How Kaley Cuoco got ‘The Flight Attendant’ off the ground to play the heavy-drinking lead

Kaley Cuoco outside in New York City.
Kaley Cuoco learned how to produce on the fly after she optioned “The Flight Attendant” to star in. Her alcoholic character, she says, “has a really true, true, true problem.”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Don’t tell Kaley Cuoco not to judge a book by its cover. It worked for her.

“It really was as simple as that,” she says of how she found “The Flight Attendant.” “I’m not sure anyone believes me, but I was scanning Amazon, and coming [book] releases, and I saw the sentence on what the book was. I saw the cover, and I was like, ‘Wow.’
“The cover was really beautiful. It didn’t look like me, but it was a blond woman with this hair like she was running,” she says, re-creating the pose in the photo on a Zoom call, miming the locks flowing behind her with her hands. “And I read the two sentences, something fun: ‘Drunk flight attendant wakes up next to dead body.’”

Which makes one question Cuoco’s idea of fun, but ...

“I know this sounds cheesy, but I got a huge chill up my spine, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I gotta read this. It’s a movie. No, this could be a TV show.’ I immediately called my attorney: ‘Can you check if Reese Witherspoon has the rights to this book?’ ”


Fortunately for Cuoco, Witherspoon must have been busy that day, and the former “Big Bang Theory” star eventually landed the rights to Chris Bohjalian’s novel.

“All of a sudden I was like, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do with this?’ And they’re like, ‘We thought you had a plan.’ ‘I don’t really have a plan; someone’s gotta help me!’ ”

Thus began Cuoco’s wild ride as the shepherd of a project from start to finish for the first time. She took it to Peter Roth at Warner Bros., who got the ball rolling, and teamed with showrunner Steve Yockey (“Supernatural”). She learned producing on the fly, was deeply involved in the casting and of course starred in the eight episodes of the HBO Max show, which has received nominations for series, ensemble and lead actress from SAG, the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes.

All of that is even more impressive when one considers the show’s hairpin tonal shifts. It’s a comedy-thriller with twists, sex, repressed memories of a cruelty-tinged childhood, graphic violence and lots and lots of drinking — as in, the lead character, Cassie, is a functioning alcoholic.

“I’ve known one very well, it’s exactly that: They go to work, they’re successful, they’re the life of the party, and they can get all their stuff done,” she says, explaining why there are so many scenes of Cassie downing vodka and so few of her out of control. But to Cuoco, it was when Cassie didn’t drink that things got interesting.

“If she didn’t get the drink she needed, that’s when she started to spiral. ‘How long has she been without a drink?’ That’s how she gets through the day. That’s how she goes to sleep. She has a shot and does her job. She has a really true, true, true problem.”

But it’s a comedy! Or it often is. Sometimes it’s not, and not just when there’s danger of someone being garroted by a mystery assassin. There’s a very deep vein in which Cassie’s loving brother (played sympathetically by T.R. Knight) tries to wake her up to what their childhood was really like, including her role in it.

“It was such a fine line of comedy and drama,” she said. “So many scenes, I would do it five different ways. I’m like, ‘OK, this one, we’re gonna be funny,’ and then the next one, I would bawl my eyes out. There were so many options in the editing bay. Getting to see that from behind the scenes, which I’ve never been able to do my entire career ... if I could tell you how many conversations we had with the word ‘tone’ involved, it was nuts.”

She laughs at the thought that all those unused takes could make for a very different version of “The Flight Attendant.”


“We could have a super dark cut,” she says. “We could have a laugh track and do a sitcom cut. We could do an action movie. We knew what we wanted, but it was going to be a really fine line of how we got there.”

The show has been renewed for Season 2, and there are plenty of threads to pull. Will Cassie work with the CIA? Will she continue the ghostly courtship with murder victim Alex (Michiel Huisman) in her “Mind Palace”? Cuoco says they’ve just settled on their writers room, and there’s much to be decided, but she knows she wants to follow Cassie on the rocky road of attempted sobriety.

“Cassie thinks, ‘OK, I’ve dealt with my dad, my brother and I are good, I’m not drinking anymore and I’m happy,’ and [she’ll realize], ‘Oh, my God, no, I’m not over this.’ This is a lifelong fight for her, and it’s not going to be as easy as she thinks.”