Nina Terrero
June 21, 2016 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Merle Dandridge was already a stage veteran when she decided to head to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in TV. “It was time for me to move forward and move on,” reflects Dandridge. “What I opened my hands to was opening myself to a new experience, not letting Broadway be the end. I may go back to that one day, but there is much more possibility and much more life beyond the 15 blocks that I had been living in for a good decade.”

But the 41-year-old didn’t count on landing a lead role. “I did not envision that for myself, even though I can carry a Broadway show as a leading lady, no problem,” says Dandridge, who starred in productions of Rent and Aida. “The funny thing is that for several years, people that I really respected and really admired kept saying to me, ‘I can’t wait till you get your own show.’”

Dandridge was born in Okinawa, Japan to an African-American father and Japanese-Korean mother and grew up in small-town Nebraska. “I call my culture kimchi and collards,” jokes Dandridge.

For her, drama was less of a career calling than a fun elective, a way to get a good grade in high school. “My friend said, ‘Take drama, it’s easy,” recalls Dandridge, who went on to enroll in the drama program at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. “I took it, and found my squad.”

Following her cross-country move from the Big Apple to the City of Angels, Dandridge landed roles on Sons of Anarchy, The Newsroom, and The Nightshift, among other shows. But her big Hollywood break lay with Greenleaf EP and recurring actress Oprah Winfrey, who, along with show creator and EP Craig Wright, cast her as the clan’s eldest daughter, Grace, in the racy Memphis megachurch-set series. Skeptical of both the Christian faith and the family she left behind, the character is a sophisticated reporter who returns home after her sister’s death. Incidentally, Dandridge spent summers in Memphis with her father’s Pentecostal family, so she shares Southern and religious roots with Grace.

“She sees that there are these [scandalous] things going on, which fuels her so deeply and reignites this fire,” says Dandridge. “I relate to that.”

But while Grace’s “come-to-Jesus moment” lies ahead in the series, Dandridge has a certain media mogul to thank for hers. “The entire first day was just scenes with me and Miss Winfrey,” shares Dandridge, laughing. “It was a daunting, crazy place to start.

Greenleaf premieres with a new night event on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET and Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET. The series will then air regularly on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on OWN. Check out the extended trailer for Greenleaf below.

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