HIGH RIVER, Alta. — Alberta-born actor Shaun Johnston had already had a lengthy career when he auditioned for the role of the grizzled and sage patriarch Jack Bartlett in CBC’s family drama “Heartland,” which debuted in October, 2007.
And after years in the business he also had been around enough to know how tenuous it is to move from a pilot to a full-fledged hit television show.
“Like any other pilot on the planet the odds of it going to series are pretty thin, but not this one. It tested off the charts apparently and what a pleasant surprise it was,” said Johnston, 60, as he sat at the counter of Maggie’s Diner, on set in the fictitious community of Hudson, on the final day of filming the new season.
“Shame on me I didn’t know it was going to last this long and I didn’t really see why it could or would until again the penny dropped and it had nothing that was hot at the time…speed, explosions, cops, robbers, doctors, nurses, low-cut blouses, high-heeled shoes,” he added with a laugh.
“Who’d a thunk that? Like, oh my gosh. We just seem to pick up steam. It’s nutty.”
“Heartland” follows sisters Amy and Lou Fleming, their grandfather Jack and former bad boy and love interest Ty Borden through the highs and lows of life at the ranch. The show also stars Amber Marshall as Amy, Graham Wardle as Amy’s now-husband Ty, and Michelle Morgan as Lou.
“I don’t know if Shaun told this story and I rub it in his face because he came in during the pilot and said, ‘You guys just relax. Often pilots don’t go to anywhere so just cool down guys,’” Vancouver-born Wardle laughed looking at Johnston across the diner. The eatery was an actual business for decades, but after it closed the creators thought it would be a good addition to the show.
“You know every year I’m like, ’I feel this is going to be the last year,’ and then like, it goes again… You never know what’s going to happen so you just do your best.”
In 2015 “Heartland” surpassed “Street Legal” as the longest-running one-hour scripted drama in Canadian television history. Only Johnston was old enough to remember the 1980s-’90s courtroom drama starring Cynthia Dale and Eric Peterson.
“Yeah. I auditioned for ‘Street Legal,’ man. I didn’t get the job.”
With well over 200 “Heartland” episodes in the books and the number growing when the show debuts this Sunday, the show attracts fans of all stages because of its family-friendly status. About 20 fans were standing across the street hoping to get a glance or autographs from stars like Marshall, who shot the pilot when she was 18.
“I was 18 years old and was just on the cusp of being an adult and really I’ve learned so many life lessons being a part of ‘Heartland,’ just the people, and it’s been such an amazing experience,” she said.
Marshall’s experience around horses and animals — she began riding at the age of three in London, Ont. and her first job was as a veterinary assistant — helped for the part as Amy.
“I thought this is the most perfect role for me and when I was told that I got the part I hoped it would go on for as long as it could. I never imagined 13 years and counting so this has been incredible,” said Marshall, who now lives on a ranch outside Calgary and has horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and cattle.
Morgan, who grew up nearby in Calgary, isn’t surprised the show is so popular.
“Many people feel it’s their comfort food so at this point I’m not surprised anymore,” Morgan said.
“People feel like they’re part of our family. Somehow we have really created a world that is at once comforting and very beautiful and idealized but also realistic enough that people feel that they can relate to us,” she said.
“People love this version of Canada because this is a real version of Canada that not everyone gets to see.”
“Heartland” has a huge international following and is shown in 119 countries and also airs on Netflix.
Both Morgan and Johnston, who loses his trademark moustache and grey wig in the off season, have both been recognized while on holiday in Mexico. Wardle said he ran into fans while on a trip to Italy.
“When I look at the show internationally I think maybe people are attracted at first to the girl and the horse and the mountains,” said executive producer Jordy Randall.
“I think we’ve seen the letters and phone calls we get from other countries where they’ve bonded with our characters. They say that ‘Heartland’ has changed their life and given them a place where they feel part of the show.”