Mike Heslin has worn many hats in his career — actor, director, executive producer and writer, for starters. He’s also the creator of the reality TV spoof The Influencers. Described as “witty and fun with a dash of heartbreak,” The Influencers follows six “thirsty” social media stars that are forced to live together under one roof.
The said social media stars compete for a coveted (and lucrative) brand deal. Naturally, chaos ensues and the carefully manicured images of these influencers tear apart at the seams. The Influencers is now available to watch internationally on Revry, the first LGBTQIA virtual cable network.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Mike about why he created The Influencers, his own career influences, what’s on the horizon and his favorite films.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Melody McCune: Let’s get started! We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Mike Heslin’s origin story?
Mike Heslin: I’ve been acting and creating things since I was little. I was a very creative, imaginative kid. My dad even built me a stage in the backyard and I would direct plays or theater productions, or try and mount Jurassic Park on stage with the neighborhood kids. It’s been in my blood since I was very young. I ended up going to school for acting. I don’t really know anything else. I’ve been dabbling in theater and TV my whole life at this point.
MM: What inspired you to create The Influencers?
MH: Well, I actually own a social media agency. It turned out to be a great survival job in between acting gigs in my mid-20s. First, I worked for another social media agency and we had several clients there. I learned a lot. It was quite an interesting experience, as you might imagine.
I have so many friends who are intelligent, business-savvy people who have turned their social media into a very lucrative business. That being said, I’ve encountered a lot of people who were interesting and gorgeous but lacked a real skillset. I got some interesting 2:00 AM emails. I always had this thought in the back of my head. And I’m a reality TV junkie. I love Big Brother and all of those [shows].
MM: Who doesn’t love reality TV?
MH: You have to. I need mindless entertainment at the end of a long day. I thought, “What if you put some of these characters in a Big Brother house where they couldn’t edit everything and just see what they’re really like?” I was tickled by that and ran with it.
MM: As the creator, writer, director, executive producer and one of the stars of The Influencers, what was it like juggling all of those roles?
MH: It was a lot. It was a joy. This has been a passion project of mine for two years, but it definitely was a bit more challenging than I initially thought. Or maybe I just hadn’t thought about how challenging it would be. But it’s particularly going back and forth between directing and acting. It was the first time I had ever done both at the same time.
That was tricky, especially being present in scenes, and not clocking the other actors and going through a list of notes I needed to give before the next take. But it was fun. Like I said earlier, I just like making things, whether it be in front of or behind the camera. I love all aspects of filmmaking. It was a blast, but I will admit to not sleeping much those weeks.
MM: Do you have a fun story or a highlight from shooting the show?
MH: Two just came to mind. I mean, the crazy one was we just by chance encountered a ton of bad weather. So, every day we had to redo the schedule. Then, there was one day it didn’t rain, so we had to do all the outdoor scenes on that day.
That night we were doing the last episode, which is the finale, and it was supposed to look like a beautiful, warm summer day. Like a rose ceremony on The Bachelor-type vibe. And it was freezing. The poor actors were so cold. Aisha [Evelyna], who played our producer, accidentally fell in the pool, which was hysterical. We actually used it in the final episode. But that night was a bit of very fun chaos.
MM: Leanne [Noelle Smith] told me that same story about Aisha falling into the pool! I love that that was everybody’s highlight.
MH: It was great. Aisha, she’s so talented and she’s great at improv. We incorporate the crew into the episodes to show the behind-the-scenes. She’s bantering with our sound guy. He knew he was going to be in the scene, but he didn’t think he’d have to talk. And it was perfect.
MM: What do you want audiences to glean from watching The Influencers?
MH: I want them to walk away with a lot of laughs. But I always think laughs are the best way to serve a message. Social media can be incredibly polarizing, especially last year through the pandemic, and the political highs and lows. It can be really divisive.
My motto has always been, you have to be able to laugh at yourself. We all, in some shape or form, contribute to the social media culture, whether you’re on TikTok every day or you’re only on Facebook to check in with relatives.
We all are active, so I think it’s important to take a step back and remember what you see online isn’t real life. You can’t let it have too much power over you because it’s not real. I think we need to all take a collective breath and be a little more self-aware.
MM: Amen to that! Are there any plans for a second season?
MH: We just started talking about pre-production, what that looks like and when we’ll be able to shoot it. Hopefully at the end of this. Definitely a second season. We’re also talking about how to make it in a bigger form and what even a season three and four would look like.
Without giving too much away, my idea is that every season is a different piece like American Horror Story, how it’s a different setting. It’s a different cast. So, season two is completely different. There will be cameos from season one, but it’s spoofing other reality shows. It’s going to be very fun.
MM: The Influencers is now available on Revry, the first LGBTQ+ virtual cable network. Was there a process to getting the show on Revry, and do you have plans for future collaborations with the network?
MH: My business partner, Noam Ash, who plays Cruise on the show as well, we’ve known them for a bit. We’ve had several conversations about other projects and it seemed like a great fit. The Influencers is also on Prime Video in the US and UK. But Revry was A) a great way to get the show out internationally and B) an LGBTQ network.
That’s very important to Noam and I as queer filmmakers. We’re talking about a couple of other things and how to expand this partnership and what makes sense. Especially some of our other projects that are even more queer-centric or queer-based storylines. We’re thrilled to be working with them.
MM: As a creative in the entertainment industry, what are your influences?
MH: My personal influences? I mean, without getting on my soapbox … but it is Pride Month, so allow me.
MM: Of course!
MH: I’m very inspired by other queer filmmakers, and gay movers and shakers like Ryan Murphy. Greg Berlanti. Noam and I talk a lot about representation and the importance of that, obviously, which I feel sounds like … I don’t know. An Instagram caption at this point.
MM: I get what you mean.
MH: Representation matters. It’s true. We’ve been reflecting a lot. When I was young, before Will & Grace, I don’t remember ever seeing a gay character let alone out, happy, gay celebrities.
MM: I’d have to agree with that. I don’t think I remember seeing anything pre-1998.
MH: Totally. Then, in Will & Grace, for example, it’s a fantastic show, but some might argue a bit stereotypical. There’s been a ton of progress in the past few decades, but we’ve still got a long way to go. But people like Ryan Murphy are just taking Hollywood by storm. Even actors like Matt Bomer and Neil Patrick Harris are showing a happy gay family. I’m inspired by that and I hope to be in the next wave of that.
MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives looking to get their foot in the door of the industry?
MH: It sounds like a cliche, which I guess it is. But just do it. Make your own work. I feel like I didn’t really understand that until a couple of years ago. I went to acting school, got an agent and would just sit around and wait for the auditions to roll in.
It reminds me of my drama school teachers in college or high school being like, “You got to just make your own stuff.” And I’m like, “Yeah, okay.” But once I saw how true it was, I feel like I’ve drastically shifted my perspective. That’s when I would say more opportunities started coming in. People do notice. They want to work with you and be part of the next one. You got to put in the work and just go for it.
MM: What’s on the horizon for you? Are there any new projects coming up?
MH: What we’re currently excited about is a digital comedy pilot called Boy*Friends. Noam’s web series, My Gay Roommate, was one of the first humongous YouTube web series back when that first started. We made it into a half-hour comedy. It’s actually one of seven that was selected for the pilot competition at SeriesFest.
MH: Thank you! We’re super excited. SeriesFest, I believe, begins next week. Hopefully, that will go further. In addition to that, we’re working on two other feature films. One’s a stage-to-screen adaptation and, of course, a second season of The Influencers.
MM: Have you binge-watched anything interesting during the pandemic?
MH: How much time do you have? Well, it’s funny. The past year, for as traumatic as it’s been for everyone, feels like a time warp, right?
MM: It does.
MH: It went by so slow, but also so fast. I was talking with my boyfriend earlier … remember when Tiger King was a thing a year ago?
MM: Oh, gosh, that was five years ago.
MH: I know. Isn’t that insane? The most recent one we binged last week was Hacks. It’s a new comedy. It’s so good.
MM: I’ll have to check it out!
MH: You must. I heard so many friends being like, “Oh, it’s good. You have to see it.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Then, we watched two episodes and could not stop. We watched the whole thing in two nights.
MM: Name your top five favorite films or anything that comes to mind.
MH: What always come to mind right away is Jurassic Park and The Wizard of Oz because those were my favorite movies when I was little. I think I just love fiction. I love imagining these crazy, bigger, very different worlds. Another classic I love, and it’s a pretty perfect movie, is Singin’ in the Rain.
MM: Oh, such a good one. The staging!
MH: We just rewatched it a month ago. And I was like, “These performances are insane.” I shouldn’t say this but, what actors could do back in the day, the quadruple threats compared to now, I feel it puts us to shame. It’s such a good movie.
Of course, everything Marlon Brando‘s ever done. The Godfather, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m a sci-fi nerd, so I love the Alien franchise, but maybe we don’t need to get into that. I’m just a giant fiction nerd, I guess, or a sci-fi nerd.
MM: Mike, thank you so much for chatting with me!
MH: Thank you! I appreciate it.
This interview was originally published on 6/29/21