In HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, Cassie Bowden is a young care-free flight attendant who just wants to have a good time as she flies from country to country. However while on a flight to Bangkok, she meets charming Alex Sokolov, a passenger in seat C3 where Cassie’s casual flirtations and bathroom quickie leads into a night of something more. Conversations, wine, music, and a fancy restaurant that turns into a passionate night of sex between two strangers.
But that fun night turns into a horror scene when Cassie wakes up next to a very bloody and very dead Alex, whose neck now resembles a Pez dispenser. Horrified and confused about the blackout drunken night before and the dead body staring and talking to her, Cassie flees in hopes of putting the past behind her. But unlike the trauma of her childhood and her alcoholism, an international murder is not that easy to stuff away. Cassie soon becomes the literal definition of a hot mess as she makes just about the worst decisions imaginable, then keeps on making them.
Adapted from the thriller novel by Chris Bohjalian, Executive Producers Greg Berlanti and Kaley Cuoco began development on The Flight Attendant three years ago, when Cuoco optioned the rights for her then newly formed production company, Yes, Norman (named after her dog). The duo turned the classic alcoholic unreliable narrator into an enjoyable, stylish comedic murder-mystery that will leave viewers gobbling up each episode.
The Koalition spoke to Kaley Cuoco about transforming a classic thriller novel into a dark comedy, taking the role of both Cassie and Executive Producer of the show, and more.
“It’s kind of interesting. Over the past few years, I’ve been looking at books and stuff to maybe produce or different stories that kind of were interesting to me, but nothing excited me. And honestly, I read one little snippet, a line of the book; it just was one sentence and I got like this weird chill and I called my team and said, “Hey, I’d love to look at the rights to this book.” And their first question was, “Okay, so you read the book, you love the book?” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I totally read the book.” I had not read the book, but something had told me to jump on this. They do not know that. They’re going to know now. So once they started getting into it, all the back stuff, I read it really fast, and thank god I loved it as much as I thought.”
“And there was a bidding war and I won the rights and I’m like, “Now what do I do?” I have this what? I got it?” Like I didn’t believe it. Brought it to Warner Bros. and I said, “You know what? I think this is a great character. I think this could be a really great show.” And they brought me to Steve and then they brought us to Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter and it just kept rolling.”
“You start looking at the flight attendants, you start seeing what they’re doing when they’re making the drinks and how they talk to each other and how they react to passengers. And even the fact that they take their heels off and they put their comfy shoes on and their hair is always — and you see the friendships that some of the flight attendants have. And it’s a very close-knit group. I mean you really are traveling together. So I can’t help it and I’ll probably now, after doing this project, be noticing flight attendants probably for the rest of my life.”
When we first see Cassie Bowden in The Flight Attendant she gives off the vibe of having a perfect life. Jet-setting around the globe, blurring the lines of business with pleasure, loving her job, and partying each night while joining the mile-high club. She eats at the fanciest restaurants, attends the best clubs, and meets new people every day. Below the exterior is a young woman refusing to admit she’s a functional alcoholic, hiding her loneliness with one-night stands and just going through the motions.
“Cassie is extremely perfectly flawed. It was kind of an actor’s dream to play someone like her. She’s got a rollercoaster of issues, but a heart of gold, and she’s strong. It’s just a great female character to play. And I think coming off of doing comedy and Big Bang — which I love, I love making people laugh — there was something about this that I thought if we could find the right team and bring some levity to such a dark book, that it could be kind of cool.”
“Obviously being a producer and being part of the creative has been a whole new experience for me. I have never done that before. I laughed over the last few years working on this. I’m like I know too much! Like sometimes you just don’t want to know all the stuff that’s going on. But it’s been totally career-changing for me just to see it from the beginning and kind of go with my gut on things and make my own decisions and put this great group together and learn so much. So it’s been wonderful.”
Meshing together a handful of genres — part mystery-thriller, part dark comedy, part surreal romantic-fantasy — the hourlong series careens forward with a propulsive pace, curious side stories, and an enticing cast of characters to include Cassie’s brother Davey (T.R. Knight), his husband, and their daughters; her fellow flight attendants, including Megan Briscoe (Rosie Perez), who is dealing with her own family drama and her best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet), an aggressively competent criminal attorney.
“Rose and Zosia are so incredibly good in this project, it’s so beyond. I think at one point, I was looking at Rose and — because this has been, for me, three years since I locked eyes on this book. So, I was looking at Rose one scene and I just — I started almost crying, going, “I can’t believe you’re in front of me and we’re doing this together.” It was just so overwhelming to be in that room with her and had felt it for so long, you know? And I feel that way with Z, too. It’s just been an absolute dream, the whole cast.”
For Kaley, this darkly comic drama feels like it deliberately plays off her sitcom-star image by building on the tension between Cassie’s messy personality with the hard-hitting reality of her life and the impact on her. As a result, it’s easy to fall in love with the character while desperately wanting to scream at her action. Then there are the moments where Kaley highlights Cassie’s incredible vulnerability.
“I love making people laugh, I’ve always loved comedy, I love sitcom, I grew up on it. Even like the “I Love Lucy’s” and obviously starting out on my first series with John Ritter, I just love the art of making someone laugh, and not taking yourself too seriously. And obviously, I did that for years on the show, and loved it and would do it again in a heartbeat, but this was a great, kind of a new path, but it wasn’t so far off the path that people are like, what is she doing? There’s still that levity and that side of me that’s going to come out, finding like a Steve and our creative team who really got to learn my voice, my personality over the past few years, and putting those Kaley-isms in, I think that was really important. But I’ve loved it. I’ve loved the drama, I’ve loved being scared, I’ve loved running, it’s been — like I said — completely new and different, I’ve really never done anything like it before. And I’ve completely enjoyed it. But I love sitcoms too, and you know, people think “Oh she’s never gonna want to do that again.” That’s what got me to this point, and it’s totally cherished. But this has been a new ride.”
“TV is great. The schedule is great, a little more compact, you know, TV is changing. All the new ways you can watch, series are different. You know, with Big Bang we were doing 24 episodes a year. This is just as a different situation, you wanna binge things, they’re shorter. It’s kind of like doing a long movie. And I love the schedule and I love television and I think the way we view television now is completely different, you know. And I’ll always love TV. (laughs)
Since The Big Bang Theory went off the air, Cuoco has also provided the voice for Harley Quinn in a critically acclaimed animated series based on the DC Comics character. Both Harley Quinn and Cassie allow for the actress to deepen the persona fans grew to love on The Big Bang Theory, albeit in newer and more adult settings.
“Harley Quinn, I wasn’t looking for Harley Quinn, that’s been a lovely surprise. When I started my production company, it was even kind of close to almost before Flight Attendant — Peter Roth called me from Warner Brothers and said “We’re making this raunchy Harley Quinn animated show, are you interested in it?” And I was like “Yeah, that could be kinda fun.” And it was a small little thing, and the writers were hilarious, I fell in love with them, and we made the show, and it’s crazy, it’s totally insane. I had no idea it was gonna be as insane and raunchy as it has become. I’m even shocked half the time at the stuff I’m saying. But that’s been just like this enjoyable — it kinda started as a little side gig, and turned into something more.”
“And then Flight Attendant obviously it was really a book that drew me in, and I thought it would be a really interesting character to play. We got the right team together. And so it wasn’t really like a conscious, I was trying to get so far away from what I did before, this kind of was the natural progression, it was the projects that I liked.
The first three episodes of The Flight Attendant are currently streaming on HBO Max.