Part 2 - Filming In Mexico
Page 6 - Working Conditions


Irish and the rest of the crew faced all manner of difficulties during their seven-and-a-half months in Mexico, many created by the low-budget regime imposed on the cast and crew by the Nassours.  Apart from the crude accommodations in Cuautla (see Page 4: The Location above) they were plagued by insects, snakes, bad food, the heavy rains of the Mexican Monsoon, difficulties with working with non-English speaking actors and crew, and prolonged bouts of gastrointestinal problems.  They worked six days a week and Irish would start work at 5:00 am when the make-up girl would come in.  She would have breakfast while being made up and and hour later they would leave for the half hour drive to the set.  In the evenings she would work on learning the scripts, sometimes 4 or 5 at a time because the crew would work on filming many episodes at once to save time and money and to utilise sets that had been built.  Several different episodes using the same native village with slightly different set dressings were filmed at the same time and all of the river scenes were filmed at once (Prevue).  A standard gag that the crew used was to refer to themselves as "The Lost Tribe of Ishmael", a reference to the Nassour's Mexican co-producer Ishmael Rodriguez, the difficult conditions they were working under and all of the ridiculous things that kept happening on the set (Glamour Girls).

Poisonous scorpions were amongst the nastiest insects the crew encountered.  As a lot of Irish's work took place up in trees some distance from the ground a young boy was employed to climb the tree with some branches covered in leaves to clear away the scorpions, which Irish has described as "great big ones" ("Whenever I was going up a tree they would send one of the boys up, fully dressed in boots and everything.")  There were some sugar cane fields near the film set and when one of the workers was bitten by a scorpion they would bring them to the set because they knew there was a doctor on duty there.  Irish said there was a little "icky green foam" coming out of their mouths of the bite victims.  Irish has also said that her legs were covered in small welts and bites from chiggers, a parasitic larvae ("Mexico is the elephants' graveyard of bugs!  Even with bug spray on, I'd have hundreds of mosquito and chigger bites.") (The TV Collector & Prevue)

There were also rattlesnakes in the area where Sheena was being filmed and Irish has told a mildly amusing story about one.  The third Nassour brother, Fred, who Irish has referred to affectionately as "Uncle Freddie", was also in Mexico with the cast and crew ("He came down and went through the whole mess with us - the jungle, the bad food, the whole thing.")  Fred was the oldest of the Nassour brothers and Irish has described him as "one of the producers", although he isn't mentioned in the series credits.  In personal correspondence with Frank Bonilla, Ed Nassour Jr explained that Fred had invested money in his father's business.  He described him as having "a great sense of humour".  Irish said that one day Fred asked one of the Mexican boys to make a billfold out of the skin of a rattlesnake that one of them had shot.  He had stored the dead snake in the trunk of his car and Irish has related how one day he sent one of the young Mexican assistants to get something out of his car.  They were in the middle of a scene so the assistant was especially quiet opening the trunk of the car.  A bloodcurdling scream suddenly went up from the young assistant and the sound of it came right across into the scene that they were shooting (The TV Collector).  See Page 1: The Nassour Brothers for more details about Fred Nassour.

The quality of the catering on the Sheena set was also very basic.  Irish has said there was a "sort of half-river, half-stream" that had its origin right on the set where they were filming.  It was responsible for the growth of the little jungle that they were using.  It was a pleasant spot and had become a popular getaway spot for Mexicans on Sundays.  There was a small cafe or restaurant there but it consisted of only a big slab of concrete with a roof on it, with a smaller building at the back of it that was used for cooking.  In the winter it was very cold and the crew would have breakfast at the hotel, but when they got to the film set an old woman that didn't speak any English would set up a makeshift stove.  She had a piece of iron that she put over the fire to fry up tortillas on and a pot of beans balanced on some rocks with another small fire under it.  Everyone would dip into the frijoles and tortillas for a hearty midmorning snack with hot sauce.  Unfortunately, Irish was the crew member that was most severely struck by amoebic dysentery ("Of course, hot sauce, on me, was very rough, so I wouldn't take the hot sauce very often, but it was nice to have something hot.  And that's all you had after you got to the set.  At lunch you just had a little snack." (The TV Collector)  The company eventually imported canned food for Irish to help her recover and to ensure her health.

The crew also endured the torrid heat of the Mexican Monsoon (usually July through September).  The temperature was sometimes around 45 degrees Celsius (about 115 Fahrenheit)  Shooting was also frequently disrupted because of the heavy rains.  Irish has mentioned that shooting the crocodile fight scene for The Sacred River episode was particularly problematic (click on the link to read the page for that episode).  The scene was consistently delayed because of frequent interruptions by either heavy rains or Irish's ill health ("It took me four days to kill that bloody mechanical alligator!")  Irish's makeup would have to be reapplied up to three times a day because she would just sweat it off ("My mother would have a fit if I said that!  Make that... because I would just have perspired it off.") (Femme Fatales & Prevue)

One of the activities that the Mexican crew indulged in to pass the time was shooting iguanas for target practice.  The grips (camera operators) would put live ammunition in the guns used for the series and they would give the dead animals to the local Indians who ate the meat and made wallets out of the skins.  Irish would always get a bit touchy about the use of live ammunition and she would always pester people to check out the rifles before they were used in a scene.  She would always tell them to aim a little off to the side of a person rather than right at them, just in case.  One day an actor, thinking he was firing blanks pulled the trigger and a bullet whizzed past Irish's ear and hit a tree she was standing beside ("I was shaking like a leaf, and so was he.") (Starweek)

Some communication difficulties arose because many of the crew members and actors didn't speak English.  Interpreters were employed but this didn't always make things easier.  Irish related how sometimes the director would tell the interpreter to tell the Mexican actor to go from her over to there, and the interpreter would then speak for a couple of minutes.  When asked what he had said the interpreter would say, "Well, I told him 'You're very sad in this because this man has been killed and..'" at which point the director would loose it and yell, "I'm directing!  Just tell him what I said! Tell him to go from her over to there."  Some non-English speaking actors actors would learn their lines in English and would just start speaking when the character they were interacting with stopped speaking, regardless of the situation.  Irish said that you would need to give them signals, like raising your arm at a particular point of your speech, to signal to them to start speaking (The TV Collector).

Irish has described the Mexican film crew as "not exactly state-of-the-art".  She was highly amused by one incident.  She explained that "hot water" was standard film industry terminology for electricity.  One day while they were shooting a scene beside a river the director called for hot water and two minutes later one of his Mexican helpers came running with a jug of steaming hot water ("I wish they'd filmed the director's response on that one!") (Prevue).

According to Irish, when the Mexican props builders were putting together the spears for the series they put real metal points on them.  She said that sometimes when they were filming a scene that required her to run into a native village the locals were not savvy enough to move the spear points out of the way and her legs would get badly scratched ("I'd finish a scene and rivulets of blood would be running down my legs!  I insisted they replace the metal with wood.") (Prevue)

Irish was 64 kgs (141 lbs) when she first went to Mexico, but dropped to 56 kgs (124 lbs) because of the dysentery she had been plagued by for a considerable time ("I hadn't weighed that little since I was 10-years-old!").  "I'm five-nine and a half and a hundred-and-forty-one was just about my fightin' weight." she said.  "That stuff really wiped me out, and they had a doctor on set all the time, with orders: 'Just get her in front of the camera.'  They didn't really care what he did to me. 'Just get her in front of the camera!'"  It is interesting to compare the full-bodied Irish of The Sacred River, the first episode filmed in Mexico, to the tall, lean Irish of Secret of the Temple, the last episode filmed in Mexico.  Irish has confessed that there were days when she would be up a tree waiting for the crew to quit arguing over some detail of a setup for a swing she was about to do, and she would think to herself, "What am I doing here?  You know?  I could get money for a divorce somewhere else!" (The TV Collector)  Christian Drake, when asked about filming on location with Irish remarked, "She did quite well, under some difficult circumstances.  Irish endured so much on location.  It was a draining experience, but she really persevered.  Irish had a lot of spirit, and was a real trouper.  We had some rough days, down in Mexico." (Ultra Filmfax)

Please don't forget to visit my pages devoted to the twenty-six episodes of Sheena Queen of the Jungle, if you haven't done so already. You will find plot summaries, numerous comments about the individual episodes and video captures from all of the surviving episodes.  There are also large-sized copies of a many of the photos used on these pages available to download on the Sheena Gallery page.

Glamour Girls: Then and Now magazine, Editor Steve Sullivan. Premiere issue Mar/Apr 94
The TV Collector magazine, Jan/Feb 97
Prevue Pinup Special 2 magazine, Aug/Oct 94
Femme Fatales magazine, Jan 99
Starweek magazine, Aug 82
Ultra Filmfax magazine, Apr/May 98
• The photos of Irish McCalla as Sheena at the top and the bottom of this page are from my private collection
• The photos of Irish McCalla as Sheena reclining in the middle of he page was kindly donated by Frank Bonilla


SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006-2008 Paul Wickham
This page was updated May 2008