As a performer on the Wonder Woman set, Zoe Shelley found much more meaning than she ever expected

Zoe Shelley is tall, incredibly fit and very good looking. She would be, if one saw her only briefly, the kind of person who could be cast as an Amazon warrior in a movie about Amazon warriors.

Guess what: She was.

Shelley, the partner of the NAC Orchestra’s music director Alexander Shelley, was in the box office smash of this spring and summer Wonder Woman.

This story begins, really, with a career choice. After an attempt to satisfy her very own ‘tiger mom’ and try to make a go of it in IBM, she decided that career path was not for her. She said, in a recent interview in her Ottawa apartment, that she had always been “sporty” in school. And after starting to workout to stay fit she found that her “sporty” side was what really caught her imagination. Becoming a personal trainer was a natural step. So that’s what she did in London, England.

One of her clients was working as a temp with a casting agency and she told Zoe of an opportunity as an extra and said she’d probably be perfect for the part and gave her a phone number to call. The client didn’t say what the film or role was.

It seemed like on of those too-good-to-be-true things, so she didn’t make the call. A few weeks later the same person urged her to try again. The film team was having trouble finding the right people. With only 10 minutes between classes, Shelley thought to herself “why not” and made the call.

She is very happy she did.

The workouts were very intense, Shelley said.

Turns out the film was Wonder Woman and turns out she was a perfect fit as a member of a squad of tall athletic women. And so, out of thousands of women who tried to get this job, Zoe Shelley became a Special Action Artist one of a group of 20 known as SPACTS. They were auditioned and cast by the stunts team involved in the movie, she said.

“What they needed was skilled background.”

This group was included in a scene showing Amazon warriors training and during a beach battle scene when the Amazons fend off a squadron of First World War German soldiers who had landed on the hidden island chasing an American spy.

“They needed people who had the look that they wanted and were skilled in sword fighting. Not many of us were when we were cast for the job.” They learned.

“What was interesting in the casting of these performers was that most of them were chosen because they were athletes, fighters, policewomen, trainers, dancers. These women all had to have strength and real physicality,” she said.

The film was shot in some beautiful locations in Italy.

It also turned out that almost eight months of her life were taken up with work connected with the film. That time includes six months of physically demanding training session five days a week in the Warner Brothers studios in Watford just outside of London before heading to Italy and another five weeks or so on set with all the other Amazons.

The training sessions, which started in October, 2015, continued until March, 2016. Filming took place in March and April 2016. The training regime was led by the personal training firm Gym Jones and they were hard core. This company also trained the Spartan warriors in the 2007 film 300.

The suffering inflicted by the Gym Jones trainers “was very real,” she said. “It was called boot camp. We had two hours of gym and two more hours of stunt training every day,” which consisted of martial arts manoeuvres and other things. The pressure led to the odd emotional moment. But the team became very close as a result of the suffering. They became a band of sisters, she said.

“We spent a lot of time with a stick and a shield doing all sorts of sword fighting drills.”

A view of Matera, Italy.

In the movie the Amazons live on an over-the-top Mediterranean Island called Themyscira that is fully enhanced by the best that digital technology can bring.

The filming featuring the Amazons was actually in southern Italy in places such as the world heritage city of Matera and Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. Not too shabby, although there were times when the chaos of this massive film set left the extras a bit gob-smacked, she said.

Apart from the metal and leather outfits that did not give an inch and caused much chafing and the metal head gear that left some Amazons with migraines, Shelley was in her element in Italy.

The SPACTS pose for a group shot. That’s Zoe Shelley far right.

The SPACTS were part of the beach battle scene which lasts about five minutes in the film and features the Amazons fending off a squadron of First World War German soldiers who had landed on the hidden island chasing an American spy.

“We were just under three weeks” filming the scene. There were about 700 film crew, she says. There were 20 stunt horses that were specially trained in Italy and who got new stables at every location, she added. The scale of the film was staggering she said. She also served as a stand in for Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman herself, she says, because she was the same height and had a similar look.

“I met her. She was around a lot. The cast were really lovely. We spent a lot of time with Chris Pine (who plays the American spy Steve Trevor). He was a bit like a kid in a candy store when he arrived.” They also got close to Robin Wright, who plays the Amazon warrior Antiope. “She was quite small,” Shelley says.

She had to put her personal training career from full-time to occasional sessions with clients but she really has not regrets.

“It was without a doubt the best experience of my life. It was also a time when I needed to build my own identity and confidence. Building my own business did that. And being in this film massively did that. Now I’m a very different person from who I was.”

She has recommitted to her marriage, after a bit of a bad patch, and is now spending a lot of time with Alexander, who travels the world in his career. She still has some clients that she works with when she can and she does some fitness modelling. And she is wondering about other ways to help people get fit.

One of the impacts of the film Wonder Woman appears to be a strong sense of empowerment it seems to be giving to women of all ages. They see a female superhero doing superhero things and it is affirming. Movie theatres are holding women-only screenings, (to the chagrin of many men stuck in the basements with their laptops.

And to top that off, the film is getting pretty solid reviews for a comic-book flick.

With some fellow Amazons in costume.

Shelley is proud of the film and pleased with the accolades the film is getting from fans and most critics.

She feels the movie is a bit too long and there are slow moments, but “obviously I’m biased, I love the film. I came out from a screening feeling like I could take on an army single-handed.”

She has seen herself on screen for about a millisecond. If you look closely during a scene when Connie Neilson who was the Queen of the Amazons questions Steve Trevor with a magic lariat around him, she is in the background. She also did not make the credits which angered some of the aspiring actors. (Neilson was in one of Shelley’s favourite films Gladiator.)

“it’s frustrating and annoying, but that’s not what it was about for me. I know I was there. I lived those months of training. I look at the photos almost daily. I know that it changed me and that will stay with me.” And there is a sequel to consider.

The screening of Wonder Woman in London came just after the London Bridge attack. The SPACTS all discussed whether they should see the movie.

Most of them, including Shelley, decided to go.

“I won’t be afraid in my own city. I won’t be scared because then they win. … The film is so much of what these people hate about the West. I felt (the film) was even more of an act of defiance. I was a part of this film. It’s important that it was out there.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.