'Drop Dead Diva' Q&A: Brooke Elliott and Margaret Cho on how TV -- and comedy -- affect women's body image
Image Credit: LifetimeDrop Dead Diva returns tonight for its second season (Lifetime, 9 p.m. ET). When we last saw Jane (Gracie Award winner Brooke Elliott), a brilliant plus-size attorney with the soul of a model (literally, her name was Deb), she was facing possible disbarment for turning in a client who used her to win a fraudulent case, and had finally decided to focus on her new relationship with attorney Tony instead of waiting for Grayson, Deb’s former fiancé/Jane’s current colleague, to realize she was still his soul mate. Oh, and she’d just found out that Jane had a secret husband. The questions of Jane’s spouse and possible career change are answered in the premiere, which features the dream sequence return of “Judge Paula Abdul,” who presides over a cast song-and-dance number to “Would I Lie to You,” a track that Elliott, a Broadway vet, and Cho, who’ll release a comedy music album, Cho Dependent, this August, perform together on the new Drop Dead Diva soundtrack.
We’ll tease more of what’s to come in season 2 at the end of the Q&A, but here’s the best news: Ben Feldman is back as Jane’s guardian angel, Fred — and he’ll become Kim’s assistant, so he’s in the office more. “We’re all a united front because we all sort of hate Kim, so it really works out well,” Cho says. According to Elliott, fans have a hard time separating actress Kate Levering from Kim, the firm’s resident Mean Girl. “People have asked me, ‘Is the actress who plays Kim nice?’ I say, ‘She’s actually lovely,’ and they’re like, ‘I don’t believe it!'” Cho understands why: “People identify with Jane so much that any kind of wound that Kim would inflict is so to the bone. Think of all the people who are superinsensitive in our own lives who had said things, and you just get this residual anger. I think it’s a brilliant character in that way. She represents a lot of the insensitivity that I’ve grown up with. It’s very real to me.” That’s a good place to pick up our conversation with the actresses, which touches on everything from Ricky Gervais’ fat jokes to why Sean Hayes could play a great love interest for Jane.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Give us something to cling to when we feel the urge to transfer our hatred for Kim to Kate.
Margaret Cho: Kate is a great, great champion of animals. She’s such a supporter of their rights but also, she’s a solo dog mom. [Laughs] This season, we have a chimpanzee in an episode [it’s the subject of a custody battle], and the chimpanzee was so in love with Kate. It would look at Kate, then climb a tree, and then look at Kate and reach down and want Kate to watch her while she was climbing a tree, and then get down off the tree, and grab Kate’s hand, and try to climb the tree with Kate, thinking that Kate was also a chimpanzee. It was so beautiful to see them interact. We all had been warned: Don’t look at the chimp, don’t talk to the chimp, it’s a wild animal. Don’t give the chimp Xanax. Be very careful around the chimp. It just loved Kate. You don’t want people to soften to Kim, because Kim’s evil, but maybe that will get people to like the actress.
Brooke, have you ever seen something in a script that you objected to?
Brooke Elliott: There have been a couple of times where I went, “I think that’s too much.” You have to be careful, because the audience really identifies with Jane, as Margaret was saying, and so they take those comments as if they’re being said to them personally. You’ve got to be really careful not to offend your audience or make them feel like you would at all be saying that about them. It’s something I’m actually very aware of and pay very close attention to. As a responsibility and a duty to the character of Jane, I take it very seriously. Our writers do, too.
We’ll spend a lot of time talking about how the show deals with the issue of body image, but what I love about it is that it’s not just about that.
BE: I love that you get that. There’s so much more to it. That’s the point of what we’re saying: Stop looking at just weight, we are entire people all the time. We are more than just what we look like.
Which [pointing to Elliott] is beautiful, by the way.
MC: I think the show treats this character with so much dignity and respect. That’s why this show’s so popular. She’s a beautiful woman, and it treats her like a beautiful woman. She’s got all these guys fighting over her. There’s so much drama in her romantic life. She feels beautiful, she is beautiful, it’s just about taking somebody [the real Jane] who formerly considered herself invisible and making her visible. Deb’s never been invisible, she doesn’t know how to be. So when she’s in Jane’s body, she knows how to be visible. That’s what this is about: Somebody becoming visible to themselves and to the world, which is powerful…. In my memory, Paula Abdul was one of the first celebrities to be made fun of for gaining weight. When she was on the MTV Video Music Awards in 1989, she was larger than she had been when she did “Straight Up,” and people were so horrible about it because they were so unused to seeing a celebrity gain weight. And then after that, she did her video for “The Promise of a New Day,” and they stretched the video to make her body shape different. I always thought that was why Paula was cast, not just because she was a judge on American Idol but because she has this history.
BE: I don’t remember that. I’m glad I don’t, in a way.
MC: It was really traumatic for me, just watching somebody that I thought was great and beautiful having people talk about her in such derogatory terms. People are so insensitive, and the way people talk about women’s bodies is so undignified and so terrible. I hope that our show brings dignity to the conversation, bring beauty to the conversation, and people can feel good in their bodies again.
People are talking about that Urban Outfitters T-Shirt that reads “Eat Less.” A stick-thin model wore it on their website, which, to make matters worse, showed her in profile.
MC: It’s really depressing when so many women are killing themselves, it’s just genocide. The way that people talk about women’s bodies and the way that you don’t see realistic images of women anywhere… To make fun of that, it’s ugly.
BE: Women get it from all angles. It’s never enough, it’s never laid to rest. Look at all the magazines: There’s always 10 ways to be better at something. I just feel like, especially young girls, they’re just hit, hit, hit, hit, hit. I hate that for them, and I hate that for all of us. But they’re so impressionable. I remember being that age, I remember feeling like that. I so desperately don’t want them to feel that way. They have to find their own strength to resist the pressure of society, but hopefully with shows like this, they get to see a different perspective. If one younger girl won’t have to feel that…
Ricky Gervais’ “fat jokes” are another interesting subject. I have a friend who loves him, but almost cried when she saw him doing jokes that hammered women specifically. The people she was with were laughing, so she was conflicted: Was she only upset because she felt targeted, or is it sad that in a society that judges women, someone’s okay adding to it because it’s “for their health”?
BE: I have to say, I did not hear what he’s saying, but when anyone speaks flippantly of someone else’s struggle, it’s difficult — whether it’s weight or anything else. Maybe he’s saying that he does know [what it’s like to have weight issues], but there are things women go up against that men don’t understand.
That’s why Sarah Silverman has said it’s the one topic she personally will never joke about, because when you live in a society that tells you “fat women, at least in white America, don’t deserve love” it seems mean-spirited. Margaret, as a comedian, do you have an opinion?
MC: I haven’t seen it, but I always think he’s funny. The fact about his humor is that in his comedy, people always say that he’s fat. So it’s interesting, he’s the one who’s been hurt by it, too, a lot. So I wonder what that means… In any case, as a comedian, I could never make fun of it because I almost killed myself so many times as a younger woman. I took so many diet pills. I have a heart murmur because I took Fen-Phen in the ’90s. I have permanent damage to my body because I wanted to be thin. That desire to have a smaller body, to take up less space in the world, was so important to me that I don’t remember most of my twenties. I didn’t appreciate the young woman that I was, or my young beauty, because I was so obsessed with the fact that I felt fat. It’s never good to add to anybody else’s suffering. It’s an important topic to really get the gravity and the importance of — dealing with dignity.
Are there other shows on TV you think handle women’s bodies well?
BE: I’m still a big Grey’s Anatomy fan. And I haven’t seen the finale yet, it’s still on my DVR. [Laughs] But one thing I like about that show is they don’t mention weight. They have all different body types on that show, and it is never mentioned.
MC: That’s really true. It does have a lot of different types of beautiful woman who are all different sizes. That is really lovely to see…. You know what’s really weird, I really love that show Jerseylicious. [Laughs] It’s like a Jersey Shore rip-off [on the Style Network] but it’s all girls. It’s a reality show. I think in reality TV, there’s far more real people, because they’re real.
BE: There are so few representations of women that look remotely real in scripted television. Hopefully that will change for the better, as opposed to shows called “Tipping the Scales,” or things that like, which are just insults. And no one is confused that they’re being insulted. It’s not lost on anyone when puns like that happen. I don’t even know if that’s an actual show.
If not, it will be when someone reads that title. [All laugh] On a lighter note, what other shows do you watch?
MC: I haven’t seen the Lost finale yet.
Have you remained spoiler-free? That is the question.
BE: You know, I haven’t seen one second of any episode of Lost ever. So I am going to start from the beginning, and it’s going to be so fun.
MC: I’m behind on Damages, but I love Damages so much.
BE: I gotta start back in Season 1 again though. I picked up random episodes in season 2 —
MC: I hate that, because then I feel psychic. [Laughs] ‘Cause then I know what’s going to happen. Not good…. I’m dying for Mad Men [to return]. I think Christina Hendricks does a tremendous job of bringing full-figured beauty to this very stunning place. She’s just gorgeous, and she could not be more voluptuous and curvy. It’s like that Marilyn Monroe archetype, which is so missing from our landscape. It needs to return, that kind of worshipping of womanhood. I think that’s one of the reasons that show’s a big hit, because of her and the way they treat her beauty.
BE: Right now, I’m kind of DVRing The Bachelorette with Ali. [Laughs] I watched the first half hour of the first episode, then I was like, I have to go learn my lines, stop watching The Bachelorette! All I got through was the bear killer. After we premiere, maybe I’ll take an hour or two and watch The Bachelorette. But my sister called, and she was like, “Tonight’s the night.” We always watch it together on the phone.
MC: I’m like obsessed with Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. It’s my favorite show. It’s only 15 minutes long; it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen anyway. There’s a new spinoff with Dr. Steve Brule. It’s so insane. It’s John C. Reilly, who would be good on our show.
Who else would you like to see guest on Drop Dead Diva?
MC: I think Sean Hayes would be an excellent boyfriend for Jane. I saw him [Thursday] at The View with his pants off, and he was so cute. He was changing in his dressing room, and of course I was looking. He has such a nice body. Adorable.
BE: Every time I see him, I’m just like, [awestruck] “I’m such a big fan of yours.” And he’s seen our show, so he’s like, “Oh, I’m a big fan,” and I’m like, “No! I’M a big fan of yours.” He is so smart and so comedically brilliant.
What’s your take on the Newsweek article about gay actors not being believable in straight roles?
MC: I think he’s totally hot. I totally buy him as a straight guy.
BE: I do, too.
MC: He would be such a hot boyfriend to have.
BE: Plus, that’s what acting is. You act like something. I think he’s so gorgeous and sexy and could be the perfect leading man. It’s an odd notion to think you’re limited by your sexuality.
MC: Straight guys play gay guys all the time. Look at Brokeback Mountain, those guys had beautiful performances.
MORE ON WHAT’S TO COME IN SEASON 2 OF DROP DEAD DIVA…
• Jane will have dream sequence dance numbers with the Thunder From Down Under, the Australian all-male dance revue, and Deb (they do a tango).
• Elliott will sing a little a capella with Faith Prince, who returns as Jane’s mother.
• Sharon Lawrence returns as Deb’s mother and shares a secret that Deb will, of course, have to deal with in Jane’s body.
• Ricki Lake makes a guest appearance, as does Cybill Shepherd, who plays a client reminiscent of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
• Jane’s father is introduced.
• We’ll also meet Teri’s mother and cousin. “In that episode, we had a helicopter, which was really exciting because it was feeling very M*A*S*H,” Cho says. “‘Cause it was like Korean people and then a helicopter. I really enjoyed that.”
Drop Dead Diva