"Heartland"

Graham Wardle (left) and Amber Marshall, stars of the CBC show "Heartland," pose for a photo in the stables at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto in 2009. (CP Images)

Graham Wardle may play a brooding cowboy on TV, but in real life he's as sunny as a 23-year-old Vancouverite can get. On CBC's family drama "Heartland," whose first and second seasons are now out on DVD, Wardle stars as Ty Borden, a hunk with a dark past that includes being abused by his stepfather, framed by an ex-girlfriend and sentenced to do probation on a ranch outside Calgary, where he meets his beloved Amy (Amber Marshall), a teenage "horse whisperer." MSN called Wardle in Vancouver to talk about Ty and Amy, and just for kicks, self-help guru Anthony Robbins and Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well.

Wardle explains that Ty has a different past on the show than in the young adult novels the series is based on. In the Virginia-set "Heartland" novels, Ty has simply dropped out of high school to work on the ranch full-time. On the show, however, Ty's complicated family and criminal history is "something that has evolved since the pilot," Wardle says. More interestingly, Ty has evolved with the actor's input. Wardle claims he's worked with the show's writers, producers and directors "over the past three seasons... to grow the character to see that his past was unfortunate but to grow from that and become a new man. That's what I'm trying to do with the character and hopefully it comes across."

Wardle attributes his self-help approach to the teachings of Robbins, a guru he name-checks often on his Twitter page. "I like to look at it this way: if I was watching this show, what would I like to see the character go through?" he asks. "I would like to sympathize with them. I'd like to understand that no one's perfect. And I'd like to see them work hard. I'd like to see them fail and I'd like to see them pick themselves back up, try to better themselves. So I try to bring that to my character. Because I know that in my own life, when I watch films or other people's stories, it inspires me to do better in my own life and I want to try to give back."

The actor's own sunny history is nothing like his troubled character's. He was raised in Mission, BC and now lives in an apartment just down the street from his parents' house in a Vancouver suburb. "It's nice 'cause I get to go up there for free dinners every once in awhile," Wardle laughs. He stumbled into acting at age six, when he starred in a toy dinosaur commercial. He remembers the experience as being not so much life-changing as life-affirming. "I wasn't at an age where I was going, 'This is what I want to do with my life!' It was like, 'Hey Graham, do you want to do this? You get to go play with toys and there's all this free candy on this table that you get to eat whenever you want?' And I was like, 'Of course! This is amazing!'"

Wardle still looks at filmmaking as an all-you-can-eat buffet; he goes to movies in order to "address issues in my own life for the betterment of myself," and he's dabbling in writing, directing and photography in his spare time. "I enjoy the whole process of films. I enjoy acting and I enjoy making my own films and in the future I will be doing all of the above," he claims proudly.

He's also found ways to address the issue of being in an onscreen relationship that some "Heartland" viewers have taken to "Twilight" levels of fandom, creating YouTube tributes to Ty and Amy and speculating whether the actors are together in real life.

"I've seen a couple of [the videos], yes," Wardle giggles. "When they first started coming out, I think Amber had pointed them out to me. The first and second year, we started checking them out and sort of getting a laugh out of them. And then we realized how impactful [sic] Ty and Amy's relationship has become. It's a very humbling and amazing experience to see that affect people and how much they enjoy it, to make a video like that."

As for whether he and Marshall are dating, Wardle says he gets this question all the time in "emails, fan letters and autograph signings." He even gets it from his own little sister. "It's so funny when she says it - she'll go, 'are you and Amber, like, more than friends?'" He understands why people are interested, but always gives the same response: "I say we are very good friends and I respect her and I think she's a great woman who has a lot of talent and I enjoy working with her but we are not in a relationship the way that Ty and Amy are."

If Wardle sounds like a politician there, it should come as no surprise that he enjoys dealing with politicians in real life, too. At last summer's Calgary Stampede, he had the chance to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "It was pretty cool," he says. "I got to shake his hand, got a picture with him. He cracked a joke and I laughed. I thought it was fun." The joke was apparently in response to a costar's question about whether the Prime Minister watches "Heartland." "I wish I could remember exactly what he said," Wardle muses. "It was something like, 'I'd rather watch hockey.' I said [to him], 'Well, at least you're honest.' And I laughed and hit him on the shoulder." Fortunately, Wardle's friendly jab didn't land him in hot water with Harper's security detail. "I didn't think about it at the time but no, no one roughed me up after that," he laughs.

Season four of "Heartland" premieres on CBC in the fall.