Kaley Cuoco on the cover of emmy
It's St. Patrick's Day, two weeks before Kaley Cuoco gives birth to her first child, and the star of Peacock's Based on a True Story strikes a hilarious wide-eyed pose in a floor-length, pleated green gown.
"I look huge in this," says the Emmy-nominated actress-producer, who is not accustomed to glamorous fashion shoots while eight-and-a-half months pregnant. After clipping the dress to fit tighter around her ready-to-pop bump, Cuoco decides to scrap the look.
"It's just not perfect," she says. "There's so much better."
The photographer studies the image, with messy wisps of Cuoco's naturally-brown-for-pregnancy hair framing her open-mouthed, funny-girl face. "Hear me out," he says. "I don't hate this."
Cuoco rolls with it and gives her blessing to use the shot.
"She's very instinctual. She doesn't overthink things in her life and her choices," says Craig Rosenberg, creator–executive producer of Based on a True Story, which drops all of its eight episodes on June 8.
The comedic thriller stars Cuoco and Chris Messina as the Bartletts, a down-on-their-luck couple: she's Ava, an L.A. real estate agent and true-crime devotee, he's Nathan, a former tennis star who's suffered a career-ending injury. When a toilet overflows and they call a plumber (Tom Bateman), their lives take a very unexpected turn — and their subsequent capers offer a satirical look at America's obsession with true crime.
"It's about a normal couple who have kind of lost their spark," Cuoco says. "They're broke. They have a baby on the way. They're stressed, and it's weighing on their relationship. All their dreams kind of went down the drain."
The series was shot in and around L.A. between the fifth and ninth months of Cuoco's pregnancy — something no one expected when she signed on, including Cuoco herself.
Having a baby, she says, "just wasn't on my radar." Then, last year she met actor Tom Pelphreyat a party for Netflix's Ozark. It was love at first sight, and within months, daughter Matilda was on the way. (So was an Emmy nomination for Pelphrey, as Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, for his role as Ben Davis in Ozark.)
"This was not a goal of mine," says Cuoco, lounging in bed at home in the L.A. suburbs. "As a young girl I dreamed of it, but I became involved in my career. Then when we met, it was instantaneous — 'Oh my God, I want to have a kid with you.'
"We both wanted it so badly, which was not what I thought my life would be. I love my career and wanted to just keep living my life. But Tom came along, and something changed. We're not twenty, so we felt like we probably couldn't wait too long. Then we got so blessed — it happened right away."
Cuoco knew she couldn't keep the news from the show's producers, so she sat them down and proposed an idea.
"I'm like, 'What if this character was pregnant?' And they're like, 'Umm ...' And I'm like, 'Think really hard about it because maybe it's a really good idea — and it might be the only option.' They were looking at me, and I'm smiling, and they all went, 'Oh, my God, are you pregnant?' I'm like, 'Uh-huh.'"
Rosenberg realized he had two choices: conceal the pregnancy or embrace it as part of the story. Ultimately, he saw an opportunity to distinguish his show from Cuoco's previous series, HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, also a comedic thriller. "Kaley as a pregnant woman — we haven't seen that before," he says. "We would still get the Kaley we wanted, but we'd have a new Kaley, so to speak, going through all different story elements and the challenges that come with being pregnant."
The amended story also increased the stakes for Ava. "Once you have a kid on the way, you're not just making decisions for yourself," Rosenberg points out. "It added another interesting complication, which was great for the character and the show."
Cuoco was impressed by how little rewriting her pregnancy required. "What I love is, they didn't change the character. The show is super edgy, and none of that changed because I was pregnant. I have belly shirts on, and I'm in my bra, and there are sex scenes, where we have my photo double come in. We had to build this amazing stomach for her."
The pregnancy became such an integral part of each scene, it's hard to imagine it any other way, Rosenberg says. "What's great is, you didn't have to write it, because you see it. You don't have to talk about the baby because it's a physical presence in every scene. It's in your face, so to speak."
Matilda (born March 30) is destined to act — "It's in her genes; I don't know how she won't," Cuoco maintains — so it's fitting she got her start on screen in utero. "The child already thinks she's the star of everything," says the new mom, recalling how she kicked so hard during one scene that actress Ever Carradine jumped.
Fortunately, larger interruptions were avoided. In fact, the production schedule of Based on a True Story aligned perfectly with Cuoco's pregnancy, wrapping three weeks before her due date. Producers were blown away by her ability to manage twelve-hour days as the months progressed.
And Chris Messina was amazed that his costar could nap between takes, despite the surrounding chaos. "She's so goddamn talented," he says. "I roll up to set with like, ten acting books, and I'm calling an acting coach. I'm super anxious about my work and ready to be fired any second. But she's so laid-back and stress-free, laughing and cracking jokes. Then boom, they say, 'Action!' and she's just incredible."
Beneath that relaxed exterior, though, lies the discipline of a pro who's been working since kindergarten and the competitive spirit of an athlete. Cuoco, a ranked junior tennis player, showed off her skills playing with Rosenberg during the final days of shooting at a tennis club. (Called the Beverly Club in the show, it is actually Griffin Club Los Angeles, in the Cheviot Hills neighborhood.)
Worried about sending his star into early labor, Rosenberg suggested they gently volley at the net, but Cuoco couldn't resist moving back to the baseline to crush it.
"I was on the court — nine months pregnant in a crop top — kicking his ass," Cuoco recalls. "Everyone was watching and cheering, and I literally looked like an elephant running across the court. I think people were watching because they were concerned I was going to die."
A similar story emerges from Chuck Lorre, creator–executive producer of The Big Bang Theory, in which Cuoco starred as Penny Hofstadter for twelve seasons. "The first couple of years, we had ferocious ping-pong tournaments on set, and she was a killer," he says. "You play ping-pong against Kaley, and you're ducking."
Lorre believes Cuoco's willpower saved his show after she suffered a serious horse riding accident in 2010, which nearly led to a leg amputation. A longtime competitive equestrian, Cuoco quickly returned in a full-leg cast and missed only two episodes. "She handled it with dignity and determination," Lorre recalls. "She was just fierce: 'I'm coming back. I'll be there.'"
Likewise, as a teen, she weathered the sudden death in 2003 of her onscreen father, John Ritter, during the second season of her breakout series, ABC's 8 Simple Rules.
"I'm amazed I'm as normal as I am," admits Cuoco, who's spent nearly her entire life on camera, starting with bologna and Barbie commercials at age five. She credits her parents, who raised her and her sister in an Oxnard townhouse, north of L.A., and trusted her when she declared at age seven that she wanted to act for the rest of her life.
"God bless my parents, they believed me. My parents were so amazing — so cool and stable and normal."
With all of life's highs and lows unfolding in the public eye, Cuoco remains remarkably open and unguarded.
"When you see her on TV, and you're like, 'I'd love to be friends with her,' it's true — she is that way," says Sarah Schechter, chairperson and partner at Berlanti Productions and an executive producer of The Flight Attendant (which Cuoco not only starred in, but executive-produced, earning three Emmy noms for the series). "You think you know Kaley — and you do."
Cuoco is proud her latest life-changing transformation is unfolding onscreen. "I've grown up on TV, and I've been lucky to play my age for thirty-plus years. I've played a teenager, I've played an adult, I've played a wife. Now, I'm playing a wife who's pregnant. I went through my whole pregnancy on this show. Truly, I grew with this character."
Craig Rosenberg is creator–executive producer–showrunner–writer of Based on a True Story. Also executive-producing are Jason Bateman and Michael Costigan. The series is produced for Peacock by Aggregate Films and UCP.
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.
This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 06.
The interview for this story was completed before the start of the WGA strike on May 2.