When David Windsor and Casey Johnson were looking for story ideas, they discovered they both loved reading obituaries.
“We’d been writing together for over 20 years and didn’t know that about each other,” Johnson says. The variety of lives chronicled seemed ripe for a television series.
Enter: “Not Dead Yet,” a look at an obituary writer who is “visited” by subjects while she’s writing about their lives.
Starring “Jane the Virgin’s” Gina Rodriguez, the comedy finds her back in the newsroom trying to restart the career she left behind five years earlier. Because it’s the only job available, Rodriguez’s Nell takes it and starts to get advice from the dead.
“She gets to learn from the people around her, too,” Rodriguez says, which makes co-workers and friends essential to visiting the lives of others.
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While Windsor and Johnson admit they don’t know the world of obituary writers, they did talk with one and got a sense of the job’s parameters. “We had quite a few meetings with newspaper journalists and publishers just to understand how their world worked, to see what it looked like,” Windsor says. “We’d never been inside a newsroom, so we did a lot of research to make sure that was accurate.”
The “I talk to dead people” angle enabled them to educate Nell and help her move ahead in life. A series of guest stars (from Martin Mull to Rhea Perlman) pass through the series’ episodes.
“I really like being a part of a project that helps us all take a second and be like, ‘What can I learn?’” Rodriguez says. “Let me rise above blame, shame or guilt…and let me blossom because it’s never too late.”
Ironically, as “Not Dead Yet” was beginning, Rodriguez learned she was pregnant. While producers figured out ways to disguise her baby bump, they encouraged her to enjoy the moment. “I had so much support from these incredible humans beings on set,” she says. “It would just make me feel so loved and supported and it was a huge gift.”
While starring in “Jane the Virgin,” Rodriguez often told herself she should be more like that character. “I would go out into the world and all of the beautiful viewers would be so loving and treat me like I was Jane. I was so lucky to play that character. But to play a character like Nell, who is flawed and learning and making mistakes (has given me this) beautiful space to grow.”
To give the series dimension, producers created characters with other quirks and included them as co-workers, friends and roommates.
Naturally, the actors discussed the idea of ghosts.
All had some level of close encounters. Lauren Ash, who plays one of Nell’s bosses, says she walked into an apartment and found a puddle of water on the floor. The next day, the same thing. “And then there was liquid laundry detergent on the floor,” she explains. “My grandmother had recently passed and she always told me, ‘I will come to you after I die.’ And then, I was like, ‘Oh, she’s here.’ And it was the greatest.”
Rodriguez’s grandmother died last summer. “I had an awesome, spiritual baby shower and my mom was very sad that my grandmother wasn’t there. ‘She’s supposed to be here,’ she kept saying. And I’m like, ‘But she is. She totally is.’ I know that the strength that that woman had toward the end of her life was so visible and commendable. You’d ask her, ‘How are you doing, grandma?’ and she would always say, ‘Bastante – bien,’ which means, ‘I’m doing just fine.’ Going into (childbirth), I’m just going to keep hearing my grandmother. I have the strength of these women that have come before me.”
“Not Dead Yet” premieres Feb. 8 on ABC.