Amber Marshall on the joys of Canada’s longest-running TV drama, horses versus cows, living her character—and the terrible thing that happens this season
For 14 years, Amber Marshall has portrayed Canada’s most famous horse whisperer in the CBC show Heartland, the longest-running one-hour drama in Canadian TV history. All the while, Marshall’s character, Amy Fleming, has gone through the ups and downs of dating, marriage, parenthood and (spoiler alert!) becoming a widow in the opening minutes of Season 14. Maclean’s writer Aaron Hutchins spoke with Marshall about the end of Canada’s longest TV romance, and what it means for the future of a beloved series.
Q: I feel I should offer my condolences to you over the loss of your on-screen husband, Ty Borden.
A: You and many others. I always remind people that this is a show. Graham Wardle [the actor who plays Ty] is alive and well. For myself, this has been a long time coming. Graham let us know he wanted to leave the show over five years ago. We made different storylines that allowed him the opportunity to have more time off. Then two years ago, he said, “I’m serious. I’m done.” We’ve had a lot of time to accept it. Whereas the fans, it was all thrown on their plate in the first five minutes of the first episode this year.
Q: What were the range of emotions, learning that Graham wanted out?
A: When Graham called me to tell me he was leaving for good, I said to him, “It feels like you’re breaking up with me.” My first instinct was: what did we do wrong? I was sad and shocked because I love the show so much. It’s not that Graham didn’t love the show. It’s just his lifestyle is so different from this beautiful Alberta Heartland lifestyle. I’m comfortable being out in the middle of nowhere on a ranch with horses. He was born and raised in downtown Vancouver. He had a different mindset. If roles were reversed, and I’d been on a series for 14 years that was filmed in a studio in downtown Vancouver, I don’t know if I’d be happy doing it 14 years later.
Q: The closest Canadian comparison for an “on-screen romance” that I can think of is Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, where fans wanted them so badly to be a couple in real life. Did you experience that?
Oh yeah. In the first several years when people would say “You MUST be dating,” because we were both single at the time. We both had every opportunity to date, but we’re such different people. My life revolves around animals and Graham has never had an animal in his life. When people see Amy and Ty on screen, Graham plays the outdoor guy who is a vet and fans think that’s perfect. People forget we are actors. But as time went on—Graham was in a relationship then I was in a relationship and got married—fans started to realize, they aren’t actually getting together.
Q: I feel for your husband. There were probably some upset fans when you announced you were engaged years ago.
(laughs) Yeah. He takes everything in stride. He likes to be kept out of the spotlight.
But it’s a very different world. Graham and I were portraying people in a relationship for 14 years—which is longer than I’ve known my husband. As an actor, you do things nobody else has to think about in their daily lives: “I’m going to work and gonna make out with my co-worker.” You learn to make it as real as you can to make it believable for those watching the stories. This fictitious relationship has outlasted any real relationship I’ve had in real life.
Q: You and your co-stars used to credit the show’s longevity with the core cast staying together. Now with Graham gone, can Heartland survive beyond Season 14?
A: When I first heard that the character Ty was dying, I thought, “What is there after this? This is the end of Heartland.” But as we started telling these stories—this is my favourite season of Heartland. We have this story that impacts so many people. They want to see this family overcome great trauma because that’s what the show is rooted in. This show was born after the death of Amy’s mother. That was a horrible trauma in a young girl’s life. Now, 14 years later, it’s all those feelings and it’s about how the family comes together. I believe this gave the show a new direction.
Q: Is Graham watching Season 14?
A: He’s never really watched the show. Even when he was on the show, that’s not his thing. So no, I haven’t asked if he’s tuned into the new episodes. I spent some time with him earlier this month and I shared with him the scene of him dying—it has a different feel when you see it with the music and the cuts put together. He said: “Ohhh. A lot of people are going to be really upset.” I said, “Yes they are!” [Laughs] It’s strange being an actor. His character has passed away, but he’s still around, and people are saying to him, “How could you let Ty die?”
Q: Speaking of fans, after Season 1 of Heartland, you started a public Facebook fan account and would answer about 40 messages a night. Why did you start that—and when did you realize you could no longer keep up?
A: I thought it was a fun show and we’re having a good time. I didn’t think people were actually affected by this show until I started getting fan mail from people saying it helped pull them out of a depression or cope with the loss of a mother. When they get a reply from me, it uplifts their world. To have that impact is a gift. That’s what first sparked me to go on social media and communicate with people. I got away from Facebook because I don’t love the platform so much. But I got into Instagram, which I love because it’s visual. I’ve been pretty consistent with replies on recent posts. It’s nice to engage with people, especially this year.
Q: I know Heartland shoots at a secret location. Do people try and find it?
A: All the time. It’s a private residence, and they don’t even love us being there all the time. This is a family who are not connected to the show in any way. Fourteen years ago, they probably thought we’d be there a year or two, and we’re still hanging out on their beautiful property. We try to make sure the public respects that it has no connection to Heartland. When we’re not there, there’s a family that lives there.
Q: So no bus tours driving by?
A: No. There have been lots of fans who’ve found the location over the years. When we’re filming, we’ll have people stand on top of a hill and look down onto the ranch. And if people come, we tell them they have to leave.
Q: There was a scary incident years ago when someone showed up trying to get a date with you—and security found a rifle and ammo in his car. How did that incident change your perspective on your relationship with fans?
A: This show brings a fan base that is sweet, caring and kind. I want to have conversations and tell people they are great and give them a big hug. But you have to be careful because some take it the wrong way. You’ll also get people who just don’t see [things] the same as the rest of us. It made me more aware of fan connection, because I’m very open with my fans.
How this situation started was I was at a parade, smiling and waving to everyone, and I guess I made eye contact with this gentleman—smiled, waved and said hi—and he took that as he and I having this connection and [that we] were meant for each other. I never had a conversation with the guy. I have a better feel now when I’m chatting with people if they’re taking it too far. I’ve been in the living rooms of some families for 14 years. They feel they know me so well, so you have to break that down—this is the first time we’re meeting.
Q: Before Heartland, your biggest role was Elizabeth Smart in a made-for-TV movie. How did playing an abducted young woman affect you?
A: I was aware of what happened, but not the full extent. When the documentary came out, Elizabeth was still only 14 years old. So was I. Elizabeth’s family didn’t want her involved because they didn’t want to bring back any memories, but her parents were there. They did speak with me, but not in detail—and that’s probably a good thing. I knew the script and the story. It didn’t affect me in any lasting way, though it was difficult to reach those moments as a young actor to make it believable—that you’re scared for your life.
Q: There was criticism at the time for that TV movie being exploitative—the opposite of Heartland, which is so wholesome. Why do you think Heartland has such longevity when new shows often want to push the boundaries?
A: I think people are genuinely craving wholesome content. We get caught up in fast motion, blood and guts and gore, cop shows that are easy to catch your attention, but I believe that the longevity of Heartland is because it is such easy watching. People can escape their crazy, busy lives and come and sit down as a family and watch a show that makes them feel good. Yes, some episodes will make people bawl or throw a remote at the screen, but that’s what good TV does—to have every emotion possible and at the end you feel warm inside. And people connect to horses, whether or not they’ve ever been around a horse in their life. There’s an instant relief in tension. If I see a horse running on TV, I stop and stare—even though I have horses running out my window.
Q: There was an interview you gave at the end of Season 2—so you would have been about 20 at the time—and you said you weren’t sure acting was going to be your career. Do you feel the same way now that you’re in your mid-30s?
A: Yeah. I’ve always been someone who feels things will present themselves to you at the right time. You just have to be open to them. When people say “this is what I’m doing for life,” you close off possible doors that might be opening.
I fully believed I was going to be a veterinarian from the time I could talk until I was about 15 years old. At 13, I started volunteering at a vet clinic. At 14, I had a part-time job that I went to every day after school. I worked from the end of school until 8 p.m., when I’d come home to do my homework. I was very structured and career driven. But I always loved acting and wondered if I could do both.
The more I worked in a vet clinic, the more I realized it’s not really what I want to do. I thought I wanted to become a vet because I love animals so much. But I can still be surrounded by animals in my life and do other things.
Q: What did you learn from having pets as a kid?
A: When I was three years old, my family got a dog, but she was always very bonded to my mom. After a few years—and me asking multiple times—my parents decided that I was responsible enough to get my own dog. So for my 10th birthday, I was given a Belgian Tervuren named Tal. He had a lot of aggression problems from day one. I took him into the vet to get his puppy checkup and he bit the vet. The vet looked at me and said, “Young lady, this dog has severe aggression problems. If he’s going to be integrated into living a good life with people, you’re going to need to nip this in the bud right away.”
I’m so thankful that he actually looked down at this little blond, blue-eyed, 10-year-old to say, “you’re going to have to take full responsibility for this dog,” instead of saying, “this dog is too much for you to handle.” He taught me proper techniques anytime the dog showed aggression. I would lay on top of Tal on the floor until he just completely relaxed. And as soon as he relaxed, we’d stand up and we’d go play. As he grew and as I grew, we both had this very interesting mutual respect for one another. I could look at him and snap my fingers—this little 11-year-old girl, and this big 90-pound dog—and he would instantly flop over to lay on his back.
Q: You were born in London, Ont., and got your first horse when you were 14, and now you’re a megastar in the horse world. I’m wondering about authenticity: do you feel like you fit in or does it feel like an illusion?
A: A lot of people think I’m exactly like my character. They ask me, “My horse has this behaviour problem, what should I do?” I tell them to contact a trainer. I’ve had horses my whole life, and I know more than the average person, but I’m not a horse whisperer. But I do think what I do is authentic. Being on this show for so many years—and learning from some of the most talented horse trainers and cowboys in the country—has been such a wonderful experience, and I feel I’ve gotten to a point in my riding and horsemanship skills that I can be authentic for that role, as a role model and as a character.
Q: Aside from you not being a horse whisperer, how are Amy, the character, and Amber, the person, most different?
A: I love all animals equally. I get the most enjoyment being out in the field with my chickens pecking around my feet, my ducks quacking around, my cows sniffing my back. That’s my world. Amy doesn’t care about the cows or the chickens. She has the blinders on for horses. But I always struggle to find big differences between me and my character because I feel, over the years of being on this show, the writers have adapted Amy to be more like Amber. And the more I live in Alberta on a ranch, the more I become like Amy. It’s this bizarre world where the two merged into one.
Q: Would Amber Marshall have wanted Amy Fleming’s life—aside from a husband dying?
A: No. Absolutely not. I’m able to have my horses, my cows, my cats, my alpaca and this menagerie around me. I have the most amazing husband and the most amazing friends. I sometimes feel Amy is lacking in the friendship department because she’s so consumed with her horses.
Q: Where feels most like Heartland to you?
A: It’s interesting, because I’m an Ontario girl, born and raised in London. I didn’t see myself moving out West. When the show got picked up for Season 3, I was so invested in Alberta. I ended up renting an acreage out in the country—best decision of my life. I was single. I got chickens that year and a whole bunch of horses boarded with me. Weekends were busy riding horses and cleaning stalls. It was the most rewarding time in my life. The year after, I ended up buying the farm that I’m at now. Alberta is Heartland. Heartland is Alberta. This is definitely home to me.