For his first cinema release, Louis Theroux has scored an impressive coup: Tom Cruise! Sort of. In My Scientology Movie — Theroux’s attempt to unpick the mysterious billion-dollar religion founded by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard — the church’s highest profile member is in fact played by actor Rob Alter, hired by Theroux to re-enact scenes
described by ex-Scientologists.
“Which makes sense when you think about it,” Theroux explains. “He’s the most famous actor in the world. In the same way that Scientology uses the profile of Tom Cruise to propagate its worldview, using the Hollywood system to generate interest, we’re doing what they do. It’s tantalising.” The filmmakers did invite the real Tom Cruise to appear but, “He politely declined.”
Theroux has been making documentaries for nearly two decades and has been a familiar fixture on the BBC ever since his Weird Weekends strand debuted in 1998. But it’s taken him time to hop onto the big screen. “I’ve always harboured a dream of making a feature-length film,” he says. “But we knew we couldn’t simply do the same thing we do on TV. It had to be more ambitious. We needed to pick a subject worthy of the longer form, but also an approach that would allow it to feel justified.”
He settled on the conceit of staged re-enactments, partly inspired by Joshua
Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing but also out of necessity, as the notoriously secretive church refused requests for interviews. “Normally, I plunge in and go with the flow,” says Theroux. “In this film, we’re generating our own flow.”
Happily, there’s still room for Theroux’s interviewing style, a trademark blend of shrewd intellect and disarming politeness. Here, it comes up against Scientology’s ruthless PR machine, which counter-investigates anyone they perceive as an enemy. True to form, the church “frequently rebuffed” his team, and a rival, anti-Theroux film is apparently in the works. He doesn’t seem concerned. “I’ve known for so long that this was the playbook of Scientology,” Theroux chuckles. “I would have been more concerned if that hadn’t happened.”
First published in Empire, October 2016.