“Animals judge you by what’s on the inside, what’s in your heart,” the star of TV’s Heartland says
By Peter Feniak
Seen worldwide and viewed by roughly one million Canadians each week, CBC-TV’s Heartland is set in Alberta’s beautiful ranch country, where the production team managed to shoot the show’s entire 14th season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a challenge.
When the season wrapped in late 2020, Amber Marshall, who plays the series lead, Amy Fleming, was exhausted.
“I think all of us were. Not only are you trying to focus on the job at hand—to memorize, go over your scenes, make everything as real and believable as possible—but the second the scene ends, it’s, ‘You must mask up now’ and ‘You can’t eat or drink here.’ There were so many rules. We were tested [for COVID] regularly and under strict guidelines governing what we could do outside of work.
“One of my favourite things about this job is being able to be social. A lot of us have been working together for 14 years. We enjoy hugging each other in the morning and hugging goodbye and eating snacks and chatting about our day in the off time. And that just wasn’t allowed this year.”
Marshall made a memorable debut as Amy in 2007. First came a flash, then a crash: The first episode began with Amy and her mother, Marion, driving at night in a terrible lightning storm. They’re in a pickup truck, hauling a horse trailer in a daring rescue of a badly abused horse named Spartan. As rain pounds down, truck and trailer lose the road, pitching over a hillside in a horrifying crash. Waking in hospital, Amy learns that Spartan has survived. Amy’s mother has not.
Amy’s recovery at her grandfather’s Heartland ranch soon reveals her destiny as a gifted healer and trainer of horses, talents inherited from her mother. Amy’s gruff, loveable granddad, Jack Bartlett (Shaun Johnston), and her big-city sister, Lou (Michelle Morgan), who’s returned from New York City, are there to support her. Soon to arrive are Amy’s brash estranged father, Tim (Chris Potter), and handsome young Ty Borden (Graham Wardle), a juvenile on probation working as a ranch hand.
Based on the Heartland book series for young people aged eight to 14, by 2015 the show had surpassed Street Legal as Canada’s longest-running one-hour TV drama, and with its vivid characters, surprise plot twists, majestic horses, and picturesque vistas, it continues to enthrall its ardent fans. Marshall has played Amy Fleming for more than 200 episodes and has loved her role from the start. Raised in London, ON, the 32-year-old Marshall says she connected instantly with her new surroundings.
“I think that certain places adopt people, and the minute I set foot in Alberta, I felt like I was home. It’s an interesting concept—you arrive somewhere you’ve never been before and it just embraces you with these warm arms and says, ‘Okay, this is where you’re supposed to be.’ I am so fortunate for that.”
Heartland and Marshall have proved a perfect fit. She began riding at the age of three and as a teenager rode and tended horses. She worked as an assistant in a veterinary clinic. Her other passion was acting. As Amy—with her healthy good looks, her determination, her amazing gift with horses—she’s become an icon. (One of her Instagram accounts has 743,000 followers.) “Heartland is not about blood and guts and gore and action,” Marshall says. “It’s about a real family coming together with real problems and working them out.” The drama strives to be both realistic and uplifting. Marshall speaks of its impact with enthusiasm and obvious pride:
“I didn’t get into acting because I thought I’d have a huge connection with people around the world. That’s not something you think about. But as time goes on and you start connecting with people who have been affected by the role you play, it brings a whole new level to acting. You realize from the stories and the letters from people around the world how Heartland has changed their lives in different ways. I don’t take that lightly. I read how people have overcome trauma or illness by watching the show. It’s given them new inspiration and a new drive for what they really want to do. I love that connection.”
The Judgment of Horses
Born on June 2, 1988, Marshall seemed destined early on to be a high- energy achiever. “I’m not a person who can ever sit still,” she says. Her parents were “in sales”—her mother, Wenda, in the signage business and her father, David, “in the concrete world, selling pipes and lighting poles.”
Her mother worked outside the home until Marshall’s brother, Lee, was born five years later. “I would go to my granny’s house every day, from when I was young to six years old,” Marshall says. “You can never sit my granny down. She’s in her late 80s now and so active. She’s always gardening, always sewing, always busy. It was, ‘We have to be busy; this is what you do.’ I’ve always been that way. I think that helps with all the things I want to take on.”
Family lore has Marshall play-acting at home very early. She joined London’s Ontario Kids Theatre Company at the age of eight. By 12, she had a Toronto-based talent agent, and her first onscreen credits included (at 14) the title role in the TV movie The Elizabeth Smart Story, a fact-based crime drama about the kidnapping of a Utah teenager.
She amassed other credits, too, but all actors see far more auditions than roles—and there were real obstacles to auditions for an actor living in London. Fortunately, Marshall had family support.
“When I started, it was up to my mom to drive me to Toronto—about a three-hour drive. And of course, you’re usually in the audition room for only 20 minutes. That time on the road was a really nice time—forced trips that allowed us to stay connected.” (Her parents eventually divorced.) By 17, Marshall was driving herself to Toronto.
She developed a positive approach to audition rejection: “I’d do my best and then completely forget about it. I thought, If I hear back, that’s great; if I don’t, oh well.”
Hoping to earn extra money, she applied for a job as an assistant at a veterinary clinic. Thanks to all the auditions, her poise in the interview was evident. “I was only 14, and they were impressed with me. They said, ‘It’s like you’ve done this 100 times.’ And I said, ‘Well, actually, I kind of have.”
Her boss at the clinic was encouraging, allowing time off for auditions. At school, though, there were those who mocked her ambition.
“There were a lot of bullies in my life, and I struggled with that. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re on TV…you must be special,’ and they made fun of me. I’m talking about when I was 11 to…19, maybe. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like with social media. Back then, people called the home-phone line with a prank call. That was just devastating—friends on the line saying rude things or laughing at me. I was crushed.”
It might be wrong to say horses saved Marshall’s spirits, but they helped.
“We lived in the north end of the city, so a five-minute drive took me to the country,” she says. “I ended up boarding horses from when I was 12 to 18. My mom would drop me off at the barn, I’d be out there for three hours, then I’d get picked up and do my homework and go to bed. And I think it was so healthy to have a living creature that needed me.
“I know riding can be a very expensive hobby, but there are ways around it—you can help out, clean out stalls and the barn, do things in exchange for riding lessons. It can be so important to connect with an animal.”
In Heartland, Amy Fleming, who trains horses and heals those that are traumatized, is often called a horse whisperer. She says, “We don’t whisper; we listen to them.” From Alberta, Marshall explains:
“People have thought you have to break a horse to ride it, to break that spirit, dominate the horse. My character says, ‘No, you have to have an understanding.’ Each animal is different. They need consistency. Commitment. People say that animals have no judgment. They do. But it’s different from human judgment. Humans judge people by what they can see. Animals judge you by what’s on the inside, what’s in your heart. And if we could try to judge other people the same way animals do, we would be a lot better off.”
“Put Something on Tape”
While Marshall is, as she has written on her blog, “living the dream out West,” she’s aware that this role, this special connection, might not have happened for her:
“It wasn’t as if the producers of Heartland approached me and said, ‘Hey, we want you to be Amy Fleming.’ I went to a lot of auditions before I got that role. I worked really hard, memorized a lot of pages for a lot of shows. That’s a part people don’t see. And yes, I got very discouraged. There was a time I went to my agent and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore. I’m paying so much money in fuel to go to these auditions and I’m not getting anything.’”
The breakthrough came in Ottawa.
“I was filming a pilot episode for a different show when the Heartland auditions were held, so I missed the first and second auditions. And on the train coming back from the set, my agent called me and said, ‘You know, there’s this show that you’re perfect for, and they still haven’t found their lead role. It’s this horse girl and I really think you should get home and put something on tape.”
She laughs at her efforts. “I only knew how to record on VHS tape. And then I thought, Okay, now how do I get this on the Internet? A Lon- don company was able to put VHS onto a computer file and send it. The file playback was so slow. You know the ‘spinning wheel of death’ when something’s loading? I remember the producer saying, after the fact, that it took 30 minutes to load just the first clip. But as soon as they saw me—I said, ‘Hi, I’m Amber Marshall. I have two horses; I love to ride’—they were hooked. They said, ‘We want to see more.’ From day one, this character was exactly who I wanted to be.”
Over the seasons, Marshall has responded to fans by sharing her life with them—in newsletters and blogs, on social media, and in her own quarterly magazine. On YouTube are up-close videos of her storybook wedding and the ranch life she shares with her husband, Shawn Turner, and their beloved animals. Fans can order from a wide range of her personally branded products on ambermarshall.com.
“Hearing you call [her website] an enterprise put a smile on my face,” Marshall admits. “It’s just something that happened over time. People asked, ‘Do you have any apparel? Do you have jewellery?’ There’s a sense of love that goes into it. I’ve really focused on Canadian-made products, local suppliers and manufacturers. It’s challenging to actually make any money at it, but that’s not why I’m doing this.”
When Marshall returns to her ranch, the energetic actor has plenty of chores to keep her busy, but over time, she’s learned to change gears.
“Every year after Heartland finishes, my agent says, ‘Okay, can I put you up for this, can I put you up for that?’ And I say, ‘Let’s just take a deep breath. I’m just taking in fresh air.’ Out my back door, I’ve got my horses, my cows, and my dogs and cats and chickens, and this is what I want to be doing right now. I can sit on a fence and watch the animals graze, and just relax or unwind. I find my inspiration from the world around me.”
Home life is good. Turner, also from Ontario, is a skilled photographer who freelances as a heavy-equipment operator. Marriage has changed Marshall—but only slightly: “You know, it’s funny and I hate saying this out loud, but I’d never even owned a television until my husband moved in and said, ‘We need a TV.’”
She’s a different kind of TV star. It’s hard not to root for Marshall, the cast of Heartland, and the show’s production team. Over the phone, her positivity is unmistakable. There’s a realist in there, too. “I don’t think this lifestyle is for everyone,” she observes. “There are actors on Heartland that…this isn’t their dream life. We’ve seen that over the years. They don’t want to be out in Alberta for five or six months of the year. They want to be in downtown Vancouver or Toronto doing projects that excite them.
“I can’t fault anyone for having something else that they want to do more. This is a project that really excites me. I hope Heartland continues for a long time. I still love it every day.”
Photo: Rescued Horse Season Fourteen Inc./Michelle Faye Fraser.