Kaley Cuoco is a big believer in kismet.
You know, the notion that destiny is written in the stars. So, at the end of an extended phone chat — in which she's detailed her impressive growth in the industry — she squeals with delight when informed that her name has just appeared in the closing credits of a movie airing on her interviewer's muted TV at that very moment.
The role: "Little girl" in the 1997 comedy Picture Perfect. Cuoco is listed last. Jennifer Aniston is first. "I had one line in a wedding scene at a church, but it was cut and all you see is the back of my dress," she recalls breathlessly. "But I didn't care because I got to talk to Jennifer Aniston."
She goes on to explain that, at the time, she religiously watched Friends every Thursday night with her parents, even though she was all of 11 years old. On set, she had spent all day working up the courage to talk to Aniston ("my number one actress"), even getting a pep talk from her mom at lunch.
Finally, young Kaley approached the star and blurted out, "I love you on Friends." Aniston, she remembers, "gave me this big smile and was like, 'Oh, you watch the show?!' This was the height of Friends! She was so kind. That encounter still lives with me, and it will for the rest of my life."
It's easy, if not trite, to say that Cuoco has come a long way since that encounter. But consider this: 24 years later, HBO Max launched only after it had secured two sitcom crown jewels: Friends and The Big Bang Theory, in which Cuoco costarred for 12 seasons. Now she's the star and an executive producer of her own high-profile original series on the same platform.
In the darkly funny The Flight Attendant (premiering this fall), Cuoco's Cassie Bowden is the wild-child titular character, who wakes up in a Bangkok hotel after a night of partying, to a hangover... and a blood-soaked corpse in bed next to her.
Freaked and hoping not to attract attention, she goes about her business as usual and flies on a shift home to New York City. But once authorities discover the body, she begins to wonder if maaaaaaybe she committed the murder. Rosie Perez, T.R. Knight and Merle Dandridge play her support system.
"There are so many crazy-fun twists and turns," Cuoco says. "Cassie is also dealing with her own alcoholism and the death of her father, so there's a lot of things going on with her." As for the whole fleeing-the-crime-scene thing? "I've watched many Datelines, so I've seen how people have that blind panic and don't know what to do. They just run and forget it ever happened."
The role is certainly a departure from nice-girl-across-the-hall Penny in The Big Bang Theory, the 279-episode series that cemented her status as a comedic leading lady. Indeed, the very first scene is a montage of Cassie night-crawling at clubs — followed by an image of her passed out in a moving New York City subway car, using her sequined clutch as a makeshift pillow.
But Cuoco still gets to use those big, expressive eyes and show off physical humor. "It's cool because I get to show a range of emotions," she says. "There's levity, but we're also dealing with trauma. And yet she's just a girl trying to make it in the world. That felt right to me."
Following her go-with-the-flow philosophy, Cuoco says she rarely spends time meticulously plotting out career moves. Even a full decade into The Big Bang Theory — when the series remained atop the ratings, though wear and tear had begun to show — "I wasn't actively looking for my next project and didn't want to chase anything down," she says. "I knew something cool would come along."
It didn't. Not in the conventional here's-this-great-new-script-and- just-say-yes sense, anyway. Instead, one summer day in 2017, Cuoco was shopping on Amazon and clicked on a preorder page for an upcoming novel, The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian.
She read a one-line synopsis — "a fun, alcoholic flight attendant wakes up next to a dead body in the wrong hotel and in the wrong country" — and noticed that the cover featured the back of a blonde woman. The tiny hairs on her arms stood up.
"My manager and agent had suggested for a while that if I ever found a book or an article I liked, I should try to adapt it for a project, but I was never interested in producing," she admits.
"But as soon as I read this line, I called my team and said 'You guys, I found the book! Oh my God, I love it and it's phenomenal and can we see if the rights are available?'" She neglected to mention that she hadn't actually read it yet.
Cuoco says the bidding war took six months, during which she proceeded to devour the novel and "fall in love" with the story and the character. "I got the rights and I thought, 'This is it,'" she says. "But what I didn't know was what to do next." Peter Roth, chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Television Studios (which produced The Big Bang Theory), suggested that she turn it into a series with herself in the title role.
It was go-time. She launched a production company banner — Yes, Norman, named after one of her rescue dogs — with offices inside Warner Bros. headquarters. Next, Roth sent her on a meeting with überproducers Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter (Riverdale, Supergirl, The Flash, Blindspot) for a partnership on the project.
They pitched it to Sarah Aubrey, then the executive vice-president of original programming for TNT. After Aubrey became the head of original content for HBO Max in early 2019, "She said that she loved the project and wanted to take it with her," Cuoco says. "We had done it."
(Executive- producing the series with Cuoco are Berlanti, Schechter, Steve Yockey, Marcie Ulin and Meredith Lavender; The Flight Attendant is a production of Warner Bros. Television, Berlanti Productions and Yes, Norman Productions.) But the actress had to take on one more title: New Yorker.
Last October, she and her husband, equestrian Karl Cook, relocated from the L.A. area to Brooklyn for the shoot. "I was a little unsure," she says. "I'm definitely a California girl at heart." But she fell for the restaurants, the walking lifestyle, the shopping and the view of the Manhattan skyline from her apartment.
The pair settled there until production halted in March because of the pandemic. On this morning in mid-August, Cuoco is calling from a rented house in Long Island's Montauk area that she's sharing with her sister, her assistant and her new rescue dog, Dumpy. She's quarantining there until shooting reboots in Brooklyn for the remainder of the eight episodes.
"We're one of the first shows to go back to work," she says. "But we're playing by the book. My husband didn't even come with me because I don't want him to break quarantine. A lot of eyes are on us, and there's a lot of responsibility involved." ...
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This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2020