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Terra Nova – How Shelley Conn coped with the jungle

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Terra Nova, 1.06 - Jason O'Mara, Simone Kessell, Alana Mansour and Shelley Conn
1.06 "Bylaw" - Jim (Jason O'Mara), Washington (Simone Kessell), Zoe (Alana Mansour) and Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) examine an unborn Ankylosaurus © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

British born actress Shelley Conn makes her American television debut in Fox’s Terra Nova, produced by Steven Spielberg. Set in 2149, when the earth is so polluted it’s on the verge of extinction, Conn portrays Elisabeth Shannon, a trauma surgeon who along with her husband Jim (Jason O’Mara) and their three children, volunteer to be part of an experiment that takes them back to prehistoric times, to Terra Nova, to start the human race all over again. But they soon discover leaving the safety of the colony there will put their lives in danger, and not only from man eating dinosaurs.

Shelley spoke with the members of the TV Critics Association about her new series and the joy of running from dinosaurs.

Some people in the US know you from Mistresses because it ran on BBC America. But now you’re starring in a very large series. Can you tell us a little more about your background?

Terra Nova, 1.03 - Shelley Conn
1.03 "Instinct" - Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) works in the infirmary © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

Yeah, I’m a London-based actress and have been lucky enough to have a fairly varied career over in the UK. I came over here with Mistresses, as you say, and I did a TCA panel like this a few years ago. It was like this, but much smaller. And from there I managed to get some representation here and started auditioning. And then this job came through for me.

So I put myself down on tape and began an audition process. It’s a dream come true for me really. I never imagined that I would be sitting here, it’s a huge thrill.

How different is your life in England? If you were in London now, would people be recognizing you a lot from different shows?  Would they be stopping you in the street?

Yeah, when I walk around in England, people throw roses in front of me. (she laughs) No! I’ve had some nice responses over here from my work in England. I have no idea what to expect over here. I just hope the show’s a success.

You’re playing a mother of three children Josh (Landon Liboiron), Maddy (Naomi Scott), and Zoe (Alana Mansour) – was that hard for you?

Terra Nova, 1.02 - Shelley Conn, Naomi Scott and Landon Libiron
1.02 "Genesis, Part 2" - Elisabeth Shannon (Shelley Conn, C) and her children Maddy (Naomi Scott, R) and Josh (Landon Libiron, L) prepare to enter the Hope Plaza for their journey to Terra Nova © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

I don’t have any children yet, I hope to. I’ve played mothers of babies before, but certainly never of teenagers, until now. The way into the research of doing that was just to connect with those actors. And that was very easy because they’re extraordinary people.

The young cast members are very inspiring. And even Alana Mansour, who plays my youngest, she’s seven years old and she’s really forming into becoming a brilliant actress. And Naomi Scott, whose dresses I borrow, that’s how close we are, and Landon Liboiron, he introduced me to his parents and they came to me and said thank you for looking after him.

I feel like I must be making some sort of connection with them, because they do feel like family. Listen, we’re all away from home, so we have literally made each other our family.

Did you have to get in shape and work out for this role?

Terra Nova, 1.04 - Shelley Conn and Stephen Lang
1.04 "What Remains" - Elisabeth (Shelley Conn, L) and Taylor (Stephen Lang, R) arrive at a nearby outpost © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

I actually do that for myself, for my sanity, and to be able to keep up with the pace of the show. As my character Elisabeth, I’ve had a certain amount of running away from dinosaurs, but I haven’t had to be in the kind of shape that the other actors have had to be, for the fights and things like that.

But I’d love to do all of that. I love getting physical as an actress, that’s my roots. But she’s more cerebral. I think she inhabits the calm world that’s inside Terra Nova. I’m fairly centered. I’m in my lab coat in the hospital, or I’m at home with the kids. I think when you’re with Elisabeth, that’s when the audience gets to take a breath.

How do you play a scene with a dinosaur?

Terra Nova, 1.04 - Shelley Conn
1.04 "What Remains" - Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) must find a cure for a mysterious virus which causes its victims to lose their memories and quickly die © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

It’s not that hard to take yourself from where we’re standing right now, to where my character Elisabeth Shannon would be up against a dinosaur. It’s a series of stepping stones in a way to do the job.

They tell me to play a doctor, they tell me this character is set in the future, but she goes back to the past with her family. And you just take yourself there. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the set and what is being created there by talented people that is transporting.

So, in some ways you just have to be present and believe, and use your imagination. It’s like being a child again, playing make believe. It’s a real joy.

Are there days where you just enjoy the beauty of where you are working?

Yeah. We film in Southern Queensland, Australia, and for the most part, we all live close to the coast, in the beaches on the Gulf Coast. And then the shooting is about a half an hour or so inland, in the studios and out in the countryside, in the jungle. It’s hard to deny the beauty of that area of the world. It’s incredible.

I certainly have started taking for granted how pristine the beaches are and how well-kempt they are.  It feels to me that there’s a sentiment in Australia that is to make sure they do take care of the natural beauty that they have on offer to them. It feels that they are very respectful of their environment, and it’s really good to see that in play, and to be able to live among it.

If you could go back in time, what era would you visit?

I would go back to my 20-year-old self, and tell myself, ‘It’s alright. Everything is going to be fine. I’m going to be in a Steven Spielberg production!’