Kaley Cuoco Is Going Out With A [Big] Bang [Theory]

Kaley Cuoco
DRESS: Louis Vuitton, WATCH: Roger Dubuis, EARRINGS: Harry Kotlar

Photo Credit: Jeff LipskyTabloids are often fond of suggesting that celebrities are “just like us!” But in Kaley Cuoco’s case, it’s actually true. Like all of us, she’s Googled herself. She shows off photos of her three dogs like they’re her children (heck, she even named her production company after one). She’s often the first person at the party and the first to leave, even when she tells herself to “be cool.” And yes—even she occasionally gets starstruck. But the difference between us and her is this: She—and she alone—has the distinction of being the second-highest-paid female in television, on what will be the longest-running multicamera series ever, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. And as that series approaches its end, this happy-go-lucky star reflects on the show that created her career. 

When we meet the 33-year-old actress in Encino, Calif., for coffee on Oscar Sunday, she has shot 18 of 24 episodes for Big Bang’s 12th and final season. The end is imminent, and though her disposition is sunny, reality is starting to sink in. 

Is she glad? Hell no! The Big Bang Theory cast is her family, and this has been her life for 12 wonderful years. But as this self-proclaimed realist knows, nothing can last forever.

“I feel I go through these waves of depression about it,” she admits. “It’s been like a death. It’s hard to let go of something I’m so used to, that’s been a part of my life for so many years. It’s very bittersweet. It’s a weird mental thing; I’m very excited for the future, but it’s like letting go of a comfort blanket.”

Cuoco can’t help but tear up as she thinks about cutting ties with alter ego Penny, a one-time aspiring actress and Cheesecake Factory waitress-turned-pharmaceutical sales rep from Omaha, Neb. She is the lone relatable voice on a show rife with scientific references and sometimes incoherent nerd jargon, a refreshing foil to geeky Caltech physicists Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), the (now-not-so) new neighbors she befriended after moving into a Pasadena, Calif., apartment complex, as well as their supersmart yet socially challenged friends: aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg), astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), physicist Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert), neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik), microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch) and comic book store owner Stuart Bloom (Kevin Sussman). 

Many things have changed, yet they’ve also stayed consistently the same since the show kicked off with a bang on September 24, 2007. After nine seasons of makeups and breakups, the unlikely couple of Penny and Leonard tied the knot. Each of the leads has settled down. The late, great cosmologist Stephen Hawking has shown up not once, but twice. The apartment elevator still isn’t working (a running gag, as it hasn’t been operational since 2003, four years before the series started). 

Kaley Cuoco
BLAZER: Michael Kors
PANTS: Michael Kors
SHOES: Giuseppe Zanotti
RING: Neil Lane
WATCH: Hublot

Photo Credit: Jeff Lipsky

With each passing year, the power of the Bang kept increasing. Ratings steadily climbed from 8.3 million viewers in the first season to almost 19 million viewers per episode in its 11th. The series, created by “King of Sitcoms” Chuck Lorre (Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men) has been nominated for 46 Emmys, including four nods for Outstanding Comedy Series, and 216 Golden Globe nominations. The Big Bang Theory has earned a firm and undeniable place in television history. 

The show would likely have gone on as well, so when Lorre, WBTV and CBS made a joint statement announcing the cancellation on August 22, 2018, the decision was met with surprise and confusion.

Cuoco says that the cast, too, was blindsided. “The way it happened was a little bit shocking,” she confesses. “We found out as a group. We all just assumed we were going to try and make it work, but this group is really all for one and one for all, and it doesn’t work unless it’s all of us.

“After the surprise of what the decision was, we’ve all come to terms with it in our own way,” she adds. “I’ve definitely accepted it now; it had to end at some point.”

But did it need to end now? Although Parsons said, “It feels like we’ve chewed all the meat off this bone,” it’s a question Cuoco still grapples with. “There’s a part of me that loves that we’re ending and still on top, especially with the way television is going now,” she says. “Our show is considered not very modern—things have changed in this era of streaming and Netflix—but people still tune in, and it feels good that we’ve kept this classic going for so long. We might be the last of its kind; there’s not many [shows] that have done what Big Bang has done. Part of me thinks that we could have done another three years and been fine. [But] I also don’t want to be walking with a cane in the show or be in a wheelchair. We need to stop at some point; we’re all getting a little bit older.”

Since the show is shot in front of a live audience—another golden oldie of the sitcom age—it could have made things a little dicey given that its finale is going to be so emotional, but producers solved that situation by deciding to pre-shoot the final episodes. The show will also be filmed in front of the audience as usual, which, says Cuoco, “is smart, because I think we’re all going to be bawling our eyes out.”

That said, she doesn’t actually know what is going to happen in the six final episodes. “I have no idea, and [the writers] don’t know, either,” she notes. “They’ve been very honest with us. It keeps on going in different directions, but there must be some tears coming because they wouldn’t be having us pre-shoot so much otherwise.”

Kaley Cuoco
DRESS: Max Mara SUNGLASSES: Alain Mikli RING: Neil Lane

Photo Credit: Jeff Lipsky

Pre-shooting is wise for a variety of reasons, the foremost being that Cuoco wants to pay homage (without tears) to the character she’s had to become. After having played Penny for more than a decade, Cuoco couldn’t help but to absorb some of her personality, and vice versa. “I think after 12 years, you do start to morph a little bit in your character,” she explains. “Mine is the most relatable role on the show. She’s so sweet and honest with the guys―she can make fun of them today because she’s in on the joke. Hell, she married one of them. She’s been the audience’s view for so long: These guys are outcasts, and they’re also smarter than everyone else; we can’t relate to a person like that. Penny walked in right from the beginning and didn’t care or judge them. She was the outcast in a way. She was the one who wasn’t really accepted in their group. Now, after so many years, everyone has evolved.”

That translates as much to the portrayers as it does the characters they play. As the seasons have progressed and the cast has transformed from friends to family, their relationships have shifted. “The first few seasons, primarily 1 and 2, we went out every week. Me and the guys had dinners, cocktails… we were always celebrating. Johnny was the head honcho of that; he had people over to his house constantly. Then a few seasons in, it became dinners, not too late. Now, with people married and with kids, it’s coffee and tea maybe at work. It’s like family. You don’t see family for a while, but it’s the same when you sit down with them. Life has definitely changed; our personal lives have just changed. We have a comfort level that you just can’t buy. We’ve earned that now after so many years, and we just love each other… but we’re definitely old now,” she laughs. 

The series even withstood her real-life relationship with Galecki, a romance they kept secret for two years that fizzled out right as their on-screen affair was heating up. “We weren’t weird, which is what was weird; it was a mutual breakup, and you can rarely say that. Johnny and I were friends first, then obviously we dated. When we broke up, it was funny because that was when our relationship on the show was hot and heavy. There were a lot of bed scenes. We were a little like, ‘We were trying to end the relationship and it kept falling back in.’ We got over it really fast, and we’re closer than ever now. It could have gone either way, and I was really proud of us.”

Kaley Cuoco
DRESS: Valentino
RING: Harry Kotlar

Photo Credit: Jeff Lipsky

Not that this is anything new: The Three Musketeers sentiment of all for one, one for all has applied to the entire cast from the very beginning. It’s why she and Galecki were able to put aside any ambivalence for the greater good, and truthfully, it’s why she believes the series has worked so well.

“From the beginning, from the first season, we always said that no matter what happened, we were a team. We wanted to make sure our teams [managers, agents, publicists] knew that we were a team,” she says. “We were almost the same person from the beginning. No secrets. We just said, ‘We’re the same, we’re going to answer you the same and we’re not coming against each other.’ We have always been on the same page, through negotiations and whatever else was going on.”

That meant that she was paid the same as Galecki and Parsons from the get-go. “I was ahead of the curve on that,” she maintains. “There was never a question of not getting the same [pay as Johnny or Jim]. There wasn’t even a conversation―that was just how it was. I didn’t have to fight for it. When I say that, I mean it was, ‘This is what we’re doing, and we did it.’ I feel very lucky that I got my foot in the door then. Now, I feel it will never be a question for me, either. If someone fights back to me about this, I know what I deserve: It will always be equal. It will never be a conversation.”

And in March 2017, she proved that statement as she —along with original cast members Galecki, Parsons, Helberg and Nayyar—each took a 10-percent pay cut to cover an increase in salary for newer female leads Bialik and Rauch.

Why does she fight for what’s right so strongly? Maybe it’s because there’s a bigger piece of Penny in her than she realizes, or maybe it’s because she’s grateful, still thanking her lucky stars that Penny came into her life at all, considering that the character fans see today was never meant to exist. Penny was first “Katie,” a neighbor who had mean-spirited fun at the Big Bang boys’ expense.

“There was originally another pilot that the show did, and I didn’t get cast,” Cuoco confides. “She lived next door to the guys, but the character was written very differently. She made fun of them, using them to her advantage. The pilot did not go well. CBS and Warner Bros. thought they had to make the character more lovable or the show was not going to go well, and the audience was not going to like her. They revamped the entire pilot, I came back in to read and got cast, obviously.”

Kaley Cuoco
DRESS: Max Mara
SHOES: Sophia Webster RING: Neil Lane

Photo Credit: Jeff Lipsky

And she will always give credit where it’s due: Everything she has today is because of Chuck Lorre. “I owe everything to [him], and I will forever. He fought for me for that second pilot; he even wanted me in the first pilot, but it wasn’t right at the time. [When the second pilot came] back around, he called me and said, ‘This is the one, this is the time, it’s been rewritten. This is for you.’ I will always owe everything I do to the show. This is what made me who I am, and I’m super-proud of that.”

Make no mistake, she’s worked for her success—as have her co-stars. “I think the reason that Big Bang has been so successful is that we’ve never taken a sigh of relief and slacked,” she notes. “If you’re five minutes early for work, you’re late. Every single person’s car is there [on the lot], and we’ve been like this from day one. [Our success] wasn’t an accident―it was hard work.”

But The Big Bang Theory’s personal brand of magic goes above and beyond work ethic: The synchronicity shared by cast and crew is something rare and special that’s nearly impossible to recreate. This is a team that put hours of extra work into choreographing not one but three flash mobs (spearheaded by Cuoco and even choreographed by her sister, Briana) who have taken the time to sit with kids from the Make-A-Wish Foundation almost every other month for 12 years and who stand up for one another, financially and otherwise. Cuoco has shown her love for the group all along by playing unofficial set photographer, snapping over 2,000 Polaroids to create lasting memories for the group (which she plans on one day publishing as a book of memorabilia), and more recently, by purchasing little gold chains with “12” for the Big Bang girls who have stood by her side since day one.

This is a closeness that can’t be perfectly replicated, but Cuoco is hopeful that one day she’ll find something that comes close. “I had such a crazy, strange, wonderful experience on [8 Simples Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter with John Ritter from 2002-2005], and I never thought I’d have that again, and then Big Bang came around,” she says. “I really don’t think I’ll ever have that again. It’s going to stand on its own, and I want to be careful because I don’t want to compare everything to this—and it’s going to be really hard not to. We’re leaving a really cool legacy, and the show has changed all of our lives. It’s definitely changed mine.”