Tom Cruise is a Scientologist, i.e., a member of the Church of Scientology.
From: Walter Scott, "Personality Parade" weekly column, published 11 September 2005 in
What happens when a Hollywood star spouts off about religion?
If it's ultimate A-lister Tom Cruise, who has been outspoken about his Scientology beliefs while promoting War of the Worlds, the fallout -- at least at the box office -- appears negligible.
The potential for permanent fan alienation has made religion, like politics, long a taboo topic for most celebrities to publicly schmooze about. Yet with early success -- War of the Worlds has taken in $113.3 million in North America since its debut Wednesday -- it looks as if the sci-fi film is on Cruise control, and moviegoers are seemingly shrugging off his rants on religion, psychiatry and postpartum depression as well as his couch-hopping for his new fiancee, Katie Holmes.
Given Hollywood's 19-week box-office losing streak, observers note that as long as stars' films are hits, they might now feel emboldened to speak out about anything that smacks of controversy, short of clubbing baby seals.
"What counts is box-office success. The religion of Hollywood is money," says Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.
Still, Cruise's ramblings on his promotional tour -- as opposed to Brad Pitt's more focused spotlighting of African poverty while promoting Mr. & Mrs. Smith -- are considered off-putting among some Hollywood insiders and public relations pros who typically position their celebrity clients in as neutral a spotlight as possible.
"Usually people don't proselytize," says director Peter Bogdanovich, who helmed The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. "It's rare that entertainers stick their neck out, because politics and religion are things people get touchy about. And besides, it's a pretty personal thing, religion, so people stay out of it."
No longer, thanks to the box-office clout of stars such as Mel Gibson. After mainstream Hollywood studios and distributors spurned The Passion of the Christ because some thought it was too violent and included anti-Semitic themes, Gibson, who was forced to finance the film on his own, began discoursing his fundamentalist views on Catholicism. The movie wound up raking in more than $370 million in the USA alone, the most successful R-rated film ever.
"Things have changed a lot in the past year," says Ray Comfort, author of What Hollywood Believes: An Intimate Look at the Faith of the Famous. "Before Passion, any talk of religion might have killed a career. But the cat's out of the bag now."
Says actor Terrence Howard (Ray, Hustle & Flow), a Jehovah's Witness: "Anything that's dealing with the heart and the spirit is something that should be spoken about, because it lifts and encourages people."
Variety columnist Army Archerd, who has covered Hollywood for more than 50 years, says the newfound celebrity outspokenness isn't surprising. "Celebrities have been willing to put their citizenship on the line over politics for years. Now they're talking more freely than ever about things we wouldn't have dared ask about."
Some suggest that talking about religious beliefs might simply be part of orchestrated PR campaigns to generate attention.
"People are talking about Tom Cruise more than they ever did in the past five years," says Variety managing editor Michael Speier. "He used to be so manufactured. Is he a strange cat? Sure. But are people saying they won't see a movie with that freak? No."
The relationship between celebrities and religion can be mutually beneficial. "Religious groups clearly feel having a celebrity endorsement helps give pizazz and credibility, just like any product that benefits from a celebrity endorser," says Steve Waldman, editor ofbeliefnet.com, a multi-faith and spiritual Web site. "It's particularly true with Scientology or Kabbalah."
Perhaps more so than other religions, Scientology draws particular scrutiny. It has been investigated as a sect in Germany and even discounted as a religion. Yet Scientology, founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, boasts 8 million disciples, including celebs John Travolta, Lisa Marie Presley and Kirstie Alley. Most are effusive in their praise.
Cruise cites Scientology for helping cure his dyslexia and burnishing his career. Former Dharma & Greg star Jenna Elfman credits it for helping sustain her 10-year marriage to actor Bodhi Elfman.
"Scientology gives us tools of communication and understanding and humanity so we can live more peacefully and happily with each other," she says.
Though Travolta's four-decade movie career can best be described as a roller coaster, the lone dud tied to his Scientology beliefs is Battlefield Earth, based on Hubbard's 1982 novel. Travolta produced and starred in the 2000 film, which cost more than $100 million to produce and market but earned only $21.5 million at the box office.
There has been little apparent fallout on others who are vocal about their not-so-mainstream religious beliefs. Madonna is an advocate of Kabbalism. Her embrace of the mystical Jewish movement seemingly has no effect on her singing career. Her film career is more affected by a string of box-office failures (The Next Best Thing, Swept Away).
"In film entertainment, she's not taken seriously," Speier says.
Richard Gere, a politically active Tibetan Buddhist, once took advantage of his appearance on the Academy Awards telecast to make comments about Chinese repression of Tibet. It got him in hot water with the academy but appears not to have hurt his career.
Some stars are open about the potential conflicts between their faith and their careers.
"I was raised a Mormon [a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], but I don't live that way," says Paul Walker, star of The Fast and the Furious. "I feel Mormons as a whole definitely wouldn't condone the things I've done as of late. Maybe I have a sick way of justifying it, but I portray characters. It's not necessarily something I condone."
Still, Walker says, religion is very much part of his life. "I don't necessarily go to a church, but I believe in God," he says. "Although the things you may see me doing in movies may not indicate that, I'm a pretty moral person."
Public relations types, who largely control when, where and often what their Hollywood clients talk about in public, still prefer that stars remain as innocuous and bland as possible. They fear that fans who are accustomed to "wardrobe malfunctions," reality TV and increasingly odd star behavior could tire of celebrities speaking out on matters as sensitive as religion.
"It hurts celebrities," says media image consultant Michael Sands. "Celebrities should maintain separation of church and state. These people are not Billy Graham."
Cruise's publicist, Lee Anne Devette, probably would disagree. She is Cruise's sister and a Scientologist.
Public relations guru Ken Sunshine, who represents many high-profile entertainers, says he has no problem with stars discussing their political beliefs. "But when it comes to religion, I get nervous," Sunshine says. More important, he says, is staying on point.
"To divert attention from the product you're promoting is a mistake," he says. "The confusion here is Tom is promoting War of the Worlds. He's diverting attention to Scientology and his personal life."
Still, Cruise, one of the world's biggest stars, is immune to fallout, at least for now, Sunshine says.
"He spent a long time building up this iconic status. It would take a lot more than the episodes of the past few weeks to hinder him."
Shared enthusiasm: Tom Cruise has said Katie Holmes, who was raised a Catholic, "digs" Scientology.
From: "Religious Affiliations of Celebrities" page in "Celebrity Religion" section of "Religion Facts" website (http://www.religionfacts.com/celebrities/religions_of_celebrities.htm; viewed 20 April 2007):