin any day of the week. Oh, that’s funny. The last Broadway show I did was the revival of Once on this Island that won the Tony. I shared a dressing room with Lea Salonga, who is the original voice of Jasmine in Aladdin. I made her sing Disney princess songs to me all the time and we had to duet with them too. So I definitely nerded out over her. Fortunately, she’s really, really cool and has become a very close friend.
Quickly, going back to influencers and speakers, who are some of the ones that you’re obsessed with?
Oh, who am I obsessed with? My boss has got to be number one. I mean, Oprah? No brainer. I love Ms. Patti [LaBelle]. Patti, now when she’s around the set it’s hard for me not to just see her and sing her songs to her [laughs], but I try to control it because she’s so sweet and she’s so funny. She just lights up the whole set. Let me think… Really, I’m a fangirl at heart. When I get to meet people who have given me a vision for where I could go in my life, or who I’ve seen live empowered and generously and full of integrity, I just am so excited to meet them.
Featured Photo: Wes Klein