Greenleaf star Merle Dandridge on that 'heart-wrenching' death and other series finale revelations
Plus, her first time meeting Oprah, and whether audiences should expect to see her leading the upcoming spin-off.
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the series finale of OWN's Greenleaf.
After countless sermons, a multitude of family fights, and seemingly endless foes coming for their Memphis megachurch, OWN's Greenleaf has anointed audiences with its final episode. As the titular family said goodbye to one of its own, they also waged one last battle in their attempt to save Calvary. Over five seasons, the family has faced its demons — sexual abuse, tax fraud, greed, affairs, and more — and persevered, (mostly) maintaining their faith and as much righteousness as possible.
In the end, all the loose ends were tied up. Soon to remarry, Bishop (Keith David) died in Lady Mae's (Lynn Whitfield) arms, but not before writing "I Do" in a book for her to read and repeat, and Lady Mae ended up getting to stay in her mansion (which they just discovered legally wasn't theirs to inherit decades earlier); Jacob (Lamman Rucker) rejected Kerissa's (Kim Hawthorne) final plea to fight for their marriage, but she agreed to share custody of their young son; Charity (Deborah Joy Winans) turned down Phil DeMars' (Sean Blakemore) request for another chance after he finally saw through fiancée Judee Whitmore (Valerie Jane Parker) and her conniving father Bob (Beau Bridges); and cousins Sophia (Desiree Ross) and Zora (Lovie Simone) are about to head off to college in New York City. The series had its, well, genesis with daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge) returning home following the death by suicide of her younger sister, Faith, and it concluded as she had a revelation (sorry) that she accomplished what she came home to do. And so, the episode ended on her leaving the family estate, venturing to Manhattan for a job interview at ABC's 20/20.
EW chatted with Dandridge about this chapter in the Greenleaf family story coming to an end, her first time meeting executive producer (and series guest star) Oprah Winfrey, how Grace — and she — evolved through the series, and whether we should expect to see her in the recently-announced spin-off.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I recall, at a press preview of the series back in 2017, being so blown away by and enamored with the pilot. And my fascination with this family and story never ended. Looking back, what excited you most as this journey began?
MERLE DANDRIDGE: Well, when you get into a relationship and into a creative collaboration with Oprah, there is an expectation because she does nothing without clear intentionality and an understanding of what she wants to do with it and what she wants to say with it. And it was clearly so different than anything that had been on her network before, and anything that she had done before. And the fact that she was also going to be in it — I found myself regularly clutching my pearls, like, what? Is real life? [Laughs] So I went at it and jumped into it with a bit with that big leap of faith but understanding that no matter what the outcome, no matter how it was received, we are going to bring our very best to it. And it was scary at first, for me — I've never been out front in such a way. And now, being at the end of this journey, I'm deeply satisfied and I feel like we have all grown — the characters have grown, the people involved in it have grown, and we have been a part of something that has deeply touched a lot of people. As an artist and a woman of faith, those are very powerful things to be able to claim in your life.
Do you recall the first time you met Oprah? Was it during the casting process?
Yes! Normally, on a project this big, you would test up to 10 times, and there's usually a lot of rigor and stress in it. There was no stress in my casting process. I remember I had guests at the house when I got the 10 pages for an audition. It was the night before, and I thought, oh my gosh, am I gonna be able to memorize 10 pages while I have guests in the house? It just happened to be subject matter that felt familiar and easy to me, so there was no stress in working on the material. And then I went in with the casting director the next day, put it on tape a couple of times, and we had a nice chat. Again, very calm and easy and everything about it just felt good. Like a comfortable sweater. And then the next week, I was working on another show and I remember I was standing with Eric LaSalle, Morris Chestnut, and Nicole Ari Parker, and we're just sitting around in between takes and I got an email that said, "Oprah would like to meet you today at 6 o'clock. Can you make it to her office?" And I dropped my phone. [Laughs] I picked it back up and they were like, what's that about? I showed it to them and they were like, well, that's the call, isn't it? So I got myself together, finished the day and drove to her office. I met Oprah, and I met the creator of the show, Craig Wright, and also one of the other producers, Carla Gardini, who is a profound force behind the scenes — you don't hear her name often, but she's responsible for a lot of the great storytelling that you see. And we sat for a couple of hours, and it was very surreal to just sit on the couch, sip some water with Oprah and just kind of feel each other's energy and get to know one another and talk about how we relate to this material and what it means to us. And at the end of that conversation, we all looked at each other and [she was] like, "Well, you're Grace to me." That was it.
The series kicked off with Grace coming home for a very specific reason, and she ended up staying for longer than I think she anticipated. How do you encapsulate her journey and where it took her — and you — physically, emotionally, mentally?
The show took Grace to some very tough places. She was forced to straight on confront her Boogeyman. And in so doing, upset the stasis and peace — as Lady Mae said, "sowing discord in the fields of her peace" — and that was disrupting everyone else's life because she was doing that. Ultimately, it helped her push through. It also was one of the catalysts for the other family members to get out of their comfort zone and address some things that they needed to address as well. Watching them stumble, get back up, try to heal, try to come back to their faith, try to come back to each other, try to heal things within the family that had been terrible for decades, is a familiar thing to a lot of people and sometimes an insurmountable thing to families. Watching them fight for it, I think, was inspiring to people. It was inspiring to me, I'll tell you that. One of the great things about Greenleaf is that it afforded me the opportunity to go and seek my own identity so that I could go visit South Africa, visit Mozambique, and get in touch with that part of my culture, and then also take my family to Korea — because I'm half Asian — and meet family over there that I had never met. And it circled me back to a place of better knowledge of self and love of self. So, the things that Greenleaf gave me — not only a fantastic job, but also the resources to seek out more of myself. It has been empowering, healing, challenging, and wonderful.
Grace has endured a lot over these five seasons — a pretty horrible car crash her, her daughter's health crisis, the uncle's abuse and eventually killing him in self-defense, mourning the death of her sister, her paternity, reconnecting with the son she gave up and his near-death by suicide. Is there one storyline, in particular, that was fulfilling in ways that the others weren't?
The mother-daughter relationship [between Grace and Lady Mae]. I think people either are running away from their parents or trying to heal something with their parents — the relationship between parent and child can be a complicated one. And the aching layers of discontent between these two women kept people on the edge of their seat because you never know when one of them was going to snap, or if they were going to turn around and try to love, or if one was going to try to love and met with a slap on the other side — they were constantly missing each other as they tried to venture forward and heal themselves. Only then could they start to heal the relationship between them.
And with Lynn Whitfield on the other side of that, every single scene between the two of you was so dynamic. Make you sit-up in-your-seat-and-pay-attention dynamic.
Oh yeah! Absolutely! [Laughs] You knew [those scenes were] going to be fireworks. And that's wonderful storytelling because the writer set it up in such a way that they were never going to see eye to eye until they had to wrestle some big, big monsters in their own heart down to the ground. Watching them come together each time was like watching a car wreck. You can't look away but it is terrible to watch.
Also terrible...Bishop's death in the penultimate episode. He had health issues earlier in the series, and he was supposed to be going to see a doctor all this season. So it wasn't entirely surprising that he died, but the scene and the moment in which it happened was really a punch in the gut. And heart. When did you find out this was really going to happen? What was the reaction like amongst the cast?
When we got that script, I think we were all in denial about it. We get rewrites all the time and we weren't certain when Bishop had the heart attack what was going to happen when we came back for the next episode after that. And surely we all had some kind of hope that he would make it through yet again and that we would live happily ever after in our healed places, but life doesn't work that way I guess. We get surprises every single day, as COVID and this double pandemic has taught us. So, when we actually went to film those scenes, it was heart-wrenching and really difficult. We were very fragile those days. And I will say for myself, watching Bishop descend [into the ground] at his gravesite was saying goodbye to this profound chapter in my life. There was something about it that that hit me in a place deeper than just sorrow for the character, but also what that character means and what it has meant to people and also what a magnificent man the Bishop is. And also what a magnificent man Keith David is. But that we were able to see this Bishop, who had always been well-intentioned, come to terms with his own fallibility and how he has operated things, and come to the foot of the cross with a humble heart and start over again, those are important things.
At the end of the finale, we see Grace go off to pursue this opportunity in New York. What should we deduce from that about whether this spin-off that's been announced will be focused on Grace?
You never know what's going to happen. That's the fun part about television, is that really you can turn the story any way you want to turn the story. But there's going to be several of the characters in New York now with the kids going to college and all of that, but they could all turn around and just be like, "we need our family, we need to go back home, I didn't like New York." There are so many things that they could say and do.
So what you're saying is, the focus of the spin-off is still being figured out?
Oh, you're asking me for a firm answer on what it's going to be? Uh-huh, well, I can't tell you that, boo. [Laughs]
I had to try.
I was like, oh, you want me to speculate. "No, tell me the answer." [Laughs]
So then, let's say, in theory, this is the last time we will see Grace interacting with the Greenleafs. What will you miss most about being part of this family and ensemble?
We really are a family. That's the thing. And I think we always are going to be a family. On and off screen. I am so moved by the healing that they have created amongst themselves because the entire series has been mostly contempt from all the family members, so for them to go out on a note where they're speaking life over each other, they're speaking love over each other, I want to sit in that space with it so much more. Especially since Merle as Grace, I took all of those blows for five seasons. I'd like to sit in the lovey part please, for a little while. But as Lady Mae says at the end, that's when you know it's time to go — you've done your work.