It was the turn of the 21st century, and the coronation of the internet era but also the age of procedural dramas. On CBC, Da Vinci’s Inquest and Edgemont were slowly wrapping up. And then, a little show ‘that could’ shows up at our doorsteps — called Heartland.
Different from anything that was part of Canadian pop culture at the time, Heartland focused on creating a nuanced portrait of a life on an Albertan horse ranch. It captured the charm of a multi-generational family, instantly amassing fans from around the world who claim the series has become their home and sanctuary.
Heartland’s lasting influence has not only brought families together but also healed and transformed the lives of many — including the cast and crew themselves.
And now, we present you the inside story of the evolution of Heartland — from the audition process, filming and memorable moments to the lasting friendships, what the future looks like and more — as told by actors: Amber Marshall, Shaun Johnston, Michelle Morgan, Alisha Newton and Graham Wardle; executive producer Michael Weinberg; and showrunner Heather Conkie.
Note: All interviews were adjusted for context, clarity and flow.
The evolution of the saga
Heartland premiered in 2007 on CBC and since has become a big part of Canadian cultural fabric. It was originally based on a 26-novel series of very popular books by Lauren Brooke which debuted in 2000.
Heather Conkie (Showrunner and writer): Having those books as an introduction was a terrific bonus. Not only did we already have a loyal following of readers before we even went to air, but it gave us inspiration for our story ideas, especially in our first season. But, we made some changes. Most importantly, we transplanted the original setting from Virginia to Southern Alberta.
That gave us a true Canadian feel and a much bigger equestrian world to draw upon — not only showjumping, but rodeo, trick riding, polo, cross country races — we’ve done it all and more.
Producing the number of episodes that we do, we inevitably ran out of the book stories pretty much near the beginning of season two. From that point on, Heartland, the television series, has become a world of its own.
Michael Weinberg (Creator and Executive Producer): Things have definitely evolved since but the heart and soul of the show has remained the same. It’s still a character driven show about family values, personal struggles, adversity, triumphs all wrapped up with life lessons learned and a sense of humour. And of course the horses and their stories.
There have been marriages, divorces, births and deaths. Amy, who began as a 16-year-old girl is now 29 and has married, had a daughter and gone into business with her husband, Ty, who’s now a vet.
In addition, we have brought in younger actors to keep the show interesting for our younger viewers. This is something I didn’t plan at the beginning — as no one really knows in advance how long a show will be on the air — but has resulted in our longevity.
Back to the very beginning
Michael Weinberg: I had been an investment banker for my entire career. The only thing I really knew about television was that there didn’t seem to be any shows you could watch with your kids and not be embarrassed. A friend who was a horse person, which I was not, mentioned the Heartland book series to me and he thought it would make a good television show.
I read a few of the books and felt they were too juvenile and would be boring for adults. I did however, feel that there might be potential, if they were changed to become more family oriented.
With that in mind I bought the rights, had a script written and presented it to CBC. After a number of twists and turns, some bigger than others, CBC asked me to make a pilot.
[A television pilot is a standalone test episode that is shot in order for television networks to gauge whether a series will be successful. If the show is greenlit, the pilot sometimes becomes episode one of the series.]
Casting calls and the auditions
Shaun Johnston (Grandpa Jack Bartlett): Oh, I’m pretty sure we all heard about the auditions the same way. From our agents. I did, anyway. That’s what agents do. They suggest to casting directors that you get seen for a certain role in a certain project. And where was I in my life at the time? Well, I certainly wanted the job. Probably because I needed the job.
Amber Marshall (Amy Fleming): I had taken a year off school to work at a veterinary clinic and the odd acting project. Like many teens, I was trying to figure out my next step in life. I had applied to Ryerson University’s Film and Television program for a fall 2007 start. And, while on a train headed home from filming a show in Ottawa, I received a call about auditioning for Heartland. My agent informed me that there was this role that he had wanted to put me up for. “It’s perfect for you!” he said. “It’s a horsey girl — they have had many auditions already and need to cast right away!”
Not being able to check my email on the train — this was way back in 2006 when the internet was still being carved in rocks — I patiently waited out the five-hour train ride, until I was back home. I immediately printed out the scenes I was supposed to learn and started going over them.
Graham Wardle (Ty Borden): My agent gave me a call while I was at Capilano University, in North Vancouver. I was studying film production and remember her saying to me: “I know you’re taking a bit of a break from acting while you’re in school but I think you should give this one a shot.” Very grateful she encouraged me to go!
Michael Weinberg: There were two major casting surprises. First, there was Amy Fleming. We auditioned many, many girls for Amy but none of them really fit what I was trying to find so I kept stalling the decision — hoping something would pop up. Four days before starting to shoot, I knew I had reached the zero hour and had to make a decision by tomorrow. That same day, a self tape came in from Amber Marshall.
Amber Marshall: It was the most rushed audition I have ever done. I requested help from my dad to read the other roles and run the camera. Back then, I only knew how to “self-tape” onto a VHS (for those of you who are too young to know what that is I recommend Google). But with the deadline for submissions being the next day, I would not have been able to mail a VHS in time.
I rushed downtown with my tape and found a company that could transfer it onto their computer and convert it into an email-able file. This was no small feat. I sent it in with moments to spare, and still love hearing how when the producers received the video it would not load properly.
They were all gathered around one computer with a very low-resolution version of the Amy Fleming to be.
Michael Weinberg: I’ll never forget the first words she said, in a little bit of a high pitched voice: “My agent told me to tell you I have my own horse.” I loved her audition and hired her immediately.
Amber Marshall: The audition process for me was very short. I’m talking only a couple of days from when I first heard of an audition, to when I was told to pack my bags and get on a plane. I only ever submitted the one self-tape and never met with anyone in person before arriving in Calgary to film the pilot. Production was so down to the wire there was no time for back and forth. It was quite a whirlwind of a start, but I was so happy to be a part of it.
And after filming the pilot, I was still set to go to Ryerson that fall as other pilots I had done in the past had never become a series. I didn’t want to get my hopes up with Heartland. When we were greenlit for season one, I then declined the university proposal and headed west to discover a new path.
Michael Weinberg: The second major surprise was Jack Bartlett. To me, Jack was supposed to be a tall lanky cowboy and I couldn’t find anyone in the 60 to 65 age group to fit my vision. Shaun Johnston came in to audition for Tim Fleming (Jack’s ex son-in-law) who was supposed to be around 40.
Shaun Johnston: This is where my story gets good. The casting call was country wide. I happened to audition in Calgary. I believe it was their last stop. So, I go in, I figured I did a decent audition, I said my thank yous and left. Then, I get a call from my agent. Every actor wants that call from their agent right after an audition. That’s almost always great news.
Not this time. He tells me they “liked it, but…” they want me to come in and audition again. I’m thinking, ‘That’s cool, it happens all the time. Actually, the callbacks are expected when you’re trying out for a regular role on a series’. But then, I was informed that it wouldn’t be for the role of Tim.
My heart sank. Rats. You always feel so close, you know? Oh, well. That’s how things go. You win some, you lose some. I must’ve sounded pretty poopy on the phone because my agent said: “Why do you think this is bad?” I said: “C’mon, man. I’ve read the script. Tim’s the only role I’m right for other than a day play [a non-continuing character].” He said: “That’s not true. They want to see you for a lead character, Jack Bartlett.”
Michael Weinberg: I knew I could find “a Tim” as there were many good options but I was having a hard time with Jack.
Shaun Johnston: ‘What?’, I’m thinking, ‘That can’t be right. The character Jack is Amy and Lou’s Grandfather. I’m a 46 year old actor. They can’t be serious!’ But guess what? They were.
And thank goodness, too, because they already had Chris Potter in mind to play Tim. Anyway, I came in to audition for the role of Jack a few more times. And each time I looked more and more like the character — a little make-up here, some grey hair there, etc.
Michael Weinberg: I liked him so much, we cast him as Jack.
Shaun Johnston: Wouldn’t it have been romantic, if I got the news of my winning the role while I was on some film set in some exotic land? Nope. I was sweatin’ my bag off laying hardwood floor in a new residential build in Edmonton, Alberta. My phone rang, I answered it, and I almost fainted.
My beautiful wife, Sue, was the first to share the excitement. She told me that she loved me. And here I am, all these seasons later, loving every moment of being there. Wow. So, thank you to anyone and everyone who made me “the Jack” in Heartland.
Michael Weinberg: All the other characters were a lot less problematic to cast and we’ve been very fortunate that they all worked out so well. Immediate choices for our core cast were: Lou,Ty, Marion, Tim, Ashley, Mallory and Spartan.
Michelle Morgan (Lou Fleming): I auditioned for Heartland in the midst of shooting a movie so I wasn’t available for the in-person audition. I had to self tape the audition in a studio in Toronto. I really wanted to get it right. I did around three takes for the first scene and when I finally felt I had really connected to the material I remember the camera guy saying: “That was really good.” And they never say stuff like that.
Graham Wardle: I remember buying a pack of cigarettes before the audition. Ty Borden was originally scripted as being a smoker. Since I don’t smoke, I gave away the pack to Beau Mirchoff who was in the waiting room at the audition. Beau was later cast as Ben Stillman. I remember after doing my second audition, Dean Bennet (director of the pilot episode) stood up and shook my hand after I was done. I remember thinking, “That has never happened before.”
Michelle Morgan: I was walking down Queen Street, in Toronto, when my agent called me. It was very exciting to get the news that Heartland wanted me, but it was also nerve-wracking because the pilot was supposed to start shooting during the last week of the movie I was in the middle of filming. So I wasn’t sure it would work out, and it almost didn’t!
And Heartland didn’t do “chemistry reads” for the pilot. There was no time so they cast me off of my tape, having never met me or even spoken to me on the phone. The first time I spoke to any of the producers or cast was when I took the red eye [evening or overnight flight] to Calgary to start shooting.
[A chemistry read is an opportunity to read with other actors who are being considered for a lead role, in order for the producers to be able to see if they have on-screen chemistry.]
Graham Wardle: I was filming a short film with some friends in the woods when my agent called and told me I booked the part. I remember asking what a TV pilot was, since I had never done one before. It was kind of a cool feeling but I had no idea what it meant for my life.
Heather Conkie: I actually came on board after the pilot episode was first shot and just before the series was put into development. One of the shows I had been a writer on for many years was Road To Avonlea for CBC. The executives there knew my work and suggested I meet with the Heartland producers. I was thrilled when they offered me the role of showrunner. I jumped at the chance. It has been and continues to be a dream job.
[Alisha Newton was six years old when this was all happening. She joined the team in 2012 for the filming of season six.]
Alisha Newton (Georgie Fleming Morris): When I first heard about the Heartland casting call, I was ten years old. I’ve been acting since I was four, so I got the audition request through my agent.
Typically in the casting world, after an audition, a narrowed selection of actors are brought back for another read in what is called a “call back”. After both my sessions, I started to get a really good feeling about the role of Georgie. Once the producers had narrowed their favourites down to just a handful of girls, I was brought in a third time for a chemistry read. This time I performed the scenes with Graham Wardle [Ty] and Jessica Amlee [Mallory]. During my research for the role, I watched a lot of Heartland episodes, so it was cool to meet some of the cast in person, finally.
Heartland was my first acting job outside of my city, so as I became a more prominent role in the show, public school became more complicated, and I ended up transferring to online school.
Heather Conkie: Heartland has already had an incredible lifespan and I think has great potential to keep going. It’s a family, growing, changing just like any family and where there’s change and there’s growth, there’s an unending well of stories.
It’s imperative that we stay fresh and I can’t say enough about my very talented teams of writers, over the years. When we first gather to discuss ideas for a new season, it’s really difficult to look at that blank white board. But, we brainstorm story points and character arcs and nothing is thrown out without exploring it — even some of the craziest ideas can lead to the best end-result.
Michael Weinberg: I see the future of Heartland continuing to evolve along with our family. I’m always amazed how our writers have managed to come up with so many great stories over a span, so far, of 216 hours. I have complete confidence that they’ll be able to continue to do so.