With 157 episodes and 61 months of filming behind her, Amber Marshall, CBC Heartland’s Amy Fleming, has travelled a long – and sometimes quite traumatic – road over these past 10 years.
“She’s had a rough life,” Amber said. “The series began with the death of her mother, when she was only 15 or 16 at the time, so that’s definitely something that’s followed her the entire 10 years of the series.”
Another difficult time in Amy’s life was when she was struck blind temporarily in season seven. “I know that for me, as an actor, playing blind was really hard to do. And I think as a person dealing with that trauma of never knowing if you’re going to see again … with Amy that’s everything to her because she would have a really hard time doing what she does without her sight.”
However challenging the role may be, being involved with Heartland has given Amber plenty of perks, such as many opportunities to satisfy her curiosity in different equestrian-related activities. “That’s the one amazing thing about being on Heartland – I get to try so many different disciplines and I’ve had access to almost everything out there. From jousting to cutting to jumping – the list goes on and on. So I don’t know that there’s anything that I haven’t tried yet. I am slightly interested in participating in mounted shooting at some point. It’s something that I haven’t ever really done and I can see myself possibly enjoying.”
Down Time at the Ranch
It takes many hours of filming to create one episode of Heartland, and with Amber spending up to 12 hours on set, the long hours can be tiring. One of the benefits of owning a ranch and animals is that they provide the perfect environment to unwind. “Every night when I come home, the first thing I do is go do chores. I find that’s the best way to just let go of the day and everything else that went on. I usually spend extra time kind of sitting watching them eat when they’ve been fed and just sitting on the fence and absorbing that kind of atmosphere. It’s just very calming and peaceful.”
Amber has six horses at home, including four Quarter Horses (Cash, Hawk, Cinch and Nitro) and two miniature horses (Talon and Screech). Spending time with them is another highlight of her days. “If I’m home early enough, before the sun sets, I like to go for a ride,” she said. “Sometimes that’s just swinging up bareback and riding down to the end of the laneway and back. It’s just something to kind of take the day away.”
Amber’s 100-acre ranch, near High River, Alberta, where she lives with her husband of three years, Shawn Turner, is a large part of her life. In fact, she says she can’t picture life without it. “I like the rewarding feeling I get when I can come home every night and make sure everybody’s okay. It’s that sense of responsibility that it’s not just you you’re looking out for – and I really enjoy that sense of family. It’s my own little community.”
And with 28 animals on her ranch – including pigs, cats, cows and chickens, in addition to her horses – Amber certainly keeps busy. Working on Heartland has expanded her training skills, allowing her to apply many of the techniques she not only uses in the show as Amy, but that wranglers who work behind the scenes use as well. “I think the biggest thing was when I got to learn liberty work in season five. I went and trained with Nikki Flundra and she taught me lots that I still apply to my horses,” she said. “I learn a lot from the different methods and stuff brought up on set, not just in the story, but with the wranglers and talented people here who are trying to accomplish a certain thing. That way I can see what really worked in a situation and I’ll take it and use it on my own horses.”
Helping Shape the Story
During the roll of the credits, Amber’s name can be often seen as “consulting producer.” Essentially, this means that she had a role in guiding parts of that episode. “Over the years, I’ve always kind of put extra input into the horse side of things, just because pretty much the entire writing team has never lived in the country, they’re all from the city; they do a ton of research for what they need for each episode, which is great, but it’s nice that I can come in with hands-on experience and say, ‘Okay, I agree with this, but I think that we should maybe look at this scenario and shape it a little bit.’ Or I’ll go through things and say, ‘I just don’t know that this is going to work, or I don’t know if we’re going to be able to accomplish it this way. Can we tweak it to suit the horse’s needs?’ It’s just input on story, on action, on everything that helps make the show what it is.”
Becoming a Stage “Mom”
Amber’s not the only one on her ranch that has appeared on Heartland. In a few of the latter episodes of season nine, Amber’s pony Talon appeared as a “starved” rescue horse. Unlike his character, Talon is quite energetic. “He’s definitely not shy. He’s the most boisterous horse I have on the farm, he beats everybody – he’s definitely not like his character,” she said. “The biggest problem we had was getting him to not come toward the people in the scene. So we would just use a bag on a stick to shake around the actors so he wouldn’t come over right away. He did a pretty good job at that. The other thing that was hard, was to make him look like he was starved, as he’s naturally very fat. I lunged him every day to try and get the weight off him. He also had his full winter coat, which made him look twice as big. I think that he handled the role well. I don’t think he minds being on camera at all because he loves everyone around him and all the attention.”
Growing up With Amy
We’ve all enjoyed watching Amy evolve over the past 10 years. Amber credits the writers for keeping the character of Amy fresh and new. “When the characters’ words get into a pattern, it’s hard to grow. It’s hard to make it new. That’s a very fine line that all of us struggle with when you’re on a long-running series,” she said. “And I think it’s great that our characters are allowed to evolve. Amy has gotten married, she’s having a child – you know, everything is progressing in a way that’s natural. So that’s why it’s easy to keep it new and fresh. They’re not stunting the character, saying no you have to keep playing 16 for the rest of your career. She’s allowed to take on new experiences and evolve. That’s the biggest thing that helps me as an actor, is just being allowed to evolve with my character.”
Season 10 of Heartland premieres on CBC on Sunday, October 2nd at 7:00 p.m. (7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland).
Season 10 – Sneak Preview!
With Heartland’s most successful season, based on viewership, behind us (each episode averaged close to 1.1 million viewers) avid fans look to Gordon Imlach, series publicist, for a “scoop” on season 10.
“Everyone is returning from season nine. The people you may have thought gone; they’ve not gone, they’ll be back. And there will be some people coming back you maybe thought you’d never see again,” he said.
The season nine finale was definitely an exciting one; not only does Ty surprise Amy with a pony for their anniversary (which happens to be Talon, Amber’s horse in real life), Amy surprises him with a “gift” of her own – she is pregnant.
For those who are worried about the child, Gordon said, “I will allay the fear of anyone who thinks that we were setting up Amy’s pregnancy to not have it happen – you are going to see a baby.”
Even after nine, soon to be 10 seasons, Heartland is as popular as ever. Gordon said it’s all about being a “true” family drama. “It’s still nice that there’s that one hour on Sunday that the family can get together; grandmothers can watch it with their grandchildren, and still enjoy it and not feel that they’re babysitting. Kids can watch the show and not worry that something will happen that they are embarrassed watching. It’s a quality production. Everyone who works on the show cares very much about it and we’re making this so that people enjoy it, It’s unlike anything else on television.”