Inside TV’s Heartland

Heartland, based on the book series of the same name by Lauren Brooke, first appeared on CBC in October of 2007 and has since become a runaway hit.

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By: Carol Hansson |

“And at the break of day you sink into dream…” These are lyrics to Jenn Grant’s Dreamer, familiar to fans across Canada and the world as the opening music to CBC’s Heartland, which has been renewed and is now into its eighth season.

As a fan of Heartland myself, I was able to fulfill a dream in visiting the Calgary set last September.

In my interviews with Amber Marshall (Amy); Graham Wardle (Ty); Shaun Johnston (Jack) and Alisha Newton (Georgie), I learned a lot about the Heartland family and was given a behind the scenes look at one of the best TV shows on air today.

Heartland, based on the book series of the same name by Lauren Brooke, first appeared on CBC in October of 2007. It began as a family drama centring around Amy Fleming, a young girl with an extraordinary talent in gentling horses, and has become a runaway hit with millions of fans in Canada, the U.S. and overseas. There is something about this show that strikes a chord with all those who watch it.

Amber vs Amy

Over the years, we have seen Amber grow into herself and her character, who has faced and overcome many difficulties, including recently being struck blind, in season seven’s “Darkness and Light” (episode 100).

“The toughest drama I have ever had to portray in television was on Heartland when my character went temporarily blind after a head injury caused by a horse,” said Amber. “To be able to see perfectly as an actor, but take on the blindness as a character, was particularly challenging. I would pick a distant point I could focus my eyes on and ‘blur’ everything in the foreground. That way when characters were speaking to me I could look past them and not directly at them.

“Not only was acting blind an undertaking, but the emotional content that went along with it was a whole other battle. I found myself very drained after filming these scenes, as it took every part of my mind to focus and let go on the emotional side. Looking back at it now, it was an incredible opportunity for me as an actor, as I always love to push myself to see my capabilities.”

Much has been said about Amber’s similarities to Amy, but there is definitely one personality trait that sets them apart. “I think that Amy’s a little bit more afraid of going out of her comfort zone. I’m a very spontaneous person in my real life and I like to explore and to look at new opportunities and anything that presents itself,” said Amber. “I think Amy’s a little more closed-minded and she thinks primarily of horses and that’s it. I enjoy a wider spectrum of activities, and horses are a big part of my life, but also other animals… Amy, we primarily see her working with horses and I like to think of myself more as an animal person rather than a horse person.”

Amber owns four horses, two dogs, three cats, five cows, four chickens, six doves, one peafowl and one rabbit, all kept on her farm, A-Ark Ranch. When you take this into account, the “animal person” designation is fairly obvious.

Being on the set of Heartland is fun for visitors, but for the cast and crew, it’s all in a day’s work. And that day starts pretty darn early; for Amber, her day starts at “rooster crow” – or about 5:30 a.m. She then spends about an hour in makeup and wardrobe, followed by blocking and then filming. (Blocking is when the actors go rehearse a scene before filming.) The day ends whenever Amber is no longer needed for scenes, and can go as late as 7:00 or 8:00 p.m.

Spending so much time together, and over so many years, the Heartland cast has become a family. And as Amber said, “Familiarity breeds comfort – comfort breeds jokes.”

The New Girl

Alisha Newton, the newcomer to Heartland (she first appeared in the beginning of season six) has added a certain element of mischievousness to the cast. From falling down a well to being caught in a barn fire, Alisha’s character, Georgie, is the essence of a preteen girl – horse crazy, independent and very adventurous.

Alisha’s favourite scenes are the ones in which she cries; she says they have more emotion and she feels like she can build a deeper bond with the audience. It will be an enjoyable experience watching Georgie as she becomes more confident in her riding, and more confident in her place in the Bartlett family.

During the off season, Alisha used her time wisely – with once-a-week riding lessons. “I’ve been working a lot on jumping lately,” she said. “I’ve competed in some schooling shows, which have been super duper fun! Hopefully, Heartland will let me do some more of my own stunt work in season eight and I can show off what I’ve learned during the off season.

“Though I love jumping, whenever I get the chance, I absolutely LOVE to ride bareback. I like bareback because it feels more natural and free. That is what I love most about riding, the feeling of freedom! I also love bareback because it makes me feel more connected with the horse.

“Some of my favourite scenes to shoot on Heartland were the jumping and trick riding scenes. I would love it if Georgie could do some liberty work like Amy did in season five. It would be like a combination of trick riding and bareback!”

The Heartland Boys

In the episode “Better Days” from season seven, Ty (Graham Wardle) helps Amy get over her fear of working with a horse that injured her. When asked if he had any fears, scuba diving – or breathing under water – was his answer. “I’ve tried it three times,” he said. “First time wasn’t bad. Didn’t spend much time under. Second time was great. I swam around in a shallow pool. Third time I went into a deep pooI and lost it. I couldn’t do it. I panicked and unsafely surfaced. It was the most unusual thing. I have never experienced such fear in my body. I could see it happening and I wasn’t able to calm myself down. I’m working on it though. I have a mask and snorkel so I will continue to practice and then one day return to the deeper waters.”

Shaun Johnston, who plays Jack – the patriarch of Heartland – reminisced about his favourite scene. “There’s one episode – “Man’s Best Friend” in season three – it’s a story about Jack, being railroaded by his family members to buy a new truck, and so he does, and, of course, that goes to hell in a hand cart. He can’t stand the idea of change and he can’t stand the idea of new fancy, fangled equipment, so it just becomes a nightmare. It ends up leading Jack to some very poignant recollections of his deceased wife. We get to see her for the first time in a flashback sequence. That was a fantastic experience for me – and the audience. The audience loved seeing Lindy [Amy and her sister Lou’s grandma], in her youth and her beauty.”

Shaun said he considers himself “half a cowboy.” Of his horse experience, he said, “I’m a farm kid, ranch kid. I worked with equipment, worked with my hands when I was a young boy, and rode a ton – we ran cattle. At one point, me and my dad were running about 400 acres; half of that was in grass and half was in grain and hay. So we farmed that, but we put stock on the grass. Probably at our peak – I was still in high school at the time – we were running maybe 60 head of cattle. To run 60 head, and to feed them, and keep them healthy and strong, you gotta get out there, you gotta see, you gotta mend fences and you gotta do all the things we do on Heartland. So, my coming to Heartland ended up being kind of a visit to my youth in a way.

“I married this beautiful, beautiful woman – she’s a city girl. I fell in love with her, so I married for love and because of that, it took me away from my roots, I guess. I’ve been married for 30 years to Sue and we’ve lived in the city ever since we’ve been married. I’ve spent more time living in the city than I have living in the country. Getting a job on Heartland – well, they didn’t pick the wrong guy to play this role.”

Anyone who has watched Heartland can confirm Shaun’s sentiment. He plays Jack’s role as a fabulous grandfather and guardian, with wit and humour, all to a T.

This season, Shaun’s character had the opportunity to deal with wild boars. He tells a story of his own real-life encounter with wildlife. “I was probably 15 years old, and I was moving cattle at sun-up. Approximately 60 head of cows and calves. This 16-mile journey was not new to this herd so they were relaxed. Everything was calm and routine and then out of the blue the entire herd energized and started to scatter. I looked at what was going on and caught a glimpse of a Bull Moose that had broken the tree line. Not a danger to the herd, but they didn’t know that. They were moving. I kicked up my horse, Sunday, to head off the mess. Remember that it was sun-up and the morning dew was as wet as a sloppy bathroom floor. When I cut Sunday hard to the right, he lost his feet on the wet grass and went down like he’d been shot from the grassy knoll.

“When I was six, my dad broke his leg when his horse slipped on the pavement and fell. My dad told me then, ‘Shaunie Boy, if your horse ever goes down, the first thing you do is stick your spurs in your ass!’ Obviously, meaning to pull my feet out of the stirrup so my leg won’t get caught between the horse and the ground.

“When Sunday started to go down, all I could think of was, ‘Spurs in my ass! Spurs in my ass!’ He slid into second base, I got free and clear and my brother headed off the mess that was started by that lazy old Bull Moose. No harm, no foul.”

Season eight of Heartland starts in the fall, with many fans counting the days until it premieres.

Read about Heartland Cast and their Star-Crossed Horses on Horse-Canada; meet Graham Wardle, CBC Heartland’s Ty Borden, and meet Shaun Johnston, CBC Heartland’s Grandpa Jack, and meet Michelle Morgan, CBC Heartland’s Lou Fleming and meet Miranda Frigon, CBC Heartland’s Janice Wayne.and meet Madison Cheeatow, CBC Heartland’s Jade Virani.