Heartland Hits Home


CBC’s Hit TV Show Highlights Western Lifestyle



Photo by Andrew Bako
Heartland cast from Season 3 – Back row from left: Shaun Johnston, Jessica Amlee, Chris Potter, Nathaniel Arcand. Front row from left: Amber Marshall, Graham Wardle, Michelle Morgan, Kerry James. 

The sorrel horse stood patiently in the barn stall, its alert head over the rail. A feed bucket affixed to a broom handle was being waved back and forth under its muzzle — just outside of the camera’s view. “Tango” was supposed to be acting ‘neurotic’, but the unruffled gelding would have none of it. Head wrangler Ray Breckenridge and assistant wrangler Tim McLean alternated their tactics. Finally, on the fourth take, with fresh interest in the feed bucket, Tango swayed his head fluidly from left to right then back again. Watching the action unfold on two small TV monitors set up just outside the barn, script supervisor Wayne Pells nodded his head and grinned. Perfect. Cut!

It’s another day on the Alberta set for the actors, crew and animals of Heartland, the popular CBC television drama about life at a fictional horse ranch of the same name. The family saga is based on the Heartland series of youth books by English author Lauren Brooke.

Heartland is filmed at four locations in southern Alberta. On this particular day, the action is taking place inside a warehouse converted for the purpose at an industrial park in Calgary. Meanwhile, a 100-acre parcel of land near the hamlet of Millarville serves as the series’ main ranch set. Just 10 kilometres away is the dude ranch set. Downtown High River, meanwhile, serves as the fictional town of Hudson.


Photo by Andrew Bako
Amber Marshall on set near Millarville, Alta.

Rolling foothills and the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains create a breathtaking backdrop for the series. Horses for the show are provided by well-respected cowboy John Scott of Longview. John, with extensive experience in Alberta’s film industry, has worked on well-known films such as Open Range, Legends of the Fall, Unforgiven and Lord of the Rings.

Heartland’s central character is Amy Fleming, capably played by London, Ont., native Amber Marshall. She’s certainly no newcomer to horses. The 21-year-old was first put on a pony when she was three. “I absolutely loved it,” she says, then laughs. “My parents have the videotapes to prove it.”

As a youngster, Amber competed in English Hunter and Western Pleasure but later decided that, ultimately, she just wanted to ride for fun. A competent rider, Amber says she prefers the ground work with horses. “Things like brushing, tacking, cleaning, training and round pen work.”

Amber describes a day on the set as follows: “I go into hair and makeup. My wardrobe for each particular script day is laid out for me; I get changed; do a blocking (planning the scene’s movement); rehearse, then shoot. I do that five to 10 more times then go home.”

Amber, who frequently gets called her character’s name in public, adds: “Amy’s an easy character to portray because I’ve experienced everything that she has — and is — experiencing. I’m glad I’m so much like my character for a series that is going so long because it’s not as mentally straining. But I would love to do a movie of the week or something that’s a shorter length of time and be able to do something completely contrasting to (Heartland). I definitely want to branch out to different roles.”

The actress currently rents an acreage near DeWinton, Alta., a hamlet just south of Calgary. There, her animals include horses, chickens, cats, bunnies and peacocks. Meanwhile, her dog China, a border collie cross, travels with her to the set each day. The young actress formerly worked as a veterinarian assistant and knows that whatever she does in the future, it will involve animals, her passion.

And speaking of matters of the heart, Amy’s love interest at Heartland is Ty Borden, played by actor and former football coach Graham Wardle. When asked about their on-screen chemistry, Amber says: “We’ve worked with each other for so long now, it’s just easy. Working on a series for so long, you really start to feel comfortable with the people you’re working with.”


Photo by Andrew Bako

Playing Amy’s sister, Lou Fle-ming, is Toronto native Michelle Morgan. Michelle says Lou is similar to her “in that she’s a bit of a control freak and I think I can be like that sometimes. She’s different from me in that she’s a lot more traditional than me.” Michelle’s future plans include producing a comedy show and a cooking series.

Now well into its third season, Heartland is a bona fide hit with an impressive viewership of more than one million Canadians. The series is also broadcast in Germany, England, Africa and South America — and enjoys particular favour in France. Last fall, Heartland went into syndication in the U.S. The show’s publicist, Gordon Imlach, looks forward to exporting the series to Japan one day.

Heartland airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on CBC.

Formerly of Hairy Hill, Alta., Andrea (Toma) Tombrowski is a freelance writer and photographer living in Calgary.