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Before it even began, it was clear that Elisabeth Moss’ Emmys speech was not your typical awards-show chatter.
To the mild shock of many in the Microsoft Theater, the Handmaid’s Tale star, 35, uttered an audible “fuck” as she approached the microphone to accept the award. Later in the speech, Moss drew nervous laughter as she addressed her mother Linda in the audience: “You are brave and strong and smart,” Moss said. “You have taught me that you can be kind and a fucking badass.”
Asked about the profanity backstage, she told reporters, “That was the clean version … [Winning] should be a surprise — otherwise you’re an asshole.” Later that evening, Moss posted a photo to Instagram taken at the Governors Ball in which she posed with two Emmys sporting a broad smile, and a raised middle finger. (That gesture is one of her favorites: Moss flipped the bird three times at the 2014 Golden Globes, once with her award for Top of the Lake and twice on live television at E!’s “mani-cam.”)
On the surface, the profanity is nothing more than an actress at the top of her game failing to self-censor during the most exciting moment of her career.
But according to Tiziano Lugli, a former friend of Moss’ inside the Church of Scientology, who quit the controversial religion seven years ago, the profanity has a specific purpose. It’s related to something in Scientology known as “the tone scale.”
“Scientologists are urged to communicate with ‘average people,’ and to do so effectively you have to ‘go down the tone scale.’ So they all use ‘fuck, fuck, fuck’ every time they talk. It’s fascinating,” Lugli explains. “The quote-unquote philosophy behind it is you match the tone level in order to communicate on the same level of the people with whom you’re communicating. If you’re too ‘high-tone,’ people will not understand you.”
Not everyone requires swearing. Journalists and gay people, for example, are classified as “1.1” on the scale, which signifies “covert hostility,” according to Lugli. “That means I have to communicate just slightly above you — which can be anger or hostility. That’s where you get Tom Cruise telling Matt Lauer he’s being ‘glib,'” he explains. (The Church of Scientology and a rep for Moss declined to comment, but the church has denied animosity toward gay people.)
The swearing begins at the highest levels of Scientology and trickles down, Lugli says. He vividly recalls a speech given in the early 2000s by Scientology leader David Miscavige at Gold Base, a church headquarters in Riverside County, California.
“Within the briefing, Miscavige was talking about how Flag [the Clearwater, Florida headquarters] is superior and should be in charge of other Orgs,” Lugli recalls. “He said, ‘Class V Orgs are fucking DBs, which stands for ‘degraded beings.’ He was like ‘fucking this’ and ‘fucking that’ the whole time.”
Video of the address began to circulate internally. Cruise, the religion’s most famous adherent, studied it intently, Lugli says, wanting “to emulate what power sounds like. So he started swearing. It started there. A culture of ‘fuck fuck fuck.'” In a 2004 Rolling Stone profile, Cruise swears repeatedly. (“‘Some people, well, if they don’t like Scientology, well, then, fuck you.’ He rises from the table. ‘Really.’ He points an angry finger at the imaginary enemy. ‘Fuck you.'”)
But according to Tony Ortega, the journalist behind the influential Scientology whistleblower blog The Underground Bunker, the practice traces all the way back to the church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. “There’s no question that Scientology has this kind of throwback, hard-smoking, curse-language culture that dates to Hubbard being a Navy guy,” Ortega explains.
“Cursing in Scientology is almost a sacrament,” he continues. “The Sea Org [a clergy class with a nautical heritage] sets the tone for all Scientology — and it’s literally sailors. It’s a paramilitary organization that runs Scientology. And the one thing you notice when you run into ex-Sea Org members is they all curse like sailors.”
Ortega says Scientologists are taught to believe that Earth is “a prison planet that they’re trying to save and there’s no point in being polite about it.”
Moss’ Emmy is a huge win for the church at a time when it needs it badly, coming just days after ex-member Leah Remini took home an Emmy for her work on A&E’s Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, a devastating expose of the church told from the points of view of former members. “I don’t hold anything against Elisabeth Moss other than she’s continuing to support a group that is abusive and destroying families,” Remini, who left the church in 2013, recently told The Hollywood Reporter.
Moss, who was raised inside the church by her parents Ron and Linda Moss, has remained quiet about her beliefs. In a THR cover profile last July, she said she understood the fascination: “I’m happy to read about the thing that I don’t know anything about, too.” She made a rare reference to Scientology in an Instagram exchange in August with a fan who found it hard to reconcile Moss’ adherence to the church with her role in the Hulu drama about a repressive, cultish society.
“Both Gilead and Scientology both believe that all outside sources (aka news) are wrong or evil,” wrote the fan. To which Moss replied, “That’s actually not true at all about Scientology. Religious freedom and tolerance and understanding the truth and equal rights for every race, religion and creed are extremely important to me.”
However, Moss’ parents “are not particularly strong Scientologists,” Ortega points out. “Elisabeth Moss does not hang out with many other Scientologists. And if you look at her course completions list, I don’t know that she’s the most gung-ho Scientologist.”
Moss’ next project is Call Jane, an indie feature about abortion. The deal was negotiated in part by her manager, Gay Ribisi of Ribisi Entertainment. Gay is the mother of actor Giovanni Ribisi and his sister Marissa Ribisi, who is married to the musician Beck. All are Scientologists.
A post shared by Elisabeth Moss (@elisabethmossofficial) on
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