Kaley Cuoco on Her Pivot to Darker Material in HBO Max Thriller 'The Flight Attendant'

Creative Space - Kaley Cuoco
Photographed by Mackenzie Stroh

The 'Big Bang Theory' star rolls out her young production shingle with a series about an alcoholic stewardess who blacks out in Bangkok before waking up next to a dead body and post-sitcom expectations: "You're easily forgotten."

Second acts are tricky. Second acts for stars of long-running sitcoms can feel damn near impossible, as Kaley Cuoco, who last year wrapped a 12-season run on CBS juggernaut The Big Bang Theory as one of the highest-paid actors in TV, is exceedingly aware. "I have accepted that nothing I ever do will compare to the experience, the show, the success," she says.

Cuoco hopes a segue to producing will ease the transition. Her 3-year-old Warner Bros. shingle, Yes, Norman Productions (named after her 14-year-old pit bull, one of seven rescues with whom Cuoco and her husband share their L.A. home), has already seen niche success with HBO Max cartoon Harley Quinn. But the Nov. 26 premiere of The Flight Attendant, also at HBO Max, brings its own set of expectations. The slick globe-trotting thriller — a project that Cuoco identified and shepherded, centering on an alcoholic flight attendant who blacks out in Bangkok before waking up next to a dead body — is both a post-Big Bang star vehicle for the actor and her first big swing as an executive producer. Her three-person company has at least three more projects in the pipeline, only one involving Cuoco on camera.

The 34-year-old, who spoke about her pivot over Zoom while quarantining in Canada for a feature shoot with Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson, is braced for the reception: "They'll say I'm rebranding," she says of both her new credit and darker material, "but it's just another job."

You went right from Big Bang into The Flight Attendant. Why not take a break?

Taking a break would definitely scare me. You're easily forgotten, too. You've got to stay relevant. But also know when too much is too much. It's kind of a fine line.

Who helps you walk that line?

I've been with the same team of nearly 20 people — agents, managers, attorneys, publicists — since I was about 15. During the last few years of Big Bang, they were all telling me, "You might want to start thinking about the next step." They knew I wasn't planning, so it was one of my managers who told me to look out for an article or a book that I liked. One night, I was swiping through upcoming books on Amazon and saw The Flight Attendant. I read one sentence and called my attorney: "Have you heard of this book? And, if you have, did Reese Witherspoon get the rights?" I was assuming she probably did. (Laughs.) I had not even read the book yet, and all of a sudden I have the rights — I guess I'll just walk into [soon-to-retire Warner Bros. Television Group chairman] Peter Roth's office with it and say, "Hey, let's make this."

Yeah, that's exactly how most pitches work …

Totally. (Laughs.) Peter does not have a moment to meet with anyone, so I sent a text to his assistant: "I'm coming in. I need five minutes." He read the book that weekend, called me on Monday and said, "Let's do it."

The Flight Attendant was one of the first series to go back into production after lockdown. How did you navigate the new protocols?

It's called The Flight Attendant, so there's a lot of stuff on planes with lots of extras. Not [ideal] during COVID. Luckily, we'd filmed a lot on our plane stages that we could reuse. But we had to change some scenes tremendously. We had maybe six extras the whole time we shot [the final episodes]. We just kept moving them in different areas and putting hats on them. It sounds bad, but we couldn't keep bringing in new people.

Do you find, as an actor who's producing, that buyers expect you to be involved on camera as well?

"Is this one you want to be in?" is the first question when I bring a project to the studio. And I never want to get away from being in front of the camera, but making my mark as a producer is very important to me. We haven't thrown spaghetti against the wall. I've brought them four things in four years.

How has it changed your perspective on the business?

I'm amazed by anyone who gets anything made. Getting things funded is so hard. I'm less judge-y about things that I see and shows that I watch. "What do you think about this show?" Well, they made it. It's fucking on TV. They win.

Many in Hollywood find schadenfreude in cancellations and fiascoes like the recently shuttered Quibi.

We're all guilty of it. We critique everything. I think once you're part of every step — the blood, sweat and tears — it changes. I wish I had known that sooner.

There has been a lot of talk about and fights for pay parity in recent years. Did you have to push for parity with Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki on Big Bang?

It was such a different time 13 years ago. I remember with my team, and even [creator] Chuck [Lorre], there was no conversation that I wouldn't have parity with those two guys. I'm lucky that I had people to pave the way for me and that no one balked.

What did you learn working for Chuck Lorre for as long as you did?

I know some people are scared of him. But there is a reason why he is so successful. He knows exactly what he wants. He takes nothing less. And he is very loyal if you are good to him. That's where I found my senior vp, Suzanne McCormack, who worked for Chuck for years.

As you move forward, who are you trying to model your career after?

Definitely Reese. She's the obvious one. And everyone knows I've been obsessed with Jennifer Aniston for 20 years. I love her. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Regina King, who's making amazing choices.

And three of those careers broke out on long-running sitcoms.

These are women who played very specific characters that the world fell in love with and went off and did other things and did them brilliantly. That's a big deal. It makes me believe that I can be something after Big Bang.

What's next for you?

If we get our season two, we'll be jumping back in around January. I'm really hoping that happens.

Wait, isn't The Flight Attendant a limited series?

Hey, everything's a limited series. (Laughs.) If you don't get picked up, you go, "Oh, that was just a limited series." If you do get picked up, you're like, "Yeah, fuck that. We're doing season two!"

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.