How Kaley Cuoco’s Own Trauma Played Out in ‘The Flight Attendant’ Season 2: ‘I Had an Intervention on Myself’

·13 min read

Kaley Cuoco is surrounded by fans in the Berlin apartment where she’s living as she shoots the movie “Role Play,” in which she plays an assassin. “I’m doing all this crazy stuff, and I’m covered in blood!” she says enthusiastically about the role, as she describes (with considerably less ardor) experiencing the heatwave that’s fried Europe this summer.

But being hot is a sidebar conversation with Variety — the main topic is Cuoco’s HBO Max comedic thriller “The Flight Attendant,” for which she was nominated for the second year in a row for lead actress in a comedy. Originally designed as a limited series, “The Flight Attendant” was renewed by popular demand and producorial consensus; Cuoco instigated the project originally, and is an executive producer on it.

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Playing Cassie Bowden, a flight attendant who tends to stumble into international plots that put her life at risk, and has personal excesses that do the same, re-set Cuoco’s post-“Big Bang Theory” career. In Season 2, Cassie is (seemingly!) sober and living in Los Angeles, but she has to face herself, which the show presents literally, with Cuoco frequently arguing with a collective of Cassies in the series’ “mind palace” — a space in her brain where she confronts her demons.

In this conversation, Cuoco delves into that feat of acting, the show’s future and her portrayal of Cassie hitting rock bottom — which unfortunately coincided with her own personal struggles during her divorce, a topic she discusses freely.

How did you approach playing the multiple Cassies?

Yeah, this was tough. I am such a sponge, and I do a million different ways in a million different takes. Well, that is not the way you can do it with motion capture. So let’s say I would play every day Cassie, and we would have to actually pick a take that we loved, which then would fix right on the spot. I would then go change, and I would be working against that take as this new Cassie. And on and on and on and on. If I messed up, we had to start all over. It was a really different way of working.

And you know who I don’t want to work with ever again, is myself multiple times!

Kaley Cuoco in ‘Flight Attendant’ Season 2. - Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Rose Clasen
Kaley Cuoco in ‘Flight Attendant’ Season 2. - Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Rose Clasen

Courtesy of Jennifer Rose Clasen

Were you ever acting with another person in those scenes?

The motion capture was truly me against myself. The other versions we did, a girl named Monette Moio, who was my stunt double, ended up playing a lot of gold-dress Cassie. She was incredible — a lot of the over-the-shoulder stuff, when you see that it’s either me or her. She had a tough job, because she had to copy and mimic every single thing that I did. But most of the time, I was truly working with myself.

You’re No. 1 on the call sheet; you’re the executive producer. What affect did playing the Cassies have on your days?

It was one of the hardest years of my life. Not only personally, but doing this character that was so tormented. It was the first time that I started therapy — I’ve been very open about that. I started at the beginning of Season 2, just because I was going through so much right before we started shooting. It was horrible. And I developed a stress rash that ran all the way down my body for three straight months that wouldn’t go away. I literally, like, had fire on my leg for three months. I could barely walk.

Zosia [Mamet], my co-star, moved in with me. I really needed someone with me. I was really losing my mind. And then so many of these scenes were so hard to do because they were so hateful, so sad, and so dark, and there wasn’t a lot of levity.

Did she move into your house?

She did. She had an Airbnb, and it only lasted so long. And I was like, “Why don’t you just move in with me?” Like, it was the loneliest I’ve ever felt, and I am not really someone to share that.

I’ve been very open about it, because I think for the first time, I wanted people to know that things just aren’t always what they seem. And things aren’t always so perfect. One month in, I had an intervention on myself in my trailer — all my producers were in there. And I said, “I need help.” It was interesting to say that out loud. And to have everyone be like, “Yes, we want to help!” I’m a working woman, and so independent, and I really take pride in being able to do everything. Well, this time, I literally couldn’t.

Kaley Cuoco in “Drowning Women,” her Emmys-submitted episode. - Credit: Courtesy of Lara Solanki/HBO Max
Kaley Cuoco in “Drowning Women,” her Emmys-submitted episode. - Credit: Courtesy of Lara Solanki/HBO Max

Courtesy of Lara Solanki/HBO Max

You can tell me to mind my own business. But what were you facing that made you say that?

Going through my divorce, it was really a super dark time. I just didn’t know how to deal with it. I was throwing myself into work to deny my depression, and how upset I was. Unfortunately, the character was so depressed that it wasn’t helping me! I was really, really, really struggling. A lot of tears.

The episode that I submitted for [the Emmys] was Episode 5, with that beach scene. My director Pete Chapman came up to me the day before, and he was so lovely. He’s like, “How do you want to shoot this tomorrow?” I said, “Can you just, like, put cameras around the beach, and just start rolling?” And for two hours, I just cried. Like, I screamed, I cried, I sat there, I was quiet. I lay down; I stood up. I mean, it was amazing. Who gets to have that opportunity? And I needed that for Kaley, and I needed that for Cassie, and it worked all in one.

Speaking of Cassie going through it, I wanted to ask you about working with Sharon Stone, who plays her estranged mother. That’s a very harsh confrontation scene you have with her in the show’s sixth episode.

That scene that we did, I mean it was eight minutes long, completely unedited — an unscripted slap.

Really?

Oh, yeah, baby! That ended up being iconic. But Kaley did not know that was coming. And that reaction is totally real. She was genius.

I remember when the dailies were going in, they were like, “Why the slap, why are we doing this?” And I said, “It was obviously not written, and she did it. And it was so incredible.” I said, “This shows such family trauma in such dysfunction that this horrible moment happened, and then no one talks about it and we move on.” They were like, “Well, shouldn’t it be discussed?” I’m like, “No! That’s why this family is so messed up. Shit like that probably happened all the time.”

But yeah, that was that was a Sharon moment I will never forget. And she really was brilliant. She loved being there. It was really cool to see that. It felt really good.

Sharon Stone in “The Flight Attendant.” - Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Rose Clasen/HBO Max
Sharon Stone in “The Flight Attendant.” - Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Rose Clasen/HBO Max

Courtesy of Jennifer Rose Clasen/HBO Max

That scene was brutal. Did the two of you discuss it together?

Yeah, we talked a little about it. I obviously didn’t know her, and I wanted her to have whatever process she needed. I think what was helping her was really just talking about her life, telling me things she’d been through and why she connected. I knew I was going through such emotional turmoil in my soul that a lot of these scenes the minute those words were going to come out of my mouth, I knew I was going to be a mess.

Like even reading that it was, like, oh my God — I couldn’t even run the lines. Because I would just be crying for hours. I was so connected to this, and obviously dealing with so much. I mean, we must have done the scene for 20 straight minutes. These moments would just sit in the air. You could hear a pin drop in the house we were shooting in. Being in the moment with Sharon was one of the coolest experiences, because she was right there with me. And I wanted to raise my level to be up to her. I felt like it was just such an honor doing these scenes with her, you know? Like, I’ll never forget it.

Was there anything you’d done before in your career that prepared you to play this?

No. I’ve never played anything like this. I knew this season was going to be darker, and more wild, which would lead to more oddly comedic moments. My sister called me after Episode 5, and she goes, “I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard and laughed so hard at a single episode of TV.” I’m like, “Yes, that’s what I wanted to hear!”

The trauma I was going through probably helped whatever I needed to do for this season. Did I mean for that to happen? Oh my God, no. Did I want that to happen? No. It was so life-imitating-art at certain moments that it was eerie. I truly feel like the pain I was going through, a lot of that was real on camera. The scene where I break up with Marco — I mean, I could not breathe. I just went in the bathroom, and I literally thought I was going to have a panic attack. Not that what happened to them happened to us. That’s not what I’m saying. It was just the whole idea of the breakup, and saying the words.

Kaley Cuoco - Credit: Courtesy of Lara Solanki/HBO Max
Kaley Cuoco - Credit: Courtesy of Lara Solanki/HBO Max

Courtesy of Lara Solanki/HBO Max

My God. How are you feeling now?

I am so much better now! I came out of it a couple months ago, and life totally flipped upside down. Everyone kept saying there’s going to be a light at the end of this tunnel, and I didn’t believe it until it happened. And now I can tell other people that have the worst years of their life: It’s gonna get better.

You did an interview with People that ended up being a whole thing — 

Which one? 

When you said you felt like the plane had landed on “The Flight Attendant.” 

Oh my God! I know. God. 

You said at the very least you want it to take time before committing to a third season. Where are you on that now, and what’s going on with the show? 

You’d think after 30 years in this business, I’d learned how to talk in interviews. But no, I still run my mouth. It hadn’t even aired yet. I’m like, “Guys, let’s sit for a second!” Look, I’ve learned in my life never say never — that’s my biggest advice. So I’m definitely open to it. I was at a dinner a couple of weeks ago sitting next to [executive producer] Greg Berlanti, and there were a lot of people there so it was really hard to talk, but I whispered to him, and I’m like, “Third season?” And he just nodded at me. I was like, “Wow.” He didn’t even say anything. He nodded: Yup! I hadn’t thought about it in awhile, I think Season 2 was so heavy for me, that was a big part of it. And now having some separation. And again, we’d have to depend on what it would look like.

I mean, I keep thinking the story is done. But I think there are people that love it, and it hits a lot of people’s hearts. So never say never. 

But you’re not, like, let’s get it renewed now; let’s start the writers’ room now.

I’m doing other things right now. And I’ve got some stuff that I want to do for this next year. But I like when shows take a breath. This isn’t “The Big Bang Theory” days — it’s different. So I want to be wanted, I don’t want to force this down people’s throats. I want the storyline to be perfect enough. And I know that producers and everyone feels the same. I’ve talked to a lot of the main cast, and they are up for it, too. So that’s a great sign. I could see it happening. But probably not anytime soon.

Even though “Big Bang” ended only three years ago, it’s now such a different time in TV, and everything has changed: There are hundreds and hundreds of shows. As someone who’s the star and executive producer of a show, does it feel hard to cut through the noise?

Oh, it’s insane. And it is crazy to think that “Big Bang” ended three years ago — it feels like it ended 20 years ago with how different things are. I’m like, our show is so archaic! We just wrapped that a few years ago — it is really weird to think about!

I mean, the beauty is there’s so many more jobs now for people. But there are so many shows, so many great performances, so many great ones missed. So many ones that don’t get recognized. It is really tough. And I don’t take that for granted.

So to be seen through all the noise, and to know how many shows and unbelievable performances there are out there, and to be looked at again and noticed — I don’t take that lightly. I always play like it’s the last game. So this once again feels like the biggest win of all time. I know how hard it is. And it is really, really difficult out there to get some attention on these shows.

Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) in HBO Max’s “Harley Quinn,” produced by Yes, Norman. - Credit: Courtesy of HBO Max
Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) in HBO Max’s “Harley Quinn,” produced by Yes, Norman. - Credit: Courtesy of HBO Max

Courtesy of HBO Max

How’s the Doris Day limited series project going?

It’s good. We’re in development. We’re super excited. It still feels a little far off? But we are getting much closer than when I talked to you last.

And, you know, we’re doing “Harley Quinn,” which has been the most hilarious little surprise.

The best! The best.

It is the best! I feel like I can brag about it, because I don’t feel like it’s me. It’s just my voice! So I’m like, “You’ve gotta watch ‘Harley Quinn!’” I just think the writing is so brilliant, the storylines. I get more people coming up to me lately being like, “Oh my God, we love ‘Harley Quinn.'” They love it! People love it.

They’ve sent out all of the screeners, but I’m stopping myself and just watching them as they premiere. Because then there won’t be more for forever.

It takes forever. I know. I know, I feel so biased, but it’s so brilliant.

And you want to keep doing that.

I do. I think that that show could last a long time. I don’t want to say it’s an easy gig, but a voiceover gig. It just connects with people for some reason — people love it. It brings a lot of joy.

And I get to cuss my brains out in a booth every other week. Like, who doesn’t want to do that?

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