EXCLUSIVE: The producers knew something wasn’t right from the very beginning. The studio teacher they’d hired on the recommendation of their assistant director was shaggy, loud and boisterous, and he looked hung over. On the very first day of filming, he scared the film’s young star and so alarmed her mother that she alerted the producers that something wasn’t right with the guy. The producers kept an eye on him all day and then fired him. Late last month, they reported him to the LAPD and to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
They were right to be concerned. It turned out that Terry Westlund is an impostor who has posed as a studio teacher on at least six other short-film projects during the past year. Deadline spoke to him briefly by phone and asked if he is a certified studio teacher. “I am not going to talk to you,” he said, and hung up.
In fact, Westlund has not completed any of the requirements to be a studio teacher, is not listed on the state’s database of certified studio teachers and is not legally allowed to teach child actors or to look after their safety and welfare.
“There is no record of that individual certified as a studio teacher,” said Peter Melton, a spokesman for the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement, which oversees the credentialing of studio teachers. And not only is he not a certified studio teacher – which requires two teaching credentials – he doesn’t have any credentials at all to teach in the state, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. “He is not in our database,” a spokesman for the commission told Deadline.
Westlund describes himself on his Facebook page as an “educated biker” and a “Studio Teacher at New York Film Academy,” though the Universal Studios-based academy says it does not employ studio teachers and has no record of him working there. He is the third impostor Deadline has uncovered posing as a studio teacher in the past 10 months, which points to the alarming ease with which impostors can gain access to working child actors.
Westlund’s deception came to light 10 days ago after the mother of a young actress took exception to his treatment of her daughter. She then relayed her concerns to the film’s producers, who took quick action to make sure that he was never left alone with the girl.
It began on June 26, the first day of filming of Gold Star, a low-budget short about a young Latina who writes a love song to her teacher – only to be confronted by homophobic reactions from her mother and school officials. The cast and crew already had gathered at Plaza de la Raza, the Chicano cultural center in L.A.’s Lincoln Heights, when the film’s 12-year-old star and her mother, Bianca, arrived on the set. Westlund was the first to greet them.
“When we first got there, he introduced himself,” recalled Bianca, who asked that her last name not be used. “He made a fist and punched her in the shoulder. ‘Only I’m allowed to do that,’ he said. ‘No one is allowed to punch you like that. I have to stick to you like glue, even when you’re changing.’ My daughter made a face, like it hurt her, and I told him, ‘Please don’t touch my child again – and I will be the one with her during changing.’ Right away my guard went up. Something was telling me it was just not right. My daughter was scared. She kept telling me, ‘Mommy, stay with me all the time.’”
Bianca sought out Adelina Anthony, one of the film’s executive producers, and relayed her concerns. “I have a bad feeling about this guy,” she told her. “Please make sure a woman is with him at all times. Please make sure that my daughter is never alone with him.”
By this time, Anthony was having her own doubts about Westlund. “At this point I was sensing his weird energy too,” she said, noting that on more than one occasion “he would stand up and try to hug me, saying aloud, ‘Give me a hug.’ Then he would quickly whisper, ‘Give me my money.’ Each time I pulled back and asked him not to hug me.”
Anthony then conferred with the film’s writer-director, Karla Legaspy, and they quickly spread the word among the predominantly female crew to keep a close eye on Westlund. “I spoke to my producers and asked if they can keep an eye on the situation,” Legaspy said.
Anthony then spoke to the film’s unit production manager, Sandra Matrecitos, and to the crafts services production assistant, Gabrielle Bruno, and relayed the message. “They all agreed and promised to keep eyes and ears open,” Anthony said.
A short time later, the UPM overheard Westlund talking to the film’s young star. In a written statement, one of many Anthony had gathered after their encounter with the impostor, Matrecitos said that she heard him tell the girl: “This is going to be a beautiful day. I am surrounded by all these beautiful women.” That, she wrote, “was an unprofessional way of communicating with a minor.”
At that moment, of course, she could have had no idea that his career as a bogus studio teacher had been marked by unprofessional behavior. One thing real studio teachers never do, for instance, is to take photos of their young charges and put them on social media; it’s considered strictly taboo. But Westlund’s Facebook page has several photos of child actors he’d worked with on other productions while posing as a studio teacher, including the one at the top of this story: Posted on August 9, 2014, it shows him lying flat on his back with a young child actor sitting on his stomach. Above the photo, Westlund wrote, “Working te he.”
“Westlund has no regard for the boundaries that are expected to be maintained between studio teachers and minors,” said Judy Brown, former president of Studio Teachers Local 884. “His physical interaction with this minor is totally inappropriate.”
Westlund’s IMDb page shows that he was the “set educator” on five other short films — All Is Vanity, All The Marbles, Session One, The Dancer & The Boy and Sophie — though Deadline has confirmed that he was the teacher on at least two others. None of the more than a dozen filmmakers and parents interviewed for this story said that Westlund harmed any child actor; a few even said he was very good with the children. But nearly everyone commented on his behavior.
“He was very strange and eccentric,” said the producer of one of the shorts. “He never did anything inappropriate; he was just a weird, oddball character. … I don’t think we ever saw his credentials, but he told us he was a certified teacher. We took him for his word. He shouldn’t be working around kids, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, back on the set of Gold Star, everyone on the set was on high alert. In her statement, the UPM wrote: “There was another instance where he was taking (the film’s young star) to the restroom, which I happened to notice, and I asked him, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘I am going to take her to the restroom.’ I immediately said, ‘I will escort her.’ I feel that he should have asked or advised another adult to be present and/or assist him with escorting her to the restroom.”
After production wrapped, Anthony sent Westlund an email saying that his services would no longer be needed. He called the next morning demanding to know why he’d been dismissed. Marisa Becerra, the film’s other executive producer, returned his call. “I told him that the children and their parents felt very uneasy around him and that he made inappropriate comments that made them feel extremely uncomfortable,” she said. He then threatened to sue the producers and their company, Aderisa Productions, claiming that they had not provided a safe working environment for the children. “He said he now had Aderisa Productions on his radar and would let everyone in the industry know about this,” she said. “He accused us of sexual harassment because we had a predominantly female crew.”
The producers hired Mandy Friedrich, a real studio teacher and told her about the problems they’d had with Westlund. “She asked me if we had inquired to see his Studio Certificate, known as a Green Card,” Anthony recalled. “I asked, ‘What is a Green Card?’ She showed me hers. And I said that was the first to my knowledge that they were issued Green Cards and that I could request seeing it. I explained that nowhere in our process of gathering the necessary paperwork did any of the agencies mention we could verify a studio teacher this way.”
Friedrich then contacted Linda Stone, the former business agent at Studio Teachers Local 884. “You may be new to working with minors in the industry,” Stone told Anthony, “but I’d bet that 99 out of 100 producers who continuously work with minors also, like you, were never told that studio teachers are all given Green Cards to document their certification.”
Stone, a tireless advocate for the protection of child actors, believes that California Labor Commissioner Julie Su is considering additional measures to thwart impostors posing as studio teachers. The first step, she said, would be for the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement to begin issuing Green Cards that contain a photo ID – like a driver’s license. Filmmakers, she said, also should be required to attach the names and copies of Green Cards of the studio teachers they hire to their production reports.
After her encounter with Westlund, Anthony contacted two officers from the LAPD’s Child Protection Section, who told her that they will begin an investigation today. She’s now on a mission to ensure that changes are made to prevent Westlund from continuing his charade and to stop others from posing as studio teachers.
“To me, this just speaks to a highly dysfunctional system that allows these frauds to work for months or years before ever being caught,” she said. “I am personally sickened to learn that it is so easy for ill persons to pose as studio teachers. It reveals an endemic problem and an overall apathy to not address this as soon as possible. … Every parent requesting a work permit for minors should be given a list of proactive questions and actions that they can take. They should be alerted that studio teacher impostors exist. We will see where this situation ends, but I desperately hope there are consequences for Westlund and others like him who come near our children and put their safety at risk.”
Westlund is only the latest impostor caught posing as a studio teacher. In September, Kent Linker and Fred Robbins were discovered running similar scams. Their deceptions not only deprive child actors of the education they deserve but endanger their safety and welfare. That’s because studio teachers are not just teachers – they are also the primary protectors of child actors on the set.
“It is tragic that this is continuing to happen,” said Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, Hollywood’s leading advocacy group for child actors. “Parents and producers entrust our children to these people. If they aren’t real studio teachers, it endangers the safety of our kids because they likely aren’t fingerprinted and we have no idea who they really are. Clearly the system of checks and balances is broken.”