Wonder Wolfe: Austin boxing legend makes acting debut in film epic

Ann Wolfe was walking along a quiet road in southern Italy in March of last year when a car pulled up.

“Want a ride, Ann?”

“Sure, thanks.”

Wolfe climbed into the passenger seat.

The driver? Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman, really?

You bet. Gal Gadot, aka Wonder Woman, just became the most talked about actress in Hollywood this summer. Her driving companion is making her acting debut in the action flick, a familiar role for the retired boxing champion who has taken many blows in life, many of them outside the ring, where she had to crawl from the bottom to carve out a life for herself and her children.

Wolfe plays the Amazon warrior Artemis in the DC Comics release, which grossed $86 million internationally in its Friday opening. So how did Wolfe land this role with zero acting experience? Well, director Patty Jenkins was looking for some physical talent for her $150 million film project and wanted the women onscreen to be as authentic as possible, meaning she wanted athletic women in those roles.

The wife of Sam Sheridan, an author who had a passion for Thai boxing, she had a familiarity with combat sports, and Wolfe was someone she envisioned playing Artemis.

“Who else should be one of the greatest warrior Amazons, but the best female boxer in history,” she tweeted in March.

Wolfe describes Jenkins as “a bad (mutha).”

Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Wolfe, be advised. To know Ann Wolfe is to know she is coming at you uncensored, honest and direct. She has been through the wringer in life: incarceration, homelessness as a young mother in Austin, a violent marriage to a drug dealer in her teens, illiteracy and the heartbreak of losing both parents at the age of 18.

She has made her own way, evolving from arguably the greatest female boxer in history into a highly regarded career as a trainer of former title contender James Kirkland.

So to be considered for an acting role was surreal for a woman who grew up in poverty in Kenner, La. Wolfe didn’t even walk into a movie theater until she was well into her 30s. The call from Jenkins could not have come at a better time, and Wolfe was beyond excited to mail the director an audition tape. Upon being cast, she treated her preparation the way she treated training for a fight: kill or be killed.

“Patty believed in me,” Wolfe said. “When I went in to do the first scene, I felt like I was on a true battlefield. She’s not there just to make money. This is art for her.”

Wolfe hosted a private screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Mueller location Friday, a group that including her longtime partner, Hannah; their son, Zion; daughter Jennifer; and longtime trainer Donald “Pops” Billingsley, who met Wolfe 22 years ago when she was living on the streets in East Austin with two young daughters. A professional partnership soon blossomed into that of a surrogate father and daughter.

“She made it,” the 79-year-old Billingsley told me. “This is something else.”

It didn’t take long for a familiar face on the big screen to thrill the room. Five minutes in, a young Diana watched Amazonian warriors train for combat. Artemis quickly dispatched her opponent, and the room of 100 erupted into cheers as the camera zoomed in on the person they all came to see. Fifteen minutes later, Artemis consulted with Queen Hippolyta after a now adult Diana saved Steve Trevor from the German army.

“That was my one line!” Wolfe yelled from the front of the house to huge laughs. The cheers came throughout the 2½ hours, the last coming when the 14th name rolled up the screen in the final acting credits: Ann J. Wolfe.

Jenkins wanted this movie to be in the athletic mode of action epics like “300,” with the ladies leading the way. She brought in dozens of athletes to complete that look, including Thai boxer Madeleine Vall Beijner, CrossFit competitor Brooke Ence and Wolfe, who went 24-1 as a fighter with eight world titles in four different weight classes. Upon getting the role, Wolfe determined to get into better physical condition to portray a tough-as-nails Amazon on the big screen.

As most of the talent worked with professional trainers at a London Hotel, the lone Wolfe worked in a corner. The producers provided her with a driver and some boxing equipment. She dropped 30-plus pounds in two months. She also embedded herself in her character while trying to hold down the overwhelming feeling of being in a major motion picture. When asked to describe Artemis, Wolfe said the role was a natural fit.

“She’s a rugged person, but she’s good at heart and rough around the edges. She’s almost like me. I love people and I want to help people, but I will fight the hell out of you, too.”

More than 20 years after she arrived in Austin, Ann Wolfe has entered another realm. She hopes to appear in more movies and has made several connections in the acting community that might open doors for her. An Ann Wolfe biopic has even been discussed over the years.

This is a time of joy in her life but also a time of reflection. She allows that this is the first time she has truly felt proud of herself, and that’s saying something considering her feats in the ring and in the East Austin community, where she has mentored countless youngsters who are facing some of the same challenges she encountered as a young person.

“I remember the day my mama died,” she said. “I told my brother that the whole world would know me one day. I would have never been Artemis had I not been Ann Wolfe first.”

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