Interview: Shannon Ashlyn & Ben Mortley

Shannon Ashlyn & Ben Mortley in Zelos. Photo by Tom Tuong.

Your partner comes home and they tell you they’ve cheated on you. It’s a situation we all fear and how we respond can either define us or break us.

New Australian drama Zelos explores the issue, and the unexpected life changes people are faced with in this situation, through the eyes of Bernard and Shannon, played by Ben Mortley and Shannon Ashlyn respectively.

Here, Ben and Shannon talk us through their process as actors, their characters and what advice they’d offer to friends who find themselves in a similar situation.

“Jo is meticulous and Claire is tenacious and together they make a formidable team.”

Interview by Matthew Eeles

Tell us what the film is about from your character’s point of view?

SHANNON Oh dear! Poor Sarah! She’s just come back from a whirlwind trip to India… and don’t we all know how intoxicating the perfect holiday can be and – on the flip side – just how tough relationships are, even at the best of times! So I guess even though she knows that she has done something terribly upsetting, she has also come to realise that there are more important things in life than a foolish holiday fling. In Sarah’s mind, whatever happened in India is nothing compared to the kind of love that transcends all. From her point of view, I guess the film is about figuring out what true love really is, what obstacles it can overcome and wether that is what she and Bernard actually share together.

BEN Bernard is the kind of guy who has his whole life mapped out. He’s got a plan for everything. But when his girlfriend Sarah (the woman he wants to marry) comes back from a holiday and reveals she’s been unfaithful, his world is turned upside down. She breaks his heart. I think from this point Bernard has to work out if this relationship is salvageable and also if he even wants to save it. In an attempt to rescue it Sarah offers him a free pass, but it’s really not in his nature. As Bernard begins to look at Sarah and the relationships around him differently, things begin to unravel. I think the damage is irreversible and the incident has really changed something in Bernard.

Did you have to audition or were you approached for your role in the film?

SHANNON I was approached. One day I received a really lovely message from Jo-Anne Brechin about an exciting project she wanted to pitch to me. Needless to say, I was immediately struck by her wonderful enthusiasm but also impressed by her previous work. Similarly, Jo had seen a couple of my earlier films and clearly thought I’d be a good fit for Sarah.
But there’s a funny twist to that story actually – and that was that many months later, over coffee, I found out that originally, it was in fact my very long, very red hair which had caught Jo’s attention in the first place and that she didn’t realise I had chopped it all off and gone blonde by the time we Skyped for the first time to talk about Zelos. Goodness knows what she thought when she saw me. But considering the way things turned out, I guess it wasn’t just my hair that got me the part after all.

BEN It was both really. Jo approached me because she had seen Shannon and I in a short film together called The Woodcutter. She sent me the script and then we arranged to meet when I was in Sydney next. After chatting to Jo and Claire about the story and the character we were all really excited. The last thing I did was put down a tape and then not long after they told me the role was mine.

Infidelity is very common and we’ve all been affected by it either directly or indirectly. Did you reference any personal experiences when preparing for your role?

SHANNON Actually, I was drawn to this script precisely because of the rather unusual questions it dared to ask about how we understand and define romantic relationships. I think many of us suffer because we have to try to live up to the many different ideals society imposes on us when it comes to our private lives. Personally, I believe that relationships are different for everyone and in the world of love, which is both exquisite and messy all at once, I only know one thing for sure: Love Is Love. We should all have the same, equal rights to choose what we do from there.

BEN Skeletons are staying firmly in the closet, Matthew. But what I probably did think about in this regard while preparing and then shooting were those feelings you go through during breakups. Especially when you are still living around each other. You know when the world feels like it has been drained of all colour. The awkwardness, the tense silences, the ache, the search to find the right words to express yourself, the unexpected outbursts of emotion, the longing, the sadness. I felt like Jo and Shannon and I really managed to capture that in the apartment. That feeling of two bodies orbiting each other and not being sure just quite where they stand. I hope that comes across in the film.

Director Jo-Anne Brechin & Ben Mortley on the set of Zelos. Photo by Tom Tuong.

If you were friends with your character in real life, what advice would you offer them to get them through this predicament?

SHANNON Ha! Honestly, if I were friends with Sarah in real life I’d probably tell her to move the heck out of her poor boyfriend’s apartment, give him some space and go get a proper job while he thinks about his options! I feel there is a lot of truth in the old adage that ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’. Of course I know she’s just come back from holidays and that Berard is a generous guy – but I think it’s equally true that you have to be willing to let something go before it can come back to you.

BEN That’s always tough. It’s a cliche but I’d say ‘give it time’, and ‘if you love her and she still loves you – you’ll find a way to work through it. But you always know deep in your gut if it’s over.’

This is a real passion project for director Jo-Anne Brechin and Claire Harris. Can you tell us about working with them in their respective roles?

SHANNONI feel really privileged to have worked on this project for many reasons but one of them is the powerhouse team of women that made it all happen. I truly tip my hat to both Claire and Jo-Anne for what they have achieved with Zelos, especially in the current industry landscape that can be tricky to navigate at the best of times.
Creatively, working with Jo was a true highlight for me, especially in combination with Emma Paine, Zelos’  brilliant cinematographer. To have two such wise and artistically brave women behind the lens was a new and exhilarating experience for me. To be in a space where it’s truly safe to make courageous choices and where it’s also okay to try something and fail and then to try something different, that is a huge and lasting gift to an actor and something that doesn’t come around very often.

BEN Jo and Claire have done an amazing job to pull this film together from beginning to end. Getting a film made is like climbing Mount Everest and they’ve proven they’re more than capable. Jo is meticulous and Claire is tenacious and together they make a formidable team.

What was your most memorable experience on set?

SHANNON Gosh, that’s a tough one. But I do hazily remember one day, it was late in the afternoon and still almost 40 degrees in the seaside apartment where we were filming. We were on the last take of the surprise welcome home party. On that day, I remember looking around this small but beautiful space, which was transformed into a real home by the amazing designer, Ash Bell. Even though it was swelteringly hot and we were all exhausted, the room was full of smiling actors, all the crew were valiantly piled into the other rooms, Jo-Anne called ‘Action!’ and right on cue, someone popped the champagne bottle and the room erupted with cheers! Looking around in that moment, I thought to myself yes, this is what filmmaking should be – a big, beautiful celebration of people and our shared creativity. That day, the world felt like a slightly better place, just for the bit of magic we were trying to make. And for the chilled champagne we were all about to drink the moment we heard “Cut!’, of course.

BEN Probably being stuck in the apartment for ten days! We all got to know each other very well. And it becomes a kind of strange time-warp. I remember looking out the window one day and wondering what was going on outside – there were people everywhere walking around, pushing prams, having BBQ’s – then someone told me it was just Saturday. I’d been stuck in the film vortex so long the real world looked bizarre to me. It’s quite a unique little bubble when you’re in the middle of the shoot.

Shannon Ashlyn on the set of Zelos. Photo by Tom Tuong.

Shannon, Chocolate Oyster sounds like an interesting film with a great team behind it. Can you tell us a bit about working on that, and with director Steve Jaggi on his first feature film?

SHANNON It’s so funny how time becomes strangely warped in movie-land. Oddly enough we actually shot Chocolate Oyster way before Zelos – it’s just that Steve is one heck of a busy guy, so it’s been finished just after. I am really looking forward to seeing it as yes, it’s definitely trying to do something a bit different, which I think is always exciting. Plus, being of Swiss descent I’m gonna say anything with Chocolate in its title is a winner already!

Ben, next up you have The Gateway which boasts an incredible cast. Can you tell us about working on that film and what audiences can expect?

BEN The Gateway was great fun. Especially to play in a sci-fi world with my old mate Myles Pollard and the incredible Jacquie McKenzie. John V Soto always manages to pull great actors on board and I think that’s one of his strengths. It’s an exciting thriller that explores the science of parallel worlds. Just researching the science of it all blew my mind. One of my fondest memories of that film was sitting around Jacquie’s backyard one day eating fruit and discussing quantam physics for hours.

Zelos is in select cinemas from September 7.

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