A second act is hard enough to pull off, but leave it to Leah Remini to be on her fourth, fifth or six act at least.
The Brooklyn-born Remini, a sitcom hall of famer, a daytime talk show host, a reality TV personality, an anti-Scientology activist and now a movie star, is in a constant state of reinvention, even though she’s never really strayed far from the tough-talking, quick-witted persona that elevated “King of Queens” to multicam legend.
This year, she nabbed her first starring role in a major studio film, “Second Act,” alongside real-life bestie Jennifer Lopez, who fibs her way into being hired as high-powered consultant after years toiling away in low-paying jobs.
But Remini, who was raised as a Scientologist before becoming one of the religion’s biggest public detractors, hasn’t given up her fight against the church and its alleged abuses, which she documents on the A&E series “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath,” currently in its third season.
Her war against Scientology has proven fruitful ― Remini won an Emmy for her work in 2017 ― but also exhausting, for both the actress and the contributors who share stories of pain, family separation, violence and sexual abuse, allegedly at the hands of Scientology members. The series is one of Remini’s proudest achievements, but it maintains a toxic link, as she describes it, to an organization she hopes to eventually leave behind for good.
And should that day come, Remini already has plans for a future project she hopes will amplify the voices of another group victimized by unchecked systems of power: everyday women.
The message of empowerment through reinvention in “Second Act” is so appealing because women are so often not afforded one. You’re sort of in the midst of a second act, this being your first starring role in a film. How does your success now compare to your experience on “King of Queens?”
It’s very different. You grow up and you learn what’s important. While I was on “King of Queens,” I always had wished for an Emmy for the show. But what I wanted then and what I want now are two totally different things. Where you might have wanted it for your own ego when you were younger, as you get older I definitely wanted the acknowledgement for the contributors of [“Scientology and the Aftermath”] and not so much for myself, to let them know that viewers care and don’t view them as a group of people who deserve what you receive from your former church. [Co-host Mike Rinder] and I sit there for hours and hours listening to people’s pain and destruction of this organization, so you want that so much for them.
That must have been an incredibly affirming moment for you and the show to have been nominated and won.
It was a lot. Some people get out of a bad marriage, for example, and they get to mourn that relationship. You think you had something and then you realize you were being abused for so long. You get to walk away. You get to go to therapy. You get to go into a new relationship and see what love is supposed to be like.
But when you leave a cult, it’s a little bit different. You can’t just move on sometimes, because you often don’t have your family or support system. Mike and I are not able to move on. We’re still in this kind of toxic world of Scientology because we have to deal with its policies and tactics every day. We see the result from the people we talk to and Scientology continues to use its abusive policies to attack not only the show and its credibility, but also our contributors. We hear from them after the show airs that “a PI showed up at our door” or “somebody from Scientology is trying to get me fired from my job.” They don’t have a television show to talk about it afterward.
What do you see your life looking like, should you finally sever all ties with the organization and win this fight against abusive practices?
Well, I’d like to move on to other things. I have other areas that I want to tell stories about, but I don’t give up easily, so I can’t just desert the fight to do the right thing. I don’t have the power, so all I have is this forum. I’m so thankful to be able to tell these stories, but at a certain point the IRS and the FBI are going to have to get their heads out of their asses and do their job.
You’ve shined a light on Scientology’s abusive practices in the show. Do you see Hollywood’s own reckoning with abuse in the wake of the Me Too movement changing tides in the industry?
I definitely think the tides have turned, but at the same time, there’s a second tier level that’s not even being spoken about yet. Certainly, the Me Too movement has been amazing, and I hope people continue to be held accountable for their actions and what has been rampant in Hollywood for a very long time. We need more of these stories to come forward and more actual prosecution to continue this movement. The second tier movement is about the treatment of women in general. I’m not talking about sexual abuse, but the gaslighting of women and the everyday disrespect of women. I’m waiting for this movement to start because it has been happening and it will continue to happen. I deal with it every day and it might be the next thing that I do.
[Editor’s note: Activist Tarana Burke originated the phrase Me Too more than a decade ago in her work to help protect victims of abuse. The movement went viral in October 2017 and has gained strength against workplace harassment.]
So you’re hoping to create a docuseries like “Scientology and the Aftermath,” but have it explore the everyday struggles of women?
Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about, because I see it and I experience it every day in my own life. It’s a very real thing and it’s maddening. I just feel like there are voices that need to be heard. Obviously, there’s a level of importance of course for people who’ve been raped, molested or abused and told not speak out because it would destroy their career. Then, there’s a second level of that everyday that I see and have experienced my whole career, if not my whole life. Like being told to calm down, don’t ask for that much, you’re a diva for fighting for respect and being labeled difficult, a bitch or worse. I think it’s about time that stops.
Hollywood is historically not a place that has been a conducive environment for female friendships, but recently we’ve seen women speaking out about how actresses are forging new relationships with each other in the cultural moment. How has your friendship with Jennifer persisted through all of that BS?
I don’t let really Hollywood let dictate to me who I’m going to be friends to. I just haven’t experienced that. Certainly, Jennifer being a producer on the movie and being Jennifer Lopez, I don’t think anybody would try to cockblock our friendship. Maybe if it was somebody who wasn’t Jennifer …
In the A&E series and in your book, you reveal how being a member of Scientology took a toll on your relationships. How did your friendship with Jennifer survive those times, given the church’s policies against nonbelievers?
Because Scientology is such a ballless organization, they go after the mothers and the fathers in Clearwater, Florida, or Michigan, who are brainwashed into believing they have to disconnect with their friends and families. It just shows you the hypocrisy of Scientology because they don’t go after Jennifer Lopez and say you need to disconnect from your friend Leah because your father’s a Scientologist. They only go for the mother who is thinking her eternity is at stake or she’s going to get cancer if she doesn’t disconnect from her own child. It just shows you what a piece of shit this organization is and how hypocritical they are in applying their own policies to a huge star in comparison to a mother who is defenseless.
You’ve spoken before about how you believe the church wanted to bring Lopez into the fold. Where did that suspicion arise from?
Oh, of course. They wanted nothing more than for her to be fully indoctrinated to Scientology, since her father is also Scientologist.
I always feel like there’s a moment in a major friendship where the connection truly crystallizes and you realize this person is going to play a key role in my life and well being. What was that moment for you two?
We were very vulnerable and open from the minute we met. Why? I don’t know. When you have a connection with somebody, some people question it, but we are just those people. We just happen to be the same person in that way. We don’t question instant connection like that. It’s a huge compliment when you are able to be vulnerable with somebody and they’re responsible. I think we were both responsible very early on for the heart that we were showing each other.
What is it like to finally act opposite someone you’re so close to off-screen?
When I’m looking into my friend’s eyes when the cameras are rolling, it’s like I just see my friend. We were very aware of that. Do you see me? Do you see me, Leah, in front of you? We were very aware of trying to just talk to each other in this moment, like we did in my garage 10 years ago when we were being vulnerable. We really did make an effort to really be raw in the scenes that we were in with each other, connecting person to person as opposed to just acting, you know?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.