The tonal roller coaster that is The Flight Attendant, recently nominated for nine Emmy awards including Outstanding Comedy Series, emerged as the overriding theme of a Q&A between THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, and seven of its nominees, including Kaley Cuoco, who plays the title role (Cassie) and acts as an executive producer, and Rosie Perez, who plays her loyal yet mysterious sidekick, Megan.
The series — about a hard-partying flight attendant who blacks out in a hotel room only to find the passenger she hooked up with has been brutally slain — see-saws between character comedy, recovery drama and murder mystery. In the process, the tone veers serious to madcap, reflective to flippant, traumatic to absurdist, real to surreal — and vice versa. Sometimes all in the same scene. According to all involved, the approach was open-ended going in, with the spirit of spontaneity and experimentation prevalent throughout.
“There’s nothing funny about the book (by Chris Bohjalian),” says Cuoco, “(It’s) very entertaining but very dark. And so I thought, ‘God this could be good but we need to lighten it a little.’ But how do you lighten it because terrible things are happening? So we kind of made up our own tone, and it was a little bit of ‘what are we doing?’ as we went, and just believe. And at least for me, I made sure we just had so many different ways to go in most of the scenes… We used the word ‘tone’ so many times, I didn’t know we could discuss tone as much as we possibly did.”
Adds the actress: “I just made sure there were a lot of ‘alts’ and different ways to go because I was a little unsure of how we were going to put it together.”
Not to miss a beat, Susanna Fogel, who directed the first two episodes and helped establish the overall tone, chimes in: “Yeah, I mean, there were so many alts that I wouldn’t say Steven (Yockey) wrote any of it.”
All joking aside, Yockey credits Cuoco with doing the heavy lifting by finding the book and approaching both Warner Bros. Television and HBO, eventually drawing him into the equation. “The letter that came with the book said ‘we’re looking for something like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment meets Fleabag, recalls Yockey. “And I just laughed when I read that. And I thought, ‘what are they asking for?’ I took a big swing.”
“My favorite part of the story,” Yockey adds, “is that two minutes into my pitch, Kaley stopped me and she looked over at her (co-executive producer) Suzanne McCormack and said ‘can we hire him?’ And Suzanne said ‘Yes’ and then she said, ‘OK, keep going now.’”
Yockey, who is the show’s writer-showrunner-executive producer, says the encounter foreshadowed “the spontaneous environment that existed within the show that allowed us to have this unwieldy thing. … Everybody was on the same page about what we wanted the outcome to be, and so I think that’s why the show feels confident when you watch it.”
Fogel, who has directed both big-budget action comedies like The Spy Who Dumped Me and indie character dramas like Life Partners, says that blending genres is the best type of storytelling because that’s closer to her reality. “Humor is always funniest on the heels of tragedy, and tragedy is always that much more of a gut punch when you’ve been laughing and relating to the characters and not expecting the stakes to be suddenly that high,” she explains. “If something feels like it’s all serious and the perspective of it is a heavy one — seeing life through this heavy lens — it doesn’t resonate with my personal experience of life, which is filled with absurdity and tragedy.”
This edition of THR Presents is sponsored by HBO.