After years as the grounding force on The Big Bang Theory, Kaley Cuoco is now flying high as The Flight Attendant at the center of a juicy murder mystery.

By Chancellor Agard
November 13, 2020 at 02:42 PM EST
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Credit: HBO Max

The Flight Attendant began with a tiny lie — which is fitting since deception, and its many forms, is at the heart of the darkly comedic thriller. In 2017, star and executive producer Kaley Cuoco was looking for her next project as The Big Bang Theory was winding down. She chanced upon a summary of Chris Bohjalian’s then-forthcoming novel The Flight Attendant on Amazon. She read one sentence and immediately knew she wanted to bring this gripping story to the screen. To make that happen, though, she told a small fib when asking the team at her production company, Yes, Norman, to acquire the rights.

“They said to me, ‘So you read the book? You love the book?’” recalls Cuoco. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, I totally read the book.’ And I had not read the book, but I knew I would like it. So I just kind of told a little white lie to get this stuff going because it takes a long time.”

Thankfully, she wasn’t wrong. Three years later, her “baby” is finally taking off on HBO Max this fall — you know, after weathering a COVID-19-mandated shutdown.

Executive-produced by Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, the series follows Cuoco’s Cassie Bowden, a boozy stewardess who wakes up in Bangkok next to a dead man. Hungover, panicked, and unable to remember what happened the night before, Cassie foolishly cleans up the lavish hotel room and leaves the bloody corpse of her date Alex Sokolov (Game of ThronesMichiel Huisman) in bed — the first of many lies — as she rushes to catch her next flight. The idea of unpacking what happened next is what initially hooked Cuoco, but then she fell for the messy character, twice: when she read the book, and when EP/co-showrunner Steve Yockey (Supernatural) started developing the script. “I wanted her to win even though she was obviously making such bad choices,” says the 35-year-old actress. “I just thought it would be a really multi-dimensional character. There’s so much emotion that she’s dealing with: childhood trauma and obviously waking up next to this dead body.”

Credit: HBO Max

As Cassie grapples with her conscience and an FBI investigation, the eight-episode limited series also interrogates her past with her brother (T.R. Knight) and father (Jason Jones). “She is also on this internal journey toward discovering, What is the truth that I’ve been hiding from myself?” says Yockey. Cassie’s crisis even forces her friends—fellow flight attendant Megan (Rosie Perez) and lawyer Annie (Zosia Mamet) — to face their secrets. Explains Yockey, “The show really is about what happens when you lie to yourself and when the truth forces its way to the surface.”

But The Flight Attendant isn’t a heavy, slow-burn, prestige-chasing streaming drama. The show draws inspiration from comedy thrillers like Foul Play and Hitchcockian films like Dressed to Kill. Making ample use of split-screen, the episodes are fast-paced and chase all of the story’s darkness with shots of humor — like a pop-song alarm sounding as a character reels from a shocking discovery, or how hilariously exasperated yet troubled Cassie is talking to Alex’s lifeless body in her Bangkok hotel mind palace. That tonal blend is the result of mixing Yockey’s style with Cuoco’s personality. “No matter what I do in life, I’m silly. I don’t take myself too seriously, and we have brought that into the character,” says Cuoco. Yockey adds: “When you sit down with her, she has this humor, and your brain is kind of running already like, ‘Oh, I can make this character as dark and messed up as she needs to be because Kaley is going to be playing the role and that’s going to bring this lift to it.’”

Even as she provides that buoyance, after spending 12 seasons on a CBS sitcom and channeling mischief into her enthusiastically received titular animated alter ego on Harley Quinn since 2019, Cuoco was also eager to flex her dramatic muscles; but when shooting began, she wondered if she needed a new acting approach. Thankfully, director Susanna Fogel set her straight. “She goes, ‘You need to do what you’ve done up to this point, and what you have been doing is working.’ She [was] right,” says the SoCal native. “I kind of go into the scenes a little last-minute. The rest of the cast makes fun of me [because] I never know what we’re shooting.” That habit has been an asset here. “Things are coming at her so quickly, there’s no time for Cassie to prepare. So in a way there’s no way for me to prepare, either.”

Credit: Phil Caruso/HBO Max

Filming on-location in Bangkok and Italy was also an integral component to pulling off this adaptation. "Part of the international intrigue and the feeling of the show that we wanted to go for, we had to go places; it had to feel real," says Schechter. "Cassie is so often a stranger in a strange land, so we had to be in different places. Going to shoot in Thailand was fantastic; you can’t fake that stuff. The world is a really beautiful and magical place, and it’s going to be extra exciting for people who haven’t been able to travel to remind of that and to remind them of how special the whole world is. We’re really excited about that." Thankfully, they completed all of their overseas travel before the pandemic fully broke out.

Like many shows, The Flight Attendant halted production with two and a half episodes left to film in March because of the pandemic. Cameras started rolling again in August with added safety protocols. “It was odd for the first couple days, but then it becomes a new rhythm. It’s actually been some of our best shooting days,” says Yockey. If only Cassie could say the same. Reveals Cuoco: “She hits rock bottom in episode 7 and has such a breakdown. Every episode is just terror and tears.” Buckle up.

The Flight Attendant premieres Nov. 26 with three episodes; followed by two new episodes on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10; and then the finale on Dec. 17 — all on HBO Max.

A version of this story appears in the December issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now or available here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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