Kaley Cuoco is flying high with her latest series, HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, which has her up for a Golden Globe at Sunday’s awards show. But in a new Variety interview, the actress reflects on her best-known TV gig, with CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, and how she was blindsided by the decision to end it.
Now 35, Cuoco was just 21 when she was cast as Penny, the waitress living next door to nerds Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki, whom Cuoco secretly dated early on in the show’s run). As the long-running hit’s 12th season got underway, in the summer of 2018, the star says she and Galecki had “talked a lot about” the prospect of doing another year.
“Did we want to do it? And we really did,” she tells Variety of returning for Season 13.
When series creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre called them into his office, they assumed it was to discuss a renewal. But Cuoco — who takes pains to tell the story “correctly” — learned that the meeting was to announce co-star Parsons’s desire to leave the show. The news left her in a “state of shock.”
“Jim said, ‘I don’t think I can continue on,'” Cuoco shares. “And I was so shocked that I was literally like, ‘Continue on with what?’ Like, I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I looked at Chuck: ‘Wow. I thought we were — I’m so blown away right now.’”
Lorre reminded the stars that the show couldn’t go on without any one of them, telling the group, “We’re all for one, one for all. And we’re not going to do this without the whole team.”
Cuoco says “everyone had their open feelings, and there were questions and tears” during the meeting, but says Lorre’s call for solidarity was spot-on: “That was the one thing we all agreed on — we came in together, we go out together.”
Though she’s made peace with the show’s end, and has since found success as both a lead actress and producer with The Flight Attendant, in addition to voicing Harley Quinn on HBO Max’s animated series, her Big Bang Theory experience still makes her emotional.
“Oh, my God, I don’t remember my life before this show!” she remembers thinking at the time. “And I went through a divorce on the show,” she noted in a reference to first husband Ryan Sweeting, adding, “we got married in, like, six seconds.” Cuoco divorced Sweeting in 2016 and has been married to Karl Cook since 2018.
While the “all for one, one for all” tactic meant saying goodbye to the show sooner than she’d hoped, it did prove to be a successful strategy in terms of negotiating pay. By The Big Bang Theory‘s eighth season, she, Galecki and Parsons were all making $1 million per episode apiece, though they later took a pay cut so that other cast members could be paid more.
“I knew that I was equal to them from day one,” Cuoco says of her male co-stars. “And that was never questioned in my experience with Big Bang — which I will always appreciate, because it set a standard for me.”
Of signing their first major contract, she remembers that she and Galecki “looked at each other and we were like, ‘What the hell just happened? Should we go out to dinner? Should we “cheers”?’ We didn’t quite know what to do.”
Being one of the highest-paid women in TV “was a blessing,” Cuoco says now. “I was able to take care of a lot of things in my life and my family, and I will forever be grateful for that.”
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