How Kaley Cuoco Soared to New Heights in ‘The Flight Attendant’

Photographs by Shayan Asgharnia

During 12 seasons on “The Big Bang Theory,” Kaley Cuoco became one of the highest-paid actors in the history of television — but for her 6.4 million followers on Instagram, she gives away content for free. There, on the day of the Golden Globe nominations, she posted a video of herself watching the announcement on her phone. As she hears her name in the actress in a musical or comedy category for “The Flight Attendant,” she turns to her husband, Karl Cook, her face collapsing with happiness, and starts to sob. Along with a second video when she learns that “The Flight Attendant” was also nominated — just Cuoco screaming, really — it was a moment so pure it went viral.

As the 35-year-old Cuoco says more than once over a Zoom interview, she has been in show business for 30 years. Which is why she was shocked on the day of the Globe nominations to hear a press outlet call her a “newcomer.”

“And I laughed!” Cuoco says, shaking her head and, yes, still laughing. “I was talking to my two managers and I go, ‘You guys, they just called me a newcomer.’ I go, ‘I’ve been here for 30 years.’”

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“The Flight Attendant” had an attention-grabbing eight-episode run on HBO Max in late November and December, in which buzz for the show and for Cuoco’s layered, vivid performance as the hero, Cassie, built with every episode. The series provided a needed boost for the nascent streamer just as Christopher Nolan, and practically all of Hollywood, were trashing it. After the company’s decision to release its 2021 movies simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, Nolan called it “the worst streaming service,” kicking off an epic pile-on. “I honestly didn’t blame him,” Cuoco says. “But I would be like, ‘Don’t get rid of it! There’s a few more episodes left!’”

“The Flight Attendant” is fully Cuoco’s baby. She’s the executive producer as well as its lead, and oversaw every aspect of the show — from the hiring of showrunner Steve Yockey to the pitch-perfect casting to the stylish opening credits. The project began with her scrolling through Amazon’s forthcoming book releases on July 25, 2017, and seeing the upcoming novel by Chris Bohjalian. “Amazon gives you one sentence, and it was something like ‘fun-loving, drunk flight attendant wakes up next to dead body in a strange hotel,’” she says. “And I got a chill.”

More than three years later, and after a monthslong COVID shutdown, “The Flight Attendant” premiered to rave reviews — and now, to Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Cuoco and the ensemble cast. Though it was billed as a limited series, “The Flight Attendant” was renewed by HBO Max in December, and with a CIA twist teased in its satisfying finale, it could go on for years.

As Cassie, Cuoco plays a barely-holding-it-together alcoholic flight attendant who begins to take control of her life as she investigates the death of Alex (Michiel Huisman), the one-night stand whose body she woke up next to in Bangkok. Viewers used to Cuoco as Penny, the character she played for 12 seasons on the phenomenally successful CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” might have been surprised to see her as Cassie. Effervescent and quick-witted on the outside (as befits her profession), Cassie is suppressing deep-seated childhood trauma caused by her alcoholic father, which she faces as the show progresses — and Cuoco has to take her all the way to the bottom.

One fan whom Cuoco impressed in “The Flight Attendant” was her former boss Chuck Lorre, the co-creator of “Big Bang.” “I was worried that I’d be unable to put Penny aside and watch with an open mind,” Lorre tells Variety. “But she had me immersed in the Cassie character almost immediately.”

“The Flight Attendant” and Cassie are certainly a fresh beginning for Cuoco, and a successful start for her company Yes, Norman Prods. (named after one of her million dogs). And she doesn’t mind if people think she’s new to the scene. “Was I able to reinvent myself overnight, and they’ve totally forgotten about everything else?” she says. “If they’re willing to see me like that, I’m just laughing in the corner.”

Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, the executive producers of “The Flight Attendant,” believe the sky’s the limit for Cuoco. Comparing her nascent producing abilities to Reese Witherspoon’s, Berlanti calls her “the ideal producing partner.”

And Schechter, while also mentioning Goldie Hawn, Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn as female actors who produced their way out of being pigeonholed, says: “I don’t know that anyone would have handed Kaley this dramatic of a part. But she built it for herself.”

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Shayan Asgharnia for Variety

Cuoco began modeling as a kid in Camarillo, Calif., a city just north of Los Angeles. At 7, she started to get bit parts on shows and in TV movies, and when she was 8, she was cast in the movie “Virtuosity,” a 1995 Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe science-fiction thriller: “We thought that was going to be such a big hit,” Cuoco says. (It was not, grossing a meager $24 million at the domestic box office.)

After more here-and-there appearances on TV and in movies — she played Maureen McCormick in the NBC TV movie “Growing Up Brady” (2000) — in 2002, Cuoco landed a co-starring role in John Ritter’s ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules … for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” Ritter took Cuoco under his wing (“I really think you’re going to go places,” she remembers him telling her) and introduced her to his management team. Heartbroken when Ritter died suddenly in 2003, early in the show’s second season, Cuoco credits him with teaching her how to be a leader on the set of “The Flight Attendant.” “The respect and the kindness and the joy he brought to that set, it was unbelievable,” she says. “In the future, if I was that No. 1, I knew how I was going to run my set.”

Without Ritter, “8 Simple Rules” struggled, and was canceled in 2005. But for Cuoco, “The Big Bang Theory” was right around the corner. The show premiered in fall 2007, and there was a sweetness to it: Penny, a Cheesecake Factory server and aspiring actor, moves in across the hall from two Caltech physicists/nerds, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons). When the 2007-08 writers’ strike shut down the industry that fall, Cuoco wasn’t sure “Big Bang” would come back. She says she has a Polaroid of her and her co-stars from the November day the strike began, and the look on her face is “I hope I see you again — this has been so fun!”

The show’s ratings were middling — but CBS wasn’t going to cancel a Chuck Lorre show without good reason. And rightly so: In its third season, when “Big Bang” was moved to the time slot following Lorre’s “Two and a Half Men” on Monday nights, its ratings exploded. From then on, it was among the most popular shows on television, and a cash cow for its studio, Warner Bros. At its peak, which lasted multiple seasons, it drew nearly 20 million viewers each week.

When it came to money, the “Big Bang” actors took a page from the “Friends” cast’s playbook, and banded together during salary negotiations. With Season 8, they began earning $1 million each per episode. As to the question of whether she would be paid the same as her male co-stars, “I knew that I was equal to them from day one,” Cuoco says. “And that was never questioned in my experience with ‘Big Bang’ — which I will always appreciate, because it set a standard for me.”

Cuoco and Galecki were close throughout the run (they secretly dated during the early seasons). The two were stunned, Cuoco says, after they sealed their first huge contract. “We looked at each other and we were like, ‘What the hell just happened?’” she remembers. “‘Should we go out to dinner? Should we “cheers”?’ We didn’t quite know what to do.”

And what’s it like to make that much money? “It was a blessing,” Cuoco says. “I was able to take care of a lot of things in my life and my family, and I will forever be grateful for that.”

At the start of filming Season 12 in summer 2018, Lorre summoned the actors to his office. Cuoco and Galecki thought it was going to be about a 13th season, “which Johnny and I had talked a lot about,” she says. “Did we want to do it? And we really did.” But no, that wasn’t it — and here Cuoco pauses. “How do I want to say this and make sure I say it correctly?” she asks herself.

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Then she launches in, telling the rest of the story: “Jim said, ‘I don’t think I can continue on.’

“And I was so shocked that I was literally like, ‘Continue on with what?’ Like, I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I looked at Chuck: ‘Wow. I thought we were — I’m so blown away right now.’”

According to Cuoco, Lorre said, “We’re all for one, one for all. And we’re not going to do this without the whole team.” She adds: “That was the one thing we all agreed on — we came in together, we go out together.”

One year earlier, Cuoco herself had begun to explore her career after “Big Bang” the night she’d scrolled through Amazon. Still, she was 21 when she began playing Penny. “Oh, my God, I don’t remember my life before this show!” she recalls thinking. “And I went through a divorce on the show,” she adds, referring to her abbreviated first marriage to Ryan Sweeting, in which, Cuoco says, “we got married in, like, six seconds.”

Parsons’ declaration — timed to CBS’ simultaneous announcement — left Cuoco “in a state of shock,” and during the meeting “everyone had their open feelings, and there were questions and tears.”

But as the season went on, she accepted that “The Big Bang Theory” was ending. She still cries, though, when describing the May 2019 taping of the finale. Her father was there — he attended every taping for 12 seasons, she says, and had a “chair with his name on it.” And the crew all flooded the stage to watch Cuoco and Galecki address the audience, as they always did on show nights, one more time.

Sounding choked up, Cuoco says: “They were just listening to us like we were the last speech they were ever going to hear.”

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Sarah Schechter attended that “Big Bang” taping. She had been working with Cuoco to develop “The Flight Attendant” for nearly a year, and “wanted to be supportive, and remind her that fun things were coming.”

After Cuoco found “The Flight Attendant” — having read only that one-line description and seeing that the cover featured a blond woman — she called her lawyer. “Can you just quickly find out if Reese Witherspoon has the rights to this book?” she asked him. Witherspoon, whose company Hello Sunshine has aggressively snatched up books for adaptation, had not. “OK, this is the book; this is the show,” she said with certainty. “And my team’s like, ‘What do you mean?’ I’m like, ‘Just don’t ask questions; let’s get it!’”

In September 2017, it was hers. “What do I do with this?” she remembers thinking. Warner Bros. Television had offered the “Big Bang” actors production deals in past negotiations, and both Parsons and Galecki had formed their own companies, but Cuoco hadn’t. “I had no interest in producing — it actually intimidated me,” she says. But now, having optioned “The Flight Attendant,” she asked Peter Roth, then the WBTV chairman and one of her mentors, for five minutes of his time. “I think this is my next show,” she told him about the novel. He read it over a weekend, and agreed to develop it with her. “That’s when I launched Yes, Norman,” she says, as if she can’t believe it herself.

Roth suggested Cuoco take “The Flight Attendant” to Sarah Aubrey, then the head of original programming at TNT. Aubrey wanted it. But soon there was a vague notion that the executive would be “moving to this new, mysterious” streaming service that WarnerMedia, in the process of being bought by AT&T, wanted to launch to compete with Netflix — “and she’d like to take it with her,” Cuoco says. In summer 2018, Roth told Cuoco that she and her Yes, Norman partner, Suzanne McCormack, should join up with experienced producers — such as the ultra-prolific Berlanti Prods. “‘Do you think they would do this?’” she asked him. “I didn’t even think they would take the meeting.”

They would, and they did. Schechter says, “It was really love at first sight in terms of partnership.”

With Yockey (“Supernatural”) hired to develop the show, the team began to sweat the details of the adaptation. Crucially, he came up with a way for Cassie’s internal narrative to play out dynamically, with her talking with the murdered Alex in what Yockey called a “mind palace” (which is Alex’s fancy Bangkok hotel room, giving Huisman a significant role for a dead guy). Cassie’s sister in the book became a brother, played by T.R. Knight — and their disastrous upbringing was fleshed out. Her lawyer, Annie, played by Zosia Mamet, is Cassie’s close friend from childhood — rather than a stranger representing her after she’s gotten into trouble. And in a parallel storyline to Cassie’s legal jeopardy, fellow flight attendant Megan (Rosie Perez) has a secret life of her own.

By the time they were close to shooting, Aubrey had indeed moved “The Flight Attendant” to HBO Max. What they needed to nail down most of all was the show’s tone — which is a tightrope walk: It’s a comedy about a foolhardy woman, a drama about an alcoholic, a spy thriller and a whodunit. “If I could tell you how many times I heard the word tone in two years on a phone call!” Cuoco says. When asked how he describes the show, Berlanti laughs and says, “Sometimes I say ‘funny “Alias”?’”

“But the bellwether for it was Kaley,” he continues. “And I think we realized pretty quickly that she had the capacity to make these very high-concept situations still feel very real, and very funny — but still have an energy. She was the North Star, I think.”

And yet, says Cuoco, “I didn’t know what the fucking tone was for so long!” She would do multiple takes for each scene. “OK, this is the funny one. OK, I’m going to make you cry. OK, guys, I’m going to be really mad in this one.”

Whatever the opposite of a Method actor is, that is Cuoco, she says: “I’d be hysterical, and we’d be done, and I’d be like, ‘What’s for lunch?’ And never think about it again.”

As Annie, Mamet had a lived-in chemistry with Cuoco, possibly because they bonded over their mutual love of horses. The first assistant director, Mamet says, would scold them: “You guys remember we’re shooting a TV show, right? Like, you can’t just keep showing each other videos of your horses!”

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Mamet says Cuoco created a warm environment on the set: “It’s such a trickle-down situation. The captain of the ship — the way they are infects everybody else. And it was so clear that Kaley was so proud already of what we were doing.

“Everyone here matters. Everybody here is a part of this process. Even when we came back during COVID, it was still fun.”

Ah yes, COVID. With 24 days of the shoot left, “The Flight Attendant” shut down in March, along with the rest of the world. As they edited episodes, the team (and the industry) planned how to resume shooting safely, and in August, “The Flight Attendant” was WBTV’s first scripted show to start up again. “We really had a lot of eyes on us, and we did not want to fuck up,” Cuoco says.

Suddenly, no one came near her, for fear of getting her sick. “I was just the untouchable human,” she says. “I understood, but it was sad. At the end, I’m like, ’I miss you all so much!’ It was very, very bizarre, but everyone respected the plan — and it was pretty brilliant how we finished.”

The timetable for Season 2 is still coming together. Yes, there will be a mystery, Cuoco says, and yes, Cassie might work with the CIA, as the finale established. But Cuoco wants to tell the story of Cassie struggling in sobriety. “She thinks this is going to be quick and easy, and I’m nailing this!” Cuoco says. “And she’s going to learn really fast that this is a lifelong issue that will not be cured for her overnight.” The writers’ room, Schechter says, will likely convene in March, and they hope to begin filming in September or October.

This interview takes place in Cuoco’s horse trailer in the Coachella Valley as she is preparing to compete alongside Cook. Nearby, they have a barn and a farm to house their many animals, including 25 horses and a large pack of dogs. “I’m not allowed to say how many I have, because I am afraid they will come knocking, saying that it’s an illegal amount,” Cuoco says.

She will soon go home to the ranch in the gated community in Los Angeles that she and Cook recently moved into, and will experience an awards season for the first time in her long career; an Emmys campaign will be next. “This is going to be an exciting couple of months,” Cuoco says. She’ll also begin taping Season 3 of the animated cult favorite “Harley Quinn” (now on HBO Max), and throwing herself into more producing. With the “Harley Quinn” writers, she’s developing a show called “America’s Sweetheart” — it was sold to Apple but has moved to HBO Max — and is close to getting the rights to a limited series about the life of Doris Day, whom she’d like to play.

“I never thought I’d get a nomination for anything, ever — that was not a goal, or a thought in my mind,” Cuoco says. “I’m going to keep going up, and there’s nothing stopping me now. And I feel there’s a lot more on the horizon, because I think my career just started.”

Styling: Brad Goreski/The Wall Group; Makeup: Jamie Greenberg/The Wall Group; Hair: Marilee Albin/Solo Artists/Davines Haircare; Manicure: Queenie Nguyen/Nailing Hollywood Management