As endings go, it was equal parts sad and satisfying.
As reluctant as Kaley Cuoco was to say goodbye to Penny, the waitress-slash-aspiring actress turned pharmaceutical rep she inhabited for 12 seasons on The Big Bang Theory, when she filmed that final episode in late April of 2019, she ultimately left the Warner Bros. soundstage—now to be known forevermore as the The Big Bang Theory Stage—at peace. Thoroughly emotionally drained and covered in tears, but, ultimately, at peace.
"It is the most beautiful finale I have ever seen, and I love finales," she raved to ET just days after filming wrapped. Though her request to learn her character's maiden name was nixed by superstitious producers, "I'm thrilled with [Penny's] ending, yet beginning. It's beautiful. There's not anything catastrophic, it's just beautiful. And the characters are gonna live on in your minds and in your hearts, and I think that's what is so special about it. It's really touching."
And with one so-sweet-you-couldn't-help-but-cry-happy-tears ending behind her, she was ready to take off toward a new beginning.
Much of her next chapter was already written, with the founder of Yes, Norman Productions lining up her next projects well ahead of The Big Bang Theory's 2019 finale. Along with voicing the titular role in DC Universe's Harley Quinn animated series, she had optioned Chris Bohjalian's best-selling thriller The Flight Attendant back in 2017 based on a one-sentence summary.
"The cover of the book is a blonde woman. It just kind of looks like me," she recalled while doing press last year, and with a chill shooting through her, she decided to just go for it. "The first thing I asked was, 'Has Reese Witherspoon gotten the rights to this book?'" Learning she was in the clear, "My entire team was like, 'Great. So, you read it? Tell us about it,'" she continued. "I hadn't read it, but I knew I needed them to get moving. I'm trying to make up all these things that I think it's going to be."
Thankfully that turned out pretty all right, the 35-year-old up for her first two Golden Globes Feb. 28, getting nods for Best Actress and Best Television Series, Musical or Comedy. "We're...oh my God! I can't believe this," she proclaimed in her entirely endearing reaction to the nominations. "I cannot believe this."
Her other big decision has left her feeling like a winner as well.
After spending the first four years of her romance with Karl Cook—including nearly two years of their marriage—in separate residences, Cuoco listed the six-bedroom, nine-bathroom Tarzana, Calif. villa she purchased five years ago from Khloe Kardashian and finally moved in with her husband.
"This quarantine has forced us to actually move in together," she admitted on Jimmy Kimmel Live in April. "It's been great for our relationship. And we like each other we realized, which is even better."
Which brings us to...
"Kaley and Karl talk about having children," a source told E! News ahead of the BBT finale. "They would love to move to a simpler lifestyle and live on a ranch with their horses. Kaley wants her children to be raised riding horses and having a similar country lifestyle that both her and Karl love."
And with the star no longer committed to daily call times on an L.A. soundstage, the moment just may be upon them. Said the source, "They are both excited for a new chapter together."
Should the former child actress choose to literally ride off into the sunset with her 30-year-old groom, she could do so, easily thriving without ever having to work again. Thanks to the long-running role that saw her netting up to $1 million an episode, a handful of movies shot during hiatus (2015's The Wedding Ringer, 2016's Why Him?) and plum endorsement gigs (filming all those Priceline commercials doesn't come cheap), she landed the second spot on Forbes' 2018 list of highest-paid TV actresses.
The security makes her union with Cook, a champion equestrian and son of Intuit cofounder Scott Cook, all that sweeter.
"I want to see him," she explained to Women's Health of their romance, a surprise happy ending after she was left devastated following the breakdown of her first marriage to tennis pro Ryan Sweeting. "I like knowing, though, that I'm [financially] set, because I've taken it upon myself to do that. I like to tell my friends, 'Always make sure you have your life going, and that you're number one, so that anyone who comes into it—husband, or boyfriend, or girlfriend, however you roll—that's just an added bonus to something you're already creating.'"
And having created what amounts to her own mini empire, she's not about to hang it up in her mid-thirties.
Along with, as she put it in her Instagram post, "officially" joining the DC Universe with her role in the animated Harley Quinn web series, she's putting the bulk of her attention on growing Yes, Norman Productions. (And, yes, the TV and film production company was named for her beloved rescue pit bull, Norman, who passed away this past January.)
"I want to be a full-on girl boss," she detailed to Cosmopolitan of her next career goal. "I've been in the business so long, and I've worked with the best. I don't let people mess with me. I want to show girls out there that you can be cool, wear yoga clothes, and run your own f--king company. You don't have to be a guy in a suit. I want this to be a big company. I want to be sitting down a few years from now and have so many projects going. That's what I'm excited about."
And she's off to quite the start, thanks to the success of The Flight Attendant. Part of her exclusive multi-year first look production deal with Warner Bros. Television, it's about, you guessed it, a flight attendant who wakes up hungover in a Bangkok hotel room next to a dead body.
"This is the first time I have a project that I'm kind of nurturing from the beginning, so it's been a really interesting experience," she told PopSugar in 2019 of the draw to both produce and star in the series. "It's got a lot of aspects. It's very sexy. It's a really well-written book, which is why I wanted to option it. I'm ready to bring the character to life."
Though she admits that steering that particular ship comes with some drawbacks. "Basically this will completely be my fault if it fails miserably. This was completely my idea," she allowed to E! News ahead of filming. "I'm excited because this will be the first time that I'm doing all of it. If it's great, great, if it's not, then I'm going to leave the country and you will never hear from me again. It's like it never happened."
Safe to say she and Cook will remain stateside for the time being. Perhaps at a ranch sprawling enough to hold their coterie of horses (including her mini-dwarf horse Shmooshy), dogs, her adopted rabbit Simon and the recently added dwarf goat.
"We've kind of been in separate places but as people see, we're together all the time," she explained on stylist Brad Goreski's podcast Brad Behavior in November 2019. "But we've had separate locations and whether that's helped us mentally or not, I've obviously never been in a better relationship and I want this to last the rest of my life so in a way, we're actually taking it slow."
Building a home together, "My biggest dream was to actually build a mini barn—it's a direct replica of our large barn—because Karl and I have taken in so many mini animals, which is hilarious so we're building a mini barn and it's literally going to be miniature size," she continued. "My vision is I would love to start a non-profit for these little guys and have school field trips. It's going to be built for kids. It's literally built for the height of kids. It will be like a little rescue petting zoo. That is my true little dream."
Whether or not they'll have any of their own little ones running through it remains to be seen. While Cuoco told E! News that her pets are "good practice" for dependents of the human variety, she told ET, in 2018, she wasn't fully ready to take that next leap. After all, it's only been a few years since she crossed paths with Cook at an equestrian competition, delighted to find that not only did that athlete share her love of animals and draw toward the great outdoors, but he had no idea who she was.
"We bonded a lot over having the same kind of outlooks on life, insecurities, dating. He comes from a very well-to-do family, so there's all these [preconceived ideas] of being spoiled, and blah, blah, blah. And he's just the opposite," she told Women's Health. "It was great because he never kissed my ass at all, and he never cared about any of that. He loved that I loved horses. It became a big talking point for us."
Now with friends marveling over how well-suited they are for each other ("Everyone is obsessed with him and them as a couple and they truly are a perfect match," the source told E! News,) the chatter has shifted to starting a family.
"I'm not quite there yet, but I know that I will be 'cause I love kids," she put it to ET in 2018. "But I'm a worker bee right now—kind of my career is my focus, and my husband. But, we love kids and we love animals so we're meant to have children."
Having struck gold with her second major television series, Cuoco knows about meant to be. "I would've done 20 more seasons," she told reporters at the 2019 Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour of her Big Bang Theory run. "It's a magical place but life has to go on. It does feel good to go out on top."
It's an apex few were predicting when CBS pulled together Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar and Johnny Galecki of Roseanne fame together to create a comedy about four nerdy Caltech scientists and the absurdly attractive girl next door. But after a couple of seasons of netting okay-enough ratings and mixed reviews, the show claimed its title as TV's most-watched comedy, thanks, in part, to a lead in from the network's other hit, Two and a Half Men.
"As corny as it sounds, it's a perfect science experiment," reasoned Cuoco. "It all came together and it doesn't always happen. There's no missing link. No one has ever half-assed one moment of this show. Everyone cares so much. It means just as much to me as it does to anyone else working here. These characters are special. They were the underdogs in the beginning, which now, I think, they've totally come out on top. I still think we made nerdy cool 12 years ago when it wasn't."
What some assumed was going to be "a really silly show with two nerds living next to the hot girl," she continued, soon morphed into something much greater: "We have completely changed that and have outgrown that and have become real amazing characters that have left a mark on so many people's hearts."
Including hers, of course. Just 20 years old when she was cast, coming off the success of her run on the John Ritter comedy 8 Simple Rules, "I've grown up on this show," she told E! News. "I've gone through personal trauma and amazing things as well and happiness and all of us have. And we've just shared something that a lot of people haven't."
So she was only a little kidding when she floated the idea of a reunion.
"I don't wanna leave, I don't wanna leave," she lamented to ET. "I said it, I don't wanna leave!" Her workaround, she shared, was following in the path forged by the likes of Gilmore Girls, Will & Grace and Veronica Mars. "Everyone's doing rebooting," she said. "We might as well do it in, like, a year!"
Alternatively, a Penny-focused spin-off is also on the table, albeit under very specific conditions. "The only person I would say yes to is Chuck Lorre," she named of the creator and executive producer she credits with revamping her career. "So if Chuck came and said let's do it, I'd say yes. Other than that, I don't see a spin-off for myself. But I don't like to say no to Chuck. So if he wanted it, I'm in!"
Who sees more Globes in her future?
(Originally published May 16, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)