Catching Up With … Leah Remini
You might know her from one of the most popular sitcoms of the last 20 years, The King of Queens, her reality shows, or her time as cohost of The Talk. You might remember her from her memorable stint on the still-popular ’90s teen comedy Saved by the Bell. You might recognize her from earlier roles on the ’80s classic Who’s the Boss or its short-lived spinoff, Living Dolls. Because of these examples (and many other credits too numerous to mention), there’s no doubt you think you know Leah Remini … but how much do you really know about this hilarious Brooklyn native who has been making us laugh for years? Let’s find out!
How did you first decide that you wanted to get into show business?
Leah Remini: I grew up watching I Love Lucy and Gilda Radner, and sitcoms that made me laugh. I just remember as a kid hearing the laughter from the audience, and I was like, “Oh, they’re doing that to those people. I want to do that to those people.” I was just kind of born with a wanting to move people in some way. I originally wanted to sing, but I don’t sing. That took that out of the equation pretty quickly. I used to do little shows for my mom and my grandmother. I just loved making people feel something.
How was your support system, since you were obviously dependent on your parents to an extent to help you launch a career? Was it tough to get them on board?
No, I remember my mom always saying, “Leah makes me laugh” or “Leah’s so funny.” The people in my family are characters. My grandmother was a character. My dad’s a character — very funny guy. My mom’s pretty damn funny. That was nurtured in me. It wasn’t really hard. What wasn’t easy was later in life. I had to take myself to auditions. I didn’t have my mom taking me to auditions or anything. Most people go through that by themselves anyway. There’s not a whole lot of people who I’ve met that go, “Oh, my mother takes me to my auditions.” [Laughs]
Looking back at some of your early roles, did you find that when you went to the West Coast, everyone wanted you to be cast in the same sort of role — always sort of that “New York” girl? Was it something you tried to avoid?
No, not at all. It’s like, “Oh, this door is open to you, but why don’t you go through a door that’s not open.” No. That wouldn’t be too bright of a decision on my part. I was going for the roles that I thought I could get. I don’t have a problem being typecast. This is who I am. I would be OK to play the same character the rest of my life.
The first major role that many people remember you from is when you guest starred on Who’s the Boss? What was your experience like, being part of a show that was already a well-oiled machine? Was it an education for you as far as breaking into that sitcom world?
Oh, yeah. We had great caretakers. Everybody on the show was amazing. I felt very cared for and very loved. It was a great start for me.
People also remember you from is your short but very significant time on Saved by the Bell. Is that something that people still want to talk to you about?
Yeah. Sometimes people come up to me and go, “You were on Saved by the Bell. You kissed Zack Morris.” It’s adorable. I think it’s great. Especially because my agent at the time didn’t want me to do it. She just thought, “You came off your own show.” I was like, “Right. It was canceled, and I’ve got to pay my rent.”
I don’t think fans realize how briefly you were actually a part of the cast. How long were you actually on the show?
I don’t know how many months it was. I did six episodes. It was fun. We were on the beach every day. I’m hanging out with Zack Morris and Slater. I mean, come on!
When you first signed on to do King of Queens, did you think it would have the legs to go for a long time?
You never know. What it came down to was the chemistry between [Kevin James and me]. That was very much there, and I think people saw that. There was a moment in the pilot where me and Kevin are making out on the couch, and he has to go upstairs to answer the door. He picks up his shirt and shows his belly, and he goes, “Hold on. This is all coming back.” People in the audience were crying over this, laughing. It’s like, “OK, this show might have a chance.” Jerry Stiller wasn’t in the original pilot. We had to reshoot the pilot with him in it. It was like a different show when he came in. It was like everything fit perfectly. People can relate to the crazy. Women could relate to me. I just thought all around it was a very simple concept, but a very known concept, something that was familiar to people.
I think that probably explains its success in syndication, too.
Yes. That’s a beautiful thing. People are still watching it, still asking for the show to come back.
You talked a little bit about that relationship between Doug and Carrie. What is it that people really relate to about those two?
I think they relate to love and a real relationship. It was very similar to Everybody Loves Raymond and why Will & Grace was so successful. Even though they were different shows completely, they’re about relationships. Not perfect relationships, but relationships that people can recognize and laugh at. What I love about comedy is you get people coming up to you going, “I watched your show. It got me through my chemo sessions” and things like that. I think that’s why the show is special, because people just see that I love Kevin. They know. You could see that through the screen.
Kevin could take something that’s on the page and make it so funny. Anytime I was scared that it wasn’t funny, I learned very quickly that Kevin will make it great. He’s such a giving guy. He would be like, “Give Leah funnier stuff.” Or “Let Leah say this joke.” He’s very giving in that way, whereas a lot of actors are about themselves. Kevin wasn’t and isn’t.
Another aspect of entertainment that you really gravitated toward is reality TV. You’ve been involved in a couple of different projects including It’s All Relative, your current show on TLC. What appeals to you about reality TV?
Because it wasn’t something traditional. But the way we were talking about this particular reality show was, “Well, if we’re going to do it, how is it going to be different?” I’m not really into opening up my whole life and my home. Having a crew in my house. We kind of came up with the concept that it was a hybrid of sorts in that we’re breaking the fourth wall, we’re not pretending the cameras are not there. We’re not writing scripts. We were trying to make a reality show that was like a sitcom. There’s enough drama out there. I think people really want to laugh at the end of the day. We’re doing something that makes people laugh, or makes people think they’re not alone or crazy. They see our crazy family, or my crazy things, and they go, “OK, so I’m not the only one who sanitizes light switches.” It’s such a small thing, but for some reason, people go: “Oh, she’s like me” or “ I have a mom like that” or “My husband and I have these conversations.” People all of a sudden feel like, “OK, I’m not alone.” I love that feeling. The way the show’s resonating with people only makes me want to do it more.
Do you feel more comfortable with the invasive aspect of it? Does it affect you day-to-day during filming, or can you just go about what you’re doing and let it happen?
No, in the beginning it was hard. I did an earlier show for VH1 with my wedding, but was very structured. It was like, “Today, we’re going to get your wedding dress.” It was very scheduled out, and there were only like three people here. This show is a real TLC production; it’s 25 people in your garage eating lunch. Calling your living room “the set.” Going, “Leah’s on set.” I’m like, “You mean my living room? OK.” In the beginning it was a little tough because it was everywhere. If I was in my kitchen, there’s cameras. If I go to my living room, there’s cameras. If I go to my office, there’s cameras. It took a little adjusting. But like I said, once I saw the response of the show, I was like, OK, then it’s all worth all of that. I didn’t know if it was really going to resonate. Shortly, I’m going to say four weeks into it, I said, “Hey, where’s the crew?” when they weren’t here. They become part of your family.
Back in more familiar territory, we’ve seen you reenter the sitcom world in a recurring role on TV Land’s hit ensemble comedy The Exes. In prior interviews, you’ve mentioned having been hesitant to jump back into the sitcom world because you kind of felt like you’d be cheating on King of Queens. Were you hesitant to reenter this world?
I wasn’t hesitant on this particular one, but I was hesitant on prior shows that I’ve done because I was married to somebody else, you know what I mean? In this one I was single. I was cool with that. I wasn’t hesitant to go to TV Land because TV Land is keeping the traditional sitcom alive. Most networks are doing some, but they mainly do single camera. Not saying that they’re not doing it at all, but TV Land is doing it in a big way. I love that they get that the tradition of the multi-camera format is the way to do a sitcom. With The Exes, it was already an established show.
What people don’t understand is how hard it is for an actor to go into something wholeheartedly. You unpack your things in your dressing room. You get to know the crew. You get to know a new cast. You do 13 weeks straight or whatever it is … a year. You become close to people. You spend more time at work than you do at home. Your dreams are like, “Oh, maybe this will be where I’m going to be for the next five years.” Then the show doesn’t work, or it wasn’t in the right time slot, or people didn’t know about it. You’ve got to pack up your stuff and leave, usually never to see these people again that you’ve bonded with. It really works your heart after a while. I’ve just never become immune to it.
I love this. I get to come in with these amazing actors and do my thing. The show doesn’t depend on me. I come in, I do my thing, and I go. The show doesn’t depend on whether or not I show up.
I’ve got one final question for you. What do you want to do that you haven’t done yet?
Whoa, what do I want to do? I’d love to do Broadway. I used to sneak into Peter Pan. They used to open the doors at the very end. I used to get a glimpse of Sandy Duncan. I used to see her swinging in the audience. The audience was just cheering. I’ve never done Broadway. I’ve done plays, but I haven’t done Broadway. I would love to do that.