Merle Dandridge: From Military Kid to Greenleaf’s Prodigal Daughter

Merle Dandridge has had a shining career on stage and on screen since the early ’90s. Starting out in the Chicago theater scene, Dandridge moved on up to Broadway, acting in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Rent,” and “Spamalot.” Her talents have even graced the gaming world, lending her voice to many award winning video games including Half Life 2 and The Last of Us. Her most recent project, OWN’s “Greenleaf,” has already been signed for a second season and debuted to rave reviews.

We caught up with the Nebraska football and fitness fanatic to discuss what it’s like acting across different platforms, being the prodigal daughter of Bishop Greenleaf, and working with inspiring women.

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You’ve had the chance to work on the stage and on TV. Are they different in how you approach the work?

They are both completely different and I love them both for different reasons. Being able to be a part of the Broadway community for a decade was a real gift. It’s a very tight community and a very supportive community. They’re really out to put good vibes out into the world. But, what I love about doing Broadway is the rehearsal process. It’s six or eight weeks of being in a sort of laboratory, working with all the creative juices. It’s where I felt like the fun, artistic expression came out. Being able to get up in front of the audience is always a blast. With TV, it feels like the rehearsal process all the time. You get to follow the story and the evolution of your character week after week. It really helps when you get to work with masters in this craft, like I do on “Greenleaf.” They are the best scene partners and playmates a girl could ask for.

Speaking of “Greenleaf,” could you tell me about your character Grace?

Well, I play Grace Greenleaf, the oldest daughter of Bishop Greenleaf. She is the prodigal daughter returning home after 20 years of being away. In the show, she hasn’t seen any of her family during that time and is coming back with a 16-year-old daughter of her own. There has been a lot of “juicy sin” going on in the church that needs addressing. Gracie is the truth teller and was kind of ousted by her family because of it. So, she comes back for her sister’s funeral all these years later and finds that the abuse and misuse of money is still going on.

The show sounds like it touches on family issues a lot of people can relate to.

It does. I really feel like everyone can draw from the experiences in the show. It’s about a family with real issues. Each family member is written with such familiarity.

Do you connect with Grace on a personal level?

I really do. The show is set in Memphis and around a mega church. My family, the Dandridges, are from this area and deep in the church. So, I felt some of the characters I understood coming out of that situation. I think everyone can relate to a story of someone going home and how that makes you feel. How it takes you right back in time. But I love my character Grace. She is flawed, but always trying to do the right thing.

The “Greenleaf” project is full of such strong and inspiring women.

I’m so lucky to be able to work with such strong and inspiring women on this project. Oprah Winfrey and Lynn Whitfield are so powerful and elegant. The show me on the daily how to be more graceful and to trust my power as a strong woman. They are extraordinary women.

You have worked in the gaming world, also. How did you get involved with that genre?

You know, people ask me about that a lot, because I’ve had great luck in the gaming world. I’ve been in some fantastic games that people really connect to. The first game I was involved with, Half Life 2, just won game of the decade. I think I got involved with that maybe 14 years ago by going to an audition. I was very taken back because the other women in the audition were big movie stars and women I grew up watching. So I thought, “I’m not going to get this, but it’ll be fun.” Turns out, it was for me. I had a great time doing the game. I worked on a couple spin-offs of it, but fast forward 10 years later and I had an audition in a similar fashion. I worked on The Last of Us, which just won a bunch awards. Ironically, the creators were fans of the game I had previously worked on, so it was nice for them to kind of know my work. When you are in the gaming industry, you are in it and it’s hard to break into. But for me, I get to tiptoe in and out, getting to be a part of it once in awhile. It’s such a fun genre to work in.

You come from a military family — is that why you work so closely with veteran programs?

I grew up on military bases. My father was in the Air Force. So, I got to see first hand how much these people sacrifice for their country. It’s important to me for those veterans to not be out on the street. We should honor these people. Working with the veteran programs allow me to feel like I’m doing my part in honoring them. 

Are there any other causes you enjoy working with?

As a woman, I also love working with Harvest Home in Los Angeles. They provide housing and holistic care while the women are pregnant. They don’t just put a roof over the women’s heads but actually care for their well-being. I feel like it helps set up a better life for the child on the way as well. It’s a powerful cause that I am very proud to be a part of.

 

Be sure to catch Merle on “Greenleaf,” Wednesdays 10 p.m. EST on OWN.

 

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