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Hawaii'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.


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“Moving to L.A. is like jumping into a shark pit,” he says. “You go from a fishbowl, where you’re in control and the only one getting the food, to where you’re in a shark pit.”

So he’s staying put, staying passionate, staying positive and keeping the TV in his kitchen tuned to the Oprah Winfrey Network for inspiration. He turns up at every cattle call that comes to town, and if another actor gets picked over him, he doesn’t let it get him down. “You should be joyous and glad that they got that role, because it was their time, not your time,” he says. “It’s like Oprah says, ‘When you’re in your line of duty, everything becomes effortless.’ So if you’re in your line of duty, and you’re supposed to get that role, it will happen. It’s just a matter of when it’s your time.”

Teddy takes his craft seriously. He watches the performances of other background actors with a critic’s eye. He can’t believe the rookie mistakes some of them make, like the woman in the background of a TV show he saw recently who sat wide-eyed, gape-mouthed and frozen like a statue. “She looked like a deer caught in the headlights,” he says. He studies and critiques his own performances, too. “If I see myself, like, sitting at a table, and I don’t like how it looks because I don’t look busy enough, I know the director probably didn’t like it either,” he says. “Whether I’m blurred out or not, my actions matter.”

When Teddy’s on a set, he doesn’t allow himself to spend more than five minutes socializing with the other extras. Partly he does this because of an experience he had on the set of Godzilla, early in his career.

A scene shot at the end of Heeia Pier, in which Teddy unloaded Matthew Broderick’s luggage from a seaplane, put Teddy and Broderick alone together with plenty of time to talk between takes. As Teddy recalls the conversation, Broderick told him: “Right now, everybody is watching you and me talking, and they all want to be you, standing here talking to me. Everybody wants to be in the position that you’re in, and if they see the weakness in you, they will do whatever it takes to highlight it. Always remember, nobody here is your friend.”

The other reason Teddy minimizes the socializing is the same reason he doesn’t bring reading material, crossword puzzles or anything like that to the set, as extras typically do to kill time. He spends his down time watching and learning. “Most of the time, if you’re an extra, they don’t mind you hanging around the set if you’re paying attention,” he says.

If an extra is going to be plucked from the obscurity of the background and given an upgrade, it’s not going to be the extra reading the newspaper, playing Angry Birds or chitchatting with the other extras. It’s going to be the extra who’s been paying attention and is ready to go. Upgrades do happen. The odds aren’t great, but they happen. So far, Teddy’s gotten two big ones, with commensurate bumps in pay.

“I treat it like the lottery,” he says. “You can’t win if you don’t play. There’s more opportunity if I can get on the set than if I’m staying home. You’re guaranteed to make the $135 bucks, right? But you have the potential to walk away with thousands. Just by being there.”

His first upgrade came on his very first film, Krippendorf’s Tribe, in 1998. He had been cast in a non-speaking role, as one of the native guides leading an expedition through the jungle. One of the other guides, an actor from Los Angeles, was supposed to say a few words in a fictitious native tongue (which roughly translated to, “It’s too far uphill. Let’s go back!”). But as they were shooting the scene, Teddy recalls, the director decided the line did not sound right coming from that character. “So they pulled me aside, handed me the script, had me read the role, then said, ‘OK, you do it,’” he says. “Because it was a speaking part, I went from making, like, $100 a day to making $865 a day. On my first job!”

His next big upgrade came on Lost, where he went from playing an airline crash victim, to occasionally playing one of the Others, to getting a regular part as one of the Others. His Other character even had a name, Ivan. Ivan appeared in eight episodes.

One of Teddy Wells' biggest roles was a recurring  character as one of the Others on Lost.

In one, after finding a comrade locked in a cage, Ivan says, “What happened?”

“Open the cage,” his comrade snaps.

“Where is…,” Ivan tries to ask.

“Just open the damned cage,” comes the response.

In another episode, Ivan says to the show’s main character, Jack: “His blood pressure’s dropping. Should he be bleeding like that?”

Jack says: “No. No, he shouldn’t,” then punches Ivan in the face.

When Ivan’s character was eliminated, Teddy found out about it the hard way—while watching Lost and seeing a tent that Ivan was supposed to be in blown to smithereens with dynamite. “I saw that and said, ‘Oh, no! They killed Ivan!’” he says.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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