LOS ANGELES, Nov 30 — A&E’s legal department is no doubt burning the midnight oil to usher its latest series, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, onto the air. The network has in fact already received multiple threatening letters from the Church of Scientology, in which the show’s host, Leah Remini, is described as a “has-been actress” and “spoiled, entitled diva.” A defiant Remini, meanwhile, responded by having her attorney send a letter to the church demanding it retract the letters and pay her US$1.5 million (RM6.7 million) in compensation.
That the church objects to the eight-part series is hardly a surprise. It sees the 46-year-old King of Queens star — who documented her flight from the church in the 2015 bestseller Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology — turn investigative journalist as she documents “shocking stories of abuse, heartbreak and harassment” alleged by former church members.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Remini ahead of the show’s premiere yesterday in a revealing conversation that addresses everything from church accusations that she is only “in it for the money” (“Are they going to give me back my US$3 million?”) to an extremely awkward phone conversation she once had with CBS chief Leslie Moonves at Tom Cruise’s behest.
A&E received a lot of aggressive pushback from the Church of Scientology regarding Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. How close did the network come to pulling it?
I don’t know how close they came to pulling the show. They certainly weren’t letting on to me that they were thinking about that. But I’m sure that this is the first network that’s ever done a series on the subject and I think that’s pretty ballsy of them. They were really dedicated to the process once they saw the footage and once they saw the stories.
This show feels unprecedented.
I agree, it is. They’re great partners and the executive who’s in charge of my show [Devon Hammonds, VP of nonfiction programming] has gotten on a plane twice for me just to come out and make sure it was OK with me and we were telling the right stories. They’re very invested in it emotionally.
How do you counter accusations from Scientology that you are only in this for the money?
First of all, [my demand of US$1.5 million from the church] was a response to the horrific and libellous letters that they sent me. They were trying to stop this show from happening. They were trying to disparage my name and my reputation with 20/20 and ABC and the public at large. So that was my response to what they were doing. I actually haven’t sued them, so I’m not going to see one red cent.
And profits from the show itself or the book?
Would I donate the money from the show? Is the church donating money to any charity or giving back the money they coerced out of people under-pretences? Are they going to give me back my US$3 million?
And that’s how much you’ve given them over the years?
If not more.
Is Scientology a cult? Did the church brainwash you?
Yes. Scientology is a brainwashing proposition from the very first book that you read in [church doctrine] Dianetics, where L. Ron Hubbard positions himself as a college-educated person, which he wasn’t; a nuclear physicist, which he wasn’t; and a decorated military man, which he wasn’t. Also important is that he claims that Scientology and Dianetics is a proven science. So when you’re indoctrinated when you’re very young, as I was, and all the information that you receive is from Scientology, and you’re not allowed to look at other things because you’re penalised for doing that, yes, that is the way cults work. They cut you off from information from the outside world and they start to sequester you by saying everybody else is your enemy. That is another way that cults work. It satisfies all the checkmarks for what a cult is and what brainwashing is.
How did you break the spell? What was your process to getting out?
My process was to start asking questions to what I was seeing on the internet. I disagreed with my church that I couldn’t be talking to the people that they deemed to be enemies. So I started talking to these people who were making claims of physical abuse. I started looking on the internet. And story after story were stories of abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, fraud. I just couldn’t accept that they were liars which was what my church was telling me. And so it was a series of things. It wasn’t just one thing. It took me six years to get out and I wanted to make sure that my family was coming with me.
I once read a story that Jennifer Lopez, a close friend of yours, helped and encouraged you to come out. Is that true?
No. She was just supportive of my decision.
What about other celebrities who are still in the church? Have they reached out to you? Criticised you?
Why would they reach out to me? They aren’t allowed to talk to me. That’s the policy of the church. I know Kirstie Alley made a comment about me and I’m sure others will. [In 2013, Alley called Remini a “bigot” on The Howard Stern Show.] But that’s the policy of the church. I understand what their frame of mind is and it’s to oppose anyone who speaks out against the church.
Does it hurt when you hear those words?
I’m hurt for them, because I was one of them and I know how angry they really are despite thinking they are part of the enlightened elite of the world. I know how truly not open they are and how being taken they are. I have sympathy for them.
You made a reference on Ellen to “couch jumping” — in other words, Tom Cruise. How much do you think he contributed to normalising Scientology doctrine to those still in it?
I don’t think he normalised it at all. I think it’s just the opposite. I think there was a time where maybe Scientology was more accepted and I didn’t particularly find him to be a great example of Scientology — of which I made that very known to my church. But Tom is very protected in the church and the church will go to any means to ensure that he stays in.
So you think it’s the opposite — that he contributed to an exodus from the church.
Yes. Absolutely. Especially when David Miscavige stood up in front of a Scientology event and said that Tom was “the best example of a Scientologist.” And I know the heartbreak of the average person who works day and night to pay a quarter-of-a-million dollars for their “religious freedom” in Scientology. Those people were the example — not somebody who makes US$10-US$20 million a picture.
There have been rumours of him leaving or cooling on the church. Do you think that’s true?
No, absolutely not. I highly doubt it. Highly.
Did the church involve itself in your career dealings when you starred on The King of Queens?
You have to go in [to the church] every single day, so yes. It’s always, “Why are you not getting Kevin James in? You’re not setting a good example. You’re not getting the director in.” There was always pressure to make a Scientologist out of the people you were working with.
Did you ever broach the subject with Kevin James at all?
Did he ever suggest to you that you might be better off without Scientology?
No. Kevin was always very respectful of my beliefs and he said just the opposite. People would ask him, “Oh my God, is she trying to get you into that crazy cult?” And he’d say, “No. She’s not like the rest of them.”
Did they ever object to the content of the show?
Yes. They wanted us to take out a reference to Katie Holmes.
Was it a joke about Scientology? Or just a reference to her?
It was just a reference to her name but this was when she was in good graces with the church. Of course they’d have no problem with that once you leave — they’ll try to destroy you and your family. Another time, I got pressure to call Les Moonves at CBS to try and get a 60 Minutes report squashed. I got a call from the church and Tom to call Les Moonves and use my influence to squash the story.
Tom Cruise was on that call?
Yep. So I called Les Moonves, even though I was really uncomfortable with it. And he said, “Listen — you’re not the only one who has called me about this and I have no right to interject my opinion of what I like or don’t like with the news organisation of CBS and I will absolutely not engage this conversation. I’ll tell you or anyone else who calls me.” He said, “I don’t give a s*** if it’s you, if it’s Tom Cruise, if it’s Jenna Elfman, you’re all going to get the same story from me.” And I said, “OK.” And then I called them back and said, “Hey, I tried.”
What did they say?
They just weren’t happy that I couldn’t squash the story. I said, “I’m just a f ***ing actress on television and I can’t demand that my boss take a f***ing report off the air.”
How do you think your experience leaving the church has impacted your career?
I don’t know and I don’t really care, to be honest with you. I’ve got to do what’s right and this is what’s right for me right now, is to help these people who are bravely telling their stories of abuse and fraud. And the church is responding with, “They’re lying.” You have fancy lawyers like Monique Yingling, who makes millions and millions of dollars from the Church of Scientology. She’s not even a Scientologist and she’s going out there trying to discredit people she knows nothing about. I can’t just sit by and watch that happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed a lot of what they’re saying. I’m going to stand up with them. And if it’s the church or another bully, and I’m passionate about it, I’m going to do something about it if I can. I’m blessed to have a voice and I’m going to use it.
A Scientology representative responds:
“Leah Remini is in it for the money and now tries to pretend otherwise. Her claim on Today that, “I’m not going to get a dime,” as executive producer of her new reality TV show is disingenuous. Ms Remini obviously is being compensated for this show, just as she profited from her book. In addition, she recently attempted to extort the Church by first demanding US$500,000, followed by an additional US$1 million, because the Church invoked its First Amendment right to respond to her claims with the truth. This shows the extent Leah Remini is willing to go to in order to distort the truth about Scientology.
“Further, her claim that she doesn’t like “bullies” is hypocritical because she has aligned herself with a handful of self-admitted violent bullies still bitter after having been expelled from the Church years ago. Like Ms Remini, these individuals also seek to exploit their former religion to make a buck.” — The Hollywood Reporter/Bloomberg