She’s toured the United States and Europe six times and starred in leading roles on Broadway from Aida to Rent, and Spamalot to Tarzan, she serves on the Board of Directors at The Geffen Playhouse, she’s had recurring roles on television shows and even voiced video games, but achievements aside, it was Merle Dandridge’s Midwest upbringing that may have laid the best foundation for her starring role in OWN’s hit drama Greenleaf.
The series premiere drew more that three million viewers making it 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 past 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 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 twenty-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 approaching life with open hands.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You were born in Japan. Your dad was in the Air Force and your mom was a local. Then you moved to the U.S. and spent most of your childhood in Nebraska. How did living in the Midwest shape who you are today, if at all?
Merle Dandridge: Midwestern values are very much family and people oriented. I like to say that Nebraska is based in God, corn, cows, and football. Those are kind of the hinges on the culture that built me, really. What I’ve also found is that there’s a great love of people and a slow pace that really lent itself to core values. I’m glad to have grown up there.
RM: You earned a full ride scholarship to Roosevelt in Chicago so obviously early on you knew your passion and were actually gifted in it. How did it develop and what excited you most about theatre?
MD: Drama found me. I took it as an easy elective in high school and ended up finding a tribe. I was a pretty singular person before that. What the theatre did was open me up because I was very quiet, and it gave me a group of like-minded people who were fearless. That gave me the courage to really be myself and walk my path. That was right in line with the time that I found God. I found God and I found that [theatre tribe] the same year.
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.
I’d always been in church, but that’s when I actually had gotten baptized and started a personal relationship with God. That’s how I know that there’s something else, and other, in what I’m doing with my work. As long as I stay connected to that [relationship with God], it has always blessed and served me.
I committed to it because I was raised by a military dad and an Asian mom, and the combination of those things mean discipline, discipline, discipline. I had a lot of discipline. Personal discipline as well, and was able to apply myself one hundred percent.
So when I was gifted with this full ride scholarship – otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college and leave Nebraska – I committed and in those college years in Chicago fell passionately, fundamentally in love with acting. I saw what the art could really do, and that is: encourage, turn a mirror on the social condition, and heal. Those things just turned into a life calling.
RM: You are no stranger to TV but landing the lead role in Greenleaf on OWN 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?
MD: When I first read the script, I knew that I’d do whatever I needed to do to get in this show. I’d never seen such a refreshing take on the life of spirit-led people and just human stories – very relatable stories about family and relationship. The ground was fertile for really wonderful storytelling and 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 connection. With those ingredients, I was like, “Whatever I have to do. If I have to be a PA [production assistant] on this show, I’ll do it. I want to be aligned with what this is going to do.”
I was at SuperSoul sessions 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. Every day I hear people who tell me their very personal stories and how this [show] is causing them to face something or finally move on from something, heal from something. That is the biggest blessing.
RM: The show does a great job of creating conversations especially since the backdrop of the series is a megachurch – 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 under that and continue with courage, yeah, the audience wants 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, “Ah, 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: You talked a little bit about growing up, but what had your faith looked 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 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 just a New Yorker, I will beeline. I don’t have time. “What are you doing? I gotta-” 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.
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.
RM: You’ve toured the U.S. and Europe many times over and starred in Broadway shows. What’s something that you’ve learned when it comes to the journey of going after and achieving your dream?
MD: First, being unrelenting is key. You have to, even when it hurts the most, get up again. There’s purpose in what you’re doing. This passion is in your heart for a reason. Life is hard. It’s going to knock you down more times than you probably expect, but you must find the courage and the strength to get back up one more time. Also, look for the blessing in the “no’s” because there will be so many more “no’s.” I tell you, I have had my heart gouged out by “no” after “no” after “no.” When I look back, I can see God’s hand in the “no’s” because it led me to something else, which I can probably connect all the dots from “no” to “no” to “no” to where He was leading me, where He was instructing me, preparing me, and getting me ready. When it came time, I could look back on that and say, “Oh, God, You did that! Now I can do this.”
RM: I love that you have a heart to give back and you do that in a number of ways from your time to resources, from work with veterans to homeless pregnant women, you are even on the Board of Directors at The Geffen Playhouse… why is it important to you to serve?
MD: If certain people and moments in my life hadn’t been generous with me, I would not have been able to step forward or find another breakthrough. There were some times that I thought I was really going to languish, and the clouds parted and somebody just gave me a hand or a nugget of wisdom or just a hug. When somebody has been generous with you, you just feel compelled. You must reach back and do the same. You must pay it forward. I feel like where I can be of help, I have to be of help. When I can be of help, if I have something to give, I need to give it.
It’s also been my theory that if you close your fist, nothing can come in, nor can it go out. If you keep your fist open, the blessing will come in and you must keep it open to pass it on. It’s just a dropping point for a place for the blessing to come into your life and you can siphon it out where your eyes see it needs to go.
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