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In 'Queen of the South,' Hempky Madera plays Pote, Peter Gadiot is James Valdez and Alice Braga as Teresa Mendoza. 

When Starlight Studios in New Orleans East opened its doors in 2017 under CEO and developer Billy Burk, there were naysayers galore who wondered how a large Hollywood-style studio could succeed at a time when Louisiana’s tax credit incentives were coming under heavy scrutiny.

But as the studio came together, the producers of the locally shot "One Mississippi," Amazon’s dark comedy, took on a project called "Cloak & Dagger" — whose storyline actually took place in New Orleans.

They heard about Starlight Studios, and before the ink was dry on Starlight’s permits, the Marvel-inspired "Cloak & Dagger" had begun shooting on Sound Stage 1 and all over the city.

It wasn’t long before Hollywood insiders got word that Starlight was a user-friendly place to do business. Multiple projects came knocking at Starlight’s door.

In the two years since "Cloak & Dagger," Starlight has wrapped 12 episodes of "The Purge," the USA network’s television horror series; a major motion picture called "The Hunt," starring Justin Hartley and Hillary Swank; and an original Netflix series called "Power," with Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

“It’s all about economics and getting the best bank for your buck,” said Starlight Chief Operating Officer Kevin Murphy.

“We’ve always known that if we could provide large facilities with a labor pool that was up to the task, we would succeed.

"When we began construction of Starlight, there was nothing out here but trees and wild boar. And, as large as we are, we still have room for expansion because we aren’t landlocked. With 32 acres, we are now expanding our executive offices to a second floor.”

Starlight hit the mother lode when Fox 21’s hit series "Queen of the South," airing on the USA network, switched up the storyline about drug queenpin Teresa Mendoza, who is forced to seek refuge in America after her drug-dealing boyfriend is murdered in Mexico, and moved it from Dallas to New Orleans for Season 4.

That move put Starlight Studios squarely in the show's crosshairs. Pre-production began in January, and elaborate mock-up sets were constructed. The actors arrived in February and have been shooting inside the studio and all around the city of New Orleans ever since.

“Hit shows like this really do showcase our city,” said Queen of the South location manager Stephen LeBlanc.

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A replica of the Sac-A-Lait Bar at the Cotton Mill was constructed for 'Queen of the South' at Starlight Studios.

For example, the Roosevelt Hotel is in the opening shot of Season 4. There are running locations at One Eyed Jacks in the French Quarter, owned by Rio Hackford, son of Academy Award winners Helen Mirren and director Taylor Hackford. The International House Hotel on Camp Street and The Old New Orleans Rum Distillery off Elysian Fields — a tequila distillery in the series — also are frequent filming locations, along with the Sac-A-Lait Bar in the Cotton Mill.

"From St. Bernard to an alligator farm in the swamp, from Slidell to Holy Cross, viewers will see so many locations they recognize,” LeBlanc said.

For the star of the show, actress Alice Braga, known previously for "City of God" and "I Am Legend," the move to New Orleans was a thrill.

“I was beyond happy when I heard Season 4 was coming to this magical city,” Braga said. “Its history with everyone from the French and Spaniards to the Irish passing through is what gives it such color, flavor and energy.”

Braga, who is Brazilian, comes from an acting family. Her mother was a theater actress and later an assistant director, and her aunt is Sonia Braga, of "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Alice Braga was introduced to "Queen of the South" in the novel by Spain's Arturo Pérez-Reverte (in Spanish, "La Reina del Sur").

Years later it became the most popular telenovela of all time on the American Spanish-language TV network Telemundo, airing from Mexico to Miami. And now, it’s a hit English-language series in the United States as well.

“After Season 1, we depart from the book, and the character is on her own journey, using the book as inspiration,” Braga said. “I really love this character because in spite of all her problems, she is never a victim. She has an inner strength and a will to survive. And coming to New Orleans, she’s meeting some brand-new antagonists.”

In Season 4, Braga’s character expands her drug empire to the east coast of the United States. So why center the show on New Orleans?

Queen of the South’s showrunners and executive producers Ben Lobato and Dailyn Rodriguez, who put word to page crafting the plot, explained.

“Drugs coming into the States from Mexico and South America no longer go through Miami. ... There are too many DEA agents there, so the portal for the east coast is Louisiana,” Lobato said. “So, we said where’s the sexiest place to go in Louisiana, and New Orleans immediately came to mind.”

“We’ve written some wild characters for the new season and brought a new vibe to the show,” Rodriguez said. “We all love New Orleans. In fact, Ben and I fight over who’s leaving L.A. to come to the set each week. We’ve turned New Orleans into a rogue city in the show. At one point a character in the show announces ‘This ain’t Mexico; this isn’t even America. This is New Orleans.'”

To catch up on the show, check Netflix for Seasons 1 through 3. Season 4 hits the Big Easy and television screens June 6. And the show has already been renewed for Season 5, when the New Orleans sets at Starlight will be ready.


Contact Leslie Cardé at lacarde@aol.com.