Merle Dandridge: Star of OWN’s “Greenleaf”

Merle Dandridge’s dad was in the Air Force so the talented actress was actually born in Japan but spent most of her childhood in Nebraska. Growing up in the midwest taught her core values and a great love of people. She says, “Nebraska is based in God, corn, cows, and football.” A foundation that serves her well for her starring role in OWN’s hit drama Greenleaf.

The series premiere drew in more that 3 million viewers making in the number one series debut in OWN history. Backed by Oprah Winfrey, who also has a regular role, Greenleaf returned for a second season this Spring. Like the show, Dandridge has a huge family contingent in Tennessee, so it was easy for her to connect with the storyline about this Greenleaf family that runs a sprawling megachurch in Memphis. Dandridge stars as Grace Greenleaf, the estranged daughter of the church leader who returns home after a 20-year absence and uncovers family secrets and scandalous happenings.

Risen caught up with Dandridge to learn more about the conversations this show is bringing to the surface, her personal faith and what her family thinks of all the success.

Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: You are no stranger to TV but landing the lead role in Greenleaf must have been so exciting. Did you immediately like the role and the show concept or was it the people involved that drew you toward the project?

Merle Dandridge: When I first read the script, I’d never seen such a refreshing take on the life of spirit-led people and human stories – very relatable stories about the family and relationship. The ground was fertile for really wonderful storytelling and with the people involved, everyone knows that Oprah doesn’t do anything that isn’t intentional and with meaning and with purpose and locked into a bigger picture and a connection.

With those ingredients, I was like, “Whatever I have to do, if I have to be a P.A. on this show, I’ll do it. I want to be aligned with what this is going to do.” I was at SuperSoul Sessions last week and it was said every action has an equal and opposite reaction, basic physics. When we set that intention out there into the world to open up these hearts, open up this dialogue, it has come back a hundred-fold.

I hear every day people who tell me their very personal stories and how this is causing them to face something or finally move on from something, or heal from something. That is the biggest blessing.

RM: The show does a great job of creating conversations especially since the backdrop is this mega-church – from controversial topics like women preachers, lifestyle choices, and abuse, to core traits like pride, jealousy, wealth and family dynamics. Other than the obvious entertainment value, why do you think it is positive to explore these topics?

MD: The great thing about a narrative is that we get to see every human aspect of a character. We get to know these people We feel like we know all of these characters intimately and we come to love and understand them, or loathe and be curious about them. We just want to see what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Someone’s actions are not just the action. It is the result of a life, a circumstance, human failing, human victory. We get to walk with everyone through those victories and failings.

That’s relatable. Everybody knows what it is to fall down and not be understood. Watching these characters, in Greenleaf, try to stand up and continue with courage makes the audience want to root for them. Conversely, if you just see a headline, say, on Twitter and you retweet it with a snarky comment, that’s only one side. You don’t know what’s really going on in that person’s life. Because we get a glimpse into what’s really happening in people’s lives, then the conversation becomes deeper and more complex. There’s more empathy and understanding. We can have a conversation that’s more than, “Ugh, I hate what that person did.” It can be, “Oh, yeah, but did you see why? Do you see where they came from? They grew up like this, or this circumstance really damaged them and they were not able to find the tools to grow out of it. The cycle has continued.” Then the conversation goes, “How do we break the cycle? How do we make the change?” We find more understanding in ourselves and the people around us because of that conversation.

RM: What did your faith look like early on, and then now being part of the show, has it shifted or confirmed anything that you believe?

MD: Growing up, I come from a long heritage of pastors and ministers and missionaries. Church was a non-negotiable. I was going to be in church, in a pew, every Sunday, no matter what. When I found my personal relationship with God when I was 14 years old, my life suddenly became Technicolor. I felt like I’d suddenly set foot in “Oz” and I see the world completely differently.

I think in a young faith, you’re on fire and your heart is open, but there’s also a sense of… for me, it was very black and white. You were either walking the walk, or you were not. What wisdom and years and growth also gives, I think, is a love and care for people exactly where they are in their mess, in their humanity. I think that’s the message that Jesus had wanted people to know, that He didn’t block people out because they didn’t follow this, that, or the other thing. He just said, “Follow me. I love you. Follow me. Let people come to me.”

The great gift, one of walking Grace Greenleaf’s walk, is that we all go through dry periods spiritually. Being able to inhabit her and see how she’s fighting her way back to that real connection she had when she was prophetic in her ministry has been a great one. I feel like everyone’s always searching their way back to that pure place. She’s really been fighting for that. Also, I get to see in the faces of people who come up to me and almost look at me like I’m a pastor, I get to see hope in their eyes. I get to see the lightness that comes with being understood and seen and heard and even in the midst of that, still be loved.

To me, it’s just been such a profound thing to see that kind of pure open heart in people that walk up to me on the street. It’s made me walk slower. It’s made me take more time. It’s made me breathe. I’m a New Yorker, I will beeline. I don’t have time. It’s made me stop and breathe and listen and take time. I think that’s what the walk is really about. That’s what life is about.

RM: It seems that you’re close with your family. I even saw a photo from the series premiere last year with your husband and your mom and Oprah all together. What do they think about the success of the show?

MD: Everyone’s so proud. They’re so happy. I have a huge Dandridge contingent in Memphis and they’re just thrilled to bits. Talk about water cooler talk. They have everything to say about it. They’re my litmus test. “Is it working? Do you believe it? You know me, you know what my abilities are. Do you believe what I’m doing?” They are passionate about it. That’s the audience I want to, not impress, but who I really want to like it.

Greenleaf airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on OWN. For more visit:
Plus check out our full interview with Merle in the upcoming Summer issue of Risen Magazine.

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