The firebrand star revs up her war in season two of A&E's Emmy-nominated docuseries 'Aftermath' as she heads to New York to join Kevin James' CBS comedy amid a church counteroffensive: "It's been really trying."
Some moments from Leah Remini's childhood will never fade. Like the afternoon she rode a graffiti-covered B Train with her big sister, Nicole — at ages 8 and 10, their first time alone on New York City mass transit. Their journey took them from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to Times Square — a seedy porn-theater mecca in the late '70s — and the Church of Scientology building on 46th Street. There, they met their mother, Vicki, a divorcee whose new boyfriend had indoctrinated the family in the self-fulfillment movement. "We went all-in, because Scientology is an all-in proposition," says Remini. "My mother thought she'd found the answers to her life and, you know, our future."
Three decades later, Remini is going home again. The 47-year-old actress and anti-Scientology activist is currently relocating from Los Angeles, her home since age 13, back to the East Coast. The move is a practical one: She's joining the cast of Kevin Can Wait, part of a major second-season retooling of the CBS sitcom that sees the departure of its current female lead, Erinn Hayes. Beginning Aug. 7, Remini will be seated in a Long Island soundstage alongside Kevin James, her TV husband for nine years on The King of Queens, for the season's first table reads. But right now, she's just trying to cram her life into cardboard boxes. "It's been really trying," she offers wearily on July 28. "I've never been apart from my daughter for longer than five days." Sofia, 13, has opted to remain in her current school and will travel to see her mother on weekends with her father, Remini's husband of 14 years, singer-actor Angelo Pagan.
Remini also will continue to produce and star in Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath — the second season premieres Aug. 15. This enthralling A&E documentary series profiles ex- Scientologists like herself — people shunned and targeted by the church and, all too often, by their own family members. The two vastly different shows will air concurrently ("hopefully not on the same day," says Remini). Aftermath has earned Remini, who stars and executive produces the show, an Emmy nomination for best informational series or special. It's her first shot at an Emmy and, after nearly 30 years in the business, that feels good — even if it's not quite as she had always imagined it. "When I was just acting, of course it was something you always wanted," she says. "Like, hey, we're on a show for nine years, you want some recognition from your peers." Now she's more interested to win it for her Aftermath subjects. "They don't get paid to do the show. The only thing they get is a hate website put out on them by Scientology. They get paid internet ads against them. Their families turn against them. Any award I get is for them."
But not long ago, before the nomination and new show, Remini had doubts that Hollywood would ever embrace her again. Her profile had waned in the post-King of Queens years, during which she appeared in a string of failed sitcoms with names like Family Tools. In 2010, she began a stint on CBS' The Talk that culminated in her firing the next year — followed by a very public war of words with her Talk co-star Sharon Osbourne.
But her flight from Scientology in 2013 dramatically altered the course of her career — and, it turns out, revitalized it. Doubts about the organization and its strong-arm tactics had begun to creep in as early as 2004, but it was at Tom Cruise's storybook wedding to Katie Holmes in 2006 that Remini began to seriously contemplate cutting and running. At the ceremony, set at a 15th century Italian castle, she'd innocently asked about the whereabouts of church leader David Miscavige's absent wife, Shelly. That was apparently a big no-no, and she says church elders cursed at her and told her to mind her place. Drawn to keep asking questions, Remini soon saw her life become hell, as former friends and colleagues subjected her to blacklisting and the filing of dozens of "internal reports."
Remini filed a missing persons report on Shelly Miscavige, whose whereabouts are still in question. A Los Angeles Police Department detective later told Remini, "She is fine," which Remini considered an unsatisfying response. "I asked, 'Did you see her? Did you see her body? Was somebody speaking on her behalf?' " (She recalls the detective replied, "Can't tell you that, ma'am.") Remini says the detective in question has since been hired to speak at Scientology events. "Does he work for the Church of Scientology, or is he LAPD?" she asks aloud. "Like, what's going on here? They host detective lunches at the Celebrity Centre for the LAPD Hollywood division. I mean, they're very, very friendly with each other."
Remini chronicled her flight from Scientology in 2015's book Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology — a by-turns dishy and disturbing tell-all that includes, amid the dirty laundry, a story about Cruise berating an assistant over faultily prepared cookie dough. The book was promoted heavily in the run-up to its release with a 20/20 interview and dozens of talk show appearances, and it shot to No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list.
With the book's success, several ex-Scientologists reached out to Remini in gratitude and to share their own trials with the church. She brought cameras with her (and a high-ranking church defector, Mike Rinder) to document one shocking story: a woman's deathbed account of her forced estrangement from her daughter, under church orders. Against the protestations of her management team, Remini brought that footage to producers Eli Holzman and Aaron Saidman and proposed turning such narratives into a series. "I said, 'Don't be pussies. If you're going to be pussies, you're not the right producers for this,' " Remini recounted at a TV Academy event this past May. After a tense huddle, the two men assured her they weren't "pussies" — and the series was born.
Remini is astonished at the impact of Aftermath's first season — which focused on disconnection. "We've heard from people who were inside Scientology, who told me, 'I watched your show. I went on the internet. I decided to leave. I am fighting for my children after watching your show,' " says Remini. "We get tons of those. And it's those moments that you go, 'OK — we're doing something.' "
Season two will ramp up the attacks on the religion, shining a light on what Remini calls "all of the abusive practices of Scientology — sexual abuse and physical abuse." Remini intends for the sophomore outing to move into an "activist" realm — meaning she hopes to present enough evidence of criminal wrongdoing to warrant a federal investigation. "I'm talking about the FBI, the police, the Department of Justice, the IRS," she says. "If the FBI ever wanted to get anywhere, all they would need to do is do a raid. Everybody who's ever gone to Scientology has folders, and anything you've ever said is contained in those folders."
Asked to explain these "abusive practices," Remini takes a deep breath, then lays out some foundational principles. "Scientology policy dictates that children are grown men and women in little bodies. They believe a 7-year-old girl should not shudder at being passionately kissed. That's in Dianetics," she says, referencing L. Ron Hubbard's 1950 book that establishes core tenets. "If you join the Sea Org [a clergy class with a nautical heritage] as a child, your parents give you over to Scientology. Children are treated as crew. They are assets. And if a child is molested, that child and/or parent cannot go to the police, because it's against policy. They handle it in Scientology. They will usually bring the molester in and give them spiritual 'auditing,' or counseling." The victim, she continues, "gets punished for 'pulling it in,' which is a Scientology term that means you did something that you're not telling the church about — and that's why you received the abuse. The child is usually made to do some kind of amends, to make up for what happened to them."
Remini (who says she once was falsely accused of being "Out 2D" — Scientology's term for having premarital sex — after church officials found lace panties in her drawer) argues that "there are no victims in Scientology. Anything that happens to you in Scientology happens to you because you made it happen."
The church has a different take on Remini and her A&E series, citing a spike in anti-Scientology hate crimes, bomb threats and death threats since Aftermath began airing. That escalation has required "drastic increases in security in many of our churches," says Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw, who adds that since the show first aired, "there have been more than 500 incidents of vandalism, harassment and threats of violence against the church, its parishioners, staff and leadership." Pouw cites several recent incidents, including "a woman who gushed about Leah Remini on social media [then] drove her car through the front doors and lobby of our church in Austin, Texas, coming to rest just short of a nursery where earlier children [had been] playing," and a man who "served five months in jail and is now on parole for a credible assassination threat against the leader of the church, which he said was inspired by the 'King of Queens lady.' "
Adds Pouw: "Leah Remini is just an actress whose current role is starring in a scam of a show whose singular goal is to incite religious hate and violence for ratings, money and Emmy nominations."
With both sides ramping up for a new — and, in all likelihood, much uglier — phase of this all-out war, Remini says the fight has been "rewarding, but very taxing."
Amid such stress, working with James again takes some of the edge off. "I'm just happy to be laughing again," she says.
The two reunited in May for a two-part Kevin Can Wait season finale in which they played rival detectives forced to team up to investigate a drug-smuggling case. After the show notched a surprise win in the ratings, it was apparent to everyone involved that the chemistry was still there. "They have a natural ESP. It's magic," says showrunner Rob Long, who worked with Remini on a 1993 episode of Cheers. (Long was a writer on the show; Remini played the daughter of Rhea Perlman's Carla.)
When NBC passed on Remini's comedy pilot (based on the 1991 Bill Murray comedy What About Bob?) in May, Kevin Can Wait producers saw a window of opportunity. Says Long, "It was a very small group of us that thought it would be fun to bring her back as a series regular. We were looking for a creative reset — a way to create a little bit more emotion." Season two will see the action move ahead in time and Hayes' wife killed off, leaving open the possibility of romance between James' and Remini's characters.
Still, Remini, who claims that she has no idea what her arc on the show will be, says she was pleasantly clueless about the opportunity. "My agent just said, 'You're going to be on the show.' I said, 'How many episodes?' He said, 'No — you're going to be on the season.' I was like, 'Oh, my God — that's amazing!' That was the first round of excitement. And then, of course, reality sets in, where you're like, 'Oh, wait — I have to move my whole life there.' "
Yet Remini isn't complaining. "When I was younger, I was like, 'What's the character's name? And I need to speak to the stylist on the show. And I need to have certain shoes and, like, what's my dressing room look like?' " she says. "Now I'm like, 'Great. Where do I sign?' "
Remini will have shot three episodes when, in September, it's back to L.A. for the Emmys, where her status as Scientology Public Enemy No. 1 could make things a little awkward for her. What if, for example, she were to cross paths with Elisabeth Moss, a nominee for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for The Handmaid's Tale — and a lifelong member of the church?
"Elisabeth Moss believes that she can't talk to me," says Remini. "There's a thing in Scientology called 'acceptable truth.' It means you only say what's acceptable to the public. But she believes that I'm an antisocial personality — because I've spoken out against Scientology. So she isn't allowed to talk to me. And me knowing that, I wouldn't put her in the awkward position."
But what if, say, the two were to suddenly come face-to-face at the Governors Ball, each carrying a freshly engraved Emmy? Would she congratulate her fellow winner? "I would, of course," says Remini. "I don't hold anything against Elisabeth Moss other than she's continuing to support a group that is abusive and destroying families."
But, Remini adds, "That's for her to learn — just as I needed to learn it."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.