Ah, to be an alluring actress, served with a romantically glamorous lifestyle on a windblown silk scarf. The royal treatment of daily facials, the finest makeup and hair treatments, and love scenes with hot stars. What a dream job to have, right? Truthfully, the aforesaid barely scrapes the surface of what it’s really like when the lights and cameras all point at you – demanding vulnerability down to the bearing of your soul, as millions watch your every breath and eyebrow quivers for the deepest most genuine performance. Acting is more than just a pretty face. It demands a brazen spirit, courageous enough to embody the dark places of each character while remaining sound, balanced, and professional in your own life.

Upon mention of pretty faces with brazen spirits, Merle Dandridge of OWN’s hit show Greenleaf rises to the forefront and has granted us gracious access into the inner workings of her flourishing career. Greenleaf’s first season premiered with the highest ratings that a scripted show had ever enjoyed to that date since the inception of Oprah Winfrey’s network. The series has since been ordered for a third season which will begin filming in the fall. But what elements make up the actress who can lead a such a successful television show, while bearing her soul every moment on screen?

Born in Okinawa, Japan, Dandridge grew up with a strong Korean influence from her mother and siblings and soon realized her uniqueness as the only child of African descent in her household. “Mix in a southern Memphis-bred father and plant us all in the cornfields of Nebraska… well, that’s some interesting stew,” said Dandridge. “What that ultimately taught me is that my gifting is different than anything I’ve ever seen represented, that my voice is unique with a story that no one else can tell. And BECAUSE of that, not in spite of it, I matter.”

The skilled actress joined the drama department for fun in high school where she enjoyed just being on a team centered around self-expression. Little did she know, the youthful decision would launch her into a life changing passion. “The result of that was a full ride to school in Chicago—and that’s where the passion and the artistry were birthed. The way Chicago actors were throwing themselves into the work was thrilling. I saw some of the most exciting theatre, art, and music I’ve ever seen during my time there,” recalls Dandridge.

Merle launched her career on Broadway with leading roles in classics like Spamalot, Rent, and Jesus Christ Superstar. She’s also done video game performance work and has appeared in dozens of television shows to date as she continues to translate her talent to multiple stages.

“There are so many ways to touch audiences. I’ve worked in small storefront theaters, I’ve also performed for 5,000 seats. For both and everything in between, there is a shared experience in community that will only happen for that one moment. There’s something spiritual and special about it that is sacred to me. In television, there is a personal intimacy we bring the audience into. They become invested because they walk the journey with you. I love it because you have to be truthful, you can’t go half-way in.”

On Greenleaf, Dandridge incarnates the lead character of ‘Pastor Grace Greenleaf’ who is the catalyst for the necessary unraveling of the family owned mega church and some of it’s core officiates. “Grace and I are so similar in many ways, but polar opposite in others,” she admits, “Overall, I’m proud of her. She’s so brave! Grace came into the series in a reactionary place. She became driven by this dark vengeance deep in her spirit. In it’s purest sense, that same drive that was pushing her to bring Mac down is the same thing that makes her so relentless in standing up for what’s right and standing in the gap when faced with another’s injustices or persecutions. Her heart is always in the right place, so we can root for her even if she’s strayed from the path. That makes her human,” Dandridge says.

In speaking to that human place, that desire to expand and grow better by the day, it behooves the actor to evoke the humanness that so often gets lost in the hollywood lights. For Merle, this means grabbing full hold of every experience by remaining open to all that life has to teach her. No doubt, this gift nourishes her ability to connect with an audience and become a better storyteller by understanding what that means from every angle of the process. “Greenleaf has been the biggest blessing and learning experience of my life,” she said. “Every day I take something new away. When I’m not filming, I’m studying or learning from our crew full of legends in their craft. This is the same as when I was learning theatre and spent my afternoons hanging lights or painting sets. An understanding of the entire machine makes you a better teammate and will help you when you’re out front. In watching what the gaffers do, I know better what the light angles are doing on my face, etc and so on. I consider myself an apprentice of every department.”

As Greenleaf gears up for its next season, Dandridge is back in New York for her sixth Broadway show, Once on this Island, and is extremely excited to be performing in one of her all time favorite shows. “We have 16 part vocal arrangements as well as rain and sand on stage in the round!” Merle exclaimed, “Two of the four gods have been gender-bent. I play Papa Ge, Demon of Death – and Alex Newell from Glee will be playing Asaka, Mother of the Earth. It’s an absolute thrill with extraordinary people. I’m working with new people AND people I’ve known 20 years. Being back in New York with the Broadway community are profoundly fueling me.”

When asked what type of advice she would give to those who aspire to act, the BAFTA winning actress lent some honest insight. “This business is full of the word ‘no’. Embrace it and learn from it. It will guide you deeper into an understanding of your gifts. It will take you out of situations that are not for you, situations that would have hindered you and it makes room for you to be placed in fertile soil where you can prosper and grow. Be ready. You must constantly be sharpening your skills, stirring your artistry, drinking in inspiration. Love it…not for likes, but for what we artists can do for society. How we can heal or shed light on a social condition. Dig for the truth and keep going.”

You can find Merle Dandridge sharing her daily “on set and stage” experiences on Instagram via @merledandridge and online at www.merledandridge.com – beyond that, the actress is preparing more creativity to pour into the world. “You can expect a lot of original work AND resurrected projects from me in the coming year. The time is now. I’ve never felt more ready,” she said. “God is using me fully at the intersection of my faith walk and my creative passion. It’s wonderful.”



About The Author

Founder, HBR Media

K. Nicole Mills is the Founder of HBR Media. She transitioned from Wall Street to television and film development, and has worked at NBCUniversal, Universal Pictures, and Showtime Networks. She currently develops digital programming for premium networks. Reach out anytime! info@hbrmedia.org

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