Over the weekend, notorious Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard celebrated what would have been his 100th birthday. The former science-fiction writer (born March 13, 1911) founded the religion Scientology in 1952 as a successor to his self-help series, 'Dianetics.'
Since then, Scientology has gone mainstream with the aid of big-name celebrity believers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But while Scientology's association with movie stars has gained it publicity, it's also revealed outlandish, dangerous and cult-ish aspects that leave many wondering how famous actors and actresses could still choose to be involved with the church.
Moviefone talked to Village Voice editor-in-chief and Scientology expert Tony Ortega (who's written numerous articles about Scientology) about the intense connection between Scientology and celebrity and why so many movie stars follow Hubbard's bizarre ways.
Moviefone: When did Scientology become so enmeshed in celebrity like it seems to be today?
Tony Ortega: Almost from the start. I did a story about Larry Wollersheim, who joined the church in 1969 and he was telling me about, in the early '70s, how obsessed they were with trying to get actors. It was something that Hubbard realized early on would be a way to bring in people, to get celebrities attached to his organization. Larry told me around that time, Celebrity Centres were very new and these were places the church built specifically to cater to actors and actresses.
He told me about how they'd decided, for whatever reason, they were going to target Richard Kiel, he was the guy who played Jaws in the James Bond movies. And Larry was telling me about strategy meetings where they would talk about how to meet Richard at openings and stuff like that and to slather him with attention. They tried to convince him that Scientology would help him with various ailments he had; he had problems with pain and that kind of thing. So decades ago, Scientology was obsessed with trying to get actors and actresses into the church with varying success.
It's one thing to think about why does the church want to do this, but it's another to wonder why actors and actresses fall for this. But what you have to understand is that actors and actresses are among the most fragile human beings on the planet, and it's not really hard to convince them they're the center of the universe. So for years and years, Scientology has been attracting these stars into Scientology and pampering them at the Celebrity Centre. One of the questions I've always had is, once they attract a celebrity or an actor into Scientology, do the stars then have to go through the same training as everyone else, or do they get special treatment?
That was my next question.
One of the most interesting things that's happened in recent years is the defection of a man named Jason Beghe. Jason's an actor. He's been the lead in a movie [George A. Romero's 'Monkey Shine'], but he's more well known as a character actor and he's been in a lot of TV series. He got sucked into Scientology in the mid-90s and over a 12-year period, he spent, in his estimation, over a million dollars on Scientology training. It turns out these stars go through the same training as everyone else. They do the very bizarre rituals. Jason went through it all. It is true that they get pampered more and they don't have to do some of the low-pay menial labor that some of the other Scientologists do, but they do go through the same training.
There's another recent defector named Mark Headley who was working at the Scientology secret headquarters in the desert for years. He tells a story about how Tom Cruise, when he was first learning how to audit -- which is sort of a "talking cure" -- they used Mark Headley as a test subject for Tom. Mark had revealed this in a book that he wrote that came out about two years ago or a year ago. It was a very good book. But what wasn't in the book was, 'Okay, what was this training like?' I asked him, 'You've got this movie star across from you who is auditing you. How did it actually go?' There's these very strange Scientology practices, one of which Tom Cruise was leading him through, was asking him to talk to a bottle and talk to an ashtray and ask the ashtray to stand up. Just ridiculous stuff.
I found it hard to believe. I said, "Mark, are you telling me that Tom Cruise, after he'd made some of his biggest movies, movie star Tom Cruise, was sitting across from you asking you to speak to a bottle?" He said, "Yeah, that's how Scientology works." So I don't know. It's a mystery. Why do these stars get attracted to this thing? Why would they go through something so bizarre? I think actors and actresses are more fragile than we realize and they fall for this kind of thing.
What kind of stuff would Scientologists tell a movie star to entice them?
We also saw in the case of Paul Haggis [the director of 'Crash'] who recently came out ... Lawrence Wright did an excellent story on him in 'The New Yorker' and he asked him, "How far did you get?" And he got to the highest levels. He went through all that bizarre training, which includes as you go up what's called "the bridge" in Scientology, once you've spent a couple hundred thousand dollars, to a level called OT3, which stands for Operating Thetan 3. This is the level I like to ask ex-members about because Scientology considers it this super-secret thing that if anybody was to read it without being properly trained, it might kill them or something ridiculous. The materials are available online. I've read them and I think most reporters have.
It's a very strange story that L. Ron Hubbard tells about this galactic overlord named Xenu who took care of an overpopulation problem by bringing aliens to planet Earth and blowing them up in volcanoes. It's very strange stuff. I always ask ex-members, "You've spent all this money at that point to find out this is the actual origin story of the world according to Scientology. How did you deal with it?" Lawrence Wright asked Paul Haggis this, and Haggis and a lot of people, they're so far in at this point that nothing surprises them. They just accept it.
So these well-known stars that you know, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, are all high-level Scientologists. They have been through that level. They have all been told that Earth, 75 million years ago, was populated by these alien beings sent by the overlord Xenu, who blew them all up and their disembodied souls are inhabiting human bodies. This is the core of what Scientology is. If you have a problem in your life, it's because these disembodied alien creatures are attaching themselves to you and preventing you from doing better. So Scientology is the one process, they believe, by which you can remove these alien souls. They're called body thetans and you can audit them away. It's strange enough that Tom Cruise and John Travolta belong to this strange organization, but it's even stranger to realize that's what they believe. These stars go through that same kind of training, accept it and now try to convince the rest of us that it makes sense when actually it doesn't at all.
How do these stars accept the ominous or even dangerous tone of the church that doesn't seem to be a secret?
I think it's true with any true believer, when you believe that your organization has the truth, the only truth that's going to save the planet, you're going to forgive that organization a lot of things. I think that's what's going on here. These celebrities will hear about poor treatment of ex-members or disconnection and the way families are ripped apart, and the stars just shrug it off because they believe it's just the stories of ex-members. They just aren't going to believe it.
Jason [Beghe] has said they were constantly reassured by church officials that this stuff isn't true, people are making this stuff up. They're constantly hearing from people in Scientology that people outside Scientology criticizing it are just a bunch of liars. They're inclined to believe that because they don't want to believe they belong to a bad organization. Paul Haggis is a great example where he had heard the criticism, didn't want to believe it but eventually realized the critics were telling the truth.
What kind of rituals would a celebrity have to do to get to the top level?
They do a lot of auditing and what that is is an E-Meter, which back in the day was literally a couple of soup cans attached to a device; now it's a little bit more sophisticated. As far as I can tell, it measures skin galvanization, and the needle bounces up and down and they believe it reflects something going on in your brain. They sit and talk about what you've done in your life that might have caused problems in your life and watch the needle bounce up and down. They have this endless question-and-answer that they call "rundowns." It gets to the point where they get pretty aggressive with people. They call them "sec checks" or security checks. They want to find out what crimes you've committed. It gets really intimidating. They want these people to believe that what's holding you back in your life are these bad things you've done in your life and if you confess it, you'll free your mind.
Turns out in a higher level you find out there are these alien creatures attached to you, and you have to go into your past lives and find out why they're attached to you. It's so bizarre. But it's just endless security checks and rundowns and auditing. The strange thing is that when Hubbard first proposed this in the '50s, he was about Dianetics, the science of the human mind; and he believed it was a challenge to psychiatry. That it was a different kind of talking cure. It was only after he realized he was paying a lot of taxes did it become a religion and he applied for tax-exempt status.
I saw a list of celebrity Scientologists and it seemed pretty random. Do all celebrity Scientologists know each other since it's such a closed-off group?
They all know each other. People that are in know each other well. You have to understand when you look at a list like that, there are people who have done some things with the church but aren't necessarily practicing Scientologists. Jason Beghe surprised me by saying that many people don't know this, but Tom Cruise had gotten away from the church for many years and wasn't really a practicing member. He only came back about four or five years ago.
If you see a list of people who are "Scientologists," keep in mind they may have been seen at Scientology activities or contributed some money, but that doesn't mean they're practicing Scientologists. I would be very careful looking at a list of celebrities that are supposed to be Scientologists because some of them may be very involved. There's someone like Kirstie Alley who is not only a practicing Scientologist but who has been very vocal in defending the church, and then there's some who have a casual relationship with it. Maybe they used a Scientology connection to get a role in a movie, but it doesn't mean they're active Scientologists.
What kind of career benefits are promised? Does the church say that if you become a Scientologist you'll be in this little Hollywood club and you'll get more roles?
There was a particular acting coach in Hollywood, Milton Katselas, that taught a class that had a lot of Scientologists in it and produced a lot of well-known Scientologist stars. It was well known that you should go to the class to get jobs, and actors went there primarily because they wanted to get work in Hollywood. That was a real breeding ground for them. You're a young actor in Hollywood. Someone says you need to take this class to get a good role and if you do, you will get a good role -- and by the way, we're all Scientologists, so join! So it's not surprising that a reputation would grow that you need to get into Scientology to get a good role.
I don't know that that's the case today. I think it was definitely the case some years ago. There was definitely a feeling in Hollywood that if you joined Scientology, it'd help you get ahead. Scientology counted on that. But I think the last five years have been so hard on Scientology with so much bad publicity that I don't know if that's still the case.
So they felt having movie stars would lend them legitimacy and publicity?
It's always been their strategy. You go way back. Karen Black was a Scientologist in the early '70s. They counted on that. They were always trying to find stars they could make associated with it. As Larry Wollershein told me, they were trying to recruit stars but even then, in the early '70s, the word was out that Scientology was weird. It's difficult to get somebody in, but when they did, it helped them immensely because it made it seem cool. It made it seem like the thing to do. That's what they count on. If you have someone like Tom Cruise or John Travolta, then young people will think it must be cool. But it's been very difficult for them the last few years because there's been so much negative publicity.