Kaley Cuoco takes a dark turn in 'The Flight Attendant'

©Tribune News Service

That sweet Nebraskan Penny fresh off “The Big Bang Theory” suddenly finds herself walking on the wild side. And it’s all her fault.

Kaley Cuoco, who played Penny for 12 years, is not only starring but is producing her latest series, “The Flight Attendant,” premiering on HBO Max Thursday.

And this is not the Penny we grew to love.

In this dark tale, Cuoco plays a stewardess who wakes up hungover in a Dubai hotel sharing a bed with a dead man. She has no idea how she got there. The series is based on the book by Chris Bohjalian, but Cuoco says she was determined make the thriller even before she read the book.

“Over the past few years I’ve been looking at books and stuff to maybe produce or different stories that were interesting to me, but nothing excited me,” she says.

“And honestly, I read one little snippet, a line of the book on Amazon. 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, ‘OK, 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 jump on this.”

Jump she did at the chance to portray someone completely different from Penny, a character she describes as “perfectly flawed.”

“It was kind of an actor’s dream to play someone like her,” says Cuoco, who’s also voiced the raunchy Harley Quinn and has pitched Priceline.com for several years.

“She’s got a roller coaster 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.”

Humor is an important part of this noirish drama, says Cuoco.

“The tone has been a fascinating challenge in that we really have ridden a fine line because dark stuff happens, but there is levity. And we have so many funny actors that can make those quirky moments be a little lighter. It’s a very specific tone. I don’t think we’ve seen much of this on TV, so I’m excited.”

Those who remember Cuoco from her first prominent sitcom, “8 Simple Rules,” or from “The Big Bang Theory” may be surprised to know she’s been acting since she was 5.

“I have the greatest parents on the planet. There was never a moment where I sat down and said, ‘I want to be an actress.’ I was never that girl. But I always played sports and was always really good in school and had a lot of friends, then I had acting. It was like another thing I did. My parents made it clear that it couldn’t be my whole life. And it never was,” she says.

Her very first film was “Virtuosity” with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

“I remember running around the set. I was about 10. My mom, after that movie sat me down and said, ‘You know this is a very serious thing; do you really want to do this?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And we never talked about it again, and I continued to do it.”

She’s well established as an actor, but producing is a new ballgame for Cuoco. “Being part of the creative team has been a whole new experience for me,” she says. “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.”

Cuoco, who will be 35 next Monday, says unlike other actors who’ve departed a super successful series, she’s not tired of sitcoms.

“I just love the art of making someone laugh, and not taking yourself too seriously,” she says.

“And obviously I did that for years on the show, and loved it and would do it again in a heartbeat … But this was 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 got to come out,” she says.

“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 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.”

‘THE BELL’ RINGS AGAIN

Hey, the kids are back at Bayside High School! But it’s 30 years later and there’s a whole new crop of teen “enterprises” to liven up the new “Saved by the Bell.”

The series arrives on Peacock Wednesday and features some actors from the original ’90s comedy, like Elizabeth Berkley, Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar. The whole idea of resuscitating the sitcom comes from writer and executive producer Tracey Wigfield.

“While the original show was basically a kind of Saturday morning show for kids about high school, this is a single-camera, edgier comedy that I think will be exciting for people who love the original,” she says.

“But also, if you never saw the show, this is just a funny comedy about high school in 2020 that I think you’ll enjoy,’ she says.

“Fifth-grade me loved this show. And I think it is just a show that a lot of comedy writers my age really loved. And part of it was it was really weird. It was a very sanitized, safe version of high school, which I think was part of the appeal to me. But it was also really kind of cartoony and wacky.

“I think in the pilot episode, Casey Kasem comes to The Max and holds a dance contest. Like we’re just starting at 100-miles-an-hour of craziness. And it was just so fun for me and the staff to go back and watch all the old episodes and kind of think about them through a 2020 lens.”

KELLEY DRIVES NEW THRILLER

David E. Kelley is back cobbling up a new thriller, “Big Sky,” airing on ABC. The mastermind behind “Big Little Lies,” “Boston Legal” and “Mr. Mercedes,’ Kelley describes his new series.

“It centers on a private detective agency in Montana and, by extension, law enforcement agency. First and foremost, it’s a thriller, and we should start with the book, because that’s where I started. I read the book called ‘The Highway’ by C.J. Box. It’s cliche to say that I couldn’t put it down, but, really, I couldn’t put it down. It was a page-turner,” he recalls.

“What drew me in first was the plot, the tension. And then, what resonated after was the layering of the characters. Beyond that, C.J. — and he’s written several sequels to ‘The Highway,’ which we will also be incorporating into the series — beyond that, the authenticity and the sense of place that he brought to Montana.”

Kelley says his biggest challenge was delivering what the book provided.

“That is the tension, the thrill, the drama, the relational equations of the characters, which were rich and profound at times, and then the sense of escapism. It was a great ride, a great journey. And I’m hoping the audience and, particularly, given the times when they throw on the television at the end of the day, we will be able to deliver that sense of fun, drama and escapism to them.”

THEATER ACTRESS CRIES ‘WOLF’

Tony-winning actress Kelli O’Hara is best known for her theatrical work in shows like “The King and I,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Kiss Me Kate.” But O’Hara is also starring in the TV thriller, “The Accidental Wolf” premiering on Topic Thursday.

Topic is a subscription streaming service that specializes in unusual projects, “The Accidental Wolf” being one of them. It started three years ago as a web series, then grew into a full-blown TV show.

While she’s grateful to be working, O’Hara reports that the mood back on the Great White Way is definitely black. “For real theater beasts, this time is devastating,” she says.

“We’ve lost friends to this disease. We’re watching people give up their leases in New York City and move to the Midwest to live with an aunt because there’s no way to afford to sit alone in a New York apartment and wait for the unknown.

“We all live and thrive and breathe off of this human collaboration. That’s what theater is for us. So, I think we’re all in this moment of uncertainty. And you have days of real Zen when you see how little control we really have, but then there are other days that it’s maddening. And we just want to make it work and get back,” she says.

“Everybody wants to try to keep working. And at this point in our lives, it’s not pick-and-choose. ‘Oh, I’d rather do television, or theater, or singing.’ It’s, ‘What work can I find?’ And not only to stay creative, but also to provide for our families. So, we’re all in the same boat here and we don’t have control, and … we’re taking some humble pie.”

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(Luaine Lee is a California-based correspondent who covers entertainment for Tribune News Service.)

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©2020 Luaine Lee