From Warrior to Gladiator
For years Tanoai Reed regretted quitting the UH football program, but now his show biz gamble is paying off for him and his family
Tanoai Reed believes persistence is the key to achieving your goals.
A former offensive lineman for the University of Hawaii Warriors, Reed left football and college after his junior year to become a stuntman.
It was a move he often questioned as he would quickly discover that it was not an easy job to attain.At one point, he found himself homeless, alone and lost. But he never gave up.
Now, 13 years later, he is a warrior once again, but this time as Toa on the NBC hit show American Gladiators.
“My character Toa is Tanoai with the volume turned up,” says Reed, who is Samoan and Norwegian. “Throughout Polynesia, Toa is the universal word for warrior, and I wanted to represent all Polynesia, not just Samoa or Hawaii.”
In its second cycle, American Gladiators is a 21st century reinvention of the iconic competition series and features 40 fearless contenders who face-off each week against the Gladiators in various classic games. In the end, one contender will take home the ultimate prize of $100,000.
The show’s season finale is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m on NBC KHNL 8.
“I used to watch the original American Gladiatorsand was a big fan,” says Reed, 34. “My favorite part of the show now is the stories. Nothing is scripted, and to watch the contestants come out of the Eliminator with tears reminds me that this is real life. It’s an actual competition.”
Reed, a 1991 graduate of Kahuku High School, was born and raised in Hawaii. His first job in the movie industry was as a laborer on the set of Waterworld starring Kevin Costner, which was filmed on the Big Island. It was supposed to be a summer job, but Reed ended up working for eight months, and even relocated to Los Angeles for the final two months of filming.
“While I was there, I met all the stunt guys on the crew and they introduced me to the world of stunts,” says Reed. “They got me on the show and I got my first paycheck (about $5,000 after two weeks), and I was like, I’m getting paid this to ride jet skis and crash them and jump them and shoot fake guns. I can’t believe it.
“My grandmother,Vaitai, raised me in Laie, and we were really poor. We had no money. We were on food stamps. I rarely saw an extra dollar. I was on a football scholarship for college. This was my first real job.
“I was supposed to go back to football camp for my senior year, but they told me that they could use me for the rest of the movie for continuity. I stuck out because I was so big. So I did the math with my fingers and I thought, oh, I’m going to be a millionaire. So I stayed. But that wasn’t the case.”
After filming of Waterworld ended in L.A., Reed found himself alone with no family around and no job.
“I was like, ‘OK, now what do I do?,’” he says.“I was waiting for these guys to call me, but reality was that in Hawaii I was a big fish in a small pond, but in L.A. I’m a small nobody.
“I didn’t know how to hustle as a stuntman. I didn’t have a head-shot. They didn’t tell me that part of the business.
”Reed ended up buying a truck,that he lived out of for about five months, and worked as a bouncer at some of the nightclubs in Hollywood.
After a couple of years and feeling “kind of lost,” Reed decided to move back to Hawaii.
“I was detailing cars and living pretty much homeless for a little bit,” remembers Reed. “I was living out of a van at a used car dealership in Mapunapuna for about two months. And I was like, ‘wow, this sucks. I can’t do this.’
“I felt like my life wasn’t going anywhere. For a good two, three years, I was really regretting my choice of leaving football.And then my father, Leroy, who is a team-ster in the movie industry, was working in San Francisco on Nash Bridges, and he called me up. He heard I was struggling and invited me to get my teamster license and work for him as a driver.
“After I left UH, we never spoke because he thought I was a waste of talent. But he called me and that got me back into the movie industry.”
Reed moved to San Francisco for one year, working for Nash Bridges as the personal driver for Cheech Marin. But his eyes were still set on stuntwork, and he made the move to introduce himself to the stunt coordinator for the show.
“I told him, I’m not really a driver, I do stunts,” recalls Reed.“I said here’s my resume, and I wrote him my two-line resume - Waterworld and an episode ofBaywatch Nights that I did while I was in L.A. - and he gave me a shot.”
From there, Reed went to work on the movie Six Days, Seven Nights with Harrison Ford on Kauai, and then on the The Scorpion King with his cousin Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“Our great-grandparents are brother and sister,” explains Reed on his family tie to The Rock. “I knew we were related, but we never met until I was hired to double him as a stuntman on The Scorpion King. When I first met him, I told him who I was and he came back and said he confirmed it with his mom and said, ‘oh yeah, we are related.’”
Reed credits The Scorpion King for not only the chance to finally meet The Rock, with whom he is now close, but also for the turning point of his career.
“For about six years, I was still thinking about why did I make that choice to leave football,” says Reed. “I thought I’m so stupid. I could’ve been in the NFL maybe, or finished up school and doing something else.
“But when I got my chance to double The Rock, I knew it was my chance to make it or break it, so I just gave it my 100 percent, and that’s when my career boosted.”
Reed went on to do stuntwork on The Tuxedo, Daredevil, The Rundown,Walking Tall, Be Cool, Gridiron Gang, The Game Plan, Urban Justice and many other popular films.
He recently finished filming a movie with Steven Seagal in Romania, in which he has an acting role and does his own stunts.
He also just worked as The Rock’s double in Race to Witch Mountain, and in September, he starts filming for another movie with The Rock called Tooth Fairy.
“Before, people would always come up to me and say, are you The Rock?“says Reed on their similar physical characteristics. “But now I’m getting Toa, and that’s pretty cool. Parents will come up to me and say my kids love you.
“At first my goal was to become a stunt coordinator because as a stuntman you can’t hit the ground when you’re 40, 50, 60 years old. The next progression would be to be a stunt coordinator where you set up the stunts, hire the stunt guys and direct all the action.
“Now, my goal is with acting. I want to go back to L.A. and study some more acting.”
Reed currently lives in Newbury Park, Calif. with wife Suzanne (who is originally from Makaha and works as a stuntwoman) and their 8-year-old son Samson. The family returns to Oahu about twice a year.
“I feel like I have everything I need,” says Reed. “I have a beautiful wife, a son and we own a home in L.A.
“Growing up poor, living out of a van, it’s all a part of my life. I’ve learned that persistence is the key to getting where you want to be. A lot of people say they want to do something, and years will go by and they haven’t accomplished what they tried to accomplish and they’ll say, oh, OK, I’m gonna do something else and they give up.
“Well, I wanted to be a stunt-man, and it took me six years of trying to pursue that. I wasn’t working all the time, but I still had that passion. You have to be persistent, even when you’re down and out.”
Reed says he and Suzanne have talked about moving home to Hawaii in five to eight years. And they hope to one day have a daughter added to their family.
“I miss the people in Hawaii, the food and the ocean,” he says. “I want to thank our friends and family in Hawaii, and from high school and my coaches, for their support. I hope I’m representing Hawaii in the right way. This is my home.”