Kaley Cuoco kicked off her last birthday in a rooftop pool with Michiel Huisman, surrounded by floating candles, champagne flutes and a sweeping view of Bangkok, Thailand. She was on location for the pilot episode of “The Flight Attendant,” her first live-action role since “The Big Bang Theory” ended and the project that launched her production company.
This year, she’ll celebrate her 35th birthday as the ambitious limited series — which only finished filming some weeks ago, after a months-long COVID-19 hiatus — premieres its first three episodes Nov. 26 on HBO Max.
“That’s honestly the best gift ever. I told the crew when we wrapped, ‘I love you guys, and I really hope it does not take you a year to shoot just eight episodes ever again!’” she told The Times with a laugh.
“Some people are gonna love it, some people are gonna hate it — like, I know that’s gonna happen. My whole career has prepared me for that. But I love TV, I grew up on TV. And I can go to bed knowing I made the best show possible, and that thrills me.”
“The Flight Attendant” pairs the premise of Chris Bohjalian’s bestselling book — in which Cassie (Cuoco), a thirtysomething stewardess who, fond of alcohol and adventure, wakes up next to a bloody corpse and no idea how she got there — with slick, retro aesthetics and fast-paced dark comedy.
By juxtaposing glamorous international backdrops with naturalistic dialogue, “The Flight Attendant” manages to be both entertainingly escapist and refreshingly relatable. That’s true even in its most novel conceit, which finds Cassie pieceing together what happened by asking the dead guy himself (a deliciously deadpan Huisman, to say the least).
“Huge swaths of the book are set in Cassie’s head as she’s asking herself: What happened? What did I do? How am I the kind of person this can happen to?” said co-showrunner and head writer Steve Yockey, a playwright and former “Supernatural” writer-producer.
“But it’s not fun to watch someone think onscreen. So we came up with this idea that, whenever she mentally goes back to that moment of sheer panic and terror to try to make sense of it, [Huisman] is pretty much acting as her conscience. It’s not very fun for her, but with the humor, it’s enjoyable to watch.”
This narrative device requires some suspension of disbelief, but “it lets the audience understand her point of view because, unfortunately, female characters get a lot more judgment than male characters when it comes to the thriller genre,” said Susanna Fogel, who directed the first two episodes.
“A big part of Kaley’s magic has always been that she really does seem like the girl next door,” she continued. “So it’s important for Cassie to feel like a normal person who happens to be in this extreme situation. And instead of just writing her off, you still like her and root for her, even when her character isn’t taking responsibility for some things, or doing the right thing or being completely honest with herself and other people.”
Onscreen and off, “The Flight Attendant” is new territory for the serial sitcom star. As Cassie continues to question her memory of that fateful night, she comes to unearth trauma she’s left repressed for years under layers of liquor. It’s a long-awaited opportunity for Cuoco — whose career has required pausing for live-audience laughs on CBS’ “Big Bang” and ABC’s “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” — to show off her dramatic chops.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience to go from 12 years of such silly, fun comedy to something like this,” she explained. “In the later episodes, I’m very raw, crying with no makeup on and, like, completely breaking down. I didn’t think anyone would give me this opportunity, so I felt like I had to get the project made myself and prove that this is actually the kind of work I want to be doing.”
Cuoco launched Yes, Norman Productions, named after her first rescue dog, in the final years of “Big Bang,” at the urging of Warner Bros. Television. Attempting to do so with a project requiring shoots in multiple countries was apparently very on-brand for the actress.
“I told them, ‘Guys, I know it’s massive, but we have to do it this way. We can’t shoot this on a soundstage. I mean, it’s called ‘The Flight Attendant,’ for God’s sake, you know?” she recalled of pitching the show, co-produced with the prolific Greg Berlanti’s shingle, Berlanti Productions. “They weren’t surprised. They knew already: When I do anything, I am all or nothing.”
Filming the episodes out of order turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the cast and crew wrapped in Bangkok and Rome before the emergence of COVID-19 led to government-mandated shutdowns. Cuoco spent those initial months settling into her new Hidden Hills home with her husband, equestrian Karl Cook, their seven rescue dogs and numerous goats, pigs, rabbits and horses. (And, yes, she too found herself enjoying alcohol more often: “Anything but champagne; it gives me headaches.”)
But Cuoco — who has been on sets since she was 5 years old — also became acquainted with the newfound art of remote post-production. Her favorite part: the conversations (“I honestly cannot tell you how many”) about the show’s particular tone, zippy pace, even the placement of the opening credits.
“I bow down to anyone that makes anything because it is the hardest thing,” she said. “Actors, we just do our thing and watch it however many months later. But as a producer, I’m learning so much, and I really love it. I love having a voice and an opinion on things I love so much about television but never got to share before.”
As one of the first productions to resume with pandemic safety precautions — face masks and shields, testing multiple times per week — the series slimmed the number of extras and crew and finished its remaining four weeks of filming in New York. (Many of these scenes were shot on a soundstage after all, where interiors for bars and apartments were built to reduce location shooting.)
Being at the top of the call sheet as well as a producer, Cuoco came to set with her signature sunny disposition and a palpable air of confidence about their pandemic protocols. “We really did feel that, because we were one of the first shows back on its feet, there were a lot of eyes on us, so we wanted to make sure we were taking every step correctly,” she said. “I knew I needed to show leadership, because everyone who was coming back was — I mean, this sounds dramatic, but really, though — risking their lives to work.”
With “The Flight Attendant” wrapped, Cuoco is already working on producing her next project: a live-action Apple TV+ comedy series called “America’s Sweetheart.” It’s from the creators of Warner Bros. animated series “Harley Quinn,” which she’ll continue to voice in its upcoming third season.
She and her production company’s senior vice president, Chuck Lorre Productions alum Suzanne McCormack, are also actively reading from writers of diverse backgrounds, a mission statement they’ve amplified as systemic racism in numerous industries, including entertainment, has been under the microscope since nationwide protests broke out this spring over racial injustice. . “I’ve had a lot of opportunities in my life and in my career, and my goal is to give that same opportunity to somebody else, from whatever walk of life,” Cuoco said.
As “The Flight Attendant’s” Thanksgiving Day premiere draws closer, Cuoco is curious if audiences will welcome her new roles, both as a dramatic actress and as a hands-on producer. Will enough of that record “Big Bang” viewership migrate to this premium streaming service and tune in, especially as Cuoco is hoping for a Season 2 renewal?
“That experience — the cast, the amount of time spent together, the pay, the ratings — like, it was nuts, it was unheard of,” she said of playing Penny on “Big Bang.” “That was so special and will be a part of my heart for the rest of my life. Nothing will ever compare to that, and I think knowing that helps me separate that from what I’m doing now, which is so different and new.
“I’m a little bit nervous, because, obviously, how can I not be a little bit nervous? People have seen me in a certain way for a very long time,” she continued. “But I’m thrilled for people to see this because, I mean, we finished this thing in the middle of a pandemic. That alone deserves a cheers right there.”