Faith Prince and Brooke Elliott in Drop Dead Diva
(© Lifetime Television)
Faith Prince and Brooke Elliott in Drop Dead Diva
(© Lifetime Television)
Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva is one of those television high-concept shows that was destined to soar or sink. Here's the premise: Deb, a ditzy L.A. model, dies in a car crash and comes back to earth with her soul intact, but with the body and the brains of Jane Bingum, a plus-sized, intellectual lawyer.

The show not only worked -- it became one of cable television's most popular series during its first season, spurred in part because of its consistently clever scripts, constant surprises, and a who's who of guest stars. And now, season 2 begins on Sunday, June 6, with even more surprises and more guest stars -- including Paula Abdul, Candis Cayne, Sharon Lawrence, Chad Lowe, Cybill Shepherd, and Leelee Sobieski.

However, the show's success is due in large part to its regular cast, most of whom have extensive theater training, including Margaret Cho, Kate Levering, and Josh Stamberg. Above all is Brooke Elliott (who attracted attention as Big Sue in the Broadway musical Taboo), who anchors the show as Jane. "It's my first TV show, so I didn't have too many expectations going into it, but it's been a wonderful experience, full of challenges," she says. "I am especially excited to be part of a show that demonstrates that beauty is not necessarily found in the package where we're usually taught to look for it."

One of Elliott's particular challenges is letting the viewer know when Deb is still present in Jane's decision-making."I do a lot of a script analysis and pay close attention to what's happening in every scene." she notes. "Is Deb influencing what's going on more, or is it Jane? It can be hard to get the focus right."

One of the actress' greatest joys has been working with the guest stars, two of whom particularly stand out for her: Rosie O'Donnell, who produced Taboo, appears as judge-turned client Madeleine Summers, and Tony Award winner Faith Prince plays Jane's high-spirited mom, Elaine. (Both ladies return in season two.) "I think Rosie is one of our most talented actresses and is present in every single moment. To have her there to support me and the show has been wonderful," says Elliott. "Faith has proved to be a huge blessing in my life. And we even get to sing together this season."

Josh Stamberg and Kate Levering in Drop Dead Diva
(© Lifetime Television)
Josh Stamberg and Kate Levering in Drop Dead Diva
(© Lifetime Television)
Singing and dancing is how many people first saw Levering, who began her Broadway career in Chicago and earned a Tony nomination for her work as Peggy Sawyer in the revival of 42nd Street. So she's thrilled that the Diva writers have found some clever ways to occasionally make use of those talents while also giving her a dramatic workout as ambitious lawyer Kim Kaswell.

"I get to do a little dancing in the first episode, and then I have a big dance number this season with the men from the Las Vegas strip-show Thunder from Down Under," she says. "I have to tell you, we've had a lot a stars on this show, but working with Tyce Diorio and the dancers from So You Can Think Dance, I was more starstruck than I've ever been. I'm such a fan of their work."

While Kim is essentially the girl you love to hate, Levering is pleased with how her character has developed. "I think the writers have done a good job of giving her some extra dimension -- she's not just the stereotypical bitch -- and you discover why she behaves the way she does. And it is fun to be able to misbehave and say things on TV you'd never say in real life. And I am happy that when I meet the fans, I almost always get the same reaction: 'you're nothing like you're character.' That's a compliment; it means that I'm doing my job."

This is the second series in which Levering has played an attorney, but her preparation for this role came about in an unexpected way. "Right before we started shooting the first season, my family was involved in this lawsuit, so I spent a month in court watching lawyers and observing the judge and the jury," she says. "It turned out to the best research I could have done for Kim."

Stamberg -- who was last seen Off-Broadway opposite Cynthia Nixon in Distracted -- actually comes from a family of distinguished lawyers. But he wasn't keen on accepting the role of head law partner Parker after having read the pilot script. "I had to be told who this guy would be -- he's a player, he's a bottom-line guy, he's active, and I saw there was lots of room for growth," he says. "And this season, he's a very busy boy, and very different from season one. His dynamic with Jane changes; he has to deal with the firm's other partner, Harrison (to be played by Natasha Henstridge), and he's in love and he'll be meeting his match to some degree and have to unlearn some of his bachelor ways."

All three actors are quick to credit series creator and head writer Josh Berman for his willingness to collaborate. And all of them also agree that their theater training has contributed to a particularly positive on-set atmosphere. (The series is filmed in Atlanta, away from all the cast's homes.) "I think we're all used to working really hard, being professional, and treating everyone on the set as equals," says Levering. "And when you come from live theater, you have to be on your game every time."

[Editor's note: members of the Drop Dead Diva cast and creative team will be making special appearances in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, June 4. For more information, visit www.mylifetime.com]