“I’m past the point in my career to just be shirtless for the sake of being shirtless,” says Mike Manning.
“For men and for women — and this happens especially for women — there’s always gratuitous nudity where somebody’s running from a killer in the woods, and she has to take her shirt off. It doesn’t make sense. If it doesn’t help the story, then I would say no, and I would refuse to do it, but if it makes sense for the story, like, for instance, in Slapface, my character’s in bed having just hooked up with somebody, I’m okay with being shirtless. I just think that it just has to be authentic.”
Authenticity is a hallmark of Manning, who is about as refreshingly candid and deftly outspoken a Hollywood celebrity as they come. The Colorado native first came to light in the public eye on The Real World: D.C., on which he publicly declared his bisexuality, creating roiling drama both within the house and in his non-televised life.
At the time, Manning appeared on the cover of Metro Weekly — open-shirted, it should be noted, with shirtless photos to follow within — and offered up an interview that was deeply insightful and revealing. His encore interview with the magazine, 12 years later, is arguably more so.
The Real World: D.C. only lasted a season, but Manning seized the opportunity to forge a lasting career, one that recently earned him back-to-back Emmys for his work on The Bay, first in 2020 as a producer on Season 5, and in 2021 for Outstanding Performance By a Supporting Actor in a Daytime Fiction Program.
On The Bay, Mike plays Caleb McKinnon, the childhood friend of one of the show’s main characters, Daniel Garrett (Eric Nelsen), with whom he falls into a romance. When developing Caleb for Season 5, the show’s creator, Gregori J. Martin instantly thought of Manning to fill the character’s shoes.
“I needed somebody who was attractive, who looked very different from Eric, who was a good actor, and who had a wholesome, lovable appeal to him — and that’s where Mike comes in,” says Martin, who has been friends with Manning for years. “Mike is all that in real life, so I knew that he could bring it to the screen.”
Martin adds that Manning has a natural goodness about him, and it shines through. “Mike has a heart of gold,” says the producer. “He’s a beautiful person.”
The Bay, which began life as a 12-minute, episodic web series, is now streaming all six existing seasons on Peacock (the cast just wrapped filming on seasons seven and eight). Season 6 features Eric and Caleb taking a huge step in their relationship, one that echoes Manning’s own life — a same-sex wedding.
“When we shot [the wedding scene], I was wearing my actual wedding ring,” says Manning. “I was wearing the same suit that I got married in. So for me, it was a special example of art imitating life. To go from a kid on The Real World lobbying for marriage equality to then win an Emmy for a gay marriage storyline a decade later — it was really special.”
Since his time on The Real World: D.C., Manning has been seen in dozens of TV shows and films, and produced dozens more, including the aforementioned horror film Slapface, currently on Shudder, and several notable documentaries, including the award-winning Kidnapped for Christ and Lost in America, an intimate look at youth homelessness, executive produced by Rosario Dawson and Jewel.
His most prominent acting roles have been recent: A year-long stint on the legendary daytime drama Days of Our Lives and a recurring role on the final season of NBC’s wildly popular This is Us. Now in his 30s, he remains fresh-faced and youthful, with a natural, killer smile and a relaxed, ebullient conversational style.
“A lot of people say that I look like I haven’t changed much since The Real World,” he says. “I think that’s the universe’s way of paying me back, because in high school I was the last one of my friends to hit puberty. I was the last one to get hair under my arms and have my voice change. I was the last one to put on muscle on the wrestling team. So because I went through that, now the universe is paying me back by giving me a couple extra years of youth.”
METRO WEEKLY: You were first on our cover for your role in The Real World: D.C. At the time, could you have envisioned where your career would lead?
MIKE MANNING: I’ve always been a dreamer and I’ve always had a wild imagination. So, of course, there are aspects of my life that I dreamed about and hoped would happen. But if you’re asking, did I think that this kid who grew up in Colorado would be living in L.A. with two Emmys and a house and a marriage, and everything as it is, I definitely would not have pictured it.
MW: How does it feel?
MANNING: It feels pretty great, to be honest. There was a certain time in my life, around the time of The Real World, that I was questioning so much of myself and feeling bad about certain aspects of myself. I was fighting to just have the self-confidence that I had growing up when a society was telling me that I was wrong in so many ways. It was tough for a little bit. And now I am exactly the opposite. I’m happy, I’m content. I have fought to be successful in certain areas, and I’m really happy.
MW: Since The Real World, you’ve had a successful acting career, you’ve produced powerful, relevant documentaries and feature films. A lot of the time with reality shows, the participants simply fade away from public view after the show ends. You didn’t.
MANNING: I think, honestly, The Real World was the universe taking me and putting me back on the track that I was meant to be on before insecurity and self-doubt took a hold of me. The Real World was such a transformative experience for me because it put me in a situation where I had to be honest about myself and learn how to re-love myself, acknowledging for the first time certain aspects of myself and my sexuality that I had never faced before.
The show put me in the spotlight, but it also helped me become much more self-confident, so that when the experience was over, I was able to use it to pivot into acting and producing.
I’ve always considered myself a storyteller. I’ve always loved writing. I’ve been doing theater since I was 12 years old. I’ve always loved acting. Growing up in Colorado, I just didn’t realize that acting was a career possibility. There were no professional actors in my orbit, so it wasn’t even a possibility.
Before The Real World, I got an internship at Disney World being Buzz Lightyear, just because I loved entertainment and I loved performing for people. So that’s always been within me, but I think Real World gave me that jumping-off point and put me in front of the right people that would appreciate and support the stories that I wanted to tell.
MW: Hold that thought. You were walking around Disney World dressed as Buzz Lightyear?
MANNING: [Laughs.] Yes, I was. I was 19. I just wanted to get out of Colorado. So I took an internship there, which is basically Disney’s way of getting cheap labor out of college students. And so that was me.
MW: Anything memorable you can share about the experience of being Buzz Lightyear?
MANNING: Oh, well, let me tell you Disney entertainment cast parties are so much crazier than people might think. And I had my first… what should I say? I was very naive and vanilla when I went from Colorado to Disney to work for a semester. By the time I returned to Colorado, I checked a lot of the boxes that I had never checked before.
MW: Such as?
MANNING: I’ll just give you a story. So, my first week at Disney, I met the girl that played Cinderella, and she turned to me — and at this point I’m 19 — and she says, “Are you straight?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Oh, thank God.” Because so many of the men that work at Disney were not straight. So she invited me to a party and that night I had my first threesome with two women. It was pretty great.
MW: I’m assuming that encounters with men also happened during this time period?
MANNING: A little bit. But I was so scared and terrified of anybody finding out that I really didn’t allow myself to experiment that much. I will say that I hooked up with Prince Charming, and that was fun.
MW: You got Cinderella and Prince Charming.
MANNING: [Laughs.] I did, I did. Yeah. And then, without getting into it, after hooking up with Prince Charming, I panicked and never talked to him again. I went back to dating girls because I wasn’t ready to accept that side of myself yet.
MW: You noted that many gay people work at Disney. Recently, the gay employees rose up against management after it supported Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. What’s your take on all of that, especially as a former Disney employee?
MANNING: Great question. I have a special place in my heart for Disney because not only did I work there as Buzz Lightyear when I was younger, but when I moved to California, my first guest star role was on a Disney show called Crash & Bernstein. And then one of the projects that changed my career was a Disney movie called Cloud 9. It was a snowboarding movie.
I’ve always enjoyed working with Disney, and I love their ability to create content that inspires people. Lately, I feel like they’ve been doing a great job with improving their history on representation with certain characters. The most recent example is The Little Mermaid. They were like, “We want different girls of every skin color to see themselves in this character. And we are making that choice.” And so I feel like Disney has made great strides and continues to make great strides.
I am very proud of the Disney employees who stood up and refused to allow Disney and their marketing team to sort sweep Disney’s position on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill under the carpet. They were vocal, they were loud, and they forced Disney to choose a side.
I’m very happy that they did because Disney is such a huge company, and I think it has a responsibility to its employees to represent them in a truthful way. So I’m glad that those employees stood up. I’m glad that Disney made the right decision. And I hope we see more of that with other corporations.
MW: Coming back to your post-Lightyear career. In 2014, you produced a documentary with Lance Bass called Kidnapped for Christ, which details the experiences of teens who are removed from their homes and sent to behavior modification reform camps in the Dominican Republic.
MANNING: Kidnapped for Christ was an important film to me. It was a film that found me and helped me decide what kind of producer I wanted to be. I met this director named Kate Logan through a friend that I went to college with. She basically said, “Look, I have all this footage, and I don’t know what to do with it.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know how to produce, but I want to see this movie made, I will help you, and we’ll figure it out together.”
The next day I went through my Rolodex, and I called Lance Bass. I called another mentor of mine, Tom DeSanto, who produced X-Men and Transformers — he’s a big producer. And we just sort of assembled this team together and made the movie. And the movie received great responses from audiences.
It ended up being a tool for a handful of states — California included — to pass a law so that these “reform camps” have to be regulated by Child Protective Services. So it was a perfect example of a film having the type of social impact that we all hoped it would. And that was really pivotal in me deciding what types of films I wanted to produce.
After that, I produced M.F.A., which is a scripted film about sexual abuse and rape culture on college campuses. And then I produced a [drama] called Jinn, which is about racial discrimination against the Muslim community.
And then I worked on The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson with David France, who was nominated for an Oscar for How to Survive a Plague. That film tells the history of the LGBT Civil Rights Movement, beginning with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and how they were instrumental in the fight. So, to go from a scared, insecure, sexually confused boy when I shot The Real World to becoming a man who is producing documentaries about the history of the LGBT Civil Rights movement with Oscar-nominated directors, has been an amazing journey.
MW: For people who might not know, what, briefly, is the function of a producer?
MANNING: One of the jokes in Hollywood is that nobody knows what a producer does. But a producer does everything. Every film has been different for me. Sometimes it’s raising financing. Sometimes it’s working on the script. Sometimes it’s casting the movie. Sometimes it’s being boots on the ground and looking for locations or doing contracts. Or sometimes it’s all of it put together.
MW: Let’s talk about The Bay. First of all, winning an Emmy is no small feat. You won for producing on The Bay in Season 5 and then for supporting actor in Season 6. What does it feel like to have two Emmys on your mantle?
MANNING: So much of the career of someone in entertainment is full of rejection, of being told, “You’re too tall. You’re too short. You’re too fat. You’re too skinny. You’re too young. You’re too old.” So to have something like an Emmy be a symbol of declaration from an entire industry saying, “Good job. We like what you’re doing. You have what it takes. Keep it up. You are at the top of your game. We honor you with this” is a really special feeling.
MW: You joined The Bay in Season 5.
MANNING: My character joined as a love interest for Eric Nelsen, who is an incredible scene partner. People might know him from the show 1883 — he’s great. So, his character is Daniel Garrett, who’s a member of one of the main families, and he and my character, Caleb McKinnon, they’re childhood friends. Caleb joins the cast when he moves back to town, and then throughout the course of the season, they discover that there’s more than a friendship between them.
MW: I went through your original interview with us back in 2010, and there’s a lot of discussion about religion. Is religion still as important to you now as it was 12 years ago?
MANNING: I am still religious. I think that religion and I have grown together. I have taken what I’ve learned through my experience with the church and religion to help guide me as a human being. I am also more resolute in never allowing religion to be used as an excuse to discriminate against people, both the LGBT community and other communities, and used as a weapon. I have no tolerance for that. I will fight anybody, Christian or otherwise, that tries to use religion as a weapon because I think that’s the exact opposite thing that it should be used for.
The first church that I went to when I moved to Hollywood was Hollywood United Methodist. And they are very outspoken about supporting the LGBT community and walking in all the Pride Parades. They are a church about service — they feed the homeless, they volunteer. It’s just a very, very good community of people. And I would say 40 percent of the congregation is LGBT. And we all work together to help people. So that is an example of what religion could be and should be. And because of that, I refuse to give up on religion altogether.
MW: What religion were you raised as?
MANNING: I was raised as a non-denominational Christian. Ironically, I was, for a long time, the most religious person in my family. I found Christianity in middle school when I started going to Youth Group on Wednesday nights. I would go there, and I would sing, and I had my friends. For me, it was a place of acceptance and love and community at a point where sexuality wasn’t even a thing in my life.
The beginning of my relationship with Christianity has always been about love and acceptance. And there was a time during my time in D.C., during The Real World, where I was sort of fighting with Christianity. For the first time in my life, after coming out, religion was being used as a weapon against me. And I was very confused.
Since then I have come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t Christianity that turned its back on me. It was some of the people in that community, and they have no right to poison that well for me. They have no right to change my relationship with God and Christianity because of their own pain.
MW: You mentioned a lack of self-confidence and insecurity when you were younger. What would make you insecure? If I looked in the mirror every day and saw your face looking back at me, I don’t know that I’d be insecure.
MANNING: [Laughs.] Number one, thank you for saying that. I have you fooled. When I shot The Real World, I was in my early 20s. After coming out — and I think a lot of people in the LGBTQ community can relate to this — you go through the first half of your life with an idea about yourself and your future and who you’re going to fall in love with and marry and the family and the kids. At least I did.
And then you have these feelings, in your adolescence, that you think are a phase and you think they’re going to go away. And year by year, it becomes more clear to you that these feelings aren’t going away. And for me, I didn’t have the luxury of telling one friend, and then telling another friend and coming out slowly.
I essentially came out on national television, on The Real World. And my life turned upside down overnight with family, with cousins, with my grandparents, with my church, with friends, with people that I went to college with. I went from being an average person to everybody knowing my business and some really intimate things about myself.
And so for the first time in my life, I didn’t know who I was. I wasn’t confident. I didn’t know what to say when somebody was like, “Who are you? Describe yourself?” And I really had to rewire my brain, to rewire my expectations for myself, my life, my future, everything. It was a tough time. But, I think because of that, I’ve come out on the other side, a stronger person.
I’ll say this. The one thing that being on The Real World taught me is the power of story. I received thousands of messages after I appeared on the show. The Real World: D.C. was before Glee. It was before Modern Family. It was before so many of these shows that have done such a great job at normalizing being “other,” not being straight in a way that was relatable to a worldwide audience.
And so many people reached out to me and said, “Thank you for being authentic and being yourself because I don’t see many characters that I can relate to on television right now.” And so that has always stuck with me, the power of story and the power of sharing one’s authentic self and authentic voice with the world. Now I try to support filmmakers and storytellers that want to do that.
MW: You didn’t have to come out on national television. We know, to a certain extent, how producers coax things out of people on reality shows. Did a producer encourage you to come out? Or was this something you, yourself decided? And, if so, why did you decide to do it in such a visible way?
MANNING: I remember being in the Real World house — this was maybe my fourth or fifth night — and at that point, I think I made out with one of the girls. I hadn’t told any of the roommates anything about my sexuality. And it did cross my mind that I was going to not come out on the show. I was going to, for the next three months, hide that part of myself.
I remember staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night and I was like, “I cannot live a lie. If I do not share my truth and muster up all the courage I have and be as proud and as open as I am capable of being right now, I will regret it for the rest of my life.”
I also wasn’t naive. I said, “There is not representation on television right now of characters, even if they are not sure, and even if they are struggling to discover themselves, there are not enough characters on television that are not straight.” So I was like, “Even if I don’t know where I’m going to end up, I need to authentically tell my story and share what I’m going through with others, because I know that I’m not the only one.”
The producers, to their credit, will not tell us what to, or how to act, like maybe they do nowadays on some other reality shows. But they know exactly what they’re doing with casting. They know that they’re casting people that are going through something that is going to be interesting. Or they’re going to fight on the show. Or they’re going to date on the show and hook up on the show. They know exactly what they’re doing in casting, which is why it’s such a rigorous process.
I think back then 30,000 people applied to be on the show where there were eight open spots. And back then, The Real World was one of the main reality shows that people watched. It had a huge platform. Yeah, I think the producers knew exactly what they were doing by casting me.
MW: Had you not been on The Real World, do you think would’ve stayed in the closet? Or do you think you would’ve eventually come out?
MANNING: If I had not done The Real World, I absolutely would have come out. It just would’ve been a much different journey for me. I think I would’ve taken my time. I think that I would have gotten to the point where I was as proud as I am today and would have refused to hide it from anybody. It just would have taken me more time.
MW: When did you realize you like guys as well as girls?
MANNING: Denial is a powerful defense mechanism that we have as humans. Somewhere deep inside of me, there was an attraction for men. But I always thought that it was a phase that was going to go away. When I would play hockey and I would change in the locker room with guys, we would all make jokes about our dicks and slap asses and everything. And I thought what I was experiencing was a phase and I thought it was what everybody was experiencing. It wasn’t until college that I truly looked in the mirror and said, “Wow, I might be different than most of my friends.”
MW: In the interview from 2010, you talked very specifically about your bisexuality. Do you still identify as bisexual?
MANNING: I have a love-hate relationship with that question. And you’re not the only one to ask me. I think that sexuality is based on physical attraction, who you are physically attracted to. I think sexual orientation is also determined by who you’re attracted to, but other things — your environment, your upbringing, who you meet, where you are in your life, many external factors. So just in terms of sexuality, I think that I am bisexual. I know that I am more attracted to women than my gay friends. And I certainly know that I am more attracted to men than my straight friends.
And you’re hearing this from somebody that happily married a man and is very attracted to him and very happy with my situation. I think that there is a stigma within the LGBT community and outside of it against the bisexual community, because people don’t quite understand it.
I read an interview in The New York Times last year that said that 1 in 6 people under the age of 26 openly identify as non-straight. I think that the number is growing. The younger generation is moving towards a place of acceptance, and of human sexuality being fluid. That is more in line with my own beliefs. And I’m glad to see that our society is moving in that direction.
The reason that I know I’m a bisexual person is because I’ve had sex with both men and women. In my opinion, somebody should be able to identify however they want, no questions asked.
If someone were going to identify as straight, you don’t say that they can only identify as straight as long as they’ve hooked up with somebody of the same gender, just to make sure. You accept them as being straight. If somebody identifies as being gay, they don’t have to sleep with somebody of the opposite sex just to make sure. So I should be able to identify however I want, whatever I feel in my heart. And I should be supported and loved by the LGBTQ community all the same, because that community knows what it feels like to be discriminated against because of who you are. And it is unacceptable.
MW: When did you get married? What year?
MANNING: I don’t even remember.
MW: Oh, my God. Your husband is going to read this.
MANNING: I don’t even think he remembers either. I think I’ve been married for four, almost five years.
MW: Do you even know when your anniversary is?
MANNING: [Laughs.] Yeah, I know my anniversary. I just don’t know the year. October 21st will be our five-year anniversary. So if I got married in ’17, it’d be ’18, ’19, ’20, ’21, ’22. Yeah. So 2017.
MW: It’s funny that you can’t remember the year you got married. Did you have a big ceremony?
MANNING: I did. Yeah. We had a big ceremony at a friend’s house in Bel Air. We had family. We had friends. It was fantastic.
MW: Why did you decide to get married?
MANNING: Because I couldn’t see my life without this person. I was somebody growing up that didn’t think I was going to get married. I loved meeting people. I loved falling in love. I loved getting to know people. But I never thought that I would be able to open up and share my life with just one person. And that all changed when I met Nick. I quickly realized that if I let this person exit my life, it would be one of the biggest mistakes I had ever made.
MW: How long had you dated before you got married?
MANNING: I proposed almost on our three-year anniversary of dating. And then we were engaged for a year. Then we got married, basically, on our fourth anniversary.
MW: Did he say yes immediately?
MANNING: He did! He was dropping hints that he wanted to marry me after the first year we were together. I would laugh it off and move on. But I knew that he wanted to get married to me, basically, after the first year. I knew that I had some work that I had to do on myself before I took that leap. I saw a therapist and I worked through some things. I made a deal with myself that I absolutely would be open to the idea of marrying him, but I wasn’t going to do it before I felt ready because I wanted it to be my decision. And that took three years.
MW: I’m getting to ask this next question more often in our interviews: How is married life treating you?
MANNING: I honestly love it. I love using the word husband or spouse. I love looking at my ring. I love seeing his ring on his finger. I love knowing that however hectic my life may be, however the positives and the negatives that I have to face, at least this one piece of the pie I have figured out. At least, I get to wake up and know that this one person has my back, no matter what. And it’s a really good feeling.
MW: Have you two discussed having children?
MANNING: [Laughs.] Whooo! Okay! So, when we first got together, he wanted children, and I said, “Probably not right now. Ask me in a few years.” The longer we are together, the longer he’s like, “You know what? Maybe I don’t want children. I like our lifestyle,” and I say, “Well, why not? Why can’t we have children?” So, I honestly don’t know where we stand. I think right now, children are not on the horizon, but that could change.
MW: Text me when you’re pregnant, and we’ll do another interview.
MANNING: [Laughs.] Boy, let me tell you, we’ve been trying.
Seasons 1 through 6 of The Bay are now streaming on Peacock. Visit www.peacock.com.
Follow Mike Manning on Twitter at @mike_manning_.
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