In high school, Te’o was an all-around star – loved by those around him and on his way to earning a full football scholarship to the University of Notre Dame. He was the golden boy of his hometown of Hawaii, active in his faith and easy-going.
Then tragedy struck. His grandmother died, then his girlfriend. Both on the same day.
Te’o, Tuiasosopo and the elaborate 2013 prank are the subject of a new two-part documentary, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” directed by Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku, which will be released on Netflix on Tuesday.
The story of Te’o and his fake girlfriend is well known, but the story of Tuiasosopo – who created the fake girlfriend to come to terms with his own gender dysphoria – is less so. Tuiasosopo has since come out as a transgender woman.
Although the audience may initially recognize Te’o’s name, the documentary opens with Tuiasosopo. She plays a pivotal role throughout both episodes, leading the audience on her journey of self-discovery and gender identity — shaped in part by her experiences catfishing Te’o.
CNN spoke to Maclain Way, who created the “Untold” series with his brother Chapman, about how the team approached portraying Tuiasosopo and Te’o’s journeys as both synchronous and separate.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you decide to focus specifically on the story of Manti Te’o and Naya?
When we learned that we would be able to do more “Untolds” and have a volume two, it was a story that was on our literal and proverbial whiteboard of sports ideas. It’s always been a white whale in the sports documentary space; it’s something my brother and I remember very well, just reading the media about it and all the noise.
We contacted Naya and had a fascinating conversation with her. It was probably a call that was only going to last 15, 20 minutes, and we ended up talking to him for two hours. And she told us about a remarkable journey she’s been on, a journey of self-discovery and self-identity and how she identifies as a trans woman.
And then in terms of reaching out to Manti and talking to him, I really think a lot of people had approached him to talk about this story over the years. I think there was a stack of documentary presentations in his inbox over the years.
I think we caught Manti at a really interesting time in her life. His NFL career was coming to an end – I doubt this would have been a story he would have commented on or done a very long, in-depth interview while he was still active in the NFL. But he had just gotten married and just had a child, and I think for Naya and Manti, neither of them were very happy with how the media covered this saga in 2013. I don’t think they wanted this media coverage to be the period at the end of this very long sentence which was a story between these two individuals. And so I think for both of them, the opportunity to interview really at length, in depth, about this story was appealing and appealing to them. And for us as filmmakers, that’s when we really knew, “Okay, we have something special here. I think we can make this documentary film.”
One thing that struck me is that this is obviously a story about Manti, but you chose to direct with Naya, and you just said you actually talked to her first. But many people can expect the episodes to be more football-focused. Why did you choose to direct with her and bring her story to the fore?
This is where, as filmmakers, we kind of had the most questions. Naya had appeared on the Dr. Phil show and engaged in light-hearted media performances, but never really delved into the case and told her full side of the story.
I’ve always had more questions about who are the people who are indulging in this catfishing… “how did this happen, how did this happen, how was this relationship between you two?”
(Naya) was very open, very vulnerable, she told her story with the warts and everything. Just listen to her motivations why she decided to occupy this space, why create this online identity profile, DM and message a football player like Manti Te’o, establish a relationship, pass phone calls – all of that was really fascinating to us and I think that was really why we were so interested in talking with her.
I’m a sports fan, but I really thought it was his part of the story that got me hooked.
Yeah, and I also think that we don’t really have a mandate, or that we don’t really like to weave those stories into specific thematic bridges between all of our “Untold” documentaries. But I think in a way none of our documentaries, even if they’re sports documentaries, really have anything to do with who’s going to win the championship game, who’s going to hit the three points as the clock runs down and win the game for their team. Really, we talk about these stories because they’re just really interesting things that happen off the pitch or off the ice or off the pitch. That’s really the story we like to tell in the vein of doing these sports documentaries.
For this one, that kind of mega-big catfishing scandal of 2013, it just seemed ripe. Yes, it’s a sports story, a football story to some extent, but it’s really the story of two individuals who were quite young at the time — I think they were 19, 20 when they built that relationship – and so for us, they were really the only two people who knew what those conversations were, who knew what their relationship was like, who knew what the other felt for each other other. And so for us, it was really a strong requirement that they both talk about it because I think that’s really the only way to tell this type of story.
Naya’s transition journey is an important part of this documentary, and I know you included a disclaimer that Manti and some of the interviewees didn’t know Naya was trans by referring to her. You also showed older photos and images from before his transition. I know sometimes these things can be sensitive for a lot of people. How did you decide to navigate the two episodes, especially for an audience that may not be as familiar with transgender identity and LGBTQ+ issues?
I think the nuanced point to make is that these documentaries take a long time simply because they are their own art forms, and a two-part documentary for us took us over two years to make. When we first spoke to Naya, the way she spoke about her journey of self-discovery and a journey of identity was an evolving process.
She now, and we encourage her so much, identifies as a proud trans woman. But by the time we were shooting this documentary, her journey was evolving to some extent. So, speaking with her, our team, and people deeply rooted in LGTBQ issues, we basically realized that it wasn’t quite our role as filmmakers to tell others about the complex journey she was on. I think if the documentary started today, given where Naya is, we’d probably be at a different point, but by then… Naya didn’t quite identify with that .
Was there anything that surprised you as you all talked about the research and reporting process? Something that stood out that you weren’t expecting?
I think it all starts and ends where you get your main storytellers, and then you start thinking about who else might have interesting voices. We always thought that the Deadspin guys could have interesting voices to some degree. Maybe no one really knows this story if they didn’t choose to pursue this anonymous tip they had. So they seemed to have a direct impact on the story, a direct impact on certain plot points of the story and the flow of the story.
There’s this idea in episodes of, maybe you could call it bloodline, where Manti and Naya focus on being an inspiration to people who follow them, especially in the second episode . Was that a theme that you all thought about when putting these episodes together?
I think it was just something that felt genuine and important in the way they were talking about it. For Naya and Manti, we did several multi-day interviews, long-day interviews, two to three days with each of them. And in that process it’s a unique way to talk with people and hear their stories, but I think you definitely get to know what’s really important to them and how they feel on a deep human level. and authentic. And I think for both of them, they spoke from the heart when they talked about that and that meaning. So for us as artists and filmmakers, when you get those interview responses from your subjects, it’s really like a guide and a star that kind of encourages you to put them in your documentary film. I think it was just very genuine of them.