Britney Spears is playing overhead, declaring that she just wants to dance with you, as Kaley Cuoco moves through her backyard in Givenchy, The Row, Jil Sander. A professional actor for some 30 years now, Cuoco is no stranger to a fancy dress. But today’s selection of minimalism, stripped down of all the hype, is a newer look for the 35-year-old, one she seems to be quite at home in, if her comfort in pulling off said wardrobe is any indication.
It’s fitting, of course, for a woman at the center of her own reinvention in the eyes of Hollywood, one from girl-next-door sitcom star to bona fide producer, award nominee and star of a dark HBO drama. Gimme gimme more, indeed.
Starring on “The Big Bang Theory” made Cuoco one of the most successful actors in Hollywood — her 12-season run made her one of the highest-paid actors in the history of TV, with the cast each bringing in $1 million an episode from seasons eight through 12 — but it also confined her to a very specific type of sitcom audience. She had no idea where she would go next after “Big Bang,” but something told her that if she wanted to pivot, she would have to go out and create it for herself.
Which is exactly what she did with a little show called “The Flight Attendant,” which she discovered browsing the internet one late night and which turned into a hit HBO Max series she starred in, executive produced, and for which she was subsequently nominated for two Golden Globes. Emmys, it’s your move.
“I think people were interested in the fact that I built this from the ground-up, that this was my project from the beginning,” Cuoco says of being seen in a new light since the show came out. “I think that got a lot of people’s attention and they respected that. They accepted the tone, they accepted this new path for me. But I do believe that them hearing my story over the last few years of how I got the book and how I got this thing going, I felt like I earned a lot of, I don’t know, there was this mutual respect between me and other actors and my fans. It was just, it was incredibly nice and I felt like I had this warm welcome into a whole new career that I didn’t even know was there.”
When “The Big Bang Theory” ended in 2019, Cuoco was advised to take the summer off and relax a bit, which was the one thing she knew she did not want to do.
“Even though ‘Big Bang’ was such a big hit, I didn’t know if I’d be taken seriously after,” Cuoco says. “I didn’t know if I was going to be, ‘Oh you’re the girl from ‘Big Bang’ — which, by the way, if that’s how things were going to go, I would have been OK with it. Because it was really good to be the girl in ‘Big Bang.’ But I knew I needed to push forward and find the next project to start this new path and whether the business or the fans or the world, they were either going to accept it or not. [I didn’t know], but I knew this was going to be the next project.”
Her “Big Bang” costars quickly set up their own production companies, but Cuoco wasn’t interested yet in getting behind the camera — or, as it would turn out, wasn’t interested in getting behind the camera for something that she didn’t wholeheartedly believe in. Production deals were on the table for most of the “Big Bang” gang, but Cuoco hesitated.
“I remember having a conversation with [her costar] Johnny Galecki one afternoon. He was like, ‘You’ve got to take this deal. You’ve got to produce, you’ll love it. You’ll be so good at it.’ And I was like, ‘I have no interest in it.’ So he goes, ‘You know what, I totally respect that. When you feel the time is right you’ll know.’”
Cuoco recognizes that the story of how she came to “The Flight Attendant,” a 2018 book by Chris Bohjalian, is going to sound “super cheesy and also sound fake,” but it’s the way it happened. One night she was flipping through Amazon browsing the upcoming books section and the cover for “The Flight Attendant” caught her eye.
“They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I was like, ‘Ooh, what is this book?’ I read the two sentences of the description and I immediately got this chill on my arm,” she says. “Right then and there I actually called my attorney and I asked if Reese Witherspoon had gotten the rights to this book.”
Witherspoon had not, so Cuoco spent the next six months vying for the rights to bring the story to life, eventually acquiring them.
“And I was like, ‘Oh my God. Now what the hell am I supposed to do?’” she says.
Soon after she set up a meeting with Warner Brothers. “I marched in and I said, ‘I think this is a show and I want to play the role. I want to play the lead and I think it could be really interesting.’ And they said, ‘OK,’” she says. “And that was that.”
OK, so yes, it sounds a little too good to be true. But it’s how Cuoco approaches everything in life: gut-oriented, in the moment, totally based on feeling.
“My team at Yes, Norman Productions, that is literally what we go by. We go by our gut. We don’t go by what we think we need to be shooting, what we think we need to be making, people who we should be working with. We go with people that we connect with and the stories that we want to tell,” she says. “And [my character] Cassie is complicated and she’s not a great person all the time. And it’s really hard to find women on TV like that who are accepted. Men get to do it all the time. They get to do terrible things and yet they’re action stars. And I feel like women don’t. This to me was a good step forward of like, this girl is not perfect, she makes a lot of mistakes, but you still love her and you still want her to succeed. And I just really wanted to play that.”
“The Flight Attendant” was set to bow last April as the first original show on HBO Max, when the platform launched. The pandemic naturally caused their production to shut down in March, meaning that audiences didn’t get to see the series until Thanksgiving — a blessing in disguise.
“It’s kind of interesting how we were so worried about the push and ‘are people going to watch this?’ And people at that point, they were ready for this kind of shiny escapism, this fun few episodes that took you into a whole other world,” Cuoco says.
The show was set to be just one season, but high viewership, fan demands and awards attention nudged HBO Max and Cuoco into green-lighting a second one.
The book, Cuoco says, is actually much darker than the show is, which she worked to tweak some to add a bit more levity, fun and comedy to it.
“She’s [Cassie] all over the place. I mean, she’s an alcoholic, she has major childhood trauma. So there were a lot of things to play there, but I was also thinking, ‘OK, I don’t want this just to be this dark, horribly sad drama, like that doesn’t feel right, either,’” she says. It took time to develop the right tone, and they got a lot of questions from the Warner team.
“I remember the network calling saying, ‘What is this? What’s the tone? Is it sad? Is it happy? Is it scary?’ And we would just say, ‘It’s weird. It’s all the things. It’s all the things.’ And that’s what it ended up being, and I think that’s why I wanted to play her so badly because as an actor, it was like 10 different characters in one,” Cuoco says.
Season two is well underway, in the writer’s room with hopeful plans to start shooting this fall. Cuoco is “thrilled” to be returning to Cassie, but feels the pressure: just because they’ve been successful once, now is not the time to get passive, she says.
“Now I feel like the work really starts; it’s harder because I want to make sure it’s even better than the first. And I think more eyes are going to be on us now,” she says. “It’s an added pressure, but it’s good. It’s making us really want to come out with some really fun storyline.”’
The second season will find Cassie uprooted to Los Angeles and trying to be sober, struggling with understanding who she is if she’s no longer, well, an alcoholic.
“I think that’s going to be mixed with her day job, and possibly her now becoming a very small CIA asset, which is a very minor job, but she takes it…it’s going to be hard for her because that’s going to be the only excitement that she has because she’s now not the girl she used to be. And I don’t know how she’s going to handle that,” Cuoco says.
The show’s “mind palace,” which shows Cassie having flashbacks or experiencing things in different dimensions, will continue. “We will still have the mind palace. I can say that she will be facing herself,” Cuoco adds.
Cuoco is also juggling taking on the role of Doris Day in “Doris Day: Her Own Story,” which she will also executive produce through her company Yes, Norman Productions. She and Warner Brothers have been trying to get the rights to the film since last year, and finally now are meeting with writers.
“I’ve always idolized her,” Cuoco says of the icon. “We have a lot of similarities. Our careers are actually interestingly similar and our likes — she loved animals. And she was just a really interesting person. So we’re very excited to bring her story to life again.”
Yes, Norman Productions is also at work on the third season of “Harley Quinn,” which Cuoco voices, as well as a series of other projects: just last month the group signed a three-year first-look production deal with Warner Brothers.
“I kind of go with what my heart takes me — there’s nothing specific,” Cuoco says. “We want to bring to life complicated women and diverse stories and meet up-and-coming writers and give them their chance to shine. That’s the cool part about now having this company: I can give more opportunities to other people, especially to young up-and-comers who want to be in this business, and I take that very seriously.”
Hollywood too seems to be open to meeting Kaley Cuoco 2.0 after all. When she was nominated for the Golden Globe for best actress, she spotted a headline that referred to her as a newcomer.
“And it was so funny to me, it was so brilliant because I thought, ‘Wow, I have been in the business for 30 years,’ I am in no way a newcomer. I’ve been around, I’ve worked my whole life, I was on the biggest show that there was, but all of a sudden this new project has literally made people see me in a whole new light and they’ve accepted this new path. And that was the biggest compliment I ever could have received,” she says.
The millions who have seen Cuoco portray Cassie know just how good she is at it, and she continues to sign onto acting projects. But despite being once resistant, the production bug seems to have bitten her, and she’s never felt more in control of where her career is going.
“I’m so black-and-white and all or nothing; I had to know that I was fully ready to take this on,” Cuoco says. “Now I really feel like I’m a real producer and that I’m able to put these projects together and work with all these amazing other producers who have helped me and guided me through this and still are guiding me through it. I’m just really, truly loving the experience. And I love to be in front of the camera. But I do think my future lies behind it.”
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