Hawai‘i’s Greatest TV and Film Extra
In a land that Hollywood treats like its own tropical backlot, one aspiring actor has a plan to make it big.
(page 1 of 3)
You may not recognize Teddy Wells, but there’s a good chance you’ve laid eyes on him before. He’s appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows shot in Hawai‘i. The reason his face isn’t more familiar is because it’s often a blur, or a quick blip, or a dot in the distance. Sometimes, just the back of his head makes it onto the screen. Sometimes, he’s cut out of a scene altogether. Such is the inglorious life of the hard-working background actor.
Teddy has been doing background—the nice way of saying, being an extra—in Hawai‘i for 15 years. He’s played a bellhop on Fantasy Island, an African villager in ER, an Islander in Last Resort and a poacher in Tears of the Sun. He was a cop driving an ATV on the beach in Baywatch Hawai‘i. He was the passenger in the pickup truck that swerved to avoid hitting a cow in Mighty Joe Young. He was the guy in the hotel lobby that Damon Wayans accidentally bumped into in My Wife and Kids. He was the porter on the dock who unloaded Matthew Broderick’s bags in Godzilla. In Hawai‘i Five-0, he milled around in the background at the airport. In Lost, he played, among other parts, a dead airline passenger.
Often, he’s utterly anonymous. Other times he’s clearly, if briefly, identifiable. You can see him in Battleship as a Navy officer standing at attention behind Liam Neesom on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri. That’s clearly him as a native guide leading Lily Tomlin through the jungle in Krippendorf’s Tribe. That’s definitely Teddy, with a rifle, chasing some of Lost’s main characters down the beach and into the woods.
Throughout his whole career in the background, he’s been quietly observing how films are made and soaking up as much as he can about how the motion picture industry works. One thing he’s learned is that extras don’t always get a whole lot of respect. He’s worked on sets where they have been made to wait for hours in the sun without shade or water, talked to like children and moved around like cattle. But he’s also been on sets where the extras were treated royally, allowed to relax in air-conditioned tents, and served meals on actual china with real silverware, rather than the paper plates and plastic utensils they usually get.
For all of his efforts, Teddy generally makes $135 a day, the rate that members of the Screen Actors Guild, such as himself, get for background. Non-union extras are lucky if they make $100 a day.
“In Hawai‘i, you won’t make $5,000 a year being an extra,” says Teddy, who has made his living as a chef, a smoothie shop franchisee and an online coffee distributor.
What drives him then? What draws him to back to the background, again and again? Is it the dream of stardom? The promise of screen credit? The possibility of getting a line, of speaking actual words, and not just “peas and carrots, peas and carrots, peas and carrots,” as extras simulating conversation ordinarily say.
The answer is, yes. It’s all of those things. Teddy would like to be a star, to make it big Hollywood. The only thing is, he doesn’t want to leave Honolulu to do it. And he doesn’t believe he has to.
The conventional wisdom is that actors who aspire to break into the film industry must move to Los Angeles, to stick their heads into the jaws of the beast. That’s where all the work is. But Teddy likes Hawai‘i. And, as a black actor with a SAG card, in a state without a lot of black people at all, let alone black union actors, he’s found a niche here. Why leave?