[Note: contains spoilers from aired episodes of Greenleaf.]
After Wednesday night’s throwdown on OWN’s Greenleaf, Merle Dandridge figures she’s just glad to be alive.
Well, she’s glad her character is alive.
“My friends like to joke that I’ve always been the guest character who ends up dead,” says Dandridge, a long-time familiar face on shows from Sons of Anarchy to Suits. “So I’m happy that this time I’m still standing.”
It didn’t come easy.
OWN wrapped up the first half of Greenleaf’s second season with the equivalent of a steel cage death match, in which Dandridge’s Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf was a serious underdog against her much larger uncle Mac (Gregory Alan Williams).
Mac had a habit of raping young girls, which has put him at odds with Grace for some time, and when Grace’s teenage daughter Sophia (Desiree Ross) went missing Wednesday, Grace demanded answers.
Words escalated into a battle where no weapon, however sharp or lethal, was off limits.
“It was inevitable they would have it out,” says Dandridge. “But I don’t think I could have predicted it to be this violent. As things are heating up, you see there’s a point at which each of them just snaps.”
Filming the scene took a full day, which meant Dandridge getting grabbed, beaten, dragged and choked as many times as necessary.
“We’re not 20 any more,” laughs Dandridge, who turns 42 at the end of this month. “It was exhausting. I went home at the end of the day with bumps and bruises – and I earned them.”
What helped, she says, is that off-camera she and Williams are good friends.
“I love Greg Alan,” she says. “We couldn’t have done the scene if we didn’t both have stage experience in that kind of physical acting. Knowing him and having confidence in him gave me the freedom to go there, the freedom to sit in those feelings.
“The drain is emotional as well as physical. After a certain point, it’s not even acting any more.”
She also gives props to the crew that filmed the scene.
“At one point Mac grabs me and lifts me up, so my feet are in the air and I’m flailing. The Steadicam operator behind me somehow managed to get a shot in the mirror, so you can see all of that.”
The battle was also cleverly constructed so it provided some resolution yet also became a cliffhanger that will hover until the second half of the season arrives in August.
Dandridge isn’t revealing any spoilers on what happens to Grace from here, and she says one of her pleasures from Greenleaf is learning herself what will happen next.
“I had no idea how far this would go when I took the role,” she says. “Grace is a complex woman who’s also in a conflicted state. She’s trying to do the right thing, but there are complications. She’s human.
“When she sees her loved ones being hurt too much, she’s one of those people who can’t just stand by.”
That imperative set up the whole Greenleaf drama.
Grace is the middle daughter of Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), senior pastor of the Calvary Fellowship megachurch in Memphis, and his wife Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield).
Grace left Calvary Fellowship and the family 20 years ago, convinced she could not live in that claustrophobic world.
She returned after the unexplained death of her older sister Faith. She brought Sophia with her, and while the family still had serious debilitating issues, she decided to stay a while.
Dramas soon sprung up, for Grace and those around her. She went on dates. She tended to some old wounds and rediscovered others.
“We’ve seen Grace in situations where she can be herself,” says Dandridge. “Like having a love interest. That makes it easier for people to relate to her.”
Dandridge also thinks people can relate to Grace’s strained relationships inside the family.
“She left to get away from that,” says Dandridge. “And getting away was working for her. If she didn’t care so much about her sister, I don’t think she would have had to come back to face it.
“We all know people who carry family issues to the grave.”
Dandridge also comes to Greenleaf with personal experience in the megachurch world.
“I was in the ministry for some time,” she says. “All my family is immersed in a black church in Memphis.
“So the ministry is in my blood. I think my family sees me playing a pastor on TV and thinks that’s a way of saying I have the calling, too.”
Whatever the theological implications, Dandridge says that after many years where much of her work was in theater, she loves playing a character whose story keeps unfolding.
“Doing Broadway is an entirely different thing,” she says. “After a while you become a technician, learning how to do the same story eight times a week, 300 days a year, while keeping it fresh.
“In the theater, you have to speak so people in the last row of the peanut gallery can hear you. With television, the camera does that work for you.”
She’s pretty sure she will return to theater at some point, she says, but for right now she’s enjoying a spell of Grace.
“Greenleaf never mocks religion,” she says. “It reminds us that people in churches are human and no one is perfect.
“People come up to me all the time and tell me that because of Greenleaf, they can talk about issues in the church that they couldn’t talk about before. To me, that’s a great thing.”
Sometimes even worth fighting for.