From Ponoka farm kid to basketball player

Ponoka’s Shaun Johnson an ambassador for Alberta’s film industry

Shaun Johnston dared to follow his ‘secret wish’ and it’s led him on an adventure that most only dream about

From Ponoka farm kid to basketball player, banker, runway model and actor, Heartland’s Shaun Johnston has worn a lot of different hats over the years.

The one that he wears modestly, even a little bashfully, is his latest — honourary ambassador for Alberta’s film industry.

Johnston accepted this de facto role when he was recently presented with the David Billington Award from the Alberta Media Production Industries Association (AMPIA) for his outstanding contribution to the provincial film and television industries.

“It’s a pretty cool award — very unexpected and surprising,” said Johnston, during a phone call from Maui, where he and his family are spending the Christmas holidays.

Just being “an actor guy,” he added, “I wouldn’t think I would qualify.”

Johnston feels honoured to be elevated to the company of such past recipients as Tom Peacock, founder of the University of Alberta’s acclaimed theatre program and one of his mentors.

“Here I am, coming along 20 years later and winning the same award he won. I feel humbled,” said Johnston, who’s best known for portraying patriarch Jack Bartlett in Heartland.

The CBC-TV series, which continues with Season 5 on Sunday at 7 p.m., is about a ranching family anchored by Johnston’s character, who looks out for his granddaughters when their mother dies.

The 53-year-old also landed leads in the feature films September Dawn and Two Brothers, a Girl and a Gun. He was awarded by AMPIA for both portrayals.

On television, Johnston has appeared as Jake Trumper in Jake and the Kid, opposite Christopher Plummer in the TV movies Agent of Influence and Dinosaur Hunter, as well as being in the Emmy-winning special Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the Gemini-winning Mayerthorpe.

Among his many other television gigs was a regular role on Traders and the recurring role of Sid Flemming on DaVinci’s Inquest. He’s also appeared on X-Files, Outer Limits, North of 60, The Dead Zone and Smallville.

But becoming an actor was never on Johnston’s radar while growing up on a farm in the Ponoka area. “We ran cattle, we rode horses and farmed crops.” He naturally learned the skills he puts to use in Heartland and other western-themed shows.

Johnston went on to become a high school jock, playing basketball and other sports. Artsy careers never came up among the guys he hung around with, so he ended up getting a practical business degree from Red Deer College.

Although Johnston worked for a time with the Alberta Treasury Branch, he began thinking more and more about his “secret wish,” which was to become a fashion industry photographer or marketer.

This entailed a move to Toronto, where Johnston struggled in the early 1980s to get a feel for cosmopolitan living. “After a few interviews, I learned I was under-educated and overconfident,” he admitted with a laugh. But he was tall and lanky enough to be invited to be a runway model for some fashion shows.

This job was not only incredibly well paid at $100 an hour, but “I got to work in an industry that the public only sees from the outside,” he recalled.

Johnston developed a taste for performing. And a few years later, he was back in Alberta, enrolling this time in the Theatre Studies program at Red Deer College, under the tutelage of instructor Richard O’Brien.

“He made me realize that I had, and every human being has, the talent for creation . . . and that was the start of my acting career.”

Among his early accomplishments was co-founding Shadow Theatre in Edmonton, where Johnston settled after completing his U of A theatre studies.

With Alberta’s film industry now in something of a slump because of the strength of the Canadian dollar, Johnston is heading back on stage this winter to reprise a role that’s dear to his heart — Eddie, the lead in Sam Shepard’s play Fool for Love. The Shadow Theatre play opens on Feb. 15 and runs to March 4, later moving to Calgary to be presented by Sage Theatre.

Johnston said Eddie was always one of his favourite characters, although not quite as personal as playing Jack Bartlett, who spouts many of the same values he believes in.

Bartlett “has a sense of fairness and honour,” said the long-married Johnston, who always told his sons, now aged 19 and 21, that honour is the one thing that no one can take from you.

“If you walk the high road, it’s because you choose to. And if you walk the low road, it’s also because you choose to. . . . If you don’t have honour within your heart, it’s because you chose to give it away.”

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