Leading up to the release of Meghan Weinstein’s thriller-comedy The Influencer, I was lucky enough to hop on Zoom with director Meghan Weinstein and stars Kasia Szarek (influencer Abbie Rose) and Shantell Yasmine Abeydeera (activist-kidnapper Three). They walked me through the process of making the film, their favorite moments, and what it was like handling such relevant subject matter.
McKinzie Smith: So just to start off, I really liked the movie. I thought it was really enjoyable. What about influencer culture stuck out to you and gave you this idea in the first place?
Meghan Weinstein: I was in college, and I was doing a lot of art about influencers, actually, when they kind of first became a thing. This was back in 2010 or something. And they had kind of first started popping off with those haul videos. What struck me about it at the beginning, is, kind of just like anything else, it started as something that was kind of pure, like, it was something about young people using the internet and wanting to connect with other people. Then of course, it grew into this thing where it became commercialized. Now people only do it if they’re trying to sell something, basically. It’s kind of indicative of so much happening in the world already.
That was something that kind of stuck with me over the years, in the past 10 years now, which is crazy to me. You know, doing videos on it back when I was doing more fine art stuff, but also when I started making films, I also was really interested in making films about people who make things. Even though influencers, you know, they’re selling things, and there’s more of a downside to what they’re doing, at the root of it, it was people being creative, and people making things in their bedroom. When you’re making films on an indie budget, I always have thought a lot about what artists do, because we work very contained to our studio. My background is just very DIY in general. That’s one of the things that I always could appreciate about influencer culture, even though the film is obviously targeting the negative sides to it now.
MS: That was something that, watching it, I related to because I came of age during the time that haul videos were super popular, and people just did them for fun. Watching that process happen has been kind of sad.
MW: Yeah, it is. It just speaks to the commercialization of everything nowadays. Especially when so much of the information we get is just at the click of a screen and we just accept it. As soon as we see it, it’s on a screen, so it must be truth or something.
MS: What was your journey to getting The Influencer made and distributed?
MW: I’ve been producing very low-budget films for a while. This was my third feature. It just came at a time where I felt like I’ve done this for other people, and I had met a really great crew. I had built this really great relationship with the crew that worked on the movie with me, they’re going to be on the next movie with me… I was ready to go and shoot my first little tiny budget indie movie and it all came from feeling like I have a great crew behind me. That had come from producing for a while beforehand. Just making those connections, building those relationships with people and feeling like I could really trust them. Because something like this, where this is your passion project, it could be going on for years, and you’re the one person driving it, you have to really feel supported by all the people that are working on it, too. Because otherwise, it’s just really stressful. That was really the main thing that got me thinking, “Okay, I feel like I can do this.”
The script was something I had written as a short film, originally. I always start with: ‘What’s something that I can do in one house or one apartment or one location?’ The influencer thing tied into that, because they make their movies at their house. They can run their whole online empire from their house. It pretty much took off from there. Also the idea of someone being a video creator is we can play with the videos that she’s making within the movie, too. That gives us a bit of leniency in locations, because we can play with what she’s making inside of the space that we’re working with.
MS: Yeah, no, that’s really smart. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Something about the film that really struck me was that there was a delicate tone balance between thriller and comedy. I was wondering if you had any reference points for that style, or if it was just something you felt out along the way?
MW: I mean, my thing is really comedy. I think no matter what genre I get into, there’s always going to be some root of comedy or dark comedy in it, whether it’s a drama or thriller or whatever. That’s just my style of writing. The thriller part comes in because I just knew with indie comedies, there’s not really a market for it. It’s got to have a sellable quality to it. It’s got to be a thriller or horror. There’s just such a dedicated fan base around those genres. It’s so much easier to sell internationally, or even within the country, for an indie movie that doesn’t have huge names or anything. Comedy is so subjective, it’s a much smaller pool of people.
MS: Did working with an influencer change your perspective at all about what that career is like?
MW: Kasia is funny. Like, she’s a really funny person. I just got that sense from meeting her in the first couple rounds of auditions. I really didn’t audition anyone else. From the very beginning, I just felt like she’s her [Abbie Rose]. She’s larger than life already. It just made the search so much easier for me. I actually think of her more as a comedian. She’s very much a personality.
I guess in that sense, that changed my mind of what I would have expected from an influencer. We expect an Abbie Rose who’s very vain and takes herself too seriously. Kasia isn’t like that at all. She herself loved making fun of the whole influencer culture that she herself is a part of, so that was refreshing. I just felt like that’s the kind of person who’s going to be fun to work with, but they’re also going to have some kind of insight into the character, just from her personal experiences of dealing with that business.
MS: That sort of leads into the core moral dilemma at the center of the film, which is consumer culture. What do you want viewers to take away from The Influencer?
MW: The younger generations, the attitudes that we have, the way we see commercialism and the things that we accept from corporations; all those attitudes are changing. That’s a very new thing. That’s really what I want people to think further about. When you see something on a screen, what do you accept as truth? Who is it that’s giving me this information? And what’s their reasoning behind it? It’s just to get people to think deeper about what they’re accepting as truth on the screen. At the end of the day, there’s always going to be someone on a screen telling us something, whether it’s news, or advertisements, or movies or television. It’s up to us to remember that. Just like a movie, anything we see on the screen was produced.
On a more single person level, it’s not even just about companies, advertising or things like that. People have this persona that they lead online, and that’s where a lot of issues with our perception, how we see ourselves, start. The line becomes blurred between what is real life and what’s fake.
MS: I can totally relate to that. Do you have a favorite memory from shooting?
MW: When we were filming on the street, that shot when Kasia’s getting dragged into the van. I guess I had forgotten to tell her, “You don’t actually have to scream for this. We can add it in post.” So she was screaming. It was very, very funny.
MS: You mentioned that you’re working with the same crew again, are you allowed to talk about any of that?
MW: I can’t say too much, but I will say that Shantell Yasmin Abeydeera and I are working on something together that we’ll be shooting in the fall. We really enjoyed working together, so we thought, “let’s go make something else!”
McKinzie Smith: How did you first hear about The Influencer? And what drew you to the project?
Kasia Szarek: Meghan [Weinstein] reached out to me with the script back in June of 2019. I actually remember the moment I got the email. I read it and I was just blown away. I was, like, “This is honestly a dream role. The script is so fun and funny. Just everything about it is perfect. I have to do this. I absolutely have to do this.”
I was like, “I love the script. Can you offer me the role?” And she was like, “Um, no, we’re gonna have auditions in August. I’ll let you know when that is happening.” And I’m like, “Damn it, I really wanted it.” But I’m like, “Okay, you know what, I can audition for it. And because I am perfect for it, I’m going to kill it at the audition.” I spiraled about this thing for months. Because all I could think of was, “I just want this so badly. It’s like a dream.” I went to the audition, I got a callback. I was a little nervous, because I don’t do a lot of comedy. I don’t get a lot of auditions for things that have more emotional material, like crying and things like that. Obviously, I know I can cry on command when I’m alone in my bedroom looking at the mirror, but I just never really had an audition that expected that of me. And I cried so hard my eyelashes fell off. I remember posting a photo of my eyelashes falling off of my eyeball on my Instagram story. I had to wait around for maybe a month to get the final word. But it happened and it was perfect.
MS: Because you dabble in the influencer world, what was it like making fun of influencer culture?
KS: The thing is that although I was playing Abbie, I brought a lot of real stuff to the table. Sometimes we would just start laughing in the middle of tapes, because it really is so relatable. I think she wrote the script at a really good time. People are really going to understand it now. More so than if it was released six months ago.
MS: I was surprised because I figured “Oh, they probably shot this last year or 2019,” but it felt very, very timely.
Something I really liked about Abbie as a character was that her start as an influencer was actually in earnest, and eventually she became disenchanted with the brands and the people she was hanging out with. Have you ever noticed this as someone who influences? Do brands take advantage of people in that way?
KS: All of the above. It’s funny because now I feel like Instagram, sadly, is kind of dying. But [with] the actual influencers of Instagram you would see people that had a really specific aesthetic, a really big style and really specific way of talking. Then as brand deals started happening, and posts became more and more commercial, you could see people losing their voice and losing their style that made them unique in order to fit with a brand’s particular specs. When you do a brand deal, they reach out to you for a reason, because they like what you do, but they also have pretty tight specifications on what they want.
Luckily, I’ve worked with a lot of brands that really understood me. But I’ve heard a lot of stories about people spending all this time doing this work on these projects and then turn them in and the brand is just like, “No way, this is not what we want.” They expect them to redo the whole thing, even if you’re out of pocket for whatever it costs you to do the shoot in the first place. I think that is a place where influencers can get really screwed over. But I think there are some great, great, great deals out there. There are a lot of opportunities and those who succeed in it have done a lot to make that happen. Abbie does mention that several times in the story. She’s like, “I worked so hard for this, and people don’t understand what that really entails.”
MS: Another one of [the] things I really liked about Abbie was that she wore some amazing costumes. I was wondering if you had any part in that or if it was just thrown at you?
KS: I would say that a lot of it was inspired by my wardrobe. We also had Eliana [Mullins] who is fantastic. She [and Meghan] actually came over when I had just moved. I didn’t even have any furniture, I didn’t have my wallpaper up, nothing. It was so embarrassing. They came over and raided my closet and picked out things that they liked. We tried on all these different outfits. She went through my Instagram as inspiration. It was a collaboration between all of us. I believe it was Meghan’s idea to do the silver outfit that I wore during most of the movie. Yeah. That was a little bit inspired by Barbarella. Then we had the incredible Zach [Smith]. Oh my god, he is just wonderful. He killed it on my hair and makeup. Between everyone collaborating to put these looks together, it came out really good.
MS: Something I didn’t know about you until I did a little bit more research is that you actually do a lot of casting. How has that influenced how you approach the audition process, or has it at all?
KS: I actually own a casting company. I do a lot of casting!
I would say when it comes to the audition process, I’m very nervous. When I go into auditions, it’s because I really, really love acting. I love the opportunities to play these roles, and to do these projects, and it’s like a competition with myself. Am I going to show up, am I gonna kill it? The thing is, you can sit around and you can study something for days, you can put so much work into the preparation of being there and put your best foot forward and do everything in your power to nail it and have an amazing audition. I think it’s this internal struggle, this competition with myself, that sometimes you just blow it. One thing that I’ll do is if I feel like I need to do it, ask for more time. I don’t mind asking because I’m on the other side of things. If someone is confident enough to say, “Hey, I want another chance. Can I do it one more time?” Even if I think they did a good job, if they think that they can do better? I’m gonna let them. So I think it has helped me feel a little bit more comfortable in the room, especially to ask for something if I need it. But I don’t think anything will ever make me perfect.
MS: Do you have a favorite moment from shooting?
KS: I’ll give you two moments. Do you remember the scene where they have me in the backyard with the lip gloss?
KS: It was very late at night, it was cold, and we were tired. That was like one of the last shots of the day. Oh my god, everyone was so sweet. I was dressed the least, in my little silver outfit. Everyone was taking turns holding blankets out to keep me warm. Every single person that was part of the project was just awesome. I can’t say enough good things about them. It was really such a collaborative effort from so many wonderful people.
One of my favorite silly moments was… I really enjoyed where they’re reeling me into— in one of the final scenes, the room where they’re keeping me. I’m on that little dolly. I remember laying on this dolly and waving. Just doing the Princess Diana [wave] with the bloody nose. I actually had kind of thrown my back out. You know, we were tired, but it was getting so close to the end. I was on that dolly getting pushed around, thinking like, “Wow, we almost finished this movie. This is pretty crazy.”
Actually, the final scene was our final scene. I think Meghan probably planned that to happen so that you could really feel it. And we definitely did. I mean, you’re watching the sun come down, we were on this rooftop in downtown L.A., we [had] just moved from a different location, which is actually walking distance away, and I totally forgot I had this bloody nose makeup, just walking around downtown in this outfit. I didn’t even notice everyone was staring at me because I had a “bloody nose”. But that moment of being on the rooftop and finalizing things and thinking, “Wow, we did it, and I’m gonna have to go back to real life soon.” It was a moment to remember.
MS: I talked to Meghan and she says that she sees you as a really great comedian. I was wondering if you have any comedy projects in the works? What’s next for you?
KS: I just did a co-star on Hulu’s new show, Pam and Tommy. I did a co-star on [Netflix’s] Hollywood, which came out at the very beginning of the pandemic. Unfortunately, a lot of stuff was shut down for a while right after [The Influencer], but things are definitely picking up. I’ve been auditioning for more TV stuff. My main goal right now is to do a series regular role on a TV show, like a sitcom.
Also, after being resistant to it for years and seeing all the opportunities that arise from TikTok for comedic talents, I finally buckled down. This is something that I need to do to move forward with my career, especially because I was gonna start doing stand up comedy again. And then the pandemic happened. I feel like it was a really good way to safely be doing the comedy thing and getting my brain working again in the comedy format. I’ve been working on that and I know that’s going to pop off soon.
MS: I’ll follow!
KS: Anything can happen. The sky’s the limit with that app.
Shantell Yasmine Abeydeera
McKinzie Smith: I’ve already talked to Meghan and Kasia, they had some very nice things to say about you! Kasia said that you need to call her and get Korean barbecue.
Shantell Yasmine Abeydeera: Oh, yeah!
MS: Meghan mentioned that you have a good working relationship. Was this your first time working with her? Or have you worked with her before?
SYA: No, it was my first time working with all of them. It was such an incredible experience. I’m really blessed to have been able to play that role and to work with such an awesome team of, predominantly, women who kick ass.
MS: That’s cool! I liked your character. I’ve watched the film, I really enjoyed it. Three is kind of an intense character, probably the most morally upright person in the film. What drew you to that character?
SYA: The thing I loved about Three was that [she’s] very different to the kind of roles that I’m getting to audition for. She didn’t necessarily have a nationality, I got to play with my own [Australian] accent, which I rarely get to do living in the U.S. Also, she was just fun. One of the things that I loved about her was that she wasn’t a bully with no reason. She was a good guy doing something bad because she really believed in it. I can relate to that.
MS: I liked that scene where you’re just losing it on Kasia a little bit in the bedroom. What [was] the process of that scene?
SYA: Oh, you mean when I was standing on the bed?
SYA: Oh, man. That day, the way that it was scheduled, most of my big scenes in the film were filmed on that day. By the time we got to shooting that scene, I’m just glad that the words came out. I think that the one thing I’ll say about — well, not the one thing, I have plenty of incredible things to say about Megan — but she was so collaborative. She allowed me to do whatever I wanted. I walked into blocking rehearsals and I was like, “I had a thought.” And she was like, “Yeah, cool. Tell me. Let’s do whatever Shantell said.” It was so incredible. There are certain directors that you work with that aren’t wanting that kind of input with the character, but she really worked through all of those things with me and let me play around. That day was awesome, but exhausting.
MS: Had you considered the life of an influencer before shooting the film?
SYA: Well, I’m what you call an old millennial. I think that most millennials have — I don’t want to use the word “disdain,” but it’s the only one I can think of — for influencer culture. We were thrust into the world of social media once we’d already grown. All of a sudden, there was this culture of people telling us that we needed to be liked and people needed to engage with us in order for us to have value. So for me, I was very late to the social media game. I didn’t use Facebook. I don’t use Facebook. Who does anymore?
I definitely had a lot of thoughts on influencer culture, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time around someone that was one. Kasia was definitely my first foray, so to speak. It’s super interesting to me, because if you speak to Kasia, Kasia is a business woman. That was super impressive to me. I’m such an artist and I have a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to the people that get in the way of artists. You know what I mean? These entities that are driving a wedge between artists being able to create their art; I get really mad at stuff like that. But talk to someone like Kasia, who— the best way to sum it up is she was like, “Well, if you can’t beat them, join them, and I’m just gonna do really well at it.” And I was like, “Fuck, I really respect that.”
MS: Your character gets, I think, the sweetest ending. What would you do with the money?
SYA: I will tell you the honest truth. I’m a Gemini, so this will make a lot of sense. I would keep some of it. The rest of it, I would start a charitable organization. One of my dreams has always been to start a charity. I also like nice things!
MS: What kind of charity would you start?
SYA: Trying to do something for the homeless population. I feel it’s such an arrogant thing to say “I would like to help the homeless.” I don’t even know how you do that without changing the structure of the whole world, but I’d like to do something.
MS: Do you have a favorite memory from shooting?
SYA: There was one scene, and I don’t think it was my favorite to shoot — it was actually pretty miserable. It was a cool moment as a group of women. We were shooting outside; it was myself, Victoria [Danielle Wells], who played Four, and Kasia. It was at the tail end of the shoot and it was cold. It was a late night shoot, so by the time we wrapped it was probably two or three in the morning. We were shooting that scene where Kasia’s out in that teeny-tiny outfit. I mean, I was in a zip-up and pants and I was frozen. We were wrapping [Kasia] in furniture blankets in between takes. I would just run up behind her and we would just hug each other to keep warm.
MS: That’s really funny, that’s Kasia’s answer too.
SYA: That’s very funny! I love that.
MS: What’s next for you? What are you working on?
SYA: I can’t talk about it, but I am actually doing another movie with Meghan. That’s literally all I’m allowed to say, but we’re filming next month.
The Influencer releases September 14th, 2021. You can purchase it here or rent it on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube.