Tom Cruise’s Dark, Twisted Journey to Scientology’s Top Gun
As audiences take in Cruise’s latest hit, “Top Gun: Maverick,” top Scientology reporter Tony Ortega looks back on how the star became the Church of Scientology’s Maverick.
With Top Gun: Maverick debuting in theaters this week, Tom Cruise is available to the press again, which explains why I was seeing video of James Corden at 5 a.m. on a tarmac waiting to join Cruise in his personal jet aircraft.
The Late Late Show host’s antics on Cruise’s plane delivered the intended effect: Tom as cooler-than-you pilot really is like the superheroes he plays in the movies.
But for me, it had another connotation.
Seeing Cruise pilot his aircraft, I couldn’t help thinking of something Marc Headley told me several years ago.
Headley joined Scientology’s Sea Org as a child, signing a billion-year contract before working 365 days a year, cloistered at one of the organization’s secretive compounds known as “Int Base” near Hemet, California.
Around 1990, Headley explained in his excellent book about that period, Blown for Good, Cruise had come to the base to learn Scientology “auditing,” its version of counseling, and Headley was chosen to be his guinea pig.
Years later, in 2009, the FBI began an intense investigation of conditions at the base, interviewing dozens of former Sea Org workers, including Headley, who by that time had escaped.
The FBI was so serious about its investigation of the slave-like conditions at the base, Headley and other former Scientologists told me, that in the summer of 2010 the agency was making detailed plans for raiding the compound, rescuing workers, and seizing documents.
Headley says the special agents assigned to the investigation told him one of their main concerns was that Scientology leader David Miscavige, who lived at the base, would slip through their grasp.
So, planning for any eventuality, they tried to seal off all escape routes Miscavige might try to use—including, Headley said, the airplanes of his best pal, Tom Cruise.
The FBI agents told him they had taken the step of recording the tail numbers of Cruise’s planes that were at his private hangar in Burbank, California, just in case Miscavige tried to make an escape using them.
Ultimately, the FBI changed its mind about raiding Scientology and the investigation was dropped, for mysterious reasons. (Headley and former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder told me their version of what happened for a piece I wrote years ago. Also, even though I’ve published the full FBI investigative file at my website, Scientology continues to claim that there was never an investigation at all. The Church of Scientology did not respond to request for comment for this story.)
Even if the raid was cancelled, I’ve never forgotten that the FBI figured that David Miscavige and Tom Cruise were so tight the Top Gun actor might use his piloting skills to jet his two-time Best Man to safety from law enforcement.
That isn’t something you’re likely to hear in all of the press celebration of Cruise’s new movie. Top Gun: Maverick is getting almost universally positive reviews (a notable exception that is worth a look) and is poised to be Cruise’s biggest movie opening ever. We’ll be seeing a lot of him on our screens in the coming weeks.
And it couldn’t come at a better time for Scientology, which, all signs indicate, has been hit hard by the pandemic.
It isn’t the first time that Cruise has come to the church’s rescue at a crucial time.
In 1986, when actress Mimi Rogers began dating Cruise and first introduced him to Scientology, the controversial organization was at a critical juncture: Its founder and source of all its written “scriptures,” science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, had died on Jan. 24 that year.
For a group so focused on one figure, the death of that person can be an extreme challenge. Would Scientology survive it?
Complicating things was that the person exerting himself to push aside others and take over the reins of Scientology was a 25-year-old who was known only to a small minority of the movement. David Miscavige had joined the organization as a child, and had quickly become a favorite of Hubbard, but for years he had amassed power in the rarefied upper reaches of Sea Org—away from view of the vast majority of Scientologists.
So, when Miscavige stepped forward on the stage at the Hollywood Palladium to announce Hubbard’s death to the hastily gathered crowd of Scientologists on Jan. 27, 1986, many of the people who were in the audience that night had never even heard of him.
Miscavige was still consolidating control of Scientology later that year when Mimi Rogers began bringing Tom Cruise around to a North Hollywood Scientology satellite office. Cruise was already a movie star, with films like Risky Business and All the Right Moves under his belt, and the first Top Gun had hit theaters that summer.
Cruise must have taken to Scientology pretty quickly, because he and Rogers tied the knot a few months later, on May 9, 1987. May 9 happens to be one of the most sacred days on the Scientology calendar, because it was on May 9, 1950, that Hubbard published the book that started everything: his turgid, bizarre look at the human mind called Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. After its publication, Hubbard turned its popularity into a self-help empire that grew in fits and starts.
In 1955, Hubbard announced “Project Celebrity,” telling his followers that there would literally be a bounty on the head of famous actors and actresses brought into what by then he had decided was the “Church of Scientology” (so much for a “modern science”). Hubbard knew that attracting celebrities might help the organization seem more mainstream, and he encouraged members not to talk publicly about what was actually going on: Scientology was past-life therapy that promised godlike superpowers to those who could retrieve memories from millions or billions of years ago on other planets.
There had been some victories for Project Celebrity since then, with John Travolta (1975) and Kirstie Alley (1979) being among the most well-known bought into the church. But Mimi Rogers had outdone the rest by bringing in a star of Cruise’s stature, marrying him on Dianetics Day 1987, and right when Scientology was on shaky ground following the death of Hubbard.
Kidman wasn’t a Scientologist, but she tried to fit in. Her former Scientology auditor, Bruce Hines, told me that in only a couple of years she was able to rocket up to an auditing level known as “OT 2,” which is pretty astonishing and suggests Kidman was probably putting in daily work to go up the “Bridge to Total Freedom.”
But by 1992, Kidman changed her mind. She soured on Scientology, and not only pulled away from it but pulled Cruise with her. We only found out about this years later, but from 1992 to 2000, former high-ranking executives tell me, Cruise kept Scientology at arm’s length. Mike Rinder has spoken about how much this bothered Miscavige, especially while Cruise and Kidman spent November 1996 to June 1998 filming Eyes Wide Shut in London with Stanley Kubrick.
During this period, Miscavige kept an eye on Cruise with a spy in his household. In 1998, Cruise made a brief return to the Hollywood Celebrity Centre to take a course which had him sitting in a grocery store parking lot with Scientology official Tommy Davis, judging the “tone level” of people walking by, which Lawrence Wright wrote about in his excellent history of Scientology, Going Clear. But it wasn’t until Cruise broke up with Kidman in 2000 that he made his real return to Miscavige’s orbit.
Over the next three years, re-indoctrinating Cruise became Miscavige’s chief mission. And by 2003, Miscavige was ready to test out his newly-zealous celebrity minion.
That summer, Cruise traveled to Missouri to help Scientology hold a grand opening for a new headquarters for one of its numerous front groups, Applied Scholastics, which works to get L. Ron Hubbard’s materials into public schools.
Cruise continued to grow into the role of highly visible Scientology ambassador. The next year, in September 2004, he made his first and only appearance at the grand opening of a new Scientology “Ideal Org” in Madrid, Spain. The year before, Miscavige had begun a program of replacing older “orgs” (Scientology's word for churches) with gleaming new and very expensive “ideal” cathedrals, a project that continues today.
Although he had broken up with Spanish actress Penelope Cruz earlier that year, Cruise was invited to help Miscavige open the new Madrid building, and he even gave a brief speech in Spanish, which you can watch here. And it was also at this event that Cruise reportedly told Miscavige that he was having some trouble finding a suitable new girlfriend. The church leader then put his wife, Shelly Miscavige, in charge of a program that fall to audition actresses, some who were Scientologists and some who were not, without telling them that it was actually a tryout to be Cruise’s new mate.
By this time, October 2004, Miscavige was thrilled with how dedicated Cruise had become, and that he was willing to be the public face of Scientology. So that month he rewarded Cruise by giving him special recognition at the annual gala held in England each October when a few exemplary church members are bestowed “Freedom Medals.” For Cruise, Miscavige made a special showing, with a 30-minute video extolling Cruise’s qualities—which included a 9-minute interview with the actor talking about the privilege of being a Scientologist. At the conclusion of the video, Miscavige gave Cruise the unique, larger medallion he’d had made just for him, the Freedom Medal of Valor.
Four years later, video from the event would be leaked to the public in one of Scientology’s most embarrassing PR disasters. But for now, Cruise was being celebrated as the most gung-ho Scientologist in the world.
Meanwhile, Shelly Miscavige’s project had produced a winner: An attractive British-Iranian Scientologist-actress named Nazanin Boniadi was selected from the auditions, and she dated Cruise from October 2004 to January 2005, when, Alex Gibney reported in his HBO documentary Going Clear, things soured. Nazanin admitted she was having a hard time understanding David Miscavige’s thick New Jersey accent, and it was giving her headaches. Scientology had Tommy Davis break up with her for Cruise.
Only a few months later, in April 2005, Cruise and Katie Holmes announced that they were dating, and it happened to coincide with Tom’s most visible (and most disastrous) attempts to be promote Scientology. After firing his longtime publicist and hiring his own sister, a Scientologist, Cruise was doing the rounds for Steven Spielberg’s film War of the Worlds. He openly clashed with interviewers in the U.S. and Australia over Scientology, most notably with Matt Lauer during an episode of Today, appearing arrogant and unhinged as he lectured Lauer about the deleterious effects of psychiatric drugs. (Scientology opposes modern mental health treatments with a white-hot fury.)
And while it didn’t appear to have any connection with Scientology, Cruise’s antics jumping on Oprah’s couch declaring his love for Holmes was seen by the public as a sign that the Scientologist actor had lost his marbles.
Mike Rinder and other former executives tell me that Cruise’s bizarre acts during 2005, with his attempt to so aggressively promote Scientology, was pure Miscavige. And it backfired badly. Cruise has never since been so vocal about his involvement in the church.
Like Kidman, Katie Holmes had no experience in Scientology but she was determined, at first, to be involved in it for Cruise’s sake. The couple welcomed a daughter, Suri, twelve months after they announced they were dating, in April 2006, and then were married that November in a castle in Italy.
It was at that wedding that King of Queens actress Leah Remini, who had grown up in Scientology, noticed that Miscavige, who was once again Cruise’s best man, was there without his wife, Shelly. When Remini asked about it, she was told by Tommy Davis that she didn’t have “the fucking rank” to ask such a question.
It turned out that a year earlier, at the end of the summer of 2005, Shelly Miscavige had vanished from Int Base, the secretive compound near Hemet, and was no longer appearing with her husband at Scientology events.
Katie Holmes, meanwhile, was such a dedicated Scientologist at that point, she wrote up a Knowledge Report complaining about how Remini had disrupted the wedding.
Like Kidman, Holmes tried her best initially to immerse herself in Scientology, only to grow away from it, and in the meantime the church experienced several very public disasters.
The video of Cruise talking bizarrely about what it meant to be a Scientologist (which was prepared for the 2004 awards ceremony) was leaked to the internet in January 2008 and became a sensation. When Scientology tried to suppress the video, it motivated the internet collective known as Anonymous to target the church with months of high-profile protests and trolling.
In early 2011, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright revealed that the FBI had investigated Scientology in 2009-2010.
And the next year, 2012, Holmes decided she’d had enough of both Cruise and Scientology. At that point, with Suri turning 6 years old, she would have been old enough to begin early Dianetics courses. And Katie would also have seen Cruise’s older children, Isabella and Connor, going through Scientology auditing and interrogations.
Katie then made her famous escape from marriage in June 2012 while Cruise was in Iceland shooting scenes for Oblivion, his first collaboration with Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski.
Eleven days later, she and Cruise had worked out a settlement to end their marriage. Katie got primary custody of Suri, and Cruise got generous visitation rights. But in recent years he seems to have largely cut her out of his life.
People often ask me if Tom Cruise is being groomed to take over Scientology from Miscavige, or if he’s the No. 2 figure in the church. But that ignores the basic structure of the Scientology movement—that it is run by the Sea Organization.
The Sea Org is not a legal entity, but it has ultimate control of the church, and the captain of the Sea Org is David Miscavige.
If Miscavige left, another Sea Org official would take his place. But in order to qualify for the Sea Org, a Scientologist has to sign a billion-year contract and work around the clock for the organization for pennies an hour, a commitment that Tom Cruise is not likely to make.
Tom Cruise’s value to Scientology is not as an executive, it’s as an ornament. That’s always what the celebrities have been: symbols. But he’s the most important celebrity, and an incredibly important symbol for the church.
There are plenty of secretive, high-pressure groups that some people call cults, but there is only one Scientology. Why? Because of its celebrities, and primarily because of Tom Cruise. He is Scientology, as far as most of the public is concerned.
And if he were to leave and speak out like Leah Remini has? I doubt Scientology could survive it. That’s how important he is to it.
The tabloids, every few months, publish stories claiming that Cruise is leaving, but it is never backed up with any evidence.
In fact, in 2019, Cruise for the first time since I’ve been watching attended not one but two of those international events, both the LRH Birthday Event in Florida in March and the IAS gala in England in October. And there was evidence that suggested he took his children Isabella and Connor with him to the IAS event, again for the first time ever.
So, based on that, my feeling was that as of 2019, Cruise was more dedicated to Scientology than ever.
It was harder to get information out in 2020 and 2021 because Scientology had to stop holding its international events owing to the pandemic.
People often ask me if Cruise is only staying in Scientology because the church is blackmailing him with information he has given up in auditing sessions. But again, that misinterprets the facts. The real situation appears to be that Tom Cruise is a true believer. He really does believe that L. Ron Hubbard was the greatest human being who ever lived, and that David Miscavige is the greatest human being living today.
In the words of John Brousseau, who worked closely with both men for many years, “Tom Cruise worships David Miscavige like a god.”
I see no reason to change that assessment today.
Finally, Suri. There’s no doubt that the way Katie Holmes left Cruise in 2012 caused a huge public relations disaster for Scientology. That would make it possible that David Miscavige might have declared her a “suppressive person,” which would make Suri a “potential trouble source” because she’s connected to her SP mother—as is common among those who’ve defected.
We don’t know for sure if Miscavige made this determination. However, it’s pretty obvious that if Tom Cruise were not a celebrity, he would probably be instructed by the church to cut off contact with his ex-wife and Suri.
However, Tom is a celebrity, and the most important celebrity, and celebrities get to ignore those rules if they want. As Scientology’s most important celebrity, he could continue to be a part of Suri’s life he wanted to.
But for now, he’s once again the most successful movie star on the planet, and he will face only highly-controlled interviews where none of this history will be raised.
His popularity will be a huge boost for individual Scientologists, who will see the success of Top Gun: Maverick as a vindication of Scientology, even if the movie has nothing to do with it.
They love it when a Scientology celebrity gets positive press.
And Miscavige will be beside himself.