Leah Remini on Pitching Her A&E Scientology Series: "I Said, 'Don't Be Pussies'"
The Scientology whistleblower sat down with THR editorial director Matthew Belloni at a TV Academy Q&A, admitting the pain of the show can sometimes be too much: "I wish a sitcom could take me away from all of this."
When Leah Remini first came to producers Eli Holzman and Aaron Saidman with an idea for a nonfiction TV show about the ways Scientology destroys lives and tears apart families, she offered a caveat.
"Leah said, 'You have to be tough and brave,'" Holzman recounted Monday evening at a packed For Your Consideration screening and panel at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences moderated by Hollywood Reporter editorial director Matthew Belloni.
At which point Remini — who defected from Scientology in 2013 and has since dedicated her life to shedding a light on its controversial tactics — couldn't help but interject.
"Do you want to know what I really said?" she asked. "I said, 'Don't be pussies. If you're going to be pussies, you're not the right producers for this.'"
Holzman had never been presented quite so blunt a challenge before. "Aaron and I huddled and said, 'Are we pussies?'" he recalled. They quickly decided they were not — and thus Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath was born.
The nine-part series found a home at A&E, which delivered a large and passionate audience. Viewers were drawn to stories of individuals, many of whom were born and raised in the religion, only to find their closest relationships — children, parents, grandparents — cruelly severed and loyalties betrayed once doubts about it crept in.
Remini, who acts as both interviewer and interviewee in the show, was often unmoored by the "levels of pain" her subjects were still experiencing. "This is not something you just get over. My own pain continues as well," she said. "Sometimes I wish a sitcom could take me away from all of this."
The evening included a screening of one of the most affecting episodes, focusing on Aaron Smith-Levin, a high-ranking former Sea Org member who was essentially taken from his mother and immersed in Scientology theology with his twin brother at the age of 14.
When that brother began to express doubts, Smith-Levin says, the church colluded to sever all connections between them. The twin brother eventually got out — but tragically died in a car accident before the twins could reunite.
Smith-Levin and his wife, also a former Sea Org member, are now fully excommunicated from the church but continue to live among Scientologists in Clearwater, Fla, where the church has its worldwide headquarters.
(In one of the more bizarrely hilarious twists, a devout neighbor disconnected from the couple and their three young daughters — but requested to remain in touch with their dog, who "wouldn't understand.")
Helping us navigate through the Byzantine strictures and nomenclature of the religion is Mike Rinder, a former high-ranking Scientology executive who "blew" (Scientology jargon for defection) and serves as Remini's co-pilot on the show, much of which is spent on the road.
Rinder credited Going Clear, Lawrence Wright's best-selling 2013 exposé that was adapted into an HBO documentary by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, for shedding light on Scientology — but neither the book nor the doc has resulted in the kind of day-to-day feedback that Remini's series generates.
"The church used to say, 'Thank God for the Xenu story,'" Rinder said, referring to the science-fiction-based scripture unveiled in the highest echelons of training. "Because then we were no worse that any other religion. But what this show addresses for the first time, the real point of it all, is that Scientology damages people. The scars are real. And the church has no response to that."
While Remini was reluctant to produce a second season of the show — the grief would be too much, even for this self-described "Brooklyn girl" — the first season has resulted in what Holzman describes as a "deluge of people emboldened to come forward." Another cycle of episodes seemed preordained. "We're sitting on some really damning and actionable material and can't wait to premiere," Holzman added.
Remini is similarly on board. "I'll keep doing this until something changes," she said.