‘The Flight Attendant’: Kaley Cuoco Breaks Down Cassie’s Denial, Trauma and ‘Mind Palace’

Kaley Cuoco in The Flight Attendant
Courtesy HBO Max

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first three episodes of “The Flight Attendant,” streaming now on HBO Max.

When you pick up Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 novel “The Flight Attendant,” one of the first things you notice about its titular character Cassie is that she has a deep sense of awareness about her alcoholism that comes with some shame and self-loathing. That sets the tone for a dark and serious story outside of her waking up next to a murdered man and setting down a path to know more about him and the reason for (and culprit of) his death.

HBO Max’s adaptation of the same name begins with the same inciting incident but shapes a distinct and almost new Cassie. For example, executive producer and star Kaley Cuoco tells Variety, she is in “100% denial” about the roots of her alcoholism. Still, the former star of “The Big Bang Theory” knew she needed her Cassie to be “lovable,” and that influence created a lighter tone, both for the character and the series overall.

“Obviously with me attached to it and me playing the lead, we definitely tailored it to my voice,” she explains. “We knew it was serious subject matter, but at the same time I can’t help but bring that level of levity and quirkiness and that laughter, and I think that’s why the show is fun because it really doesn’t take itself extremely seriously, which right now is refreshing.”

When Cassie wakes up in the Bangkok hotel room of one-night stand Alex (Michiel Huisman) and realizes his throat has been slit, she panics and cleans up much of the mess, which looks suspiciously like covering up. She also lies to her coworkers about how well she got to know him after they saw the two flirting on the flight over.

“She’s extremely reactionary. She does not fucking think, which gets her into trouble,” Cuoco says. But, it has been her instinct to “run” from the trauma in her life for years, which is why she flees this time, “pretending like it didn’t happen,” Cuoco points out.

“Her and her brother are very close in age and what we keep finding out is how they saw their childhoods. He saw it as horrific — the way he was treated was in such an abusive way by their father — and how she sees it and how she explains it to herself and her brother was, ‘Dad was great, you just sucked. He loved me. He let me drink beer at 10[-years-old]. That’s so cool,'” Cuoco explains.

As the eight-episode season unfolds and Cassie is intentionally mining her short-term memory for details about the night with Alex, she ends up uncovering the bigger picture about her childhood, too. “We see her hanging out with Dad, all of a sudden the [frame] gets wider and we go, ‘What are they doing? They’re drinking in the car.’ She’s starting to remember,” Cuoco says.

Giving Cassie a brother (played by T.R. Knight) was another change the series made (in the book she has a sister). Beyond him, her world has also expanded to include Annie (Zosia Mamet), Cassie’s best friend who happens to be a lawyer, and most importantly Alex himself, who stays around posthumously inside Cassie’s “mind palace.”

At times of stress, Cassie often manifests seeing Alex and they have full conversations, often stepping outside of a moment Cassie is experiencing to observe what is playing out as she tries to work out what it all means. In these moments, Alex’s words are really just Cassie’s words: He asks questions she would otherwise ask herself. But it was an idea with which Cuoco credits showrunner Steve Yockey in order to give the character someone external off of whom to bounce ideas, but also “to show that he meant something to her,” she says. “Even though she only spent one evening with him, she felt something and that was very, very important.”

Having Alex inside her mind complicates matters because “you almost are watching them fall in love and in moments you forget he’s dead,” Cuoco continues.

But, effectively, if he’s just in her mind, then isn’t what she’s falling in love with just a version of herself?

“There was something about him she really fell for and can’t walk away from,” Cuoco says about Alex. “We talked about, when Michel was playing those scenes, he’s playing them as Alex, not as Cassie-as-Alex.”

Switching back and forth between scenes set in Cassie’s present-day reality, as well as recent flashbacks and then the mind palace moments “was confusing,” she admits. “Because Cassie keeps bouncing in and out of the mind palace, there were moments where it was confusing [to find], ‘What was I just feeling outside of the mind palace? Am I the same?’ Luckily Steve and everyone was always like, ‘Right before this…’ Because it’s hard when you’re shooting out of order, hysterically crying in a jail cell and then you pop into the mind palace and have to match [returning to the cell].”

Cassie’s care for Alex is part of what spurs her into action once she is back in the States, playing detective to try to figure out who killed him. But, her motivation is not entirely selfless: she does want to clear her own name, too, as tales of their flirtation on the plane can’t be ignored after surveillance footage of her at his hotel surfaces.

“We never wanted to play into her thinking she did it. That was never believable to me. Maybe a half-second of her looking around but never for real did she think she did it,” Cuoco says. But at the same time, Cuoco says Cassie couldn’t all of a sudden be an amazing detective. “This is just a girl who’s trying to figure shit out and deal with her own demons. She had to stumble through it because that’s who she is.”

And stumble she does. She drags her coworker Shane (Griffin Matthews) to Alex’s funeral and then back to their family home, in part because she is feeling some grief but also, “a couple of drinks in,” in order to dig around on the presumed shady business deals of his parents. She changes her story with Megan and asks her not to mention certain things to the investigators. She gets Annie involved without telling her the whole truth, too.

While “every one of these characters has a very interesting story of their own and they’re hiding their own secrets,” says Cuoco, it is Cassie’s secret that seems like it would put those in her orbit in the most danger.

After all, there was someone who did see her with Alex at night in Bangkok: a woman named Miranda (Michelle Gomez), who claimed to be a business associate of his and who begins stalking Cassie after-the-fact. The book features a dual narrator, alternating chapters between Cassie and Miranda, in order to get inside both women’s heads and understand how they are connected to Alex individually and then, of course, together through the murder. But in the series, Miranda has been intentionally left a “more mysterious character,” notes Cuoco.

Since Cassie’s memory is unreliable, Miranda starts as a hazy figure that some might even assume is nothing more than a hallucination or exaggeration and she comes up “in very strange moments just to keep the audience guessing,” says Cuoco. “We wanted to sprinkle her in because we just wanted people to go, ‘Who is this woman? How did she know him?'”

Cuoco shares that it took “months of conversation” and “I can’t even tell you how many drafts” to figure out the best way to incorporate that character, the most formidable foe to Cassie, other than Cassie’s own self-destructive tendencies. But through Cassie’s encounters — with Alex and Miranda — she experiences perhaps her first-ever real motivation to change.

“She makes so many bad choices you just want to punch her,” Cuoco admits. But “until we admit there’s an issue or admit we’re going to face it, there’s no way we can face it. At the end she kind of accepts she has a problem but not fully, which is why I think we could have a second season.”

“The Flight Attendant” streams new episodes Thursdays on HBO Max.