For his first feature film, Louis Theroux has scored a casting 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 reenact scenes described by ex-Scientologists.
“Which makes perfect 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 and evangelise, using the Hollywood system to generate interest – we’re doing what they do. It’s quite tantalising, isn’t it?” (The filmmakers did actually invite the real Tom Cruise to appear in the film, but “through his representation, he politely declined”.)
Theroux has been making documentaries for nearly twenty years, of course, becoming a familiar fixture on the BBC ever since his Weird Weekends strand debuted in 1998. But it’s taken him some time to hop onto the big screen. “I’ve always slightly harboured a dream of making a feature-length film,” he says. “But we were conscious not to simply do the same thing we do on TV, only half an hour longer. It needed to be more ambitious: we needed to pick a subject that was worthy of the longer form, but also pick an approach that would allow the longer form to feel justified.”
So the conceit of staged reenactments was settled on: partly inspired by Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing, which uses a similar device; but also out of necessity, as the notoriously secretive church refused all requests for interviews. “Normally, I plunge in and go with the flow. In this film, we’re sort of generating our own flow. It feels really different to what I normally do. It also feels quintessentially Hollywood, and so much of Scientology is to do with Hollywood.”
Which doesn’t mean to say there’s not 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 – and, true to form, the church “frequently rebuffed” his team. A rival anti-Theroux film is apparently in the works. He doesn’t seem flustered. “I’ve known for so long that this was the playbook of Scientology,” Theroux chuckles. “I would have been more disappointed if that hadn’t happened!”
Article first appeared in Empire magazine issue #328 (October 2016).