The strategically sprouted palm trees at the ER entrance of a former southwest Atlanta hospital aren’t making Drop Dead Diva actress Margaret Cho feel any warmer. Save for a fresh slash of red lipstick, Cho’s lips might be blue as the temperature flirts with the forty-degree mark on this spring morning.
“Even on a day like this, I love working here,” Cho says. “The energy is completely different. Over the three seasons we’ve shot here, the cast and crew have become a family. When we’re not shooting, we hang out together. That doesn’t happen when you work on a show in Los Angeles.”
A few feet away, Drop Dead Diva creator Josh Berman is observing the dance-scene dream sequence set to lead off the Lifetime series’ third season premiere on June 19. The hit show, set in Los Angeles, now averages about 2.6 million viewers and airs in more than sixty countries. “To be completely honest, when we came here in the first season, it was for the tax incentives,” he explains. “But we stayed because of the creativity. The film crews here rival any anywhere, and we work on soundstages and a back lot here that we never could have enjoyed on the West Coast.”
According to Lee Thomas of the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s film office, Diva is among five scripted TV series currently filming in the state that each contribute tens of millions to the local economy with every season. There are also more than a half dozen reality series filmed in Georgia, but those are not so lucrative for the state.
The Drop Dead Diva courtroom and apartment soundstages, appropriately located on Diva Drive in Peachtree City, are expansive. The back lot serves as a mini L.A., with a courthouse and coffee shop—a fake urban oasis nestled in a suburban Atlanta golf cart community.
A few days later, Cho is still cold as she and series star Brooke Elliott shoot a walk-and-talk scene down the hallway of a very air-conditioned set. Elliott plays brilliant, plus-sized lawyer Jane Bingum, whose body unintentionally inherits the soul of a size zero but brain-cell-challenged blond model named Deb after a mix-up at the pearly gates revives the wrong decedent—a novel spin on the beauty-is-just-skin-deep message. Cho plays Teri Lee, Jane’s ever-efficient assistant.
“Keeping both of the characters straight in my head and figuring out who is dominant in any one scene is the absolute best part of this job,” Elliott says between shots, as she hands off her filming work heels to an assistant for a pair of rehearsal slippers. “It’s a challenge that I love, especially when we get feedback from women who love the show’s message.”
Being in practically every scene, Elliott elects to stay in Peachtree City during the show’s five-month, thirteen-episode shoot. The rest of the cast routinely head to Atlanta—stopping for late-night burgers at Holeman and Finch Public House, catching a show at the Tabernacle, or supporting Cho as she tries out new material at the Laughing Skull.
“It’s amazing to be a part of something that has a purpose,” says Elliott of the comedy-drama-fantasy series. “As long as I have a cute sushi place and a good pizza place, I’m good to go!”
Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Television/Bob Mahoney