‘Greenleaf’s Merle Dandridge Teases ‘Bittersweet Moments’ For Grace & AJ, The Mysterious Stranger & More
‘Greenleaf’ returns for its final season on June 23. HL spoke with Merle Dandridge about Grace’s guilt about AJ, Grace’s evolution, and that stranger at Faith’s grave.
Greenleaf season 4 ended with shocking changes in play for the Greenleaf family. Grace notably stepped down as a pastor, Phil left Charity for Judee, and Calvary is set to be demolished. In the final moments, Grace also came face-to-face with a stranger while at Faith’s grave.
HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with Merle Dandridge about the fifth and final season, which premieres June 23 on OWN. While she wouldn’t give away the identity of the mysterious stranger, she did say that storyline will encourage “introspection and a lot of self-reflection” for the audience. She opened up about Grace’s guilt and how Grace will be navigating her relationship with AJ. Merle also reflected on what playing Grace Greenleaf has meant to her.
Will we find out who that stranger was who crossed paths with Grace at the end of last season?
Merle Dandridge: There’s going to be some talk about it, of course, but I do believe it’s still going to continue to be a question mark for the fans, and I think that the way the writers have positioned that particular story has opened itself to a lot of introspection and a lot of self-reflection for the audience as well. I know that’s a little cryptic, but you’re going to have to hold on because it’s kind of a crazy ride.
At the end of last season, Grace very shockingly resigned. What can you say about her journey in this final season?
Merle Dandridge: It’s a lot of accountability for everything that has happened thus far. From season 1 when she was just getting to know her family again, and she was fighting for everything and dealing with her resentment or bitterness toward her parents and the way the church had treated the situation with her sister. She did a lot of pointing the finger. In season 2, her rage overcame her, and she had to sit with and deal with the consequences of her own issues and how she let her need for justice and vindication overwhelm and put her in a precarious position. In season 3, we saw her dealing with her identity with the whole who’s the daddy thing. In season 4, she really was galvanized and released into her purpose in the pulpit, but all of that is derailed by, again, her past coming back to stare her in the face, and she has to be accountable. She has grown, as we as human beings grow. When we know better, we do better, as Maya Angelou says, and she is working to do better and do right by her son. Stepping down from the pulpit was bold. It was a hastily made decision, but I guess we will see if she will be able to stand behind that.
I was going to ask about AJ. What is the status of Grace and AJ’s relationship when season 5 begins?
Merle Dandridge: They are testing the waters with each other. Obviously, there is a lifetime of wounding and trauma and guilt. Grace has so much guilt over the choices that she herself made when she was a very scared child, having just been run off and separated from her family, and probably shame that she felt being on her own, and the fear of being on her own as a teenage mother and not knowing what to do or what she could provide for her son. And then, of course, the guilt of knowing that she might have been able to prevent a lot of the heartache that he had in his life had they stayed together, and she had not given him up. Plus, keeping it from his father, Noah, so there’s so much guilt that she is trying to make up for. She may be overcompensating, and it’s just rubbing him the wrong way. There’s a lot of heartache and bittersweet moments, and I just hope that they can get past this so that they can actually have a real relationship.
You mentioned Grace’s guilt. Will she finally come to terms with that? Or do you think that’s something she probably can never ultimately get past?
Merle Dandridge: Well, how do we as human beings deal with guilt? It can really hold us back. There’s a lot of things to feel guilty for. She’s not going to be able to get that time back, so she has to reconcile that with being able to give him family, give him love, and hopefully turn his walk around. She wants to give him an opportunity to really be a part of the family. It gets me even just thinking about how he was denied so many of those things and growing up in the foster system and all of that. I feel so badly for him, but to move forward, she’s going to have to forgive herself as well. Hopefully, he will be able to forgive her as well.
On another note, we have Grace’s relationship with Charity, which really took a turn in those final episodes last season. What can you say about what’s ahead for these for Charity and Grace?
Merle Dandridge: It’s been very messy. I have to say that — again, regarding guilt — Grace’s had a lot of it with her sister, otherwise, I don’t think she would have taken as many blows from Charity as she has since she’s come home because the hits just keep on coming. There is a sense of guilt for having left her alone and having so much focus on Faith and what Faith was going through that Charity kind of got left on the wayside. If you think about it, she left home and possibly left her sister in the path of a predator with no one to protect her or fend for her because her parents weren’t believing that that was going on with their Uncle Mac. She has a lot of guilt. Moving forward, now that Charity has been acting out in such a way, enough is enough. Charity has felt like she’s in Grace’s shadow for so long, but now she’s a grown woman, and it’s time to put these childish ways behind her so we can move forward as grown women.
What is the state of Greenleaf family in season 5? At the end of last season, it’s clear that a lot of changes are ahead regarding the church.
Merle Dandridge: I think Grace is going to be able to put some of her investigative reporting to use to try to get to the bottom of exactly what’s been going on. But the foundation of everything has been broken for them. They want to take the church, the house is in play, so many different things that everything that they identified with as the Greenleaf way or the Greenleaf legacy, those things are stripped away and have the potential to be stripped completely away from them. So there is a fall to your knees, surrender in all of them, and I love that they are reevaluating and going back to the source, which is the purity of their faith.
In the trailer, we do see Darius make a little appearance. What can you tease about his return?
Merle Dandridge: The way that Darius and Grace left things was in the midst of a crisis, and they were both trying to do their best, but it was just so painful. It just kept being dissonant in the way that what he needed to move forward in his job was directly painful and detrimental to her family. They were just set up to constantly be in the path of hurting each other. It was unfortunate because they really connected, so the way that the relationship exploded left so much unsaid, so many things undone. For circumstances to bring their roads to converge one more time brings some of those old things up, and they’re able to address it.
Will there be some closure?
Merle Dandridge: Closure on the relationship. Well, you’re going to see a lot of old ghosts, romantic and otherwise, coming back up to the surface. Dealing with both of her big loves in Noah and Darius, Grace has a few spinning plates to balance.
Without giving too much away, how do you feel about how Grace’s story comes to a close?
Merle Dandridge: The creator Craig Wright said something very interesting. When you watch the pilot, you can see the seeds of a lot of the things that happened in the closure of the series. I do believe that these characters are, although albeit not comfortably, sometimes when you step into your purpose and move forward, change is uncomfortable. I won’t say it’s roses, but it is necessary.
There is a spinoff in the works. Have you been told what’s going on?
Merle Dandridge: I can’t tell you anything. I’m very excited about it because we have built this Greenleaf landscape, and it’s our love letter to the culture. It’s been a labor of love, and to be able to speak to our experience and have it resonate so universally all over the world is the true gift. I think in a time where we have so much heartache and anguish and need to connect and let our hearts be seen, the fact that a trusted legacy like Greenleaf can be some kind of continued comfort and reflection of that during the tumult that we’re in is wonderful.
What has playing the character of Grace Greenleaf meant to you?
Merle Dandridge: That is a big question. Playing Grace Greenleaf is one of the great privileges of my life. To be partnered with one of the greatest communicators of our time, Oprah Winfrey, for her to trust me with a lead role like this is nothing short of the stuff of dreams. I have had the great privilege of having the way that Grace listens and hears and fights for people seems to translate in the way that people look at Merle, and it’s been a great lesson for me when I’m rushing to stop, listen, see what’s going on. If there’s something going on that’s not right, we do something about it. Our young people, if they get anything out of it, I hope they get that out of it that they are seen and celebrated and loved. There are Grace Greenleafs out there fighting for you.
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