Speaking to the stars of CBC’s Heartland, London’s Amber Marshall (the first ever winner of Canada’s Screen Star award who now lives on a horse ranch in Alberta) and hunky Graham Wardle (who was born in Mission B.C. and grew up in New Westminster) had been a long time goal of ours. The desire was enforced when we had the exclusive opportunity to speak with their lovely co-star Michelle Morgan, but getting to sit down with the two leads at the recent CBC Winter Media Day exceeded all of our expectations. We hope that taking a unique approach appeals to the long-time fans of the series, and hopefully introduces some new ones.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our sit-down with the delightful Amber Marshall and Graham Wardle.
Brief Take: Heartland is now the CBC’s longest-running one hour drama of all time. Why do you think the show has resonated this long with so many devoted viewers?
Graham Wardle: Amber was mentioning this earlier about animals, and now we have a little baby on the show, and they are present and don’t know they’re acting. So working with animals and children now, it brings a freshness where you have to remain in the moment. If a shot with a horse isn’t working, you have to make it work. You can’t force things with animals and babies. I think that combined with all the heart and love that everyone brings..
Amber Marshall: …there’s a real passion. We have to be present and we have to be in the moment, and I think that’s what makes every actor great–when you can live in the moment, even when you’re doing a scene 12 or 13 or 14 times. When you’re working with kids and animals, it’s fresh every time. You don’t know what they’re going to do. So I think that’s one thing that’s special about Heartland, is that there are so many animals and kids that we’re working with, but also the landscape. I do believe that the mountain vista plays a central role in the show and it captivates a lot of people. There are certain Travel Alberta commercials that are played, and every time I see them, I stop whatever I’m doing and I just watch and go “wow, it’s beautiful!”. I think that a lot of people do that when they watch Heartland–it transports them to a place where they can just take a breath of fresh air.
GW: Yeah! There’s open spaces. So much of television is in closed spaces–offices, etc.–where it’s focused inward and is very tight, whereas our show is very open. That allows people to open up, even subconsciously, and then take in that scenery and that beauty.
BT: I love how this show really speaks to the incredible landscape of Canada and not the typical cityscapes we see depicted on television. People have really responded to seeing the gorgeous landscape of Alberta.
AM: And not just Canadians. People are tuning in to CBC shows from around the world and I think that’s a testament to what we’re offering. People say “wow, is Alberta really that beautiful?” or “is Vancouver really that incredible?”, so they get to see parts of Canada through the CBC shows that are produced. I think that that’s something very special.
GW: Amen to that. Thank you to CBC for really bringing together Canada and focusing on different cultures and different areas within Canada, and showing it all on one network. What other network does that?! It’s really a beautiful blessing to be a part of that.
BT: Your fans are not all located in Western Canada either. The fanbase reaches far and wide around the world.
GW: Most of my fans are not from Western Canada. [to Amber] On your social media analytics it must show that the fans are from all over the world.
AM: It’s incredible how many of them have travelled to Canada to experience Heartland. They say “I’ve been watching the show for six, seven years and I’ve always wanted to come to Canada to see what I see on TV.” So that’s something special too. We’re bringing people to Canada through the world of Heartland.
BT: A dog plays a pivotal role in an upcoming episode in season 12 of the show. You must have such special memories of the animals who have been on the show.
AM: We are so lucky to have such incredible animal handlers and wranglers work on the show, and you usually know exactly what you’re going to get. When there’s a story written for a specific type of animal, whether it’s a horse or a dog or a cougar, these animals are just incredible creatures. They know exactly what they need to do when they arrive on set, and that really makes our job easier too, because a lot of time I’m just amazed and go “wow, that’s exactly what we needed in that moment.”
I think this is an incredible group of people who know how to remain calm, which helps the kids and the animals, and the people who haven’t have moved on to other projects. You have to be patient and if you’re not, the scenes with the kids and animals are just not going to work. We have two twins that play Lyndy and a lot of the times, in between set ups, Graham or I will take them and go off and play because we want to keep the atmosphere fun. We try to find areas that make it exciting and new for them so they want to be on set.
BT: The show has really grown over the years. In the beginning it was about the traumas that you both were dealing with, and by coming together you’ve moved beyond that, to a degree. Now the show is moving into the stories of the next generation, which continues that cycle of healing.
GW: Good one, man! You should write for the series. [laughs]
AM: I think you’re right. I think the Heartland writers do an excellent job of keeping things current, focusing on situations that a lot of people may be dealing with in their lives–whether they’re young parents, whether they’re a teen struggling with bullying, whether they’re a grandpa dealing with the fate of not being able to use his body the way he used to–these are things that every generation experiences. Families can sit down together and watch something current that could be affecting them at that present moment.
BT: What’s something that keeps you grounded in your day to day lives?
GW: I’m loving these questions, man, they’re great.
AM: Animals. Animals have always kept me grounded and have continued to do so. I’m very lucky that I get to work with them on a daily basis and I also get to come home to a whole menagerie of them. Whether it’s sitting in a field with horses and cows or sitting in my chicken coop, either one is right for me at the end of the day.
GW: I agree with that perspective. When you sit out in nature and get outside, it really gives you perspective. When you maintain a good quality perspective, the bigger picture stuff, you think “this is so amazing. I’m so happy to be here”. Staying in gratitude and staying connected to what really matters gives me a healthy mindset.
BT: When you started the show, did you two know each other?
GW: We were relative strangers.
BT: What have you learned from working with each other?
GW: I’ve developed a huge respect for Amber, in her business accomplishments and in how she’s grown as a woman and how she’s been so kind to me. [laughs] I’m pretty green when it comes to working with horses, still, so she’ll always be so aware and mindful of how to give me a tip without flat out telling me what to do, you know?
AM: Well you could do it this way… [laughs]
GW: She’s very supportive of me. We have a working relationship that I’m really grateful for. There is a respect and a trust where we know that we have each other’s backs, so that’s really cool. [to Amber] And I thank you for that.
AM: As do I for you. When the series started, Graham didn’t even know that horse culture existed.
GW: You had to bring that up. [laughs]
AM: [laughs] No, but I think it’s incredible how much you have learned.
GW: I knew that people rode horses, I just didn’t know how many people still rode horses.
AM: [laughs] Well my character knew horses, whereas the character of Ty was brand new even to the world of living in a rural environment, so I think that our own personalities really matched well with those characters. It was kind of a teaching moment with the city guy coming up to the country and…
GW: … similar realities, for sure.
AM: So there’s a lot of realism to the characters as well, and they did a fabulous job casting everyone from the top down. We’re such a family and we all genuinely care about one another, and I think you can feel that on screen, which is nice. A lot of people that watch the show say that – “we really believe that you’re all a family.”
Heartland season 12 premieres on Sunday January 6 at 7pm ET / 7:30 pm NT on CBC