Ready for take-off
The Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco joins veteran producer Greg Berlanti to discuss the making of HBO Max mystery drama The Flight Attendant, which marked the actor’s first project as both star and executive producer.
Across 12 seasons and more than 270 episodes of smash-hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, US actor Kaley Cuoco rose to international fame as Penny, a waitress and aspiring actress who lives across the hall from a group of socially awkward nerds.
As the CBS show was drawing to its conclusion, Cuoco naturally began to consider where her career could go next after such a long stint in what became a global phenomenon.
The answer came in the form of The Flight Attendant, an eight-part comedic thriller in which she plays Cassie Bowden, an air steward who wakes up one morning in the wrong hotel, in the wrong bed, with a dead man – and no idea what happened. Cassie then embarks on a rollercoaster journey that takes her from Bangkok to New York and Rome to uncover the truth behind what happened and clear her name as a suspect while the FBI closes in.
The HBO Max drama, produced by Cuoco’s Yes Norman Productions, Berlanti Productions and Warner Bros Television Studios, is the first series exec produced by the actor, who is now developing a second season with series creator Steve Yockey while also working on a show about the life of Doris Day, in which she is also set to star.
In conversation with Warner Bros Television Group chairman Channing Dungey at the Banff World Media Festival, Cuoco and Berlanti Productions founder Greg Berlanti (The Flash, Arrow, Batwoman) discussed their partnership on The Flight Attendant, building the show’s cast and how the actor balanced her duties in front of and behind the camera.
As The Big Bang Theory approached its conclusion in 2019, Cuoco’s team was encouraging her to think about what she might do next. She began looking at articles and books for potential adaptations and found Chris Bohjalian’s novel The Flight Attendant on a list of upcoming releases on Amazon.
Cuoco: I read the little snippet and I know it sounds cheesy but I got this really weird feeling, this chill. First I thought, ‘Is this a movie? What is this?’ I’d never done this before, it was a new venture for me, so I read the book very quickly. Thank God I loved it and got the rights. Then I was like, now what the hell am I supposed to do? I thought, ‘OK, maybe it’s a show. Maybe this is my next show.’
The book was actually very dark, which I loved. But I thought maybe we could tweak it into more of my voice. I marched myself into [former Warner Bros Television Group chairman] Peter Roth’s office and said, ‘I think this is my next show.’ He said, ‘Are you going to star in it?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ so he read it that weekend and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He then said I should meet Team Berlanti, so I went in there and basically said, ‘Please help me do this.’ I did not think they would say yes because they have like 750 shows they’re working on right now. They said yes and that was the magic that got me here today.
Cuoco met with a number of writers pitching their take on The Flight Attendant, but early on found a partner in Steve Yockey, whose credits include Scream: The TV Series and Supernatural. It was his idea to have Cassie speak to the dead man, Alex (Michiel Huisman), in a ‘mind palace’ where they could explore theories behind his murder.
Cuoco: You either love this sort of project or you don’t. I didn’t want someone who was a little in the middle, I wanted someone to love it like I did. What got me was his whole pitch was every episode, every detail. He had spent so much time on it. He truly loved Cassie – and what I had been waiting for, the weird thing that was going to make this show what it was, was the ‘mind palace.’ I didn’t want the ghost of Alex haunting Cassie, so how could we tell this in a different way? Steve has a really weird, quirky outlook on things, which makes him so brilliant, and he saw it as crazy as I did.
Cuoco then pitched the project to Sarah Schecter, chairman of Berlanti Productions, who was won over by the actor’s passion for the project.
Berlanti: Kaley and Steve had a really clear sense of a vision for what they wanted the show to be. It’s like a fizzy Martini of a show that’s still grounded in very real things – obviously Cassie’s issues with her alcoholism and the inherent mystery in it that drives so much of television these days. But it always had that Hitchcockian vibe for me. Kaley and Steve’s passion was so clear and we just tried to be as helpful and useful as possible in helping them achieve what they wanted to achieve.
The project then went to WarnerMedia-owned cable network TNT, where Sarah Aubrey was executive VP of original programming. But when Aubrey was named head of original content for new streaming service HBO Max, she took The Flight Attendant with her.
Cuoco: I really wanted to tell Sarah about the book I had optioned and wanted to make into a series, so she was the first official person I really brought it to. She didn’t tell me right then, but she said there might be some changes in the air so to just hold tight. Very soon afterwards, I heard she was heading over to this new service and she said, ‘I’d really like to take it with us.’ I was like, ‘Here you go.’
Throughout the series, The Flight Attendant walks a fine line between comedy and darker topics including alcoholism, emotional abuse and murder. Berlanti wanted the show to “push the envelope” and avoid feeling too safe.
Cuoco: We had to feint our confidence and be like, ‘This is the tone we’re telling,’ and the audience is either going to jump on board with that or not – you have to believe it or they won’t. Towards the end, Greg would see the final cuts and every time we would send them, I’d send a text to Sarah and be like, ‘Did Greg like it?’ That was always my barometer. I always wanted him to be impressed. But it’s hard. It did take some belief because the tone was such a challenge, and we really did walk a tightrope on both sides.
Huisman was the first person to join the cast, playing Alex, who meets Cassie on a flight to Bangkok and then spends the night with her, before she wakes up next to his bloodied body.
Cuoco: After trying to convince ourselves the mind palace wasn’t insane, trying to convince an actor coming in that it wasn’t insane was also insane. He’s like, ‘So I’m dead.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, but it’s going to be great.’ He eventually was like, ‘OK, I’m onboard,’ and he was obviously awesome. But the rest of the casting was interesting. I’ve never been on this side of it. As an actor who’s done this process thousands of times and knowing what it feels like, I had a really strange empathy [with the auditionees], and it was almost depressing at moments because I wanted everyone. They were all so good and I have just never been on that side before. I read with a lot of the actors, almost 80% of the main cast, which was a really cool experience, but specifically when Zosia [Mamet] came in to play Ani, there was this magic between us.
Berlanti: When you’re piecing a whole dinner party together like that, you want a certain amount of familiarity and a certain amount of people doing a tour de force that people haven’t seen them do before. It really felt like a family from the start. The fact they were all doing this light comedic tone in their individual scenes, I would attribute to the casting process, the directors and Steve’s writing, but Kaley brought that to everybody. It can go wrong sometimes, having a lead actor as an executive producer on a show. But [this is] an example of how everything can actually go right, to the point where I’m like, maybe we should be doing more lead actors as exec producers. It really helped in so many regards.
Filming took place in New York, Bangkok and Rome before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out around the world last spring.
Cuoco: It’s so wild to me to think we did that before this world changed. It’s pretty unbelievable. I can’t believe how seamless it was. We shot on the streets of Bangkok and the crews were amazing in Rome. I remember when I was talking to the studio early on, I was very passionate about saying, ‘It’s international and we have to do it that way. I don’t believe this can be on a soundstage. I don’t believe we can fake it.’ I remember the response was, ‘It’s going to be expensive.’ [When the show was shut down close to the end of production] we had already shot the finale in Rome out of order, which I think is really interesting. If we had not gone out of order, I don’t know what would have happened.
The actor says working as an executive producer for the first time was “the most unbelievable experience in my career, hands down.”
Cuoco: What I learned the most – and I really attribute this to the Berlanti team – is to ask questions. I learned to speak up and say how I felt, but also to be like, ‘I don’t know what this is,’ which is not who I am. I don’t like asking that and saying I’m confused and lost, but I really wanted my hand in everything. I was really immersed in the whole experience, and it’s hard work.
Sarah once said if a producer was paid by the hour, they’d be a billionaire. The work my fellow producers did, it is around the clock. They’re also therapists; they are so many things to so many people, and I did not know that before. I didn’t appreciate that before. I’ve been an actor for so long and I love it, but I never saw past that and I wish I’d seen it sooner. My appreciation for all these different people and the crew and what they go through to make me look good is really very eye-opening for me.
Following the show’s debut on HBO Max in November last year, the streamer confirmed the following month that The Flight Attendant would return, with a second season slated to air in 2022. The writers room is now underway, with production moving from New York to LA.
Cuoco: I don’t have much to share in terms of plot but, as for Cassie, she’s now ‘sober.’ She thinks, ‘Oh, I’m all healed up, I’m good,’ and she’s very black and white, but she’s going to find out very quickly that it is a lifestyle. It is not a switch. Then alongside trying to be who she was and this new possible little addition to her career as a CIA asset, is she still fun Cassie? Is she the same person without alcohol?
We’ll have a new version of the mind palace. Steve has come up with a really interesting way to make it fresh. That’s what’s so hard – the first season was so fun and unique. We had the book as a roadmap. Now it’s exciting because we can do what we want. But I want it to be even better than season one. That’s the goal.
The actor’s Yes, Norman Productions is now also working with Warner Bros and Berlanti Productions on a limited series about Hollywood icon, singer and animal rights activist Doris Day, based on AE Hotchner’s Doris Day: Her Own Story. Cuoco is set to star in the title role.
Cuoco: I’ve already told Greg and Sarah they are stuck with me for the rest of their lives and I’m not going anywhere. Doris Day, I’ve always wanted to play her and I’ve been obsessed with her since I was a little girl. This opportunity came about when I heard the studio was trying to get the rights to her story. Peter Roth called me and said, ‘Do you have any interest in playing her?’ I couldn’t believe it. It took months and we finally got the rights, and then I asked Team Berlanti if they’d be interested in doing this with me. Again, thankfully, they said yes. Now we’re in really early development and trying to find the right writer for this. But I’m really excited. It could be something very special.