King of Queens star and all-around sitcom veteran Leah Remini admits she likes making TV over movies, but a text message from real-life bestie Jennifer Lopez persuaded her to join Second Act (without reading the script) as Joan, the sassy accomplice to Lopez’s career-driven Maya, who fudges her way into a high-ranking corporate job with the undying support of her friend.
“I didn’t have the same nerves” Remini says of showcasing their friendship’s “natural” chemistry. “A lot of it was improvised. Her reaction is always funny because that’s her reaction to me; she rolls her eyes a lot if I grab her boob or annoy her…. Annoying her makes me laugh, so I’d do different things in different takes, so you’re seeing her real reactions,” she explains, highlighting a key scene where Joan gives Maya a pep talk that closely mirrors their actual pal-around dynamic. “Before a performance I say [to Jennifer], ‘Who’s the champ?’ This time I decided I’d slap her; She slapped me back so hard it made me cry from laughter.”
“When you have a real relationship with somebody, you can’t write that stuff,” Remini continues. “I’m comfortable with her; I’m used to cuddling up to her, to grabbing her arm when we walk, and she’s used to grabbing my arm when we walk. There are little things [in here] where you go, ‘This is our relationship.’”
Second Act (also starring Milo Ventimiglia and Vanessa Hudgens) is in theaters now. Read on for EW’s full interview with Remini — who’s also currently leading season 3 of her Emmy-winning Scientology and the Aftermath docuseries — below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re such good friends with Jennifer in real life. Did she come to you with the part?
LEAH REMINI: Definitely! Her producing partner Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who also was one of the writers on the movie, literally texted me and said, ‘Hey do you want to do a movie with Jen?’ And the next text was [from Jennifer]: ‘Hey baby! Let’s do this together. It’ll be so much fun!’ I was just like, ‘Yeah.’ I didn’t even know what it was!
You had no idea what the movie was about!?
Yeah! The thing is…. I love watching film, but I don’t like being in film because I come from TV and doing shows in front of a live audience. I’m used to the instant gratification of live sitcoms. When I’ve done a few films here and there it’s like, eight hours of waiting and two minutes of acting…. As far as movies go, it was fun because I didn’t have the same nerves I would’ve had working without my friend.
What did Jen tell you about why she wanted you for the part?
She said, ‘It’s us, so you’ll be able to do whatever you want. You won’t have to be defined exactly by the script.’ It was really our relationship…. it wasn’t such a far stretch from who I am as Leah as well as who I am to Jennifer and who Jennifer is to me. It was about being natural. We were allowed to be ourselves and not be defined 100 percent by the script. That made it easier.
As a character, what’s Joan’s significance to Maya?
Joan’s centered in who she is as a mother in her life. She’s confident in that, and she knows Maya is someone who isn’t happy in her life and wants more. I love that Joan is a friend that says, ‘Damnit, go for it! You deserve it, you have everything you need to go for your dreams — Maybe not on paper what’s expected of somebody going after these positions, but the message was, to me, that that doesn’t matter; There are always obstacles in life and people telling youwhy you can’t do something or that’s not how it’s done or that’s not the status quo, and you need those friends and family members in your life to say, ‘Bullsh—! Go for it, don’t listen to what people say, move forward, and try.’
Were there moments you had to provide that support when Jen needed it on set?
We’re always friends, regardless of what we’re doing…. There’s always that foundation. There was a restaurant [called Cipriani] next to where we were shooting and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to take my friend there for lunch. I walked over and I was like like, ‘Hey, I’m going to have lunch here,’ and I ordered the things I know my friend loves in advance…. so I took my friend to lunch and she was like, ‘This is a nice surprise!’ You get into work mode and I was like no, we’re going to have a nice lunch, like two women lunching. So, we had a nice little lunch moment. I like to create those moments. Another day I was like, ‘Let’s go shopping down the street,’ because we were in Brooklyn. She was like, ‘Ok, that’s nice,’ and we had two slices of pizza on our way.
So the movie is just the thing that’s happening in addition to the friendship at this point.
Totally! And it’s funny because we’re sitting there having slices of pizza in a pizzeria and people are walking by and you could see their faces like, is that… no, and they’d just keep walking.
Onscreen in the performances, where do we see your relationship most?
A lot of it was improvised. Her reaction is always funny because that’s her reaction to me; she rolls her eyes a lot if I grab her boob or annoy her, and that makes me laugh. Annoying her makes me laugh, so I’d do different things in different takes, so you’re seeing her real reactions. The slapping scene, I do that to her in real life before a performance. I say, ‘Who’s the champ?’ But this time I decided I was going to slap her, and she slapped me back so hard it actually made me cry from laughter because I didn’t tell her I was going to do those things.
When you have a real relationship with somebody, you can’t write this stuff. I’m comfortable with her; I’m used to cuddling up to her, to grabbing her arm when we walk, and she’s used to grabbing my arm when we walk. There are little things [in here] where you go, ‘This is our relationship.’
That scene where Joan’s plugging Maya with wine while they talk at the end of the day, wine is key to sisterhood. That has to happen with you guys too, right?
Actually, it doesn’t! Neither of us are big drinkers — she less than I, but we do like to eat together. If I go to her apartment or her house, she makes me Puerto Rican food or making me coffee because I like the way Jen makes it. It’s not that she doesn’t have people there to do it, but she’ll say, ‘Leah wants me to make this,’ because I like the way she makes it [laughs]. I like the way she makes my chicken and my rice and beans, so she cooks for me. She’s always serving me something [and] she likes to make things look good; She’ll put together a beautiful tray [of cookies and coffee] with a rose on it. She’s so amazing…. we’re definitely sit-on-the-floor-by-the-fire with-coffee-and-cookies-type girls.
Were you really drinking wine during that scene, though?
No! I‘d asked the producers and the person who does the props to put real wine in my glass but they didn’t have the courage to do it. I would’ve been okay with it at the hours I was working.
Did working on this film make your relationship stronger?
I think our friendship is strong, but we haven’t worked together before, so I think this is just an added morsel to our relationship. The thing I love about working with Kevin [James] is that unlike a lot of actors I’ve worked with, Kevin will take something that’s not on the page and make it funny. On King of Queens, there was a trust with him that I didn’t worry about the script…. he’d make it funny or he’d make you react in a funny way. He’s a very loving and giving actor; That’s not a usual thing…. Being able to work with Jen, I was able to do that for her…. I’d do things to her knowing she’d react a certain way, and because she was wearing so many other hats on the movie, there was comfort for her, like ‘Leah’s going to make that funny for us.’ It made me feel so happy to know that my friend trusted me like that in work. I know she trusts me with all the intimate parts of her life — built that trust from the moment we met — but to know that she also has that trust with me now in our work, it meant a lot to me.