Looking back on Leah Remini’s career, one can’t help but consider how the actor has continuously transitioned from one memorable role to another. One secret to her success may be the fact that her characters rarely stray from her true self; what you see on these sitcoms is what you get in real-life… or at least, for most of us, on her reality show It’s All Relative (returning to TLC for Season Two on July 15). From career changes to family drama, she’s handled it all with her signature sense of humor, toughness and the support of her loved one. Paste caught up with Remini to discuss everything from Who’s The Boss, to her departure from Scientology. As usual, she was an open book.
Paste Magazine: Taking a look at your career and your life over the last few years, the one constant seems to be change. The King of Queens which you starred in for almost a decade, came to an end in 2007. You left the Church of Scientology, dabbled in talk show hosting and made the leap to reality TV. With all that being said, how the hell are you?
Leah Remini: I’m doing good (laughs). I think it’s a time for change in general. It’s not easy coming off a show for nine years. That’s a big part of your life, and after The King of Queens wrapped I wanted to take a minute to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily want to go right into a series. That’s why I agreed to launch The Talk. I wanted to do something different. Also, I just felt like I needed to give my character a minute. I didn’t want to just go into something else. It’s like I was very married to the show and that character.
The thing was that I got a recurring role on The Exes, which is a traditional sitcom. I had a great time doing that. That’s going to air in July. Then the reality show came up. I was just kind of looking at different things to do because I wanted to produce, to get my feet wet there. That’s why I decided the reality show might be fun—a different kind of reality show, which is a kind of a hybrid of reality and sitcom.
Paste: You’ve spoken so much about your departure from Scientology. How did that affect your overall approach to life and to opening yourself up to the world through reality TV?
Remini: I don’t think one thing had to do with the other. Looking back on it, the church took a lot of time, often seven days a week, minimum three hours a day. That’s just basic demands. By leaving, a lot of time was freed up for my family. I felt the reality show would be a good way for the family to kind of come together and have that time filled, so it wasn’t a huge loss to everyone. Remember, I’m in a business. I’m very lucky to be in a business where I’m fulfilled. I love what I do and I have friends, and I have always had friends outside of the church. I was lucky in that way, whereas my family was a little bit different, so I felt that the reality show would give them a sense of a new group.
Paste: Let’s go back to your early days. Your first major break was your introduction on the show Who’s the Boss, and what was supposed to be the spin-off, Living Dolls. At that point you’d had relatively little experience on television or exposure. How did all that come about?
Remini: Just starting out, I’d audition here and there. I had nothing under my belt except one thing at the time. I think it was called Vietnam War Stories on HBO. And I had one line, I think, on Head of the Class, the series. I went to this audition [for Living Dolls], and they were like “it’s for models” and they wanted me to be taller and skinnier. Can’t do that. I certainly had the character down. I didn’t have the height, but I had everything else. ABC took a chance on me. I went for many auditions for it, and I got the call that I got it. It was the beginning of my career.
Paste: That’s amazing. Obviously that particular show didn’t end up working out. At the time, was that a major disappointment?
Remini: It was amazing just to get it. Here I am, a girl from Brooklyn. I couldn’t believe that I got a real network show. I just felt my whole life would change. It went for 13 or 16 episodes… I don’t remember. Here I am, meeting Tony Danza and Alyssa Milano and Judith Light. I had this crush on Tony Danza, which is probably weird because he could have been my dad at the time. I was just working with these people that were so gracious. Tony took me under his wing and taught me a lot about how you act on the set, and how you never keep an audience waiting, and knowing your crew’s names and just kind of gave me a crash course in acting. The same with Judith Light. She would tell me, “Before you walk into a room know where you’re coming from. Know where you’re going.” They were just very loving. Same with Alyssa. It was amazing and I just thought this was it. We were meeting people like New Kids on the Block because one of them had a crush on [Living Dolls co-star] Halle Berry, and it was just like, “Oh my God. We’re huge.” We didn’t know anything about ratings. It was all of our first shows. It was Halle’s first acting gig. When we got canceled, it was devastating.
Paste: Did you feel like maybe that was it for your career?
Remini: I thought I was never going to work again. It took me awhile to get over it. I was back on unemployment after that.
Then I did Diagnosis Murder with Dick Van Dyke. That was huge, just to be able to meet him and to work with him. They gave me and my boyfriend at the time a spin-off pilot from that. Then I did Evening Shade.Then they gave me a spin-off pilot from that. These things didn’t make the air, but it was still amazing, these experiences. Cheers, I did two or three guest spots on that. Fired Up, Friends, I just had a really great experience. I’ve been lucky in that way.
Paste: Is it true that you were actually in contention to play Monica on Friends?
Remini: I was, yeah. I went to network for it. I knew when I read the script this was going to be a huge hit. So, that was devastating as well. I remember crying in my car at NBC when I was leaving from the audition and then I saw Courtney Cox coming towards the building. I was like, “She’s auditioning for this?”
Paste: Was there a group of people you kept running into, audition after audition?
Remini: Yeah, Jennifer Aniston. Also Million Dollar Baby’s Hilary Swank. We used to go up for a lot of the same things. Always gracious. I ran into Hilary at a restaurant just recently. She was like, “Leah!” We just know each other from seeing each other so much back then.
Paste: You say that now, but at the time, is everyone sort of giving each other the side eye?
Remini: No. Jennifer was gracious the day I met her on an audition for Cheers, and I remember they came out and they told us right then and there who was going to get it. They said “We’re going to give this one to Leah.” She hugged me and she was like, “Oh, congratulations!” There’s only a few girls who are like that—cool girls we knew who were like, “Hey, if I don’t get it, I hope you do.” Because then there were also very weird girls who you’d see all the time who did give you the side eye, who didn’t say hello, who thought you were trying to psych them out when you said “Hey, break a leg.” We weren’t those girls.
Paste: It seems like those actors fade away after awhile.
Remini: Yeah, they do. To me, it’s not the winning attitude. I saw Jennifer Aniston on my honeymoon and she was as gracious that day as she was on the day she was unknown.
Paste: That’s cool. When you look at your career, and all these amazing things you’ve done, it is weird that there’s a large portion of people that remember you best from six episodes of Saved by the Bell?
Remini: Yes. That was another great experience. As a matter of fact I was with a big agency at the time and they told me, “If you do the show, we’re not going to represent you.” I’m like, “Okay, well… good knowing you.”
It was a huge show. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done on it. I was proud that I did it. Really, I was like if you’re not going to pay my rent, you’re not going to tell me what I can and cannot do. I’m not doing porn. I’m doing Saved by the Bell.
Paste: Let’s shift gears to your time on The Talk. I think that over the years, fans got a sense of realness from you that seemed like the perfect fit for a talk show. How did you feel about your position? Did you feel comfortable from the beginning, or was there a big learning curve?
Remini: I’m always the person who likes to hear responses from the audience first. I was nervous going out because it was broadcast live to the east coast and whatever you said was going to be heard. I was a little bit nervous because sometimes I say things I don’t mean, just to be funny, and then you just can’t take it back.
Getting out there for the first time and receiving love from people on social media, I just knew you have to be your authentic self and if you do that, people will receive you and that’s what happened. It was an experience for me. I learned a lot professionally and personally on what to do and not to do. I am grateful for that, and also for my real friendship with Holly Robinson Peete.
Paste: As far as your role on The King of Queens, I think you’ve alluded to the fact that you’ve played a lot of similar, no-nonsense characters, but people look at Carrie Heffernan as your definitive character. How close are you in personality to Carrie?
Remini: The way the pilot was written was very generic because they weren’t finding anyone. Then when I went in and I met Kevin, they made it more “Leah,” because I know that woman, I feel I am that woman. Once people knew me, they were like “You weren’t acting at all. You stole that money, that wasn’t right.” So I think we’re very similar. Very similar.
Paste: It’s been eight years since the show ended it’s initial run, and it’s somehow only grown more popular in syndication. It’s everywhere.
Remini: I think the reason for that is it’s a show about a family and it’s a very real family. The way the show was written, it transcends time.
Paste: I look at a show like Everybody Loves Raymond, where there’s sort of an imbalance of power between the wife and husband, because Debra is very assertive and Ray is always cowering, whereas your relationship on King of Queens with Doug was much more equal. It was more representative of what people aspire to achieve in today’s society. It was realistic.
Remini: I agree.
Paste: Was that something you were consciously shooting for?
Remini: I think because most of our writers were married and in relationships, they kind of wrote what they knew. Yes, it was a more balanced relationship in that way. I agree with you. I also think that adding somebody like a father-in-law to the mix was a nice touch because people can relate to that. You have a husband who’s putting up with a crazy old man who’s living in his basement. He had a lot to deal with and only a strong man could deal with a mouthy wife and a crazy father-in-law. It balanced it out that way.
Paste: So now your focus is on your show, It’s All Relative, which is coming back to TLC for Season Two in July. You spoke before about feedback, so what’s the feedback been like since the first season aired?
Remini: I had some reservations about doing something like this. You’re opening up your home. I was also co-executive producer on it. It was a lot more work than I had anticipated. I had done some reality stuff for VH1 on my wedding and the birth of my child, and that was two people. Then 25 people show up to your home. You’re dealing with your real mother, your real step father. They’re not used to being in front of the camera. It’s been trying at times, but it’s a relationship, and you see that, and I think people see that it’s organic and authentic. As far as feedback from fans, social media has been amazing in this way where people are writing you saying “Oh God, it’s so good to see you have the same relationship I do with my mom,” or “Your relationship reminds me of my mother who passed away and it makes me laugh.” “Thank you for this. I didn’t laugh today until I saw your show.” That’ll mean something to me. As cheesy as that sounds, it does.
Paste: Was this season’s filming a more comfortable experience for you, since you’ve been around the block with it before?
Remini: I knew what to expect this time, but it is a little bit more difficult in getting everyone to just be themselves, which is not an easy note to give. A camera comes on and people are not seasoned into this kind of career… I’m sitting there going “Mom, just do what you normally do.” It took a minute to do that, but everybody is just being themselves now. And they turn the camera on my daughter—I had one person come up to us in the street and they go, “Sophia, I love the way you read your lines.” I go, “She doesn’t have any lines.” She comes up with all that on her own. What you see is what she’s saying in the moment. We’ve had a great response.
Reality is scripted and we kind of all agree that we’re watching a modern-day soap opera, but in our show that’s really not the way we do things here. We’d rather waste 11 hours of film to get one real hour of what we’re really doing.
Paste: If something happens in your lives—something dramatic, important, or something that would actually make for a big twist on the show—do you now feel like you have to keep it under wraps, because it’s a spoiler?
Remini: No, not really. I think that’s a game that we really haven’t played, which I’m happy about. My nanny was diagnosed with breast cancer over the break. We didn’t have a crew just sitting in my living room waiting to film anything. We were all on a break. I just had her film herself on her phone, so that we had it because she really wanted to film it. She thought it was important for people to see her journey, but we didn’t have a crew at the time. She filmed it herself.
Paste: That’s amazing.
Remini: Then we put that in the show because it was important for her. She wanted to help people through this. I thought that was a beautiful thing.
Paste: What do you think are some of the other high points of the new season that people can look forward to?
Remini: You still see some of the things that we’re going through in regards to each other and the church, because it’s just something that, if you’re raised in it, leaving it isn’t something you just get over. Over time. you find your new normal, but you don’t just get over something that you’ve known your whole life.
Then there’s the loss of relationships. I’m not talking just about friends. You’re losing family members as well. That’s a daily thing. My brother-in-law, his father disconnected from him and our nieces and nephews. It’s just a constant thing. It’s like “Oh, it’s such and such’s birthday.” “Oh, we can’t call them.”
Paste: Right. It’s not just like leaving a job.
Remini: You’ll see that. Again, we deal with our real lives, which is a mixture of comedy and real life. We try to deal with it the best that we can. It ranges from serious issues to random conversations with my husband about why he’s always wanting sex and how he can get sex. It’s kind of an instructional show (laughs).
Paste: It’s educational!
Remini: It is The Learning Channel.
Paste: So now that you are on your new path in life, what’s the next frontier?
Remini: I want to write a memoir. I hope to be on Broadway. I hope to get back into a sitcom, which is where my heart is. I love documentaries, and I love the idea of producing those. Certainly this show has given me the chance to get my feet wet from production to post-production, so it’s been a learning experience for me.