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Gabrielle Dennis loves the mystery behind her new series, 'The Big Door Prize'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What if there was a machine that could tell you what you were really meant to be in life? That's the premise in the new Apple TV+ show "The Big Door Prize."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GABRIELLE DENNIS: There's this mysterious machine that appears in the local general store, and it's similar to kind of an arcade nostalgia-type game, but no one really knows what it is. All they know is that you're able to find out your true life's potential.

SUMMERS: Gabrielle Dennis plays the character Cass opposite Chris O'Dowd. They're high school sweethearts now aging into their 40s. At first, Cass is hesitant to try the mysterious machine, called the Morpho. But before long, she pops her quarters in the slot, and out pops a card revealing her life's potential. And while we are not going to spoil it, let's just say it's something she never considered before.

DENNIS: She's first confused and doesn't feel she's worthy of the card that she receives. But she slowly starts to find herself a little bit more, and she gets excited about her potential to grow as an individual separate of someone's daughter, separate of someone's wife, separate of someone's mother. But who is Cass, and what does that mean for her future and her happiness? And what we find is that Cass has always had this explorer spirit within her. There's a scene where she goes into this closet to retrieve a book for Dusty's mother. And in that closet, we see a multitude of boxes, and they're all labeled either Cass' music, Cass' dance lessons, Cass' wine experience trip. Like, there's - she just has all of these sad little dreams that have been deferred throughout her life that she's just kind of boxed away. And a lot of times we feel we box parts of ourselves away and put them to the side in order to pursue things to make others happy or to do things that we must do and must attend to.

SUMMERS: You keep coming back to this idea of what makes us happy and how we find happiness. And when I was watching the show, that's all kind of summed up to me in this moment where Chris O'Dowd as Dusty asks your character, Cass...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG DOOR PRIZE")

CHRIS O'DOWD: (As Dusty) Are you unhappy in this life?

SUMMERS: And then there is this pregnant, excruciating pause before she says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG DOOR PRIZE")

DENNIS: (As Cass) Can you put your stuff away, please? I want to use my heat press, and I just, like, need space.

SUMMERS: That's a hell of a weighty moment in a marriage.

DENNIS: Absolutely. It's a very bold question to ask someone if you don't feel you're confident in the answer. You know, he assumes she's happy, but - and she assumes she's happy. And then when she hears it out loud, it's like, oh, my gosh, I don't know how to answer that question because I've never sat and internalized that question myself. So when someone presents that question to you, it's almost like you run into this wall out of nowhere, and you don't know how to answer it.

And I always say it reminds me a lot of, like, if you're going through something and you're in an emotional state and you're trying to keep it together - maybe you're around friends. Maybe you're at a function. Maybe you're at work. And it takes that one person to notice something's a little off, and they ask you, are you OK? Those words are like pulling that one piece from the Jenga game, and it just - everything goes and crumbles. It's like you - emotionally, you just feel like you have this explosion. You want to cry. You're just like, no, yeah, I'm fine. But had no one just asked that question, you wouldn't be - you wouldn't - it wouldn't tap into whatever that emotional disconnect is. And he tapped into something that was disconnected in her that really shook her to the core in a way because she didn't know how to answer the question.

SUMMERS: I am so curious to know what drew you to playing Cass. What drew you to this show?

DENNIS: Mostly it was just like, here's this script that is tackling this philosophical kind of theory and this question, this huge existential question. But it also is finding a way to make us laugh. And at the end of the day, it made me feel like there was something very mysterious about it. And it was hard to explain. And I think because it was hard to explain when I read it, it intrigued me that much more.

SUMMERS: I have watched you, as many have, on HBO's "A Black Lady Sketch Show." And if I'm correct, your very first acting gig was also sketch comedy. And on its face, that might seem like a really different kind of work compared to being on a show like "The Big Door Prize" and playing one character over an entire season. I mean, it's a funny show, but it's different. So I wonder, what have you brought to the character of Cass that you've drawn from your career in sketch comedy?

DENNIS: Well, just like all characters, it's kind of just really finding at the core who they are, finding at the core what their needs and wants in life are and going from there and just really grounding. Even in sketch comedy, as big and as, you know, ridiculous as some of those characters can be, they're grounded in their own truth and their reality of what that world to them means. And even though it might seem absurd from the outside, inside they 1,000% believe what they're saying or doing. I've been able to play a gamut of sketch characters that - sometimes they've been a little more dramatic. Sometimes they've been a little more intense and serious. You know, I remember there was this character that I played. She was a teacher, and people just thought that was the most exciting and beautiful, like, sketch because she was so emotionally in tune with these kids, or they were so much, I guess, so emotionally in tune with her to tell she was going through something in her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW")

KAYDEN GRACE SWAN: (As Michaela) You're not shiny anymore.

DENNIS: (As Miss Miller) What do you mean?

SWAN: (As Michaela) You don't put the gold stuff on top of your cheeks anymore. We liked it.

DENNIS: (As Miss Miller) Oh. I'm sorry. I don't wear highlighter anymore. What is in my life to highlight?

Because that's life, right? There is that levity in life where, you know, there's situations - people laugh at funerals. So things can be going tough in your life, but you find a reason to laugh. You find a reason to find joy in certain situations. And that's what I really love about this character and this show - is that we don't stay in one lane. There's the opportunity for all of the actors to both be funny, be dramatic and to just be real.

SUMMERS: So before I let you go, I do have to ask you, if a machine like the one in the show existed, like the Morpho machine existed, and you had the opportunity to go into a store like that and sit down and get a card that would answer that question about your true life's potential, would you do it?

DENNIS: Based on that particular machine that's asking, you know, for some very sensitive information and your fingerprints, I don't know that I would. I guess I'm just, like, a worrywart, and I'm always worried about, oh, there's always a scam, and someone's out to get me - you know, identity theft. But I think it would take me some time. I would warm up to it as long as other people I knew kind of trial-and-errored it for me. But it would definitely intrigue me. I would definitely - it would definitely be something I would want to try. I don't think that I would rush to try it.

But also, I would have to sit with, is it something that I would want to know? - because if I pulled a card that said anything other than what I've invested so much time and energy and passion into, I don't know how I would react to that. I don't know if I would be excited to go on a new journey or if I would sit and sulk at the fact that, oh, my gosh, I missed my mark to - I don't know - be this, you know, brain surgeon or whatever, like, to be a little bit more helpful to society. Who knows? But I think I would definitely be intrigued. And I probably wouldn't be the first to sign up, but I think I would eventually for sure do it.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Gabrielle Dennis of Apple TV+'s "The Big Door Prize." Thank you so much for being here.

DENNIS: Thank you so much for having me. Enjoy your rest of your day.

(SOUNDBITE OF BTS AND COLDPLAY SONG, "MY UNIVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.